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Kobe plays, while all LeBron can do is talk

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, listens as coach Phil Jackson talks in a team huddle during basketball practice in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 2, 2010. The Lakers face the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA finals on Thursday. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, listens as coach Phil Jackson talks in a team huddle during basketball practice in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 2, 2010. The Lakers face the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA finals on Thursday. (AP Photo/Adam Lau)
By Tim Dahlberg
AP Sports Columnist / June 3, 2010

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It's June again, and by now the script is getting awfully familiar. Kobe Bryant is in another NBA finals, providing the kind of star power the league relies on to make this must-see TV.

LeBron James? He'll be on TV, too, pouring his heart out to the familiar guy in suspenders.

What? Oprah's couch was unavailable?

The King on CNN's "Larry King Live" should draw respectable ratings, too, if only because all of Cleveland will undoubtedly take time off from singing his praises to listen to his pronouncements. They'll dissect every sentence he utters, rewind the DVR and listen again and again.

Thanks to King's publicists, we already have a hint of what he will tell the people of Cleveland. It's not much, just tidbit that might keep their summer from being ruined just as it was starting.

The city, it turns out, isn't so bad after all, James says: "It's comfortable. I've got a lot of memories here."

Why those few words carry so much importance, of course, is that come July 1 the player who made Cleveland semi-cool will have a chance to flee for the Big Apple or any other place with an NBA franchise. They're even more important because, since being unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs, James has said nothing about his future plans.

Not when Cleveland's elite got together to sing a song imploring him to stay. Not even when Cleveland's own Iron Chef offered to go to his house once a month and cook a meal for family and friends.

It matters that much in Cleveland. The very soul of a much-maligned city seems to be at stake.

This wouldn't play in LA. Then again, James isn't playing in Los Angeles this June, either.

Bryant is, however, for the third straight year. That by itself is a remarkable streak, even if you subscribe to the theory that Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom help make up a far better supporting cast than Mo Williams and Shaq.

If the Lakers win this one -- and the wise guys in Vegas have made them the favorites -- Bryant will wear a fifth championship ring and likely will be part of conversations matching him against Michael Jordan as one of the game's greatest players.

James isn't in that conversation. Won't be, unless he starts winning some titles.

Great talent, sure. Great player, too, at least when it comes to winning regular-season MVP awards.

But greatness is measured by titles won, not awards bestowed. History has a habit of rewarding winners and James still doesn't have a ring after seven years in the league.

By that time in his career, Bryant already had won three titles. And though he may have lost a half step in recent years, he has reinvented himself with a different cast of characters.

Like James, Bryant is revered in the city where he plays. Unlike James, he's made sure he is still playing when it counts most -- in June.

Bryant has taken a team that looked dysfunctional at times during the regular season and all but willed them into the final against the Celtics. He's done it in a businesslike yet purposeful manner, revealing as little about his playoff thoughts as possible.

To hear Bryant talk, it doesn't matter that the Lakers and Celtics are playing for a title for the 12th time. Doesn't matter that he and his teammates can extract some revenge from their loss to the same team two years ago.

Doesn't matter that Phil Jackson can cement his lock on greatest coach ever by winning his unprecedented 11th title with two different teams.

All that matters is that the Lakers win.

That's the singular focus of great players. So far, James hasn't managed to zero in on that, no matter how much he wants it.

That's why Bryant will be the most watched player on the court Thursday night when the Lakers meet the Celtics at Staples Center. It's also why the only way you'll see LeBron these days is to tune in to a cable talk show.

I won't be watching because I've already seen and heard far more about James than I can safely digest. I'm tired of the incessant speculation about his future, tired of watching the people of Cleveland keep embarrassing themselves.

Call me when he wins a title.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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