There was one presence at NBA All-Star Weekend that was missing from the West lineup and from the lineup of the league's greatest stars. He was there, but hardly himself and hardly what fans want to see him as — much less what he wants to see himself as.
Kobe Bryant was everywhere at All-Star Weekend except the court for the All-Star Game. Bryant is coming back from the torn Achille he suffered last season and the knee injury that knocked him out this season. It is looking more and more like Bryant will miss the rest of the season — leaving him playing just six games, the second time in his career playing less than 60 games in his illustrious career.
It has naturally raised questions that this is the end for the 17-year veteran.
Bryant held his own mini-press conference during All-Star Weekend, holding court as the veteran of veterans among the All Stars.
He admitted that his recovery from a knee injury is going slower than he would like but that he still expects to make a return to the court in time for this season. Bryant seems as determined as ever to complete that comeback.
But he is increasingly becoming more aware of his mortality too (h/t Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times):
That's part of the excitement of the challenge, that level of uncertainty. 'Is this it' 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 succumbing to that is part of the challenge.
The sense from that All-Star press conference was that Bryant wanted to remind everyone he still existed and was as driven as ever. But, at the same time, that he recognized his career was entering its twilight and that he seemed less bitter and more prepared for it than his other, equally driven, predecessors.
That does not mean Bryant is going to hang it up tomorrow or expect any less of himself. He plans to play out the very large two-year extension he just signed with the Lakers before evaluating his future options.
The end is near though and even an immortal like Bryant can admit that now.