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Kobe-LeBron rivalry quickly picking up steam The importance of Bryant and James to the NBA can't be disputed

As most of the Los Angeles Lakers players went through their usual pregame routine in the locker room, Kobe Bryant was somewhere else, throwing up.

Bryant had a severe stomach virus that threatened to sideline him for the much-anticipated game against the host Cleveland Cavaliers last Sunday. But Bryant sucked it up and contributed to the Lakers' 91-81 victory at Quicken Loans Arena.

"He would literally have to not be able to walk in order not to play in the game," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "Even if he wasn't his usual self what he gave us was enough for us to win this game. You talk about leadership, there's no greater example than what he did today."

Beyond the chance to complete a remarkable 6-0 Eastern road trip, Bryant had extra incentive to get on the court last Sunday.

"Kobe was determined to play," Fisher said, "and I think that guy in the wine and gold uniform had a little something to do with it."

That "guy" would be Cavaliers phenom LeBron James.

Bryant and James are the NBA's two biggest superstars, and they would never pass up a chance to play against each other. They'll do so again in tonight's All-Star Game in Phoenix.

An ongoing debate has raged all season over which one is the best player. Bryant, 30, has been known as the best player on the planet for some time, but a lot of people believe that distinction now belongs to James, 24.

No matter what you think the pecking order is, the importance of Bryant and James to the NBA can't be disputed. As the faces of the league, their rivalry could elevate the sport to heights it hasn't seen in many years. Bryant and James go out of their way to downplay the hype surrounding them. "It's not about Kobe versus LeBron. It's a team game," is their usual response to questions. They can deny it all they want, but the fact is these guys are irrevocably linked by their rare skills and unique first names. They use each other as a measuring stick to evaluate their performance.

Just in the past week, they played a game of can-you-top-this at the expense of the New York Knicks. Amid chants of "MVP" from the Madison Square Garden crowd, Bryant lit up the Knicks for 61 points, the most ever scored by a player at the venerable building. Not to be outdone, James struck for 52 points, 10 rebounds (later changed to nine) and 11 assists at MSG a couple of nights later.

At the height of their classic 1980s rivalry, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird checked the box scores every morning to see what each player did the night before. It's hard to imagine Bryant and James not doing the same thing.

"They probably won't admit it, but I would think those guys keep an eye on each other, particularly because of the success of the individual's teams," Fisher said. "If either guy was on a really bad team I don't think they would care as much about the next one. But when you have two MVP candidates with their teams at the top of the league, they don't have a choice but to watch what each other is doing and what their team is doing."

Bryant and James are becoming a latter day version of Magic and Bird, whose transcendent talent and competitive will made the NBA must-see TV in the 1980s. But what made the Magic-Bird rivalry so special was the tie that bound the legends: championships.

Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics met in the NBA Finals three times. They won eight world titles between them in the '80s. At least one of them appeared in every Finals series during the decade.

Bryant has three championship rings, but none since Shaquille O'Neal left L.A. James lost in his one and only Finals appearance.

No doubt ABC's executives are salivating at the thought of promoting a Kobe-LeBron Finals matchup. The stage is set for it. But first things first. The Lakers and Cavaliers still have to take care of business the rest of the regular season and in the playoffs for a Finals confrontation to take place.

But if everything falls into place, we'll get that much-desired meeting on the game's biggest stage, where Bryant and James will have a chance to lift their rivalry a little closer to the Magic-Bird level.

"When you look back at the history of our sport, those are the guys we all converse about," Fisher said of Magic and Bird. "We talk about guys who were great individually, but were also part of championship teams. Kobe and LeBron have been building towards it. I think that's why people look forward to the matchup so much because they know it's kind of a collision course a lot of people have been waiting to happen."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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