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In a season of record-breaking achievements, Kobe nearly added another one to his résumé last night, coming within five points of tying Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time single-game All-Star scoring record of 42 points, set in 1962. Bryant’s final stat line of 29 minutes, 37 points (14-26 shooting), and 14 rebounds (10 offensive) was still plenty good enough to earn him his record-tying fourth All-Star Most Valuable Player award.
“It feels great, being at home here and playing in front of the home crowd,” said #24 after the game. “This will be my last All-Star game in front of these home fans, so it feels good to do it.”
For those of us watching at home or lucky enough to be inside of STAPLES Center, Bryant’s performance was a true sight to behold. After hanging around a noticeably light-hearted, jovial Kobe at practice all weekend, I’m not sure any of us really got the sense that we were going to witness the type of special display that we saw in the West’s 148-143 victory over the East All-Stars.
“I talked to him right before the game and I told him let’s go, and he’s one of those guys and he’s a lot like me—an ultimate competitor,” said Bryant’s fellow backcourt member Chris Paul. “I know the All-Star games are supposed to be fun and games, but at the end of the day, we want to win.”
No one wants to win more so than Kobe and it is that insatiable desire that continues to separate him from his peers, both past and present.
“You could tell he started out from the start, he wanted to get the MVP; he was not passing the ball, at all,” said East starter Amar’e Stoudemire. “But that’s Kobe.”
On paper, it sounds like the Knicks center is taking a jab at Kobe’s 26 field goal attempts (he made 14 of them, by the way). In the actual media room, Stoudemire’s tone was more one of reverence than disrespect. Truth be told, Amar’e has seen many a night like last night while going head-to-head for years against Bryant as a member of the Phoenix Suns. Other players like Kevin Durant — who up until a few years ago was watching Kobe on his TV screen — were left in awe.
“It was like playing in a playground,” said the Thunder star. “It was like a pick-up game almost. Just to watch it, I see it on TV all the time, I play against him all the time. But to be on his team and see the things that he was doing out there, is just amazing. As a young player like me, I grew up watching him, and to play alongside him is just an honor.”
Why any one of the media, fans or fellow players still wind up surprised when he puts on a show like he did last night remains one the NBA’s true unsolved mysteries, unless you’re West Coach Greg Popovic.
“He’s one hell of a player,” said Popovic, who’s been witness to countless games like last night from Kobe in the enduring Lakers vs. Spurs rivalry. “He’s Kobe. He does things like that. We shouldn’t be surprised.”
At this stage of his career, Kobe’s motor is more of a diesel engine than a shiny new electric one. Last night was just the latest reminder, though, that he still has enough juice to rev up the old car when he so chooses. After all, they don’t call him Mamba for nothing; Bryant perfected this play dead-and-strike act long ago.
“I joked with him today and called him the Old Fella,” said Durant, showing an admirable amount of deference for a player who is the league’s reigning scoring champ. “He’s been here a long time, but he’s still playing like he’s 22-years-old. You know, as a player, you only can hope and pray for a career like he’s had; a lot of championships, a lot of scoring titles. So it was an honor to play alongside a guy like that. So if he passes the torch on to me, I guess I know what to do with it.”
That day when Kobe will inevitably pass the proverbial torch to the likes of LeBron and Durant is indeed coming, but if his MVP performance is any indicator, they’re going to have to wait a while.