LAS VEGAS – Kobe Bryant could see it: All around him, the superstar game was changing, the fresh generation of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James redefining the guidelines between greatness and the game. These kids had come along with inclinations to dominate the NBA by passing the ball as easily as scoring it.
Bryant was pushed over on the Rushmore of basketball superstars by two Madison Avenue darlings whose rapid ascensions came without the weight of Kobe's professional and personal baggage. And the way for him to nudge back had to come with a transformation far greater than a jersey change from No. 8 to No. 24.
Bryant had to take away the last, lingering criticism of his brilliant talent: His inner ball-hog had to die.
So Kobe comes to All-Star weekend with a legacy slowly, surely reshaping itself. He also comes to Vegas with his Los Angeles Lakers on a five-game losing streak, suffering two defeats twice within a week to LeBron and the Cavaliers.
Whatever happens on the court at the Thomas & Mack Center on Sunday night, it will be fascinating to discover which Kobe returns from the break. Does he stay true to his season-long mantra of trusting, or does the losing cause him to regress, trust less in the likes of Lamar Odom, Smush Parker and Andrew Bynum and start chucking shots again?
As much as anything with the arrival of James and Wade, the basketball public started to expect something else out of its stars: selflessness. Few players are as sensitive to the public perception as Bryant, and he responded accordingly. These were the steps Michael Jordan made with the Chicago Bulls in the 1980s, except for one monumental difference: Jordan had to learn to trust more and shoot less to become a champion in the 90's.
"He's made a big change this year, taking on a leadership role and being much more positive with his teammates," said Hornets coach Byron Scott, who, in his final season as a player (Bryant's rookie year), played a part in mentoring the prep-to-the-pros prodigy.
"He's much more willing to give them the ball, trust and have faith in them. It's made him a better player. Nobody's talking about him as an MVP candidate, but he should be right there with anyone."
Pound for pound, Bryant is still the most talented player in the game. In a lot of ways, he's still the best. That he has decided to completely immerse himself in Phil Jackson's system, started uplifting and encouraging teammates as easily as he once scolded them, has ripples far beyond the sport itself. He is still one of the elite few players who can set the agenda in the sport, from peers to pip-squeaks.
"Absolutely, it is a sport of imitation," said Bob Hurley, the coach of St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J., "and when the great ones do certain things, every kid is going to try to do it, too.
"He's done a great service to the entire sport simply by making that statement that he's playing a different way. What players like Kobe emphasize to them is what they're going to pick up on and emulate."
So much of the show on the Strip will be about Bryant. He is No. 24 now, the new Kobe, but there is still the business of the Lakers' losing (11 of their last 15) awaiting him next week. Now, we'll get to see how transformed he truly is, how much staying power he has over on the selfless side of the game.
Bryant has never had much patience in the sport, never had much trust, but he needs it all now.