TORONTO—The tributes came, then came more fervently and passionately for Kobe Bryant in his last All-Star Game as he stood alone on the Western Conference sideline with one of the greatest showmen, Magic Johnson, saluting him before tipoff.
The tears didn’t come streaming down Bryant’s face in his last All-Star game, but they didn’t have to because the heartless assassin has already shown more humanity in his last season than many knew existed.
He happily posed for photos with some officials he likely used to berate during heated playoff battles or Tuesday nights in Memphis, when intensity was at all-time highs or simply because his mood determined he should.
But now the man who coldly and almost clinically disrupted Michael Jordan’s last All-Star moment in Atlanta had his own, and instead of launching up jumper after jumper with the young guns watching, waiting their turn, Bryant ceded the stage.
Bryant scored 11 with seven assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes as Russell Westbrook’s boundless energy and bottomless thirst led to 31 points and a second straight All-Star MVP in a 196-173 Western Conference win at Air Canada Centre.
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LeBron James had his hand at stirring up some competition, telling Bryant to “bring it” and spreading his arms wide while forming a defensive stance, one of the few times there appeared to be some genuine competition in a game that had very, very little.
Instead of ruthlessly going at James, he playfully faded away on a long jumper that came up short. More pointedly, he seemed to have more fun going one on one with Dwyane Wade’s son and Chris Paul’s son at halftime during warmups.
“None of us have seen that part,” said Pau Gasol, Bulls center and a former teammate of Bryant for two championship runs. “At this point of his life and career, the older you get, the bigger the gap is with younger players. When he was playing his first All-Star game, some of these players were in kindergarten.”
Bryant had a little time for the adults, as he and the older elder statesman Gasol playfully went at each other a few times on the post, and sharing moments throughout the evening.
“We talked about it before the game, to see if we posted each other up who would be successful,” Gasol said. “We both tried it but neither of us was successful. It was fun, a cool bonding moment.”
Gasol scored nine with seven rebounds in 15 minutes of playing time as he was selected as teammate Jimmy Butler’s replacement days before All-Star weekend. Safe to say, he was happy to be there but had to adjust to the uber lack of defense being played in the highest-scoring All-Star game in NBA history.
“I like to compete and play the right way. Games like these are difficult to do that but I tried to get myself going,” Gasol said. “You don’t anticipate that. You know these games aren’t known for their defense but today was a little…absent.”
He laughed as he said it, but the game was a showcase for some of the younger stars, the establishment and the resurgent player who came within a basket of overtaking Wilt Chamberlain as the all-time single-game scoring leader.
Paul George scored 41 in his return to the All-Star stage, a welcome sight as many remember his gruesome injury during USA Basketball camp in Las Vegas in 2014 and believed he would never return to form as one of the top swingmen.
Chicago Native Anthony Davis feasted on uncontested alley-oop dunks to score 24 while reigning MVP Stephen Curry scored 26, including a 40-footer with seconds remaining to conclude the scoring on the evening.
Curry’s triple came moments after Bryant’s final curtain call, as he exited the game to chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” with 1:06 remaining, getting hugs and daps on the head from virtually everyone on the floor.
The man who said he could never envision being elder statesman two days ago, like Michael Jordan and Julius Erving before him, had essentially successfully passed the torch to the young players whose flame burns bright and star shines just as bright as a new era is ushered into the NBA.
“As a younger player, I couldn't even see the next day," he said Friday. "No, when you're young, you never think you'll get old. You're always just moment to moment. You think it's never going to end, the body is never going to hurt, never going to give out. … I'm enjoying this whole thing with being around these players and talking to them one more time. The competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something and prove something, that's gone."
But even as he will join the likes of Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Jordan, luminaries, ambassadors whom the younger generation will look to for approval, he found there wasn’t a challenge on the floor, not in the way he challenged Jordan in his very first All-Star game 18 years ago.
“Michael was still Michael,” said Bryant, acknowledging his mortality. “It was 98. He was that guy. I’m 20 years in and it’s different. These kids, they’re so many generations removed from that, it’s not even about that anymore.”
But on this night, it was about Kobe and for once, he soaked in the appreciation the way an ambassador is supposed to.