kobebryantThe 1998 All-Star Game was two great shooting guards passing in the night at Madison Square Garden. It was Kobe Bryant’s first All-Star Game and Michael Jordan’s last with the Bulls. Bryant — a sixth man for the Lakers — was emboldened by being selected to start the game, guarding Jordan at every opportunity and waving off screens by Karl Malone. He scored 18 points on 7-for-16 shooting. Jordan scored 23 on 10-for-18 shooting with six rebounds and eight assists. In a one-game sample size, that’s who they were. Jordan, the game’s efficient MVP. Bryant, trying to prove he was Jordan’s equal.

Bryant was the sixth player in line to be the Next Jordan — behind Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner, Grant Hill and Anfernee Hardaway, Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter. But he was the first to make it his life’s work.

Bryant wanted to “Be Like Mike,” which was his most admirable and least interesting quality. He impersonated Jordan, his body mechanics, one-on-one takedowns and fadeaway jump shots. He scored and defended at the highest level. Just not at Jordan’s level.

Jordan was David Letterman. Bryant was Jimmy Kimmel.

Bryant was about 80 percent the player Jordan was, which is not faint praise. That makes him the second-best shooting guard of all time — ahead of Jerry West, Dwyane Wade and Clyde Drexler.

Kobe Bryant — one of the greatest players of all time and the closest thing to Michael Jordan in the game’s history — announced his retirement Sunday night on The Players Tribune.

I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.

Bryant missed 123 games the last two seasons with a torn Achilles tendon, fractured left knee and a torn right rotator cuff. He is averaging 15.8 points on 30 percent shooting this season. The surprising part of his announcement is that he is retiring in April and not immediately — and that such an obsessive, heartless clutch shooter writes poetry.

Bryant was a prodigious scorer. He is third all-time with 32,703 points through Tuesday night, winning two scoring titles. He scored 81 points against the Raptors on Jan 23, 2006, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in 1962. He scored 65 points against the Trail Blazers and 62 against the Mavericks — in three quarters. He scored 50 points in four consecutive games.

But Bryant also missed a record 13,938 shots, many of them ill-advised. He shot when he wanted and how often he wanted — in the regular season and postseason, double-teamed and triple-teamed. He was a petulant superstar who used shot selection to annoy Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal, even as they won three championships together.

When Jackson criticized him for scoring too much in 2004, Bryant shot just once in the first half of a game against the Kings. “Are you going to play today or what?” teammate Gary Payton asked. A couple months later, Bryant scored 20 points on 8-for-25 shooting in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. He forced shots against Tayshaun Prince and failed to pass to O’Neal (36 points on 16-for-21 shooting). The Lakers lost the game and eventually the series.

After the season, the Lakers traded O’Neal to the Heat and failed to renew Jackson’s contract, but they signed Bryant to a seven-year, $136 million deal. In his book The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, Jackson called Bryant “uncoachable” and said he urged the Lakers to trade him to the Magic for Tracy McGrady.

The 2004-05 season was a referendum on Bryant vs. O’Neal. The Lakers won 22 fewer games than the previous season. The Heat won 17 more games.

The following season, Bryant led the league in scoring. But in Game 7 of a first-round series against the Suns, he shot just three times in the second half. The Lakers lost by 31 points.

The 2006-07 season was the same. Bryant led the league in scoring. The Lakers lost to the Suns in the first round of playoffs. That summer, he demanded to be traded and ripped Lakers management for not trading Andrew Bynum to the Nets for Jason Kidd.

Then the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in February 2008, reviving Bryant’s career. The pair played in three NBA Finals, winning two championships. Bryant’s narrative changed. Five championships made him a winner — one short of Jordan’s six — and not the selfish shooter who forced out O’Neal. Of course, both ideas can coexist.

DENVER (AP), Sept. 17, 2004 — The night after being accused of rape, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant told sheriff’s investigators that the sex with his accuser was consensual — and admitted to similar encounters with another woman who he said could testify about his sexual tendencies.

The Associated Press story originated from the Vail (Colo.) Daily, which published a transcript of Bryant’s 75-minute interview with Eagle County sheriff investigators Dan Loya and Doug Winters. The Vail Daily said a printout and an audio recording were mailed anonymously to the newspaper from Denver.

Bryant wondered aloud in July 2003 if he could “settle” the matter to save his reputation, career and marriage.

BRYANT: Is there any way I can settle this, whatever it is?

WINTERS: Well, what do you mean by settle?

BRYANT: If my wife, if my wife found out that anybody made any type of allegations against me, she would be infuriated.

During the interview, Bryant initially denied having sex with the woman, then changed his account, saying she initiated it after the investigators told him they had physical evidence indicating the two had sex.

“It was totally consensual,” he said.

When Loya told Bryant the woman had experienced some bleeding, he said he was surprised because he hadn’t noticed any blood. The shirt he was wearing, which he gave to the investigators, was later found to be stained with the woman’s blood.

The case was dropped after Bryant’s accuser refused to testify.

A separate civil suit was settled out of court and included Bryant publicly apologizing to his accuser, without an admission of guilt.

There is a creeping consensus that Bryant was the best player of his generation or the most important player of the 2000s or other such senior superlatives. Maybe.

But Bryant won one MVP award in 2007-08 (when Chris Paul should have won it) and finished second in the voting once. The decade’s other MVP award winners: Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan (twice), Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash (twice), Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James (twice).

Bryant never led the league in Player Efficiency Rating. He never finished second. The decade’s leaders: O’Neal (three times), Tracy McGrady, Garnett (twice), Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade and James (twice).

Bryant was a member of five championship teams (stretching to include 2009-10 in the 2000s), which leads all franchise players. O’Neal won four championships. Duncan won three. But Bryant’s first three came with O’Neal, who was the best player on those teams.

That’s not the resume of the best player of the decade. I’ll take O’Neal in the early part of the 2000s, Garnett in 2003-04, James in the later part and Duncan for sustained greatness.

Bryant was never the best player in the league, but he endured: 17 All-Star selections, 15 All-NBA selections and 12 All-Defensive team selections. Seven NBA Finals. Five championships. Two NBA Finals MVP awards. His body of work is undeniable.

The next generation of NBA players didn’t see Bryant as a bad teammate — just a single-minded competitor, a constant on their television screens every summer, a shooting guard of substance and style, equally at home in the closing minutes of a playoff game or All-Star game.

Kevin Durant: “I studied him, wanted to be like him. He was our Michael Jordan.”