Kobe's Stage

The 4-time All-Star Game MVP didn't treat the NBA's midseason showcase as an exhibition, but as a way to send a message to rivals while measuring himself against the league's greatest players.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterFebruary 16, 2020

CHICAGO — Minutes before he became the youngest star ever to grace the NBA All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant delivered a manifesto of sorts.

"The main objective is to come out and have fun," the 19-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star told a film crew on that February afternoon at Madison Square Garden in 1998. "But I think when the fourth quarter rolls around, we're gonna try and win the game."

As it happens, the sprightly kid with the mini-Afro didn't play in the fourth quarter. But there was no ambiguity in Bryant's agenda during the 22 minutes he did play.

He went right at Michael Jordan, his idol. Repeatedly. He took 10 shots on his first 11 touches. He waved off a Karl Malone screen so he could attack MJ one-on-one, infuriating Malone and sending a message that would echo across two decades:

If Kobe Bryant was on a basketball court—jerseys tucked, scoreboard lit, clock runninghe was coming hard. He was coming for your throat. He was there to win. Even on a lazy Sunday in February, in a game with no real stakes.

Exhibition? The word held no meaning.

As Bryant's longtime friend and teammate Derek Fisher explains, "There was no exhibition to making sure that you knew that, 'I'm here to take you out, bro. I'm not taking that for granted or taking that lightly.'"

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It's a mindset that defined the entirety of Bryant's career, including a record 18 consecutive All-Star nods, all the way through his final appearance in 2016, at age 37. He etched his name on four All-Star MVP trophies, tying the NBA record, and amassed 290 points, the second most all-time.

It's a legacy worth invoking today, as the NBA gathers in Chicago for the 69th All-Star Game, just three weeks after Bryant and eight others, including his daughter Gianna, perished in a helicopter crash.

In a time when the NBA is constantly tweaking the game's format to induce the All-Stars to compete harder, to play a little defense, to actually care about the outcome, it's worth remembering that Bryant never needed any such prompting.

"He never viewed an opportunity to play in the All-Star Game as, like, this throwaway thing," Fisher says. "There was an era in basketball where what [the stars] had accomplished before you, those were the barometers and the measuring sticks for how great you were or would be ultimately. So I think for Kobe, he was very driven and motivated by all of the internalization and visualizing what Michael had accomplished, and Magic and Kareem and Larry Bird and Olajuwon and all these great players that came before him."

This year's game will partially serve as a tribute to Bryant, with all players on one squad wearing his No. 24 and the other squad all wearing Gianna's No. 2. The game's newly tweaked format also includes a nod to Bryant: To win, a team must hit a "target score" determined by adding 24 points to the leading team's total after three quarters.

And the MVP trophy will, appropriately, now bear Bryant's name.

"I know it will be especially meaningful to that player that wins the first Kobe Bryant MVP," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Saturday night after announcing the change.

It is perhaps the most poignant way to honor Bryant's memory. As Silver said, "Nobody embodied All-Star more than Kobe Bryant."

There will, no doubt, be many more tributes to Bryant along the way, some subtle and personal, others more elaborate. Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson will perform a song dedicated to Bryant and the other victims of the crash prior to the game.

If the league opts for a montage of Bryant's greatest All-Star moments, it might consume the entire halftime period.

That scintillating showdown with Jordan in '98, one of the few times Bryant got to face his hero. The emotional homecoming in 2002, when Bryant scored 31 points and seized the MVP in his hometown of Philadelphiaamid stinging boos from the crowd. Another virtuoso performance in 2007, in Las Vegas, where he scored another 31 points and outshined rising star LeBron James (28 points) to claim his second MVP.

There was the 2009 game in Phoenix, when, in a poetic twist, he was named co-MVP with Shaquille O'Neal, five years after their bitter breakup. Bryant was 32 when he claimed his final MVP award in 2011, going for 37 points at Staples Center, his home arena, again outdueling James.

A year later in Orlando, Florida, Bryant scored 27 points and passed Jordan to become the event's all-time leading scorerdespite getting his nose broken on a hard foul from Dwyane Wade in the third quarter.

