TORONTO — The final All-Star Game of Kobe Bryant’s career was a little bit like his final season – a mess, full of indifferent defence and desperation heaves, with the difference being that the shots kept going in. And in. And in.
I’ve never seen a scoreboard with ‘200’ on it before, unless it was showing Josh Thole’s batting average. Sunday night, I thought I might. (Come to think of it, 196 works for Thole’s average, too.) But then, All-Star Games are no place to find quality, let alone put a guy’s career in perspective. Sportswriters and broadcasters are charged with that responsibility, or at least think we are. The rest of the world just wants to celebrate. That’s why they get these things right so often, and we don’t.
It was Kobe-fest all weekend long in Toronto; so much of the talk going into Sunday night’s NBA All-Star Game at Air Canada Centre was how Bryant’s role would play out. Would his teammates, especially the younger ones, be too deferential or not deferential at all? Would the East All-Stars put a little defence on him? Would LeBron James get back and pick him up for yucks, memories of the two shots he had blocked by Bryant in the 2013 game creating a sense of ‘I owe you one?’
These farewell All-Star appearances are usually a mixed bag. Michael Jordan went out in 2003 in his final All-Star Game, played 36 minutes with 20 points, five boards, two assists and two steals. It looked like Jordan gave East the win when he hit a fadeaway jumper, but with seconds remaining Bryant drew a foul hoisting up a desperation three-pointer, made the ensuing free throws and sent the game into overtime, where Kevin Garnett took over. Cal Ripken Jr.’s farewell was nicely done: Alex Rodriguez, for once in his life doing the decent thing, forced Ripken to move from third base to the position he once owned, shortstop – OK, so the entire American League dugout was yelling at him – and Chan Ho Park served up a batting practice fastball that Ripken drove into the seats at Safeco Field. To this day, folks who covered that game believe it was a set-up, which is all fine and well. It’s an All-Star Game.
There was a reason to wonder how it would play out, in part because Bryant was making his first appearance in an All-Star Game since 2013 – he was elected in the preceding two games but didn’t play due to injuries - but also because even as his game and his team has deteriorated, his competitiveness is said to remain. It manifests itself differently these days: like Ripken, Bryant’s long goodbye has been tinged with angry old man selfishness, a kind of “get the hell out of my way and let me jack up this three-pointer.”
“Honestly, it’s hard,” said Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell when asked what it’s like playing out the string with the Black Mamba, and Gregg Popovich, the West All-Star coach, could relate to that.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Popovich said after the game. “You remember all the struggles against him and all the competitiveness and you respect him so much for bringing it night after night after night. You know, a lot of players don’t understand that responsibility to be able to do that at that level, and he’s done it fiercely for all these years.”
There were accolades all over the place for Bryant, who received the loudest and longest ovation of any player, but James guessed that the most meaningful was having Magic Johnson make a speech honouring him on the court. This is a game of statistical cascades, yet when Johnson dropped the number “30 million” on people Sunday night, as in the number of All-Star votes Bryant has received throughout his career, it was key.
Bryant was in many ways the bridge between Jordan and James. He was the guy when social media and that internet thing took off, in some ways the first beneficiary of the NBA’s world-wide explosion. My memory of Bryant was seeing him at the Beijing Olympics. Everywhere. I remember him showing up for a women’s soccer game I was covering and he was besieged, people literally stepping over other people to get to him, shrieking his name. Pele was with him - Pele, for goodness sake - but nobody noticed. He smiled and waved and signed some stuff. Kobe made it a point to get out. I saw him twice more during the course of those Games and each time it was the same thing. The images are hard to erase.
Bryant had 10 points and seven assists and six rebounds in 25:49 on Sunday – and it was James who moved past him to become the all-time leader in All-Star scoring with 13 points. Later, James sat back and smiled broadly when asked if passing Bryant in his final game was a big deal. “Means nothing,” he said, “absolutely nothing.” Bryant left with one minute and six seconds remaining to hugs all around. He had seen James clap his hands and slap the floor on one occasion as he brought the ball up, assuming the only defensive posture of the night. Pau Gasol also pretended to defend him, for about 10 seconds.
Bryant smiled when he was asked if any young players went at him in this All-Star Game, the way he went at Jordan in his first.
“Nah, Michael was still Michael,” he said. “I mean, it was ’98. I mean, he was that guy. I’m 20 years in and it’s different. These kids, they’re so many generations removed from that, that it’s not even about that anymore because they’ve literally grown up watching me since the age of seven.”
The Lakers' season is an irrelevancy. Bryant knows that, and realized that this event is his last signature NBA moment. So he talked about how older players always worry about the next generation. He laughed when he was reminded that when he and Allen Iverson broke into the game, everybody was concerned about their maturity.
“It’s always the younger generation that comes in and the elder statesmen say, ‘this younger generation has no idea what they’re doing … they’re going to kill the game … the game, when we played, was pure’ and all this kind of stuff,” Bryant said. “When we came in, we were just young kids that liked to play, and Al was aggressive. It was a newer generation, newer culture. David Stern (former NBA commissioner) changed the dress code, that helped I think. But the game is in a beautiful place, now.”