TORONTO — Kobe Bryant played in his 18th and final NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, and in complete contrast to the way he played throughout his entire career, it was much more of a celebration than it was a competition.
The night began with the league paying tribute to Bryant’s life work, and it ended with him passing the ball far more than he shot. Bryant finished with 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting in just less than 26 minutes as the West beat the East 196-173 and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook taking home MVP honors.
"It was fun," Bryant said afterward. "I had a blast playing with those guys, laughing and joking with them on the bench. And, you know, I got a chance to stop Pau [Gasol] in a post, redeem myself from what he did to me when Chicago came to town. But all those things are just fun. I had a great time. I had a great, great time."
Since announcing his plans to retire after the season, Bryant has been content to move through his final campaign with a sense of calm and appreciation. He had hinted that there would be no final attempt to claim one last MVP trophy, and that he’d be perfectly fine playing limited minutes while simply showing up to bask in the All-Star festivities one final time.
Bryant’s first bucket came more than seven minutes in, on a signature turnaround fadeaway jumper over Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. Bryant’s next made shot was an open 3 five minutes into the second quarter. The next was similar to his first, but on the baseline this time while New York’s Carmelo Anthony defended closely.
Bryant’s final basket of the night went down with just more than a minute to play in the first half, a layup after a drive from the 3-point line as the defenders stood and watched.
There were moments of simulated one-on-one matchups, including a particularly entertaining sequence against Cleveland’s LeBron James which resulted in Bryant double-pumping before launching a long two-pointer that missed.
These were playful sequences, and any form of aggressive competition was completely absent — unlike Bryant’s first All-Star Game when he went at Michael Jordan for real back in 1998. But Kobe said things are very different for him now than they were for Michael back then, and explained why no one took a real shot at him in what was confirmed to be his final appearance.
"Michael was still Michael," Bryant said. "I mean it was ’98. I mean, he was that guy. I’m 20 years in and it’s different. These kids, they’re so many generations removed from that, that it’s not even about that anymore because they’ve literally grown up watching me since the age of 7. So it’s different than when I went at Michael."
There’s nothing to prove for the league’s youth against Kobe Bryant now, even though so many of them will tell you that Kobe was the Jordan of their generation. As Bryant reflected on what he’ll take away from interacting with the league’s current crop of stars one last time, he said it was the stories that younger players shared with him that ultimately will mean the most.
"I think it’s the stories of when they first came into the league and they were matching up against me," Bryant said. "And just kind of the little things — an elbow here or a steal here, and then wanting to earn my respect at an early age, right? Coming into the league, playing against me, wanting to prove to me that they were as competitive.
"When I hear those kind of stories, man, that makes me feel real good. Because over the years you’re competing against each other. Those aren’t stories you’re ever going to share with somebody that you’re competing against, right? But at this stage, it feels absolutely wonderful to hear these those things."