It's still very much about Kobe-LeBron
LeBron's Cavs may be eliminated, but Lakers Nation is still thinking about the King
So it's the Magic and Lakers tipping off Thursday night, which means we'll have no Kobe-LeBron showdown. Undoubtedly, the shoe companies and TV network are disappointed, as is the commissioner, despite his proclamations to the contrary.
However, for a big chunk of the fans in Staples Center on Thursday night, the battle rages on. And just because the Cavs aren't here doesn't change the fact that LeBron James has become Public Enemy No. 1 in Los Angeles.
It's a bit odd because it's become something of a one-way rivalry. Kobe versus LeBron isn't really a hot-button issue in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers are dealing with more pressing matters at the moment -- like how to get a better supporting cast and make sure LeBron doesn't bolt for New York a year from now.
But in L.A.? Kobe versus LeBron gets people talking.
I've noticed this all season during interactions with ESPN.com readers -- even the most innocuous comment about James (i.e., "LeBron had a good game last night") has been met with a torrent of e-mails and comments from Lakers fans perceiving a slight against their star.
The only thing I can even remotely compare it to is the fervor of Utah fans wanting people in the media to say Deron Williams is better than Chris Paul, but you expect that more from a small-market team like Utah. Jazz fans feel ignored by the media on both coasts and have a giant chip on their shoulder about it, so you can almost excuse them for wanting to compare a player with two top-five MVP finishes with one who has never been to the All-Star Game.
Lakers fans obviously can't claim to be overlooked, not when they're on national TV 81 times a year, but the cosmopolitan Angelenos are unusually provincial when it comes to Kobe versus LeBron, even e-mailing me conspiracy theories about plots by ESPN and the NBA to pump up LeBron -- which is ironic because fans in every other Western Conference city concoct the same theories to claim the league and networks are favoring the Lakers.
Despite all this buildup heading into the postseason, I was unprepared for what happened at the end of the conference finals, and it really drove home to me the importance of the Kobe-LeBron debate in the heart of Laker Nation.
To review, I had picked the Nuggets and Cavaliers to win the conference finals; obviously, things didn't work out that way. And, as I expected, I got the usual missives in my inbox from fans of the Magic and Lakers.
This is par for the course when anyone makes a prediction that doesn't come true. There were more of the messages, perhaps, because the Lakers have more fans than any other team, but otherwise it was situation normal.
Except with one twist: L.A. fans weren't e-mailing about the Lakers-Nuggets series.
They were e-mailing because Cleveland lost.
Moreover, it wasn't just that Cleveland lost, it was that LeBron lost -- the messages highlighted his failure, not his team's. Similarly, most of them didn't even mention the word "Denver," and those who did only referenced the Nuggets tangentially.
Basically, the e-mails from L.A. made it seem they were happier about LeBron's losing than about the Lakers' winning. Believe it or not, I got more e-mail from Lakers fans after Game 6 of the Cleveland-Orlando series than I did from Magic fans.
It's not just my inbox that's getting these messages, either. Go to the L.A. Times Laker blog, click on any random story, and do a search on "LeBron" in the comments section. (Or better yet, do a search on "LeBronz" or "Queen James.")
You're guaranteed to find several choice insults thrown his way, even in stories that have nothing to do with LeBron or Kobe. For instance, this story is about Pau Gasol ... and the first comment is a non sequitur insult of LeBron. Or take this innocuous story from Lakers practice the other day; the comments section almost exclusively features James insults, including two different fans' poems about the Lakers ... both of which conclude not with praise for L.A., but with potshots at LeBron.
Better yet, check out the comments on the ESPN.com story on LeBron's walking out on the media at the end of Cleveland's Game 6 loss to Orlando. The board was completely taken over by Lakers fans comparing him unfavorably to Kobe, and at the end of it we had 4,286 comments.
This would be freaky weird on almost any level, but what makes it even more bizarre is that the Cavs and Lakers have never played a game of any consequence. Oh, sure, there have been a couple regular-season battles that got a lot of hype, but the two have never met in the postseason and were never in a particularly important late-season game, either. The Lakers didn't have to get through LeBron to get here and won't have to beat him to win the title, and they didn't have to last year, either. It's strictly a long-distance rivalry.
It will remain that way when the Finals begin Thursday night, but don't let that fool you. For a lot of Lakers fans, the opponent in the Finals is as much LeBron James as it is the Orlando Magic. If Bryant and the Lakers beat Orlando, it would give Kobe the one thing that LeBron doesn't have -- a championship ring and, most likely, a Finals MVP trophy to go with it. (Bryant already has three rings, of course, but those were earned much earlier in his career when he was second banana to Shaquille O'Neal). And in doing so, it would validate the locals' feeling that their guy is the best player.
And if he doesn't? Then the trump card is gone. Kobe already can't match LeBron on numbers, so if his team can't do any better against the Magic, it's a "loss" to LeBron in the minds of the L.A. faithful ... especially with LeBron putting up superhuman numbers in defeat against the Magic.
We'll find out soon enough whether Kobe and the Lakers can pull it off; either way, it's likely to be a big part of the Kobe-LeBron debate all through the summer. In the meantime, all those e-mails and comments give us a window into the L.A. fan base's peculiar psychology, and its bizarre obsession/revulsion with a player on the other side of the country.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.