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, actually. The way his daughters beamed 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, which he enjoyed tremendously.
But the quintessential one to Bryant came in the wee hours of 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 told The Associated Press on Sunday night after scoring 10 points in his last All-Star appearance, a 196-173 win for the West over the East. “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. It just felt good.”
They gave him some silly gifts. They 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 to be tied into it somehow.
So after All-Star Saturday festivities ended, the group headed out to the party that mattered most to them. Dinner was a fish dish, and it wasn’t served until after 2 a.m. The wine and spirits were flowing long before that, and for a little while afterward as well. By the time everything had wound down, sunrise wasn’t far away.
But to those who were there, it was most memorable.
“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. He’s never been the sort that needs tons of friends, and his competitive juices sometimes kept him from allowing himself to get close with too many people. But now that his career is winding down, many close to Bryant are seeing some changes.
He has thoroughly enjoyed the tributes he’s received in every city the Lakers have visited since his retirement announcement. He made his peace long ago with Los Angeles not being in position right now to compete for the postseason.
“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.”
Wade gave him a customized robe and some other clothes bearing his logo – along with a one-year subscription to Netflix, because Bryant is about to have a lot of time on his hands. Paul gave him a bunch of presents that he said would properly prepare Bryant for retirement, such as dental adhesive, reading glasses, compression socks and a cane. Anthony offered a magnum of Gaja Barbaresco, Italian wine for the player who grew up in Italy and says much like vino itself he got better with age.
But there was also a serious tone, as 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.”
He can start sleeping soon, if he isn’t already.
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.”