TORONTO – Kobe Bryant was walking for the All-Star Game door on Sunday night, his wife and daughters bundled for the coldest night of a Canadian winter. His ferocity has flickered out, replaced with reflection. At All-Star weekend, the NBA's biggest stars hadn't come to beat Bryant, but treat him like a monument. Never again does Bryant get to be surrounded with such greatness, never again surrounded with context to his career. Kobe Bryant is rounding third and headed for home. Yes, his wife and girls were walking for the door with him.
"It hasn't hit home yet," Bryant told The Vertical. "I'm not going through this and thinking, 'Oh, it's coming to an end.' I'm enjoying it moment by moment. And it feels damn good to be able to experience it."
As Bryant and his family awaited the elevator to bring them downstairs, he hesitated and said, "I mean, it feels damn good to just be playing still. … To just be playing."
This is your life, Kobe Bryant. This was your goodbye. That's how All-Star weekend had played itself out, how the relentlessness of Bryant's 20 years had been honored. For all these years, Bryant never felt terribly compelled to gift the most intimate details of his craft. He gassed himself to understand the nuances of it all, and never, ever wanted to cost himself a competitive advantage. Bryant didn't want only to win, but destroy you, too. The force of his will was nothing short of predatory.
Everything has changed now. Bryant has let go. He's let go of it all. The competition is gone, and Bryant is shaping his legacy. He isn't chasing championships, nor playoffs, nor competitive genius. At times this season, he has traveled the NBA and had his opponents searching out informal sessions of wisdom. There were times that rival players were uneasy about approaching Bryant, uneasy with what could be a most uninviting vibe.
Now, Bryant stood inside a third-floor corridor at the Air Canada Centre and embraced everything. The All-Star game MVP, Russell Westbrook, marched past Bryant clutching his trophy. He had grown up in Southern California, and told The Vertical that as a kid he had "gone to the Lakers' championship parades to see Kobe." Indiana's Paul George had 41 points for the East, and nothing made him feel better lying in that hospital bed 18 months ago than Bryant reaching out, encouraging him to fight his way back.
Across his final season, Bryant has torn down the walls and let everyone close to him. Across this All-Star weekend, the NBA's best players found themselves making personal, private pilgrimages to him.
"It feels like I'm passing on all the knowledge that I've gained in this game," Bryant told The Vertical. "These kids, they grew up watching me. They were my daughter Gianna's age  when they started to watch me play. When we talk now, they're asking me questions about things that they've watched and observed from my career. They want deeper insight. For me, it's been really, really interesting. That's part of the weekend that I most enjoyed – more than everything else. Just sitting down and talking to the guys individually. Steph. Kawhi. Draymond. These guys, they were just picking my brain and that's … that's … special."
Bryant has found himself most gratified over the impact that these final months have had on his two girls. Gianna and Natalia (13) have watched him awake at 4 a.m. and go work on his craft. The girls have watched him resolve to return from devastating injuries, and get his body, his mind, right again. These have been the most important lessons, the value that has transcended the Lakers' losing and a personal game that's eroded with time.
"This all teaches them the value of hard work," Bryant told The Vertical. "It teaches them dedication. That's something that I try to instill in them. For them to be able to see all the years that I've been training, and see what's happening now – see the fans' reaction – that's the connection I want them to make. As parents, we want them to see the results of hard work and dedication. That's what I feel proud about now."
Soon, the elevator doors opened, and the Bryants walked through and hit a button for the ground floor. Together, the Bryants were leaving the All-Star Game, leaving behind the NBA's biggest stars and a legacy that goes on and on and on. The fight is over, and there are 27 Lakers games left for him. No more surround sound of big noise and big stages, no more lights like the All-Star Game.
The end? Kobe Bryant doesn't feel that so much yet – "It hasn't hit," he said – but Sunday night represented one of the immense goodbyes on this journey. Kobe Bryant is rounding third and – and finally, finally – he's headed for home.