TORONTO – With a jump shot from the right corner and then a breakaway, 360-degree slam, Kobe Bryant arrived.
Barely 19 years old, Bryant wasn’t a starter even on his own team. Yet he started in the 1998 All-Star Game in Madison Square Garden and dared what a multitude of veterans would not: He challenged Michael Jordan on what was supposed to be Jordan’s night.
Many believed it was Jordan’s last All-Star Game, that he was retiring at the end of the season. In an arena NBA players laud as The Mecca, it was an occasion to celebrate Jordan’s career and welcome a phenom not quite two years removed from high school.
Rightly or wrongly, the matchup was promoted as the torch being passed. Jordan and Bryant demurred when asked about the showdown then belied any such sentiment with magnificent ferocity.
“It was the teacher versus the grasshopper,” said Grant Hill, a teammate of Jordan’s that night.
“Kobe wanted to go at Michael. To be so young, not a lot of players wanted that. He certainly did.”
From the jump, Bryant courted greatness. His focus was monastic and often isolated him from teammates. His cutthroat competitiveness was to be feared. Bryant was an unforgiving adversary, dominant throughout a career that lasted two decades.
Now it is Bryant’s turn to say goodbye on the national stage.
Sunday night in Toronto, he will play his last All-Star Game. He’s wobbling toward the finish line with a sorry Los Angeles Lakers squad that won’t reach the postseason, but fans cast more All-Star votes for Bryant than anybody else.
“Kobe’s on the Mount Rushmore of NBA history,” Charles Barkley said by phone last week from Atlanta, where he is a TNT studio analyst.
“I don’t think he deserves to be an All-Star on merit, but he deserves the curtain call. There are very few guys that deserve curtain calls: Bird, Magic, Michael ... Kobe deserves it.”
Bryant owns five NBA championship rings and two Olympic gold medals. He’s third all-time in scoring, a spot ahead of Jordan. He has been voted league MVP once, NBA Finals MVP twice and All-Star Game MVP four times.
Bryant’s legacy was the chief topic at an All-Star news conference Friday in the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel. Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry called him “the Michael Jordan of our era.” Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade predicted East opponents would take turns savoring showdowns like Bryant craved with Jordan.
“Everybody’s going to want to go one-on-one and have their Kobe Bryant moment,” Wade said. “So whenever he gets a guy one-on-one the crowd is going to love it.”
Bryant’s first All-Star game featured all-time greats such as Jordan, Reggie Miller, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Payton. Few of Bryant’s contemporaries remain active, namely San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett and Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki.
After them is a group that includes Wade, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and a newer crew with Golden State Warriors guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder mates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
“Kobe is the last of Generation X,” Hill, an NBA TV analyst, said this week from his home in Orlando. “Kobe bridges two or three different generations, but he symbolizes his era.”
With the end near, Bryant feels the hardwood mileage he has put on his 37-year-old body. Bryant has been a Laker for 20 years, two more years than he hasn’t been an NBA player.
Back at the Sheraton on Friday, he contemplated his longevity.
“I’m looking around the room,” Bryant said, “and seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were, like, 4 during my first All-Star Game.”
No lie. Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond and New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis were 4 the night Bryant and Jordan squared off in Manhattan. Seven current All-Stars were 7 years old or younger.
“He’s had such an imprint on our childhood,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “I know he had an imprint on my childhood.”
Bosh turns 32 next month.
“He’s been my idol growing up, my basketball idol,” said Harden, 26. “Just watching him play meant everything to me.
“So this is his last year and he’s going to retire and there’s going to be no more Kobe Bryant playing basketball. I’m kind of sad about that, but at some point he had to go.”
A turbulent legacy
Bryant has more trophies, rings and medals than almost anybody who has dribbled a ball.
His legacy can’t be considered without mentioning the ordeals, many of his own doing.
Two weeks after the Charlotte Hornets drafted Bryant 13th overall in 1996, the Lakers traded zero-time All-Star center Vlade Divac for him. A week later, the Lakers signed O’Neal to form one of basketball’s deadliest and most-volatile duos.
“We are the most enigmatic, most controversial, most dominant one-two punch in Lakers history,” O’Neal said two weeks ago. “Period. Point blank.”
They performed gloriously on the court. But each is an Alpha personality.
O’Neal sniped at Bryant for being selfish. Bryant brooded as a loner. O’Neal was the fun-loving, media-friendly gadabout. He was “Shaq Fu” (video game), “Shaq Diesel” (platinum rap album) and “Kazaam” (movie).
Bryant despised O’Neal’s seemingly flippant approach. Bryant despised anybody who didn’t work as hard as he did or wasn’t as driven to win as he was.
O’Neal recalled the animosity he and Bryant had toward each other. O’Neal insisted they were great teammates on the court.
“Off the court’s a different situation,” O’Neal said. “I’ve been around business a long time, been around people a long time, and I was appointed the leader. So things had to go right, and my thing was I just wanted everybody to do the right thing.
“But off the court really doesn’t matter. I learned this a long time ago: You don’t have to like me or love me, but you do have to respect me.”
The soap opera caused many fans to pick a side. O’Neal was a pop-culture juggernaut, while Bryant still was finding his way. In the 1997 playoffs, O’Neal fouled out against the Utah Jazz. Bryant shot four air balls in the closing minutes, and the Lakers were eliminated.
The Lakers won championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002, O’Neal was the NBA Finals MVP each time. O’Neal was league MVP and top scorer the first season they won a title together.
