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No Heir to Air

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Even if this All-Star game really was his last, Michael Jordan left no doubt who’s still the best.

In a crossroads game between all-stars of this generation and the next, Jordan and Kobe Bryant showed each other a thing or two.

It was Jordan, however, who walked away with his third all-star most valuable player award as the East beat the West, 135-114, Sunday.

“This day was going to happen sooner or later,” Jordan said. “If I walk away from the game, I want to walk out knowing I can still play.”

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He certainly can.

Before a celebrity-studded crowd at the arena known as the “mecca of basketball,” Jordan and Bryant seized the spotlight and faced off mano-a-mano to the delight of all.

Jordan, called the “all-star of all-stars” by Commissioner David Stern as he received his award, led all scorers with 23 points. Bryant led the West with 18.

But it was so much more than Jordan, 34, outscoring Bryant, 19, by five points.

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It was the greatest and the youngest All-Star.

It was Jordan clearing everyone out so he could take Bryant one-on-one, then losing the kid with a head fake and scoring on a finger roll that left Bryant grinning in shame.

It was Bryant coming right back at him, making a pair of three-point baskets and barely executing a behind-the-back fast break dribble ending in perhaps the first transition hook shot in an All-Star game since the game was last played in New York 30 years ago.

It was Jordan popping a jumper in Bryant’s face, then doing it again from the other side of the court.

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It was Bryant pulling a crossover dribble on Jordan, who bent but didn’t break and did not allow himself to get burned.

It was Jordan jamming and Bryant outjamming, especially on a 360-degree spin midway through the first quarter that served notice that this would be an All-Star game worth watching the whole way though.

It was Jordan playing almost the entire fourth quarter while Bryant stayed seated in what appeared to be an act of deference.

And finally, it was Jordan and Bryant embracing at center court after the final buzzer, a snapshot moment worth remembering forever.

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“I really didn’t expect to come in here and win the MVP award,” Jordan said. “I just wanted to make sure Kobe didn’t dominate me.

“It was a good battle. It was fun. He attacked,” Jordan said. “The hype was me vs. him. I knew I wasn’t 100% and he was, and he was biting at the bit. I was just glad that I was able to fight him off.”

West Coach George Karl said he held Bryant out of the game for the final 18 minutes because he wanted to give the other all-stars their fair share of minutes.

But it appeared to be an effort to leave the final act of the play to Jordan, who reiterated before and after the game that he will retire if the Chicago Bulls do not retain Coach Phil Jackson.

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“I’ll say it once more. If Phil is not in Chicago, I’m not playing. Nowhere,” Jordan said.

The pace of the game stayed brisk almost the entire way, the East never surrendering a comfortable lead it built in the first half.

Jordan, who battled flu the past few days, helped ice the game after checking back in early in the fourth, hitting a three-pointer and a finger-roll that preceded Reggie Miller’s three-pointer from right in front of Spike Lee’s seat in an 18-1 run.

From there on out it was wide open, the only suspense being whether Bryant would return and whether Jordan would try to take him once more.

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It didn’t work out that way, but it really didn’t have to.

What had happened in the first three quarters was plenty enough for everyone.

Glen Rice added 16 points for the East, Grant Hill had 15 and Miller and Steve Smith had 14 each. Eddie Jones and David Robinson scored 15 each for the West.

Jordan was 10 for 18 with eight assists, six rebounds and three steals.

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“Without a doubt, I think I’m the best basketball player I can be right now,” he said.


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