LOS ANGELES — Strike up a conversation about Kobe Bryant's obscene number of All-Star fan votes with just about any player or coach around the NBA, and you’ll inevitably hear the same thing over and over again.
Despite playing for the worst team in the Western Conference, shooting a ghastly 35 percent from the floor and 26 percent from behind the three-point line, and having one of the least efficient—if not the least efficient—single-season campaigns in NBA history, the consensus is clear: Bryant belongs in Toronto on Valentine’s Day.
Now 37 years old and coming off two straight seasons that were cut short by major surgery, Bryant is laboring through a farewell tour that prioritizes his availability over anything else. Since announcing his retirement on Nov. 29, he’s yet to miss a road game, but various ailments—ranging from a sore shoulder to a sore Achilles—have kept him out of five contests at Staples Center.
None of this matters in the eyes of colleagues who’ve played by his side or competed against him over the years. To them, it’s a no-brainer to commemorate his Hall of Fame career during a weekend that’s designed to celebrate the NBA’s best.
“He’s the GOAT,” Los Angeles Lakers center Roy Hibbert told Bleacher Report. “He deserves to be in the All-Star Game. He’s been a great champion and an ambassador to this game, so it’s not out of the realm that he would be leading in the All-Star votes.”
After beating Los Angeles on Friday night, Oklahoma City Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook echoed Hibbert’s sentiment, showering the polarizing icon with praise while ignoring his substandard present-day production.
“He deserves it,” Durant said. “He’s done so much for the game, and the fans love him. And they’ve been loving him for a long time. So he deserves it, man. It’s his last year. Of course, every year somebody gets snubbed from the All-Star Game. But, you know, this year, they won’t mind seeing Kobe Bryant in there.”
The NBA released the most recent count for All-Star votes on Jan. 7: Bryant’s 1.26 million votes were over 100,000 tallies more than Westbrook and Durant combined. They're also nearly double what LeBron James has received, and 336,329 more than Stephen Curry, the league’s defending MVP and most dazzling star.
There’s no doubt who people most want to see.
“I think it’s great, man. It’s great for the game,” Westbrook said. “Obviously great for him. I think it’s much appreciated. I think he’s done so much for the game. I think it’s only right.”
It’s hard to argue with that line of thinking. Bryant is an all-time great whose brilliance was reflected in waves of titanic dominance over the years, highlighted by an unwavering confidence that left him vulnerable and triumphant. Through two decades, Bryant loyalists went from adoring a stubborn teenage prodigy to consuming themselves with an uncompromising, borderline-metaphysical view of his entire body of work.
From their point of view, the idea that Bryant’s admirable tenacity inspired an entire generation is all that matters. There’s no time for duality.
“I don’t think anybody disagrees with [Kobe being an All-Star],” Utah Jazz forward Rodney Hood said. “He’s a legend. Top-three player [all-time] in my opinion. He deserves that. Everybody wants to see him in the All-Star Game. I want to see him as a fan even though I play against him.”
But what if the fan vote did not exist, and instead, coaches selected the entire team themselves? Would they still choose Bryant?
“I think the coaches would, yeah,” Lakers head coach Byron Scott said. “Out of respect.”
Thunder head coach Billy Donovan’s take is nearly identical: “I don’t want to speak for all the coaches, but it would be more of a respect thing in terms of what he’s done in this league for a long period of time…You look at all the championships and the individual accolades and those kind of things, but I think one of his greatest qualities is he’s an unbelievable competitor that thrives in that environment.”
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, who served as an assistant with the Lakers during the 2011-12 season, agrees.
“It’s just a testament to what he’s meant to the game,” Snyder said.
As far as the selection of an All-Star Game roster goes, inserting a code of ethics needs some perspective: It’s ultimately a festive exhibition designed to satiate paying customers, break the regular-season slog in two and, frankly, give everybody a break. But qualifying is an honor, and multimillion-dollar contract negotiations become a bit less nebulous when hallowed decorations can be verbalized.
For some, including those who cut checks, All-Star appearances are a relevant touchstone.
From that standpoint, Bryant’s selection conflicts with the game’s weight. Statistically, he isn’t close to deserving, and having him start blocks a more worthy player from an exceptional opportunity.
One example is Jazz forward Gordon Hayward, the best player on a team that would qualify for the playoffs if they started tomorrow. The 25-year-old isn’t even having the best season of his career, but, relative to the field, he’s been impressive. However, Hayward holds no hard feelings, understands the process and is smart enough to see that some things extend beyond the court.
Sometimes numbers lie.
“I think it is what it is,” Hayward told Bleacher Report when asked for his thoughts on Bryant’s probable selection. “He’s done this for 20 years now, and the fans have a right to see who they want to see. And if that’s Kobe Bryant, then that’s Kobe Bryant.”
The votes speak for themselves, and Bryant certainly isn’t taking this worldwide standing ovation for granted. “I’m just very appreciative," he said. "I mean, what can I say, you know what I mean? It’s a great feeling.”
There’s no right or wrong way to view the situation, but regardless of which side you align with, it’s hard not to understand how genuinely important Bryant has been to the NBA's growth and popularity, and what he means to so many people.
His retirement is the most compelling non-basketball basketball story of this season, and it’s only right to honor his departure with a positive send-off at All-Star weekend.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.