ORLANDO, Fla. -- The slap could be heard from the floor high up into the seats. Kobe Bryant spun around to the baseline and Dwyane Wade slammed him hard from behind across the shoulders and the nose. It was like a family argument that had spilled over unpredictably and irretrievably.
The crowd groaned and gasped. A violent foul at an All-Star Game? What those fans didn't realize was that this was a good thing.
"I obviously didn't try to draw no blood, but I took a foul," said Wade following a splendidly competitive 152-149 loss to the West Sunday night. "Kobe fouled me two times in a row, so he's still got one up on me."
Bryant's conference was clobbering Wade's by 96-81 when the latter decided he'd had enough and took it out at the expense of the former. In any other setting -- a Game 4 of the playoffs or a pickup game over the summer -- it would have been just another hard foul. But in the setting of this non-confrontational evening, the foul was a game-changer.
Bryant, expressionless, rubbed his nose while walking off the pain before shooting a free throw. He walked past Wade without making eye contact on his way to showing the referee a splattering of blood that necessitated a medical timeout. He came back and made the second free throw.
For the next half-hour the mood in the arena was sober and uncertain. It was as if thousands of fans no longer knew what to make of what they were seeing. They were oddly quiet while the East began to play more seriously.
Bryant believes in making statements. In this game last year he asserted himself as the most serious player on the floor as he won his fourth All-Star MVP and led the West to a victory on his home floor in Los Angeles. After he lost a game at Miami the following month, he returned to the Heat's floor and practiced his shooting for an hour by which he underlined his leadership role as the most devoted player in basketball.
His juxtaposition with LeBron James has been good for Bryant. He is the star who won his Los Angeles turf war with Shaquille O'Neal to become The Man of the Lakers. James is the star who abdicated his role as The Man in Cleveland in order to turn his rivals, Wade and Chris Bosh, into teammates. This is how they will be characterized until something happens to change their relationship.
On this night when Bryant (271 points) surpassed Michael Jordan (262) to become the leading scorer in All-Star history, it was too easy to define them by caricature: Kobe as all serious and LeBron as fun, fun, fun. When they were introduced for this game, James and his East teammate Dwight Howard of the Magic emerged out of the white pre-game smoke dancing with their mouths open comically. When Bryant was introduced, his hands were in his pockets and his face refused so much as a smile. Everything about him at age 33 asserts that his joy comes from winning.
The All-Star Game has become the kind of event that celebrates the celebrities and demeans the game. Too many players have stood aside in order to let opponents express their individuality, and over the years the competition has taken a beating. While the West spent the opening three quarters turning the ball over with extravagant lobs, Bryant was knocking down open jumpers while teammates Chris Paul and Kevin Durant (the first-time MVP with 36 points) were playing with relative control.
Then Wade changed the terms. He'd had enough of playing the foil to Bryant. He fouled him hard and didn't rush over to apologize. They would continue to guard one another without soothing their friendship. All they really wanted out of their relationship was to make each other miserable and suddenly everyone could sense their friction, and it was absolutely wonderful.
There would still be some outlandish plays over the remaining 20 minutes, but now they were attempted in the context of an outcome that mattered to both teams. The East's Derrick Rose, who is lauded by Bryant as one of the league's most competitive young stars, began to drill jumpers from the deep. James was smoking threes and Carmelo Anthony was heating up.
Down the stretch the friendly exhibition gave way altogether to a tight game that neither side wanted to lose. Wade ducked inside for an offensive rebound and two free throws that brought the East within 150-149 with 22.8 seconds left. He was directing his teammates defensively as he bodied up against Bryant for the inbound pass. Bryant was fouled and missed his second free throw, and as he walked to the bench with a scant two-point lead, he looked over his shoulder with a wry smile.
In the tight final seconds, James could have attempted a winning three but instead tried to force a cross-court Brett Favre pass that was intercepted by the West. Then a couple of beautiful things came to be: Paul Pierce of the Celtics trash-talked Bryant for his failures down the stretch, which included an air-balled turnaround jumper within the final two minutes; and Bryant taunted James for passing up the shot.
"Yeah, he was telling me to shoot it," James said. "I'd seen my teammate open for a split second -- I told him I'd seen him open the first time and I didn't release the ball. When I tried to throw it late, that's what usually happens and it results in a turnover. Definitely wish I could have that one back."
In the bigger picture, the misjudgment of James was less important than the effort that was inspired by his Miami teammate. Wade didn't win but he succeeded in making a statement of his own. It came at the expense of Bryant, who had nothing to say in victory. Instead he was being evaluated for headaches he suffered on this rare and meaningful night, when the world's best players met to celebrate their talents and a game actually broke out.