Kobe Bryant soaks up final All-Star appearance

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TORONTO — With about a minute left in the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant out of the All-Star Game for the final time with 10 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists in 25 minutes. He received a standing ovation from the crowd and hugged every player on both teams.

It was the culmination of a night that started with an extended tribute to the 18-time All-Star and third all-time leading scorer, who announced in November that he’s retiring at the end of the season. For Bryant, it was all about reflecting on his career and enjoying the moment.

“It was fun,” Bryant said in his postgame press conference. “I had a blast playing with those guys, laughing and joking with them on the bench. And, you know, I got a chance to stop Pau [Gasol] in a post, redeem myself from what he did to me when Chicago came to town. But all those things are just fun. I had a great time. I had a great, great time.”

All weekend, players shared stories about what Bryant meant to them and to the game. An environment like All-Star Weekend is the perfect venue for such reflections, because the game itself is an exhibition and the entire event is a show for the fans, above all else.

Bryant enjoyed the adulation he received from the younger players in the game.

“Well, I think it’s the stories of when they first came into the league and they were matching up against me,” Bryant said. “Just kind of the little things that — an elbow here or a steal here, and then wanting to earn my respect at an early age, right? Coming into the league, playing against me, wanting to prove to me that they were as competitive. When I hear those kind of stories, man, that makes me feel real good. Because over the years you’re competing against each other. Those aren’t stories you’re ever going to share with somebody that you’re competing against, right. But at this stage, it feels absolutely wonderful to hear these those things.”

Now, with this joyous weekend out of the way, Bryant will go back to a miserable Lakers season that will see his team out of the playoffs for the third year in a row with one of the worst records in the NBA. It’s not an ideal situation for him to end his career, but he’s making the best of it.

“You try to make the second half better than the first,” he said. “And you try to forget about what happened the first half of the season in a sense of what our record is, and take this break to come in and feel like you have a clean slate, right? Mentally approach it as you’re 0-0, and see if we can’t get better. Because as the season progresses and season ends, you want to feel like free agents and other players around the league are looking at the Lakers roster and saying they have some talent and they have some potential. So that’s what we want to try to do.”

For the final two months of the season, Bryant will continue to make the rounds in his farewell tour, ensuring that even the meaningless games of a lottery team will have some special meaning for him. But for now, his final All-Star Weekend was a tremendous tribute to his greatness.