He made his All-Star farewell in 2016, at age 37, scoring 10 points.

For Bryant, the All-Star Game was not some trifling sideshow tucked into a gaudy corporate mixer. From the beginning, it was a chance to prove he belonged, to challenge the game's legends, to probe their psyches and pick their brains, to claim preeminence among his peers and, later, to set the standard for the next generation.

Like Jordan before him, Bryant came to represent the competitive ideal for the players who grew up idolizing him.

"So he also wasn't gonna allow those guys to have anything to take home, like they were better than him," Fisher says. "Even if he felt like somebody might be getting close, he wasn't gonna allow that to happen."

Some years, that meant harassing Allen Iverson or Stephon Marbury in a tight fourth quarter. Other years, it meant outdunking Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter. Eventually, it meant holding off Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

But the mission was abundantly clear, from the first moments on Feb. 8, 1998.

It was Bryant's second NBA season. He was still a reserve on his own team—behind fellow All-Stars Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jonesbut his already-immense popularity pushed him into the Western Conference's starting lineup via the fan vote.

Jordan, just days away from his 35th birthday, was playing what would be his final season with the Chicago Bulls. Bryant wasn't about to waste the opportunity.

"He wanted to make his name known," says Gary Payton, who started alongside Bryant in the West backcourt. "He was only basically thinking about Michael Jordan and playing against him. He was really hyped for that. So his mindset was to impress Michael Jordan and go at everybody and ... be seen by the world as that guy that he said he was gonna be."

So Bryant chased Jordan through screens. Contested his shots. Bodied him up in the post. Shot every time he could. Spun 360 degrees on a breakaway dunk. Converted a nifty running hook after a behind-the-back pass to himself in transition.

And then there was the wave-off. Malone, the Utah Jazz legend whose career was defined by his pick-and-roll partnership with John Stockton, positioned himself to set a screen for Bryant. But the young phenom wanted to go straight at Jordan and dismissed it.

"And Karl got mad," says Payton, now an analyst for NBA TV. "It wasn't about Kobe disrespecting him. But Kobe felt that way. He felt that he wanted to go at Mike."

Bryant scored 18 points that night, the most of anyone on the West squad. Jordan won the battle, scoring 23 points and earning MVP as he led the East to victory.

"Mike saw a young kid that's trying to be like me, trying to come up and take everything," Payton says. "Mike took it on as, 'Yeah, let's do it. But I'm gonna teach you that I'm still A-No. 1.'"

Despite the relaxed atmosphere of the All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant rarely let anyone get past him, not even Allen Iverson.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere of the All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant rarely let anyone get past him, not even Allen Iverson.DON EMMERT/Getty Images

Payton, one of the fiercest players of his era, came away impressed by his young backcourt mate's audacity.

"He didn't understand that All-Star Games wasn't supposed to be like that," Payton says of Bryant, chuckling. "We were going at each other, but we wasn't going at each other like that, like [it was for the] championship. But that's just the way his mentality was."

The All-Star Game is different now, barely resembling an actual NBA competition. Players jog and take turns throwing alley-oops. Defense is an afterthought. In 2016, Curry actually laid down in the middle of the game. The final score in 2017 was 192-182.

For the third straight season, the NBA has added new wrinkles in hopes of instilling a little competitive pride. Both teams are playing for charity, with contributions tied to winning each individual quarter, thus upping the stakes from start to finish.

"I think they all should look at how Magic, Isiah, the Mark Aguirres, the Ewings, the Karl Malones played," Payton says. "You remember when they played? How hard they played?"

Twenty-four stars will take the court tonight at the United Center, where Jordan once soared, inspiring a young phenom from Philadelphia who cast himself in Jordan's image, then joined him as one of the game's all-time legends. Kobe Bryant will be everywhere—in video montages and game jerseys, in homemade signs and messages scribbled on sneakers.

But the greatest tribute to Bryant would be the simplest one: to compete like he did.

      

Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017 and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.

 Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

 Follow him on Twitter @HowardBeck.


Former Laker Derek Fisher joins Howard Beck on The Full 48 to discuss longtime teammate Kobe Bryant, from his leadership style to how he handled his critics to his tragic death.