From the opening tip against LeBron James to the standing ovation at the end of the West’s 196-173 win over the East, the Kobe Bryant lovefest never wavered in Sunday’s All-Star game in Toronto.
And with good reason.
This tribute wasn’t just about the Los Angeles Lakers star and what he’d accomplished in the past 20 years. It was about the ripple effect it had on them all, from James to Stephen Curry to Russell Westbrook to Chris Paul and all the rest. Love him or hate him – and boy, hasn’t that latter crowd gone quiet these past few months – he was the Michael Jordan of his generation.
There were lessons being taught along the way, from the ruthless way he always went about the job to the dedication to the craft that was there from beginning to end. They may not have always liked him, but they had to respect him. And before he was gone, they were sure to share a few memories on this weekend of reflection – his 18th and final All-Star stop.
“It’s the stories of when they first came into the league and they were matching up against me, and just kind of the little things that — an elbow here or a steal here, and then wanting to earn my respect at an early age, right?” Bryant said. “Coming into the league, playing against me, wanting to prove to me that they were as competitive. When I hear those kind of stories, man, that makes me feel real good because over the years you’re competing against each other. Those aren’t stories you’re ever going to share with somebody that you’re competing against, right. But at this stage, it feels absolutely wonderful to hear these those things.”
It’s the only silver lining of his season of suffering, as the Lakers’ irrelevant standing (they have the league’s second-worst record at 11-44) has made it all that much easier for his peers to pay their respects. The notion of him finally facing James in the Finals is dead, a disappointment considering that one or the other has made appearance on the game’s greatest stage in each of the past nine seasons. There isn’t even a remote possibility of Bryant battling any of these elite talents in the playoffs, and so they have spent the season saying goodbye before he was even done.
“Kobe’s last game before the (All-Star) break was in Cleveland, (and) it was just bittersweet being out on the floor with him knowing the matches between us two are coming to an end soon,” James said. “We’ve got one more in March in L.A., but when you get that opportunity versus a great man, you just have fun with it. I know it’s been overwhelming for him over this year, but our fans across the world and here in the States and here in Toronto, as well, has just been paying so much respect. … Man, I’m happy that I’ve been along for a small piece of the ride of his journey.”
As has been the case all season for the 37-year-old, Bryant’s actual performance came nowhere near matching his persona. It wasn’t bad, though, a 10-point, seven-rebound, six-assist outing that included lighter moments.
He faced off with James early on, the Cleveland Cavaliers star slapping the floor and smiling from his defensive stance before Bryant missed a jumper. By the time it was over, James had passed Bryant on the league’s all-time, All-Star game scoring list (291 to 290).
There was a full-circle component, as Bryant spent time courtside visiting with NBA greats Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell. In the days leading into the game, fellow greats like Allen Iverson and Yao Ming spent time in Toronto while offering a reminder of how quickly a career can come to an end. Not far from the court, the other half of the Lakers’ old dynamic duo, Shaquille O’Neal, cheered along with the rest of them. After Bryant left the floor, he shared a heartfelt hug with another old partner, former Lakers big man and current Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol.
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