NBA ALL-STAR GAME
Bryant: "It's time for me to go"
The 37-year-old NBA legend is bowing out after Sunday's All-Star Game in Toronto: "I can't believe I'm still playing. I've had three major injuries."
Kobe Bryant makes his 18th and final NBA All-Star Game appearance Sunday in Toronto, with the Los Angeles Lakers legend surrounded by a new generation of playmakers he inspired to greatness.
The 37-year-old American, who last November announced he would retire after this season, was the top vote-getter with 1.9 million ballots from fans worldwide for the annual mid-season showdown between Eastern and Western conference talent. The East leads the all-time rivalry 37-27.
"It's time for me to go," Bryant said Friday. "Guys I'm playing with that are tearing up the league were like four for my first All-Star Game."
That's how old Bryant's West teammate Anthony Davis was when Kobe made his All-Star debut in 1998. Now Davis will be among those trying to make sure Bryant wins a record fifth NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player award, breaking the record Bryant now shares with 1950s icon Bob Petit.
"It's going to be crazy, a lot of [fans wearing Bryant's] number 24 jerseys," Davis said. "We'll try to get him the MVP."
Former Lakers teammate Shaquille O'Neal says he expects Bryant to go for an MVP performance.
"Knowing Kobe as well as I do, I'm sure if he gets going, the crowd is going to want it to happen and certain players are going to want it to happen," O'Neal said. "I can guarantee you he's going to go for the MVP. It's his last one. Why not go out with a bang?"
Bryant has scored a record 280 points in All-Star games. Only 19-time All-Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more appearances in the elite matchup.
The five-time NBA champion said his biggest regret was not having won titles in his two other finals appearances with the Lakers, losing to Detroit in 2004 and Boston in 2008.
"Those are the things that get to me still," Bryant said. "I wish I could have won the two that got away. Damn it. Those are tangible things I think I could have changed, adjusted from a leadership perspective."
Bryant, who played on the 2008 and 2012 US Olympic gold medal teams, struggled with injuries in recent seasons, including a torn Achilles tendon, left knee fracture and torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
"I can't believe I'm still playing," Bryant said. "I had three major injuries. I always belived I could come back but you never know."
Four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James, set to lead the East, was among the youth who dreamed to be like Bryant.
"Obviously with Kobe's generation, they paved the way for us," James said. "As a kid growing up, watching Kobe straight out of high school was something I admired. To go from that to be a competitor of his, to be going out there for his last All-Star Game, it's going to be a great thing."
Oklahoma City standout Russell Westbrook had the same feelings as he watched Bryant spark Lakers title runs from 2000-2002 and again in 2009-2010.
"Kobe means a lot to me," Westbrook said. "He inspired me a lot to be where I am today, on the same court in the same league as him."
Bryant's goodbye had 12-time All-Star and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade of Miami pondering his own farewell.
"You look at what's going on with Kobe, this superhero, this superhuman ride, is over," Wade said. "That's going to be all of us one day. I'm going to enjoy it while I'm here."
"It's going to be bittersweet," added retired NBA legend Charles Barkley. "Kobe has been one of the greatest players we've had in our lifetime, in NBA history. It has been an honour and privilege to watch him play."
Bryant's career-high 81 points in a 2006 victory over Toronto remains the second-highest one-game total in NBA history, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain's 100 in a 1962 contest.
That Bryant feat remains the best for reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry, who declared: "To score 81 points is just ridiculous."
Chris Paul summed it up simply: "We all don't realize how much he's going to be missed."
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