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It's silly to call Kobe `the next Michael'

So much ado has been made about the passing of the torch in the past week, it is officially time to say it out loud: That Michael Jordan guy, if he works hard and keeps his nose clean, is going to be the next Kobe Bryant.

There. It's done.It has bordered on the silly, really, this preoccupation with finding an Air apparent, as if this were England and, by God, someone had to take over the throne.

A headline appeared somewhere in the last few days that read, "Air Today, Kobe Tomorrow," and as literal as it was trying to be - and as literal as the National Basketball Association would like it to be - it is not time to anoint this wonderfully gifted and mature-for-19 kid.

It is time, however, to appreciate the majesty of the game's greatest player while we still can.

All along, I have taken a cynical view of Jordan's public statements regarding his impending retirement from basketball after this season. Like many in the news media who have heard this story before and realized Jordan could not stay away from the game for very long, I just anticipated there would be an emotional news conference at the end of the season with a three-word news release from his overdramatic agent David Falk:

"One more year."

But now I am beginning to believe this is it, that Jordan's All-Star Game performance Sunday night at Madison Square Garden was perhaps his last. That maybe, indeed, this is it.

We are in denial, that's all. We don't want him to leave, for the simple reason that it makes us feel as if we have lost an important piece of our childhood. Let's face it: He makes us feel like kids when he plays.

A day after vomiting and having a fever of 101 degrees, he won the most valuable player award by scoring 23 points, grabbing six rebounds and distributing eight assists in a 135-114 victory. Bryant had 18 points, six rebounds and some of the more death-defying dunks seen in a while at the Garden. It was not vintage Jordan, but his Eastern Conference All-Stars won, and he had this entertaining little one-on-one thing going with Bryant on a few possessions that had everybody glued to the floor.

Of course, Jordan got the better of Bryant. But that's OK. It's like sparring with Muhammad Ali, who attended Sunday night's game. You get better only by being taught by the best.

With 5 minutes, 47 seconds left in the third quarter, Jordan gave the youngest of the Lakers' kids the old up-and-under move along the left baseline. Power-dribbling with his back to the basket, he feinted right and then left, completely fooling Bryant before lofting up a finger roll that Shaquille O'Neal goaltended.

Bryant had an unbelievable hoop-dee-doo move on the other end - there is no other way to describe the way he put the ball between his legs, around his back and then flipped in a little running hook along the baseline. And he played as well as anybody who should be starting the second semester of his sophomore year in college could.

But Jordan was the show. He emerged from a tunnel, the last introduced, before the game. The Garden, where he had fostered his legend, gave him a long, standing ovation. For once, it was permissible to cheer Michael in New York and not feel guilty about it. Some moment. All those people, standing and clapping for one basketball player who had added a little athleticism and excitement to their lives.

Now that all these soft players have left town and Charles Oakley is again allowed to treat his body as if he were wearing a roll bar, it is time to reflect on the usefulness of an All-Star Game in American sports.

On one hand, you take Shaq's party at the All-Star Cafe, which on Saturday night included such rap artists as L.L. Cool J and Foxy Brown bellowing their lungs out. To most observers, this is seen as an exercise in excess, rife with people-watching and all things kitsch and cheesy.

But culturally challenged sportswriters with bad taste in clothes rarely get a chance to feel this hip, so that cannot be dismissed.

On the other hand, the game is hardly competitive and the weekend is priced for the well-heeled corporate set more than for the hod carriers whose children deserve to go. And the athletes who simply play basketball well become their own entertainment conglomerates overnight, some of whom forget what made them famous.

This show moves to Philadelphia next season. And in 2000, Boston seems like a traditional bet. It would be the game's 50th anniversary being played a Bob Cousy bounce away from the birthplace of basketball.

By then, who knows. Maybe Kobe can sit back and just be Kobe and we can all remember those special nights when Michael Jordan made us go outside after the game, pick up a ball and dream.

Where does it say there has to be another?