LeBron James shares 'surreal' moment with Lakers great Kobe Bryant, lets us into a world few people understand

Athletes love to talk about championships and how "winning is all that matters." They'll tell you it's the reason they play the game, because since they were a little kid they've dreamt of standing on some stage holding some trophy. It's obviously true. Winning on the highest level represents one of the highest forms of professional validation. 

But it's not the only reason they play. 

The part of their motivation that athletes talk less about is the respect factor. Not so much from the fans -- though that's probably a bigger deal than they let on -- but from their peers. The mutual respect shared between athletes, particularly great athletes, is a big, big deal. If they were being honest, it might be an even bigger deal than the actual winning, though obviously the two largely go hand in hand. 

So here it is, Sunday night in the NBA. The Lakers are playing the Hawks, and Kobe Bryant has made a rare appearance at Staples Center. He's sitting courtside. He's smiling and waving and taking pictures. The players walk over, pay their respects in daps. The crowd gives him a standing ovation so raucously heartfelt that Lakers coach Frank Vogel says it gave him chills. He is a man back in HIS house. 

Eventually, LeBron James, a King who knows, makes his way over, and two of the greatest basketball players to ever live share dap and a moment that only they -- and athletes of their ilk -- can truly understand. 

When LeBron James, as decorated an athlete as the world has ever seen, talks about continuing a fellow athlete's "legacy" and wanting to make him "proud" -- that is real, and it's powerful. After the game -- in which James posted 33 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in another Lakers victory -- LeBron talked about Kobe with the ultimate reverence.

"I grew up watching him, admiring him. I was one of the kids obviously who had the chance to come straight outta high school. He did it," James told reporters. "It's just so surreal for me. Just for a kid from Akron to have a guy like Kobe, just take time out of his day, even at this point of my career, it's still special."

Twitter is, at once, impossibly dumb and an incredible gauge of human temperature, and clearly a lot of people find it strange that a player of LeBron's caliber, a player who has played against and with Kobe for so many years, and beaten him plenty, would find it "surreal" to then play while he was in the crowd. But this is the respect factor. And when you've garnered as much of it as Kobe has, it never goes away. 

To LeBron's generation, Kobe is as close to a Michael Jordan figure as there is. LeBron will be, and already is, that guy for the next generation. They grew up watching him. Playing against him, or for those fortunate enough to have played with him, will never not be surreal in at least some sense. For the few players who've risen to heights at least somewhat comparable to those LeBron has reached, that connection, that unspoken understanding among giants, will last a lifetime. 

That's what I find so cool about All-Star games. Or the moments players share before and after games. People love to make fun of the "bro" culture among today's athletes, the way they actually show and talk about how much they like and respect one another, but that's real. Listening to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird talk about the respect they had for each other as opponents, for me, is as rewarding a fan experience as watching them trying to dismantle one another on the court. 

When LeBron and Kobe share a split-second hug and a smile, it's all there in the unspoken. They understand each other. Very few people will ever understand what it is to be one of the greatest talents in the world, in any field. To me, being part of that exclusive club is almost more enviable than the talent required in the first place. What most of us wouldn't give to sit in a room and listen to Beethoven and Mozart talk about composing music, to watch Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington compare notes about acting, to watch Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn trade hitting secrets.   

They know something we could never know, and it makes the bond that is their talent, their accomplishment, their world, all the more fascinating. I remember when Kevin Durant joined the Warriors, listening to him and Stephen Curry talk about working out with each other, getting to see up close how each one went about their craft, and the mutual respect that came of that. 

I love watching the Oscars and the Grammy Awards for this same reason. Some of the most talented people in the world still being in awe of their peers, being grateful to have been accepted, to have the respect of the people they respect most. That has to be a wonderful feeling. 

Few people experience that feeling. Kobe and LeBron are two of those people, and on Sunday night, they reveled in the part of themselves that only THEY can understand, the part of them that is like the rest of us and nothing like the rest of us. We should all be lucky enough to stand in the presence of our heroes, but mortals will never understand the feeling of standing there as equals. 

That LeBron hopes to honor that understanding by continuing to make Kobe proud isn't cheesy or fake. It's awesome. It's real. And if both of them were being honest, their obvious drive to win notwithstanding, I bet they would tell you it's one of the biggest reasons they play, or played, the game. 

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