Bryant soaks up warm farewell from frigid outpost
By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - A frigid Sunday night in winter-locked Canada may be the perfect place for a hockey player to take a bow, but for Kobe Bryant the NBA's most northern outpost would seem an odd setting to wave farewell.
The NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, the first ever held outside the United States, will not represent Bryant's last goodbye - that will come on April 13 back home in sunny Los Angeles in the Lakers' regular season finale against the Utah Jazz.
But the Toronto All-Star stage will certainly provide the 37-year-old basketball icon, who announced in December that this his 20th NBA season would be his last, the chance to give his legion of fans one last global hug.
The game will be available in 215 countries and territories with access in 49 languages on their televisions, computers, mobile phones and tablets.
Reporters from across North America along with 336 international media outlets from 40 countries have made the trip to Toronto while 17 international television and radio networks including China, Japan and France will carry Sunday's showcase live.
And most of the attention will be focused on Bryant's All-Star farewell.
"It should be more of a celebration about what he's given to the game and all his accomplishments," said Chicago Bulls Spanish center Pau Gasol, a team mate of Bryant's for seven seasons in Los Angeles.
"That's why I wanted to be a part of it. It's going to be emotional for me to see him. I hope he enjoys it.
"It's always fun to see him and to share this moment with him, this last dance with him."
For a telling picture of the impact 18-time All-Star Bryant has had on the sport's global growth you only need a snapshot of Friday's media day where half of 150-plus media engulfing his podium were from China, Japan and other countries that had little or no interest in the NBA when Bryant broke into the league as a high school phenomenon in 1996.
This was a full blown Kobe love-in complete with giggling, gifts and questions cloaked in gushing praise.
A relaxed Bryant appeared eager to soak up every moment of his All-Star swan song, smiling and answering as many questions in Spanish and Italian as English.
Fiercely competitive, Bryant, who once scorched the Toronto Raptors for 81 points, admitted it is not in his nature to pull punches when on the court but added he was not looking to put an exclamation mark on his All-Star career, at peace with his decision to retire.
"I'm looking around the room and seeing guys that I'm playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game," said Bryant.
"How many players can say they've played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It's not sad at all.
"I'm really just enjoying this whole thing, being around these players and talking to them one more time, going out and practicing and enjoying that moment in the game and enjoying that moment."
Like any roller coaster, Bryant's career has been a ride with plenty of ups and downs.
There were sexual assault charges that were settled out of court, his friendship and feud with Shaquille O'Neal and injuries that interrupted the final years of his career.
But his body of work on the court, which includes five NBA championships, scoring titles and a league most valuable player award, has cemented his place among the pantheon of NBA greats.
"It's easier said than done, because I think we all have dreams," offered Bryant in a reflective moment. "But once you go through the process of trying to make those dreams a reality, you hit obstacles.
"I think unfortunately because of pressure or anxiety or responsibilities, things, whatever, you kind of give up on those dreams and somewhere along the line you lose that imagination.
"I think it's important that you never lose that.
"That's the most important thing. I never gave up my dream."
(Editing by Larry Fine)