The scrum surrounding the table Kobe Bryant would speak at was six or seven people deep, a giant semi-circle engulfing two speakers to amplify the Mamba, and that was 15 minutes in advance of the superstar actually sitting down. It was no surprise. As long as we have been talking about All-Star Weekend coming to Toronto, and for however many local stories will pop out of the event itself—are the Raptors a free-agent destination now? Is this another signal of Canada's growth on the basketball stage? Where's Drake?—there is no competition for the main league-wide focus of the next few days.
"Kobe, this is his weekend," said Heat forward Chris Bosh. "I know he probably would never say that or admit that, but, yeah, he's one of… the greatest iconic players this league has ever had."
Here's the thing about Kobe, though: If you could have paradoxically put his younger brain into his current body, he totally would have admitted that. He was never shy about his place in the league; his ambition was so naked that it was frequently off-putting. That is why Bryant's post-retirement-announcement act, with him trading death stares and frank assessments of his opponents' (or teammates') weaknesses for perspective and eulogizing, has seen at odds with himself. Where is the defiance?
Perhaps it is something Bryant has had to accept. With his current level of play, he just cannot control much on the court anymore, which means he loses his power to boast and critique. He is still here, though—a fact that he expressed amazement at on multiple occasions during his 24-minute time at the podium—which means he can control the crowd. Because from his first season until now, his 20th in the league, Bryant has always drawn a crowd. The fans voted him in overwhelmingly, wanting a curtain call despite his forgettable final act.
So, after leaving the throng waiting, he finally emerged… and walked right past his seat, out of the giant ballroom in the Sheraton Centre where media availability was being held. "You guys gotta wait," Bryant mumbled, only audible to a small handful of reporters. "At this age, I can't hold my pee in."
After Bryant presumably urinated—this has not been confirmed by multiple sources—he returned to the ballroom, and sat at a table far away from the media contingent waiting for him. First there was panic, and then there was the start of a stampede, right before Bryant was pointed back to his proper perch.
Between talk of his less-resilient bladder and his admiration for today's young stars, Bryant is highlighting his age a lot these days. That is what you do when you are retiring and are on a team with nothing to play for. That the All-Star Game might be the most important contest Bryant plays for the rest of the season says all you need to know about the Lakers.
Still, Bryant seems to be revelling in the role of elder statesman. He answered questions in Italian and Spanish, and responded to inquiries about the state of basketball in Japan (he received a piece of manga art with him as a Samurai), Taiwan and India. He was asked if he knew a word in Arabic, and when he replied that he didn't, he was given the word for "thank you." (Like a good veteran, Bryant asked what it meant before he said it aloud.) He was asked if he could name three Canadians. He named four, adding actress Rachel McAdams at the end, drawing a bizarre bit of applause from a section of credentialed reporters.
And Bryant smiled through it all, even though he said he would not miss this part of the weekend next year, adding that he could not tell a lie. There was no bristling, no huffing about the absurdity of the scene. Reporters wanted him to be an ambassador and reflective all at once, and Bryant obliged, like he has been doing during his entire retirement tour.
It is a marked change from the sociopathic tendencies that defined him. This was a guy that even took the All-Star Game seriously.
"It was always a chance to prove something against the Vince Carters of the world, the (Allen Iversons) of the world, the (Tracy) McGradys of the world," Bryant said. "It was a great chance to go out there and showcase."
Now? Bryant said he would be content with 10 minutes of playing time on Sunday. Another old joke.
"I've never been one to really pull punches," he said. "I'm just enjoying this whole thing—being around these players and talking to them one more time, going out and practising and enjoying that moment, and then the game and enjoying that moment. The competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something, or prove something—that's gone. That's gone."
Without that, then, what is left? Without the defiance, what is Bryant except his own biographer?