TORONTO — Kobe Bryant answered questions in Spanish and Italian, raved about Canadian hospitality, showed off knowledge of both Greek basketball and English soccer. He announced plans to go to the Philippines and Taiwan, thanked fans from Japan and even asked a reporter how to say a phrase in Mandarin.
It all made perfect sense.
The basketball world belongs to Bryant, at least for one more weekend.
About 750 million people around the globe are expected to follow tonight’s NBA All-Star Game in one form or another, and it’s a safe guess most will do so to keep a keen eye on Bryant’s final appearance in the league’s midseason showcase. His farewell season now officially starting to wind down, the Los Angeles Lakers’ star was the center of attraction at media day Friday — and seemed most appreciative.
“I just feel very blessed to be able to play so many years, man,” Bryant said. “Twenty years is a long time, so I feel very good about it.”
Bryant was the leading vote-getter in the fan balloting that chose the starting lineup for the game, a lifetime achievement award more than anything related to his play this season. At 37 years old, he’s obviously not the same player he was when he was helping the Lakers win five championships, though during the season he’s shown flashes of what made him one of the game’s all-time elite.
Bryant said he’d be fine playing 10 minutes.
Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant isn’t buying that one.
“We definitely want to send him off on a good note,” Durant said. “We know he’s going to be super competitive.”
It is a festive sendoff, for certain.
Dozens of media members staked out space around Bryant’s podium long before he started speaking Friday, though some just wanted to take selfies with him in the background. Bryant was a featured panelist at the NBA’s technology summit earlier in the morning to share ideas with league executives and others, and has his wife and their two daughters in Toronto so the whole family can bask in the celebrations.
“This is pretty cool,” Bryant said. “I’m looking around the room and I’m seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like 4 for my first All-Star Game. … How many players can say they played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations? It’s not sad at all. I’m really happy and honored to be here and see this.”
So were his All-Star peers.
Cleveland’s LeBron James still might be the best player in the world, Miami’s Dwyane Wade has more championship rings than any other All-Star this year besides Bryant, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are getting the hometown support and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry is the reigning MVP for a team that won last year’s title.
But they all know the spotlight is going to be on No. 24.
“I think it’s going to be special,” said James, who got Bryant’s sneakers autographed after the Lakers visited Cleveland earlier this week for his own trophy case. “Not only for myself, but for the fans here and for all of Kobe’s fans.”
And Bryant’s career-best 81-point game against the Raptors might be a sore subject in Toronto, but it still stands out to Curry as the quintessential Kobe moment.
“I’ve been hot before and made every shot I threw up there and got on a little streak in a game,” said Curry, the game’s premier sharpshooter. “But to score 81 points, so many things have to go right and the situation has to be just perfect for it and you have to have a special talent level like Kobe to do it.
“Just watching the game, it still doesn’t make sense. How did he do it?”
Bryant made the decision early this season that he would retire, then announced it weeks ago not because he wanted a farewell tour — he originally wasn’t keen on that idea, though has been moved by the tributes that have come as he’s visited NBA cities as an opponent for the last time — but because he wanted to start the process of moving on for both himself and the Lakers.
As far as All-Star selections, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more than Bryant’s 18.
“I know it will kind of be bittersweet for a lot of people, but it should be celebrated like it will be,” said Miami’s Chris Bosh, who was slated to play in the All-Star Game but withdrew Friday afternoon with a calf injury. “He’s the legal voting age in All-Star years. That’s crazy. His body of work is second to none. I think it’s good for him to have some sort of closure and he can move on.”