Lakers guard Kobe Bryant of the West protects the ball as Heat forward LeBron… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The NBA might no longer be his league, and this All-Star celebration never felt like his weekend, but at the last moment Sunday night, Kobe Bryant had something to say about all that.
Los Angeles is still his town, he screamed over the Rihanna's thump and Kanye's grind.
Staples Center is still his house, he hollered through the clatter of musicians and dancers and all those silly wearing-sunglasses-indoors celebrities.
Unburdened by reality or defense, fueled by the perception of diminishment, Bryant used the NBA's 60th All-Star game to remind everyone that those 60-year-old knees can still move, and that 60-watt snarl can still play.
For all those young NBA stars who showed up in neon shoes and smirks, Bryant showed that an aging Kobe can still be the old Kobe. For Clippers rookie Blake Griffin, whose Saturday night dunks left the basketball world speechless, Bryant had three special words.
Not so fast.
The future is Blake's, but the present still belongs to Kobe after Bryant's 37-point, 14-rebound effort led the West to a 148-143 victory that even turned a hip a Staples Center crowd into sentimental old fools.
They began the game by chanting for Griffin, but ended it standing and cheering for Bryant, who tied a league record with his fourth All-Star MVP award. They began the game talking about how Griffin had dunked over a car, but ended it cheering madly as Bryant drove the court like one, rolling over and around shrugging All-Stars as if he was in a different gear.
Said Bryant with a huge smile: "Being home, I wanted to come out and play hard, put on a good show."
Said Lakers teammate Pau Gasol with a shrug: "I don't know if he wanted to prove something, but he certainly was motivated."
Two minutes into the game, Bryant hit a fade-away bank shot over Dwyane Wade. A couple of minutes later, he drove past Wade for a reverse dunk. Moments after that, he picked Wade's pocket for one of this three steals.
By the time the first quarter had ended, he he'd scored a team-high 11 points, and his mission was clear.
"You could tell he started out from the start, he wanted to get the MVP," the New York Knicks' Amare Stoudemire said with a laugh. "He was not passing the ball at all . . . but that's Kobe."
This is a criticism I've often leveled against Bryant but, in this case, the cheap-shot, championship-free Stoudemire is wrong.
Bryant's 26 shots were only three more than teammate Kevin Durant took, and he made more than 50% of his shots, and if a guy can't be a gunner in an All-Star game in which he's working harder than anyone, well, then, when?
Before Sunday night, there was a real sense that Bryant needed this kind of game, if only to show himself that, at age 32, he can still carry a moment. Before Sunday night, his was basically a lost weekend, every corner filled with reminders that he is no longer the sort of star who can overpower even the Hollywood nights.
His journey began roughly on Thursday, when he was booed during Jerry West's statue ceremony because he sent along a video message instead of showing up in person like Gasol and former teammate Shaquille O'Neal did. Then Saturday night, Bryant's house was owned by Griffin and his leap into automotive history.
By the time Sunday staggered in, I swear, some folks might have been lost in the aura of Griffin and Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook and Miami's Big Three and forgotten Bryant was even on the All-Star team.
By the fourth quarter, everyone had remembered, even though the Ancient One staggered to the finish with one basket and three turnovers in the final period, playing more than 29 minutes, nearly as much as the two San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, combined.
"Those dunks took my legs out of it," he said after finishing five points short of Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star record of 42 points.
Critics, and usually I am one, will rip Bryant for playing so many minutes in a meaningless game. But in this case, it seems like those minutes will reenergize him for the second half of the season. Afterward, he was more relaxed and happy than he's been all season.
"It's a showcase for us to come out and perform and compete," he said. "I mean, this is fun."
Critics might also wonder why he can't always play like this for the struggling Lakers. The answer is that, these days, if he tries to dominate games like this, the Lakers usually lose.
The message here was nothing more complicated than this: In the waning part of his career, at the midway point of a wilting season, it was important for Bryant to let everyone know he's still standing. Especially himself.
And all this stuff about feeling overshadowed by the accomplishments of the younger guys?
In answering this question late Sunday night, not only was Bryant happy, he was humble.
"It's not about that for me at this point in my career," he said. "I've been there . . . it's very important for the game to continue to have young stars emerge. It's great for the league to get behind Blake and what he's doing."
Bryant paused for a rare bit of insight.
"You know, it's important for me to step aside," he said.
Just not any time soon, he shouted on a Sunday night when the hip-hop beat of basketball's showcase jam was drowned out by a golden oldie.