Kobe Bryant has spent a career tormenting the Toronto fan base, and now he is set to entertain it as the NBA’s All-Star Weekend descends on Canada for the first time and welcomes Bryant for his swan song.
Set to play in his 18th and final All-Star Game on Sunday, a kinder and gentler Bryant will continue a farewell tour that will conclude his legendary 20-season tenure in the league.
The Toronto faithful harbor memories of Bryant registering 81 points against the Raptors in Los Angeles 10 years ago, but in this exhibition of stars they will cheer him on to rediscover old magic and perhaps claim a record fifth All-Star MVP award.
In what will be the first All-Star Game played outside the United States, the 37-year-old Bryant — a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers — will have many challengers for the spotlight.
Golden State shooting artist Stephen Curry has emerged as the game’s new leading man, and he arrives with teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green from a Warriors squad currently setting a record winning pace in the league.
Curry and Thompson will also renew their rivalry in the Three-Point Shooting Contest on Saturday night after Curry prevailed in last year’s final.
The Slam Dunk Contest, Skills Challenge and Rising Stars Challenge, featuring top rookies and second-year players, will also set the table for Sunday’s main event.
Oklahoma City Thunder standouts Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are two headliners and former MVPs of the game who will bolster a Western Conference side that has won four of the last five matchups.
LeBron James will be looking to reverse the fortunes for the Eastern Conference alongside Carmelo Anthony and his former Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Bosh spent his first seven seasons in Toronto, while current Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will be hometown favorites.
As much as this weekend will provide a stage for the NBA’s most exciting players, it will also be a showcase of Toronto, which has evolved into a respected NBA market since the Raptors were introduced in the 1995-96 campaign.
Former high-flyer Vince Carter helped give the Raptors franchise credibility when he mesmerized the All-Star Weekend dunk contest in 2000. But the days of Carter being the lone flag bearer in Toronto are long gone.
The Raptors now have emerging talent, a raucous home crowd and back-to-back playoff appearances, and are currently second in the Eastern Conference and poised for a second-half run. But first they will play host to a weekend of entertainment.
«It will mean a lot to be able to go out there and represent the home team,» said DeRozan. «That’s what it’s all about: being on the highest level, being able to have people recognize Toronto for its sport. … It’s something the city deserves.»