NEW ORLEANS -- Kobe Bryant was here, and yet he wasn't. His injury kept him out of the All-Star Game and he was a low-key presence throughout the weekend as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and the rising class of younger players took center stage.
When he did appear for a press conference before the start of the game, he was his usual polished self, answering a question in Italian and working the room that was overflowing with international press as a global ambassador. He's a superstar emeritus now and while he was poised as always, there was also an air of caution to his answers.
"It's coming slowly," he said about his rehab. "I'm optimistic coming out of the break that I will have some improvements once I get back to L.A., and do a couple of follow-ups and then go from there. But it's been a slow process."
There were no guarantees from Kobe, no bold declarations that he would be back to his dominant self. When asked if he thought he would be back as an All-Star next year, he said, "I hope so." When asked if he thought he would be back this season at all, he refused to be definitive. "Well, I just stick to the script."
In his most telling exchange, Bryant acknowledged that there was concern that his bionic body might finally be working against him.
"Of course. Absolutely," he said. "That's part of the excitement of the challenge, that level of uncertainty. Is this the sort of thing, are my best days behind me sort of thing? And to have those conversations with yourself and not be intimidated by that, and not be -- not succumbing to that -- is part of the challenge. It's really the biggest challenge, is saying, well, maybe this is the end, but then again, maybe it's not. And it is my responsibility to do all that I can to make sure that it's not. So that's really become the biggest challenge."
What Kobe has always thirsted for is the competition, the chance to go up against the best and to prove that his will is stronger than theirs. It was always personal for Kobe, whether it was against Allen Iverson and Ray Allen or in his existential battles with Shaquille O'Neal for control of his own team.
But Kobe was always a singular entity, and his most important competitions were with entire organizations like the Spurs and Celtics. For all the great players he competed with over the years, there was never a Bird to his Magic or even a Durant to his LeBron. There was never even a generational conflict with James, since that dream Finals never materialized. When the most recent iteration of Kobe's Lakers were done competing for championships, James and the Heat took their game to another level.
There may yet be a fulfilling coda to his career. The Lakers will have tons of cap space and the allure of one of the most desirable locations in sports to go with a potential lottery pick. Kobe expressed confidence that the organization would do what it's always done and find a way to retool on the fly. That may no longer be possible in today's NBA, but that's not much of a concern for him.
"We have had summers like this," Bryant said. "They have never really faltered. They have normally made really sound and excellent decisions that put us right back in contention. So I think this offseason is right in their wheelhouse."
As to whether his demanding personality might actually be a hindrance in that quest, we got the one instance of Bryant's assuredness.
"I'm a difficult person to deal with," he said. "For people who don't have the same kind of competitiveness or commitment to winning, then I become an absolute pain in the neck. Because I'm going to drag you into the gym every single day. If you need to be drug in, that's what I'm going to do. And for players that have that level of commitment, very, very, easy. And we can wind up enhancing the entire group and elevating them to that type of level. But if we don't have that commitment, man, I'll absolutely be very, very tough to get along with. No question about it."
That's always been his best quality, and his most controversial. It was the right approach with Pau Gasol and it led him to his greatest triumphs. It also cost the Lakers a chance at rebuilding around Dwight Howard. It'll be Kobe's way or it will be no way at all.
But we are far closer to the end than the beginning of something new. When someone actually broached the issue of retirement, Kobe gave a clue about his mindset.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm not ‑‑ you know, personality, my personality is ‑‑ I don't really want the rocking chair before the game. It would drive me crazy. But I'll probably just pop up and just vanish."
It's difficult to imagine the NBA without Kobe, just as it was impossible to imagine a league without Michael Jordan. But we got a glimpse of that reality during this All-Star Game that served as the bridge between the league's past and present. It was an oddly pleasant experience, with New Orleans offering the perfect antidote to the antiseptic nature of these events. Even the ridiculously convoluted dunk contest was redeemed by a flash of brilliance from John Wall.
As for the game, it was competitive enough in the final moments to keep us coming back for more. The Durant-LeBron duel never really emerged, but everyone put on a good show and young Kyrie Irving took home the MVP, giving him the chance to begin making up for what has been a dreary season in Cleveland. The league will go on as it always does.
Even against the backdrop of its signature star grappling with his own mortality.