Unless he doesn't want to.
According to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, Bryant told reporters prior to Thursday night's contest between the Lakers and Miami Heat that he intendeds to sit out this year's festivities:
Now, this doesn't come as a major shock after Bryant implored fans to vote for the league's rising stars—namely Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard—in his place, but apparently the Black Mamba's loyal followers did not heed his words.
However, according to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, there remains a chance that Bryant will be coaxed into suiting up if he does return prior to Feb. 16.
But even if the league does thrust Bryant into action, ESPN's Dave McMenamin reports that the future Hall of Famer will step aside and let his fellow honorees see extended minutes in his stead after a brief appearance:
At this point it's abundantly clear that Bryant would like to skip out on the festivities and avoid stealing the thunder of more deserving players, which is a classy and respectful move. He said as much in an interview during the second quarter of Thursday night's broadcast on TNT:
I’m very thrilled about it, about being voted in. It’s a tremendous honor. At the same time, the love and admiration that I have for my fans, as much as I love them, must come second to the respect that I have for my peers. These guys have been out here playing extremely hard all year long, guys and players that are very deserving of being in an All-Star Game that I think should be out there playing.
It would be one thing if Bryant was younger and still earning his stripes as an evolving superstar, but the fact remains that he's paid his dues.
Kobe ranks first all-time when it comes to All-Star game starts (14, one more than Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), points (280) and steals (37). He's also tied for second with Wilt Chamberlain for the most minutes played (388) in midseason exhibitions, per Basketball Reference.
Hitting the floor in New Orleans would be a nice sentimental gesture, but Bryant's done enough for the game and has more important things to focus on than appeasing fans by throwing a flashy pass or two and throwing down an uncontested dunk in transition.
So does Kobe owe it to the nearly one million fans who voted for him to lace up his kicks for a glorified exhibition?
Given his sound reasoning, no. However, there's a counterpoint worth making that has do with the larger process.
If a healthy player can simply override the fans' decision, what's the point of having those fans—who keep the league afloat with their hard-earned money—vote players into the game in the first place?
It's quite a conundrum, but it's times like these when you can't help but wonder if the league would be better off stripping fans of the voting privilege and giving it to the players and coaches.
For now, though, it's time to let Bryant take the weekend off and let the Lillards of the world start padding their resumes.
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