From the moment the fans began to trickle into Toronto's Air Canada Centre, it became clear that the NBA All-Star Game was going to be about one man, and one man only. With all due respect to Sting, the Cirque Du Soleil performers, and the rest of the All-Star players, that man was Kobe Bean Bryant.
The Los Angeles Lakers star, who is retiring at the end of the season, spent his final All-Star appearance in Toronto this past weekend. And while his recent on-court exploits have been subpar to say the least, there's no doubting where he stands amongst fans.
With 1,891,614 votes, Bryant managed to hold off reigning MVP Stephen Curry to finish as the top All Star vote-getter. That fan sentiment manifested itself throughout the entire weekend. Whether you were at the Rising Stars Challenge, the All-Star practice, or the All-Star Game itself, there were tons of Kobe Bryant Lakers jerseys at every event. Hell, even Drake was wearing a custom jacket honouring Bryant.
The NBA saved Bryant for last when introducing the players, and the music subtly changed from Drake and Future's "Jumpman" to Drake's "Trophies" to honour the guy with five NBA championships. A short speech from Magic Johnson and a couple of video tributes followed, as both teams stood on the court to honour Bryant.
"It's all well deserved. Man, I'm happy that I've been along for a small piece of the ride of his journey," said Cavaliers star LeBron James. "To have an opportunity to be able to make a contribution to the Jumbotron, to the video, that meant a lot for me."
"Kobe Bryant has blessed us with 20 unbelievable years," said Johnson, as he addressed the crowd. Within seconds an electric "Kobe" chant erupted around the arena.
Early on in the game, it felt like fans were trying to will Bryant to the MVP award. Sections of the crowd cried "shoot" when he received the ball, and there was a widespread sigh that went around the arena when he would miss a shot or turn the ball over. That was most evident in the second half when he posted up Dwyane Wade and ended up airballing a sky hook.
Pretty much any time his name was announced Sunday, the crowd went crazy.
"I had a blast playing with those guys, laughing and joking with them on the bench," said Bryant. "And, you know, I got a chance to stop Pau [Gasol] in a post, redeem myself from what he did to me when Chicago came to town."
With 1:06 left in the game, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich substituted Bryant so that he could get one last standing ovation. He beat his chest, clapped for the fans, and took his place on the bench, finishing with 10 points.
"To see him now, it's like the passing of a generation. He's been such an iconic figure for so long, and he passes it on to that other group of young guys that you saw out there tonight. So I'm just thrilled that I was able to be here and see that," said Popovich.
Much has been written about All-Star voting reform, and whether the NBA needs to put more checks and balances into how much power fans have to pick the starting lineups. Did Kobe "deserve" to start the All-Star Game? It's a debatable, opinion-based question and your response depends on personal factors.
What isn't debatable, however, is the electricity that greeted Bryant wherever he went. His area at every media availability was the most packed, and other than the hometown Raptors, it seemed as if his jersey was definitely the most popular.
You can bet that the legion of fans decked out in purple and gold didn't care about whether or not their favourite player "deserved" to be there. They were just happy to cheer for him as he put on the Western Conference All-Star uniform for the last time. And damn, did they cheer.