Kobe Bryant was the standard that LeBron James had to live up to when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. No matter what he accomplished earlier in his career, his time in Los Angeles was going to be deemed a failure if he didn't do what Bryant did as a Laker: win championships.
Although he hasn't done so yet, he's well on his way this season with the Lakers sitting atop the Western Conference at 36-10. Bryant's death Sunday in a tragic helicopter accident changed the tone of what had been a dream season, and the NBA postponed their Tuesday game against the Clippers to give the team time to grieve. When they take the floor for the first time since Bryant's death Friday, James will honor Bryant in a special and permanent way. He unveiled a new tattoo on his Instagram account Friday honoring Bryant's Black Mamba identity and his daughter Gianna, who died in the crash with him.
The notion of James getting a tattoo in Bryant's honor would have been unthinkable during Bryant's playing career. The two were rivals who were often compared to one another. Although they never met in the NBA Finals, James' decision to sign with the Miami Heat was roundly criticized at least in part through the context of Bryant spending his entire career with one team, the Lakers.
But the two played together in the Olympics in 2008 and 2012. They greeted each other warmly at the last Lakers game Bryant attended, and James passed Bryant on the NBA's all-time scoring list Saturday, only a night before the crash. Bryant tweeted about James at the time, and James, in turn, spent several minutes discussing Bryant's impact on his own career.
And now, the burden of leading his team through this difficult time falls on James. Although he may no longer be able to speak with him, he at least has a small piece of him with him as he tries to bring the Lakers back to where Bryant took them five times: the NBA championship.