While Stephen Curry might be the face of the NBA for the newest era of basketball fans, a much larger figure stands as the literal definition of the game during those same fans’ young lives.
In fact, an entire generation has no idea what it means to have an All-Star Game without Kobe Bryant. The Los Angeles Lakers star has been selected to the All-Star Game 18 times in his 20-year career, only missing out on a nomination in his rookie season, before he’d become a superstar, and because of the 1998-99 lockout, which wiped that season’s festivities off the calendar.
Injury has prevented Bryant from playing in three of those 18 All-Star Games. But even in those instances, the future Hall of Famer dominated the buildup to the game, with talk of who would replace Kobe the only socially acceptable basketball conversation from January until mid-February.
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For nearly 20 years, then, the All-Star Game and Kobe Bryant have been synonymous. He took the microphone and led the league through its biggest (non-playoff) showcase year after year. When the NBA needed someone to pick up the pieces of the post-Jordan era, it was Bryant who trash-talked Jordan on his way out and stepped up to fill the void:
When LeBron James wasn’t quite ready to show the world how truly clutch he was, it was Bryant who told The King that true royalty doesn’t pass:
When the most important storyline in the league was the continued rivalry between Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the Black Mamba once again put on a show, complete with seemingly scripted reconciliation:
Even when it was clear that Bryant’s best days were behind him and the NBA belonged to LeBron, it was still Kobe who made sure fans got what they wanted — just a few minutes of a rivalry between the two that never was:
And, yes, when Bryant’s retirement tour makes its weekend-long stop in Toronto, it’s once again Bryant we’ll be watching. There’s simply no other way. No other player has meant more for this specific game through the years.
Were it not for that aforementioned lockout, Bryant would be tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most All-Star selections in NBA history at 19. Abdul-Jabbar gets that one on a technicality, but that’s the only place where anyone can claim All-Star supremacy over Kobe. Michael Jordan? Bryant’s already played in more All-Star games (15 heading into Sunday) than Jordan had selections (14). Jordan meant more to the league as a whole, but his dominance both on and off the court was about a crushing, inescapable feeling of an inevitable Bulls win. The All-Star Game was just a break from destroying opponents’ souls.
Bryant’s a four-time All-Star Game MVP, equaled by Hall of Famer Bob Pettit. And with apologies to Mr. Pettit, we have to say we’re more impressed by Bryant’s litany of awards, if only because the star power seems significantly higher these days. To our fans of ’50s and ’60s NBA, we apologize for the slight.
Bryant has the most consecutive All-Star selections — all 18 times have been in a row, of course — and on Sunday will add to his record for most All-Star starts, chalking up number 16 in Toronto. He’ll also add to his All-Star record 280 points, although we wouldn’t be completely surprised to see Bryant try (and fail) to make a run at Magic Johnson’s record of 22 assists in a single All-Star game.
It’s impossible to run through the list of NBA All-Star records and not have Bryant’s name jump out at you. We could keep going and going: One more steal and he’ll surpass Michael Jordan for most career All-Star steals (unless, of course, you count his selection to the 2016 game as a robbery, in which case the mark is already his). Most tellingly — and least surprisingly — Bryant holds the record for most career baskets (115) in the All-Star Game. Capping it off with a nice, round 130 total FGs after Sunday would be a great way to end the night.
There are a number of amazing stars on display in the 2016 All-Star Game. Stephen Curry is the present and the future. LeBron James reigns in Cleveland. Jimmy Butler is the next heir to Jordan in Chicago. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are just fine with their quiet status as underdogs in OKC, but they won’t mind taking the opportunity to remind everyone just how good they are on Sunday.
None of it matters — not really, anyway. The game has seen countless legends and moments throughout the years. They’ve all played second fiddle in February to Kobe. Whether by the numbers or by the memories, the NBA All-Star Game belongs to Bryant. Without him, the very idea of the game doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.