Bryant was arrested for sexual assault in 2003. The case was dropped while Bryant negotiated a financial settlement with the 19-year-old alleged victim. She declined to testify. Bryant delivered a public apology to her.
Bryant was an unlikable figure. On the court, he remained overshadowed until O’Neal demanded a trade in 2004. The Lakers sent him to the Heat and signed Bryant to a seven-year, $136 million extension.
O’Neal won another championship two seasons later. Bryant, meanwhile, missed the playoffs his first year without O’Neal and then experienced two straight first-round eliminations.
Bryant eventually proved he could win as a leading man. He drove the Lakers to the top in 2009 and 2010.
“As great as Kobe was,” Grant Hill said, “it wasn’t until Shaq left and it was on him to really be That Guy and have that responsibility.
“When Shaq left he played out of his mind and became a better leader and started to trust his teammates. There’s a progression throughout his journey that’s been interesting to observe.”
Although by then, James had reached supernova status, winning league MVP honors both of those seasons. James was league and NBA Finals MVP when he won championships with the Heat in 2012 and 2013.
Bryant was overshadowed again.
Duel at the Mecca
Madison Square Garden was the place to be Feb. 8, 1998.
Muhammad Ali, Madonna, Bill Murray and Donald Trump were there. Derek Jeter watched with Alex Rodriguez. Prince sat next to Spike Lee.
Jack Nicholson asked Bryant for an autograph before the game.
The crowd was there to see Jordan, who vowed to retire after the season if the Chicago Bulls followed through with their plan to move on from coach Phil Jackson. The game was a farewell party, but Jordan would have to work.
Jordan missed Saturday’s practice with a 101-degree fever, but he didn’t play like a sickly old man. Bryant certainly didn’t treat him like one.
“We all know Kobe idolizes Michael Jordan,” said Miller, a 1998 All-Star from the Indiana Pacers. “So to see a young Kobe and – at the time, which we thought – what was the last of MJ was cool to see.”
Miller recalled his first All-Star Game, awestruck and unable to make eye contact in the East locker room with Jordan, Barkley and Patrick Ewing.
Bryant didn’t think that way. The youngest starter in All-Star Game history and the first guard to go straight from high school to the NBA yearned for the matchup, to show he belonged in Jordan’s space.
“In that first All-Star Game, you could start to see that mimicking of Jordan, even the way Michael talked,” TNT broadcaster Marv Albert said. “When you talked to Kobe, it was the same inflection, the same vocabulary. Even the way he would move on and off the court, it was all Michael.”
Bryant dazzled with a 360-degree dunk, a devastating two-handed alley-oop from Garnett, deep three-pointers and a ridiculous behind-the-back dribble to himself before a running hook shot over 7-foot-2 Dikembe Mutombo.
Bryant outscored Jordan through three quarters. But the establishment made sure Bryant didn’t upstage His Airness all night.
While Bryant sat for the final 18 minutes, Jordan helped the East on a 20-1 fourth-quarter run and was voted MVP. Jordan’s East teammates deferred to him throughout his game-high 32 minutes. Nobody from the West played more than 25 minutes.
Jordan finished with 23 points, five rebounds and eight assists. Bryant had 18 points, six rebounds and one assist.
Barkley has recoiled while watching Bryant stumble through a farewell season. The Lakers are 11-44, dead last in the West and better than only the historically rotten Philadelphia 76ers.
“I just feel sadness,” Barkley said. “I don’t want to see players on the court when they can’t play anymore. That’s always tough.
“I didn’t want to see Michael play like that for the Wizards. I didn’t want to see Patrick Ewing playing for the Magic. Bad enough when they can’t play, but then to do it on bad teams? It’s not fun to watch.”
Did Bryant stick around too long?
He is making a $25 million base salary this season, a figure that prohibits the Lakers from repairing their roster and letting rising stars D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle take over.
“I’ve never been that drunk in my life to tell any man to walk away from $25 million,” Barkley said.
“He’s earned that money for what he’s done for basketball and the Lakers.”
Bryant is averaging a career-high 7.1 three-point attempts per game, yet he has made only 28 percent, third-worst of his career. His 4.2 rebounds are third-worst. His 3.4 assists are third-worst.
Over a six-game stretch last month, Bryant averaged 7.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
But he hit the All-Star break with a flourish. In his past six games, he averaged 24.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
Jordan finished the 1997-98 season with his sixth NBA title and then retired. He probably should have stayed away, but he couldn’t help himself. To prove a point apparently, he returned with the Washington Wizards in 2001.
He was an All-Star two more times, like Bryant, as an automatic renewal and not on merit.
Jordan performed better for the Wizards than Bryant has this season. Then again, Jordan didn’t play nearly as much. Bryant has logged 56,734 minutes in the regular season and playoffs. Jordan played 48,485 minutes because of his three-year retirement and a season experimenting with baseball.
Bryant’s legs no longer allow him to glide down the court, to sky above the rim, to fire long jumpers night after night.
The Lakers won’t make the playoffs. They can’t give Bryant a championship send-off like the Bulls did with Jordan.
An All-Star MVP is the last fitting tribute for Bryant.
“It depends on how his legs are feeling, how his shot is falling,” O’Neal said. “If he has one of those games where he’s feeling good and his stroke is going, knowing Kobe, he will go for the MVP.”
Bryant on Friday claimed he has “zero” ambition to win the award. He explained he merely wants to absorb his last All-Star weekend and enjoy being around the other players.
“Competitiveness, in terms of me trying to establish something or prove something,” Bryant said, “that’s gone.”
The story began with a long jumper, then a 360-degree slam dunk.
It ends with a fade away.