Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Sports

Accolades from rivals mean most

TORONTO — The moment Kobe Bryant will savor most from his final All-Star weekend was one the world never saw.

There were plenty of highlights to cherish. His daughters beaming when they got to meet and take a picture with Stephen Curry after the game. A conversation with Michael Jordan. Getting sought out by Magic Johnson for a talk about legacy. Private chats with teammates in the locker room.

But the quintessential one to Bryant came early Sunday morning inside a rented-out restaurant, where he was the guest of honor at a celebration arranged by Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade.

Bryant was publicly serenaded all weekend, and having 20,000 fans chant his name left him beaming. Having three longtime rivals quietly pay tribute meant even more.

"It was really special," Bryant said after scoring 10 points for the West in his last All-Star appearance. "Those are the things you don't get a chance to hear when you're competing against each other. To hear those stories now, you have such a deep sense of appreciation and such a brotherhood from all the years of competing against each other."

They gave him some silly gifts. that poked fun at his age, and presented him with a giant bottle of wine, a 1996 vintage in a nod to his rookie season. And they told Bryant what he meant to their lives.

The dinner was secret, super-exclusive, invitation-only. It's something the trio started doing last season at All-Star weekend, calling the gathering the Gentleman's Supper Club. This year, the group wanted Bryant tied into it.

Dinner was a fish dish, served after 2 a.m. The wine and spirits were flowing long before that, and afterward as well. By the time everything had wound down, sunrise wasn't far away.

"Respect," Wade said. "That's what it was. It was about respect, ours for him and the respect he's given us. I just wanted to tell him that his respect meant a lot, means a lot, to my career. I went down a list of moments, gave people insight on Kobe and the way he thinks. It was just appreciation, man. His drive, his competitiveness, it helped me early in my career because I wanted to be on his level."

Bryant hasn't always had the tightest relationships with NBA peers. But now that his career is winding down, many close to Bryant are seeing some changes.

"This is amazing," Bryant said at the restaurant, glass in hand. "I'm not the most social person, so to get this from you guys means absolutely everything to me."

Bryant nodded during his speech toward his wife, Vanessa.

"The thing that I'll miss is matching up with you guys," Bryant told Wade, Anthony and Paul. "Vanessa will tell you: I'll be in the bed for hours — hours, man — not sleeping, watching film on you guys because you are driving me (expletive) crazy."

The last All-Star Game is in the books. The NBA journey is almost over. He may have participated in his last practice on Saturday. The legendary ride has 27 games left, at the most. And before he left Toronto for a quick family vacation before the season resumes later this week, Bryant took one final moment to reflect.

"It has hit me," Bryant said. "I feel very thankful. I feel very thankful. It's not an exciting thing. It's not a sad thing. It's just, I feel very thankful to be able to have had the career I've had."

AROUND THE LEAGUE: The All-Star Game averaged 7.6 million viewers, up 6 percent over 2015, according to Nielsen's ratings. There was a peak audience of 8.7 million for a 15-minute segment from 8:45-9 p.m. … Former All-Star Tracy McGrady joined ESPN as an analyst and will appear on its new daily NBA show, The Jump, that debuts Thursday.

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