Posted Feb 21 2011 8:05AM
LOS ANGELES -- Who knows if this ends up being Kobe Bryant's last All-Star Game at home. At the current rate of these weekends being awarded to the Staples Center, he'll have to wait until 2018 for another.
Kobe would be six months shy of his 40th birthday if it's back in seven years -- Justin Bieber would be 23 -- and it's conceivable Bryant is still in the league and playing at an All-Star level.
But even he's not counting on it. So for this Sunday night before another packed arena and worldwide audience, he sipped again from the basketball fountain of youth. It just happened to be in the Western Conference locker room.
Being around the likes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and fellow hometown favorite Blake Griffin took Kobe back to a place we've seen all too often the last 15 years.
"Tonight was just about me being around young players," he said. "Westbrook ... you want to know the influence of Blake? Look at all the dunks I had tonight. Just being around the young players gave me so much energy to see them bouncing around and all that sort of stuff.
"Just reenergized me for the night, but the fourth quarter, man, I had nothing left. I exceeded my dunk quota for the game."
Bryant, 32, dunked enough of them to bring home a fourth All-Star Game MVP -- tying Hall-of-Famer Bob Pettit with the most awards in the showcase's 60-year history. The Lakers captain scored an All-Star career-high 37, as the West protected its turf by outrunning the East 148-143.
Kobe not only led all scorers and rebounders (14), he threw down the evening's best slams. A baseline number that began on one side of the rim and ended with two hands on the other flashbacked to Kobe circa 2004 -- the last time All-Star visited Staples. And he slipped one past a closing LeBron James on the second half breakaway that the two former league MVPs joked about after.
"He did what Kobe Bryant does every night and that's score the basketball," James said.
At no point in during the festivities did an engaged and attacking Bryant switch into exhibition mode. That's not his style, as a career All-Star scoring average of nearly 19 points suggests. He's said taking part in any All-Star Game is exciting, but there's a little more juice when it's in your building.
So he squeezed every last drop out of his 29 minutes knowing his responsibility to the fans that voted him a starter for the 13th time and how rare nights like this could be for the rest of his career. He scored 11 in the first quarter and 21 by halftime, and flirted with Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star record of 42 set in 1962.
"You can tell he wanted to get the MVP, he wasn't passing the ball at all," East forward Amar'e Stoudemire quipped. "That's Kobe."
That same Bryant turned reflective while playfully bantering with the media postgame. He admitted it's time to make way for the next generation of All-Stars.
"I had my time," Bryant said. "It's not about that for me at this point of my career. I've been there, you know what I mean. It's very important for the game to continue to have the young stars emerge."
Many of those stars have idolized Bryant for most of their lives.
"He's been here a long time, but he's still playing like he's 22 years old," said Durant, the defending league scoring champ and the All-Star Game's second-leading scorer with 34. "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."
Bryant not only tied Pettit for MVPs, he moved into fourth place on the all-time All-Star scoring list (244) by surpassing Elgin Baylor (218), Julius Erving (221) and Pettit (224). Michael Jordan (262), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (251) and Oscar Robertson (246) are the top three. Kobe could leapfrog them all and break the MVP tie with Pettit in Orlando next year.
It wasn't all warm fuzzies for Bryant this weekend. He spent part of it dealing with the latest round of "What's wrong with the Lakers?" questions. The two-time defending champs came into the break on a three-game losing streak -- "For us, three games is the equivalent of eight or nine," Kobe said -- and he's vowed to get things fixed.
"We look forward to it and we're up to the challenge," Bryant said.
On this night, though, some things did come easy. A missed free throw in the fourth quarter ricocheted all the way back to the foul line into his hands. Jumper good. Smile big. He was feeling young again.
Like the MVP.
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