The NBA’s All-Star game lands in Toronto this year and looks set to be a celebration of the legend that is Kobe Bryant. Having announced his decision to retire at the end of the season, this will be the last chance we get to see the Black Mamba represent the Western Conference.
With an astonishing 1,891,614 fans selecting him for the game, Kobe led all players in voting. This is a huge sign of respect from the fans and marks Bryant’s 18th appearance in the game. What better time than now to look back at his first All-Star game appearance, and how he got there, way back in 1998?
Selected with the 13th pick of the 1996 Draft by the Charlotte Hornets, the 17-year-old immediately made history, becoming the first Guard to jump from high school to the NBA. His 6-6 frame and athleticism immediately drew comparisons to Michael Jordan and, fresh from leading Lower Merion High School to a State title, expectations were high for the youngster.
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Shortly after being drafted, the Hornets traded Bryant to the LA Lakers. Kobe’s rookie season was solid, but not the explosive arrival some had hoped for. Opportunities were sparse as he came off the bench behind Eddie Jones and averaged 7.6 points, with a season-high of 24.
Along the way he excited fans with his play, won the 1997 Dunk contest and was named to the All-Rookie Second Team - Kobe’s celebrity was rapidly ascending.
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In only his second season, the spritely 19-year-old set another record as he became the youngest All-Star in NBA history. Amazingly, Kobe still wasn’t a starter for the Lakers at this point. Still, the young Buck had shown enough potential in his short time in the league for fans to vote him in alongside Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, Gary Payton and his Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal.
The game itself was billed as the passing of the torch from Michael Jordan to Kobe. The consensus amongst fans and media was that MJ - just shy of his 35th birthday - would retire after this, his 13th NBA season. So the stage was set – and what a stage it was; New York’s Madison Square Garden.
At the time, Kobe said “It means the world to me, playing here in New York City with all these great basketball players. It’s an incredible feeling and I’m glad it’s finally arrived”.
Bryant didn’t run from the spotlight in front of the capacity crowd, matching up with Jordan regularly. Though the older star would get the better off him, Kobe’s refusal to back down forecast his tenacity and infamously insatiable drive to win.
When asked at half-time, about facing off against the league’s number one star, Kobe - with a wide-eyed grin - stated: “I’m just having fun, having a good time, but Michael’s a great player, one of the best players of all time and what better way to learn the game than by going at him?”
Bryant’s entire offensive repertoire was on display; threes, a 360 dunk, a huge alley-oop finish, a put-back dunk and an amazing round the back dribble running hook shot. KB8 - as he was known - finished as the West’s top scorer, pouring in 18 points in his 22 minutes on court.
Kobe was the in the running for MVP but ultimately lost out to Jordan. When asked about Bryant’s potential to become the league’s brightest star, Jordan, hinting that he was not prepared to relinquish the title yet and that there was more to being the best than publicity, said: “It’s ok to talk about it, but it’s not something you give away. It’s something that the player is going to have to go out there and earn. Kobe is a candidate, but he’s got to let his game define his existence. Not just the hype and commercials and everything else.”
Kobe certainly let his game define his existence. His first All-Star game was a key component to his ascension to the status as one of the greatest players ever. A sure fire Hall of Famer – this year’s All-Star showcase is a great chance to salute a league MVP, two-time Finals MVP, four-time All-Star MVP and five-time NBA champion on a global stage.
Thank you, Kobe.