If the last All-Star Game held in Los Angeles in 2004 feels like like a lifetime ago, Kobe’s All-Star Game debut in 1998 seems nearly pre-historic by now. Long before Kobe-to-Shaq, a Most Valuable Player Award and five NBA Championships, there was a precocious skinny kid who went toe-to-toe with an aging icon — Michael Jordan. Fourteen seasons and 13 All-Star nods later, it’s Kobe who’s playing the part of NBA legend.
Even as the years go on and the talent pool in the NBA continues to widen, it’s #24 who still drew the largest crowd during today’s post-practice media session. By no coincidence, he’s also the one player that his All-Star peers look to more than anyone else.
“I remember Kobe’s first one; he was squared up against Jordan,” said first-time All-Star Kevin Love. “He had the 360 and then Kobe won the dunk competition in ’97. I remember all that stuff.”
As one of the babies of this year’s group, you can forgive Love if he’s still processing the sheer amount of talent surrounding him this weekend.
“I was talking to those guys in the locker room before we came out here that this is my first time and they’ve been out here like 13, 14 times,” said Love. “It’s unbelievable.”
One of those players is fellow big man Pau Gasol, who’s still in the middle of his All-Star journey, somewhere between Love and his Lakers teammate, Bryant.
“Those are guys I try to emulate and loved watching growing up, so being here with them, I just try to pick apart their game and hopefully get a closer look at them tomorrow,” Love said.
Doling out advice to rising stars like Love at All-Star Weekend is two-fold for players like Kobe and Pau, giving them a chance to reflect on their own All-Star history, too.
“Obviously, it’s a great compliment that the young guys try to emulate you and do the things you do out there—especially young talented players who have the potential to be terrific players,” said Gasol, whose first All-Star appearance in 2006 was soured due to an illness that forced him to miss most of the weekend’s activities.
“I was in bed the whole weekend,” Gasol said. “I missed practice, I missed everything, but I had to play no matter what. But I played—I played 13 to 14 minutes and I got like 12 boards or something. I didn’t score one point, but I had a good time. I told myself I had to give myself another chance to actually get to enjoy another All-Star game.”
Five years the wiser, Pau’s given himself plenty of additional chances, making it to three consecutive All-Star games, while joining Bryant on the list of regular All-Star veterans — an achievement not lost on the seven-footer.
“It’s a big opportunity to have this great party—this great basketball party—here at home with the locals. It’s really an honor,” said Gasol.
For the Lakers duo, there’s nothing jaded about this weekend. Even after back-to-back NBA titles and whispers from Father Time, Kobe and Pau will approach tomorrow’s All-Star game with every bit as much fire and anticipation as Kevin Love.
“This one’s a little bit more special,” said Bryant. “For a player to have an All-Star game in his home town twice is pretty cool.”