NEW ORLEANS — The All-Star stage is meant to be a shared space, a broad platform designed to support the NBA’s greatest talents and egos all at once. Kobe Bryant has never been much for sharing, though.
Sixteen years ago, at age 19, Bryant made his All-Star debut by waving off Karl Malone’s screen and shooting every time he touched the ball.
In 2002, with the game staged in his hometown of Philadelphia, Bryant seized the moment and claimed the Most Valuable Player Award.
Five years later, he took the MVP award again, outshining LeBron James.
Two years after that, Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal—his former tag-team partner and frenemy—shared the MVP award in a poetic All-Star reunion.
And in 2011, with the game played in his home arena in Los Angeles, Bryant dropped 37 points and grabbed MVP honors again.
No player in NBA history has collected more All-Star MVP awards. (Bob Pettit also won four.)
So did anyone really expect Kobe to cede the spotlight here Sunday night? Even injured, even in street clothes, even at 35, he was probably the most compelling figure in the arena. Indeed, the still-balky left knee only made him more compelling.
“It’s coming slowly,” Bryant said during a pregame press conference that was better attended than all of the weekend’s other press conferences combined.
It was standing-room only in the press area for Bryant’s (league-mandated) appearance. He did not disappoint. Over 15 minutes, Bryant was candid, self-effacing, thoughtful and funny—in two languages. (He answered an entire question in Spanish.)
The years have slowed Bryant, but they have also emboldened him. No current NBA star is as consistently, brutally forthright, or seems to enjoy the back-and-forth as much as he does.
He surely did Sunday night, maybe moreso because he realizes there might not be many more of these. This was Bryant’s 16th All-Star appearance. There are no guarantees he will be here again, given his age, his health and the sorry state of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Even Bryant, who generally scoffs at any suggestion of his mortality, gave a measured response when asked if he thinks he will play in another All-Star Game.
“I hope so,” he said twice. “When you play in an All-Star Game, that means you’re one of the best players in the world. So it’s obviously a big goal of mine to be there.”
Even if his game falters, Bryant’s immense global popularity could carry him to a 17th All-Star selection. But he probably wouldn’t want it that way. After playing just six games this season—returning from Achilles surgery only to be felled again by a knee injury—Bryant practically begged fans not to vote him into this game.
“I'd much rather see the young guys go out there and play in the game,” Bryant said in early January.
Bryant garnered more than 988,000 votes anyway, the fifth-highest total in the league.
So there he was Sunday night, in a crisp shirt and sports coat, peering into a thick crowd of reporters and cameras and quipping at one point, “Half the game is like finding where the question’s coming from.”
Bryant offered no new information about his recovery, saying only that he was “optimistic coming out of the break that I will have some improvements.” He still seems determined to play this season, although the Lakers, at 18-35, have virtually no shot at making the playoffs.
The Lakers are talent-poor as it is, and they could jettison their only other star by the end of the week if they can find a decent return for Pau Gasol before the Thursday trade deadline.
But the most critical time for the Lakers, indeed for Bryant, will come in July, when the free-agent market opens. The Lakers will have enough salary-cap room to sign another star, or several high-caliber role players.
So, someone wondered, would Bryant’s well-earned reputation as a difficult teammate hurt the recruitment process? Bryant smiled and openly embraced the charge, though he assured it would not be a factor.
“No, not necessarily,” he said. “I’m a difficult person to deal with. For people who don’t have the same kind of competitiveness or commitment to winning, then I become an absolute pain in the neck, because I’m going to drag you into the gym every single day. … And for players that have that level of commitment, very, very easy. And we can wind up enhancing the entire group and elevating them to that type of level. But if we don’t have that commitment, man, I’ll absolutely be very, very tough to get along with. No question about it.”
So, free agents, you have been warned.
On other subjects, Bryant was much lighter.
He joked about figuring out the rules to curling. He laughed at the suggestion that he consider playing for the national team in the World Cup this summer.
He indulged the now-perfunctory question about who would be on his basketball Mount Rushmore—though only after joking that he didn’t know how many presidents are on Mount Rushmore, because “I’m an Italian kid.” He then named Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell.
Before long, Bryant will be fading into NBA history with them. But he’s not setting any public retirement dates, and he’s not planning a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-like retirement tour.
“I don’t really want the rocking chair before the game,” Bryant said, smiling. “It would drive me crazy. But I’ll probably just pop up and just vanish.”
That seems unlikely. Late Saturday night, after watching the other All-Star events, Bryant mused on Twitter that he might sign up for the three-point contest next year. He confirmed it Sunday, saying, “I wouldn’t mind being in one.”
The game next year is at Madison Square Garden, the site of Bryant’s first All-Star appearance. Those bright lights always have treated him well.