Kobe Bryant is showered with love in his last All-Star Game

ByBaxter Holmes ESPN logo
Saturday, February 20, 2016

TORONTO -- "Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!" the crowd chanted as Kobe Bryant stepped through the entryway onto a stage filled with smoke and dancing spotlights, the final player to be introduced Sunday night at the Air Canada Centre.

"An 18-time Western Conference All-Star!" the announcer bellowed. "A four-time All-Star Game MVP! The league's MVP in 2008! A two-time Finals MVP and a five-time NBA Champion! With the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryyyyyyyant!"

Bryant smiled as his accolades were rattled off, his hands remaining in the pockets of his warm-up suit. Not long after, Lakers legend Magic Johnson walked to half court, stood in the spotlight and spoke about Bryant's storied career. He also introduced a tribute video featuring Bryant's highlights, Bryant's voice and the voices of today's players too:

"Kobe, the road has come to the end," said Indiana Pacers forward Paul George. "You've been an unbelievable mentor to me."

"Thank you for everything you've done for this league," said Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond. "[You're] the reason I play so hard."

"There's not a lot of guys who come around like Kobe," said Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul. "The game is going to miss you."

"I'm just proud to be your friend, be your brother," said Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol.

"Kobe, you did all you could for the game and being a champion forever, a walking legend, we appreciate you," said Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant.

"Kobe Bean," said Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, "salute, my brother."

When the video finished, the spotlight fell again on Johnson, who declared, "There will never be another Kobe Bryant. Can all of us get on our feet and let him hear it one more time? Kobe Bryant!"

Bryant walked from the bench toward Johnson, gave him a hug and took the microphone as the crowd -- standing and cheering by this point -- began chanting, "Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!" He grinned as the adoration he has felt in every arena during this farewell tour again washed over him.

"Guys, I mean," Bryant began, searching for the right words, "I, uh. I just want to, uh, want to thank you for all your support for all these years."

The 37-year-old said he has been fortunate to play the game that he loves for more than half his life. He said it was a thrill to play in an All-Star Game alongside players who, during his very first one in 1998, were younger than his two daughters -- Gianna, 9, and Natalia, 13 -- are now. He said he has enjoyed passing on knowledge. He said he hoped today's players could play 20 seasons too.

"Thank you so much," Bryant told the crowd, "and now I've got to go get loose."

The Western Conference All-Stars' 196-173 win over their Eastern Conference counterparts amounted to a game-long tribute to Bryant, with touching moments throughout, such as Bryant playfully posting up Gasol, his ex-Lakers teammate, and Bryant dribbling against James on the right wing with James jokingly slapping both hands on the court as if a ferocious one-on-one battle was forthcoming.

"It was just bittersweet being out on the floor with him, knowing the matches between us two are coming to an end soon," James said. "Man, I'm happy that I've been along for a small piece of the ride of his journey."

It even seemed like the rim was working in Bryant's favor, as two early jumpers each danced around it for a bit before falling through. Bryant finished with 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting in 26 minutes. He shot 1-of-5 from 3-point range and 1-of-2 from the free throw line. He added seven assists and six rebounds. Then he checked out with 1:06 left in the fourth quarter to even more cheers.

"It was fun. I had a blast playing with those guys, laughing and joking with them on the bench," Bryant said. "I had a great time. I had a great, great time."

Bryant's 18 All-Star selections are second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and his 290 career points now stand as the second most in the history of the All-Star Game behind James (291).

But all those numbers and records can't compare to an All-Star Weekend devoted to Bryant, with current and former players and coaches sharing memories and offering gifts, such as Michael Jordan giving Bryant a full set -- 30 pairs -- of custom Jordan sneakers, all in Bryant's size 14.

"He brought a lot of joy to the game, and I think the fans and the whole city have paid him a tribute, and he deserves it," Jordan said during an in-game interview with TNT's Craig Sager. "He's been a big part to the game of basketball, and now his big task is what he's going to do next.

"I think he's got some plans, and I look forward to seeing where his life goes from this point forward; and him and his wife and the kids, they're going to be fine."

Even more special for Bryant was having his daughters sitting behind the bench during the game.

"I was talking to them virtually the whole game," he said. "They've enjoyed this as much as I have, coming to these arenas. You know, they've seen me throughout the years get up at 4 in the morning and work out and train and come home and work out again. So it's awesome, as a father, for them to be able to see all the hard work and how it pays off."

Bryant also caught up with NBA legends Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell, who sat courtside. Soon, Bryant might find himself in their seats as an elder statesman, watching the league's younger generation carry on the game.

"You know, it's kind of bittersweet," said San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who coached the Western Conference All-Stars. "You remember all the struggles against him and all the competitiveness and you respect him so much for bringing it night after night after night. You know, a lot of players don't understand that responsibility to be able to do that at that level, and he does it fiercely for all these years.

"So to see him now, it's like the passing of a generation. He's been such an iconic figure for so long, and he passes it on to that other group of young guys that you saw out there tonight. So I'm just thrilled that I was able to be here and see that, just like the other night when he came to San Antonio, I think he hit six 3s against us. I was actually thrilled. It was just great to watch him shooting and doing what he does. So he's a great one."

And for as much as the experience was special for Bryant, it was just as memorable for his teammates.

"Oh, for sure. It will definitely be special," said Golden State Wariors guard Stephen Curry. "The entire night was very memorable, for sure, with his entrance during the starting lineups and the tribute video, Magic Johnson giving a speech about Kobe and his legacy to some highlight moments during the game where he had some nice plays."

Add it all up, and Curry said he "kind of got goose bumps out there."

"Kobe means something to everybody individually as a basketball fan and including us, as players," Curry added. "So you kind of have a lot of different thoughts about what he means to the game and how he inspired you and myself growing up. I'll remember that for sure."

Nearly every player mentioned something along those lines after the game -- how it was a moment they would cherish forever, how it was just an honor to play alongside him during his final All-Star Game appearance.

All the while, Bryant wore a smile practically from start to finish. And when he left the game one final time to cheers and a standing ovation, he saluted the fans and clapped for them. Then the chants began again, one final time in this setting.

"Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!"

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