LOS ANGELES – The Staples Center had begun to empty as Kobe Bryant(notes) reached down and unlaced his shoes at midcourt. Seven years ago, he’d have hardly broken a sweat after playing 30 minutes in an All-Star Game. Now? His feet ached. Bryant had received his MVP trophy, accepted congratulations from the commissioner, listened to the roar of his home fans and, yes, he was tired.
“I’m exhausted,” Bryant said in a quiet moment on the court. “Three dunks took it out of me. I reached my dunk quota.”
Thirty-two years old and in his 15th season, Kobe still takes these nights seriously. He’d scored 37 points and led the West past the East to walk away with his fourth All-Star MVP award, matching Bob Pettit for the most ever. This wasn’t a carefree pick-up game, as it often is for most of his peers. This was work.
All-Star weekend had come to Bryant’s town, and for most of the three days all the talk centered on whether Carmelo Anthony(notes) would wind up in New York or New Jersey. Blake Griffin(notes), the electrifying young rookie for the Los Angeles Clippers, had captured the NBA’s imagination by vaulting over a car to win the dunk contest.
Kobe? He and his Los Angeles Lakers stumbled into the weekend on the heels of one of their most embarrassing losses in years.
Yet from the moment the ball went up for the opening tip, Bryant let everyone know he wasn’t going to fade quietly into the evening in the building in which he’s won five championships. He stunned his fellow All-Stars – a handful of whom are more than a decade younger than him – by leaping to the opposite side of the rim for a two-handed jam.
“Just being around so many young players gave me so much energy to see them bouncing around and all that sort of stuff,” Bryant said. “It just re-energized me for the night.”
The game included some of the NBA’s best dunkers in Griffin, LeBron James(notes), Dwight Howard(notes) and Russell Westbrook(notes). But Bryant threw down the dunk of the night, flushing it with two hands just in front of James on a fast-break.
“That was funny, actually, because I saw it coming and I wanted to see if I could avoid the LeBron chase-down,” said Bryant, who patted James on the rear after the dunk. “But I told him afterwards if I tried to go over the rim, like get up, he probably would have blocked it with his armpit. So I just tried to be quick and just tried to time it up just the right way and I managed to do it. I kind of snuck it on him.”
The West was ahead comfortably entering the fourth quarter with Bryant having already scored 34 points, putting him within reach of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star record of 42. Bryant knew he had a chance to break it, but he didn’t have anything left in his legs. LeBron could have stolen the game – and the MVP – were it not for some clutch shooting by Kevin Durant(notes).
“I joked with him today and called him the ‘Old Fella,’ ” Durant said. “He’s been here a long time, but he’s still playing like he’s 22 years old.”
The Lakers will need more of the same from Bryant when they return from the break with a three-game losing streak. They finish the month with challenging games against the Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We are looking forward to it,” Bryant said. “We are up for the challenge. Pau [Gasol] and I have been talking the whole time about looking forward to it and getting back at it. We have been in communication with the rest of the fellas, and we all can’t wait to get started.”
Bryant said he knows the future of the league was represented on the court. And knows it’s only a matter of time before Los Angeles belongs to Griffin.
“I’ve been there. You know what I mean? I had my time,” he said. “It’s very important for the game to continue to have young stars emerge. It’s great for the league to get behind Blake and what he’s doing. It’s important for me to step aside. I’ve had that.
“It’s about me coming out and performing and staying healthy and doing the right things after 15 years. But it’s about them at this point.”
Not on this night.