Nobody's got 'next' after Lakers' Kobe Bryant, whose final NBA All-Star game could be a love-fest

The old footage shows the youngest All-Star starter in NBA history walking toward center court inside Madison Square Garden. As he slaps hands with Penny Hardaway, pats Dikembe Mutombo on the rump and exchanges a quickie hug with Grant Hill, the narrative of the 19-year-old unfolds for millions of television viewers.

"And there you see Kobe Bryant in the foreground, the man many have dubbed the next Michael Jordan," NBC commentator Bob Costas says on the broadcast of the 1998 All-Star game, Jordan's last before the second of three retirements. "Of course, that's a bit silly, there will be no next Michael Jordan."

All these years later, a similar statement will hold true Sunday at the Air Canada Centre: There will be no next Kobe Bryant.

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One of the league's greatest competitors will play in his final All-Star game, assuming the Lakers star doesn't imitate Jordan off the court and un-retire. By tipoff, Bryant will have appeared in 15 of the midseason showcases. He's been selected 18 times.

"He's the legal voting age in All-Star years," Miami forward-center Chris Bosh said of Bryant, who sat out in 2010, 2014 and 2015 because of injuries. "That's crazy."

Bryant pooh-poohed talk of going for a record fifth most-valuable-player award in the game, saying he would be fine playing only 10 minutes because "the competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something or prove something, that's gone."

The oddsmakers don't seem so sure about that. The online betting site Bovada has given the 37-year-old Bryant 7-to-5 odds to win MVP, ahead of in-their-prime superstars Stephen Curry (5-1), LeBron James (8-1), Russell Westbrook (8-1) and Kevin Durant (10-1).

Bryant's legendary feistiness also suggests he'll try to one-up his teammates once more. After his last All-Star game appearance, in 2013, Bryant admitted to having teased teammate Tim Duncan that Bryant's warmup jacket included more chest patches for NBA titles than Duncan's.

"I was just very, very happy that when I looked across the locker room, Tim only had four trophies and I had five," Bryant said at the time. "That made me feel really good. I rubbed it in a little bit."

Bryant's current All-Star teammates seemed split on whether they would try to help the player who has long been frosty toward others collect one final warmhearted moment.

Asked if he would pass the ball to Bryant if Bryant was double-teamed with 10 seconds left in the game, New Orleans' Anthony Davis said, "Yeah, and have him shoot it."

Then there was Durant's response to a query about deferring to Bryant.

"He might defer to us," Durant said. "He knows that this being his last one, he really respects all of these young players."

Maybe that notion isn't so farfetched. As he sat in a hotel ballroom packed with teammates Friday, Bryant spoke of his amazement in "seeing guys that I'm playing with that are tearing the league up that were like 4 my first All-Star game."

The leading vote-getter among fans exuded a happy-to-be-here vibe largely because of the aches and injuries that limited him to a combined 41 games during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons while causing him to miss a handful of games in recent months during his 20th and final season.

"I can't believe I'm still playing," Bryant said. "Seriously. I've had three major injuries and I always believed I could come back, but you never know. I'm happy I've been able to kind of get through that."

Bryant sounded like a dusty record player with the needle stuck in a single groove while describing the hardest part of his season.

"The body, the body, the body," Bryant said. "I do so much work to get ready and there's certain games it's there and it's not. The hard part is being able to accept that and deal with it on a nightly basis."

Bryant is shooting a career-worst 34.9% while continually hoisting shots to become the most inefficient player in the NBA. But things have a way of working out for the game's legends in their final All-Star game appearances.

Magic Johnson won the MVP award in 1992, only months removed from the announcement that he was HIV-positive. Jordan was the winner in '98, his presumed farewell before making two more All-Star game appearances with the Washington Wizards.

One story line to track Sunday that could get as much traction as Bryant's performance is the reception he gets from both his teammates and competitors. The online site SportsBettingDime put the over-under of how many hugs Bryant would receive from the 23 other players at 22.5; it put the over-under on kisses at 0.5.

There was no shortage of love for Bryant at the media events, with James saying a pair of sneakers Bryant had left for him were going into his trophy case and others universally fawning over a player who has won five NBA titles.

"We definitely want to send him off on a good note," Durant said. "We know he's going to be super competitive. This is the last time he's going to be with all these elite players and on the court again. So it should be fun."

Chicago center Pau Gasol, Bryant's teammate with the Lakers through 6 1/2 seasons and two championships, said he was thrilled to be selected as an injury replacement for the Eastern Conference team so that he could share the court with his longtime friend once more.

"It will be emotional for me to see him," Gasol said. "I hope Kobe enjoys it. It's always fun to see him and share this moment with him, this last dance with him."

Bryant seemed amused that he lasted long enough to participate in the first All-Star game played outside the United States, on the home court of the team he once scored 81 points against in 2006 at Staples Center.

"If you think about it, it's weird that sports tends to have things happen like that," Bryant said. "It's like the sports gods sit back and watch and make things happen. It's like they're laughing at us."

Or, if things turn out as widely expected Sunday, holding them in a long, warm embrace.

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 14, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Kobe's lasting next appeal - There may never be another player like Bryant, whose final All-Star game is today." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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