If you missed the NBA All-Star Game, and loved Kobe Bryant, you squandered the chance to see yet another heartfelt tribute to one of the great players in league history.
The festivities took place at Chicago’s United Center, the site of All-Star Game weekend. The celebrations came before and during the game – and following two nights of reveling in some of the other league stars with its Rising Stars Game and skills competition.
There were words and songs and spectacular play in Bryant’s image.
Magic Johnson began it on Sunday by stepping to midcourt to address the crowd.
“We’ll never see another basketball player quite like Kobe,” Johnson said. “Scoring 81 points in one game. Scoring 60 points in his last game. And then winning five NBA championships.
“But what I’m really proud about when we think about Kobe Bryant, there’s millions of people in Los Angeles that don’t have a home. Kobe was fighting to get them homes and shelter every single day. He was passionate about that. He was also passionate about being a great father, husband, filmmaker. Young man won an Oscar. So we all are hurting. This is a tough time for the whole NBA family.”
On Saturday, the NBA announced it would name the game’s MVP Trophy after Bryant, setting the stage for what would follow.
“I think it’s just another great deed of our great commissioner, Adam Silver,” LeBron James told ESPN. “Just for him to think of that and be able to rename the MVP trophy after Kobe. What that guy meant to our league, his inspiration around players that are in the league, of kids that isn’t in the league, former players and so on and so on.”
Johnson, one of Bryant’s closest friends, played into the emotion, leading the crowd into an eight-second moment of silence, commemorating the first number Bryant wore in the NBA.
There were also musical tributes to Bryant, delivered by Jennifer Hudson and the rapper, Common
“A king named Kobe Bryant,” Common rapped. “Even in the darkest times, you’ll feel Kobe’s light.”
During halftime, Chance the Rapper also offered a shout out to the memory of Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, who was killed along with her father and seven others in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles.
Of course, the tribute lasted throughout the game when the teams captained by James and Giannis Antetokounmpo wore No. 24 and No. 2 to honor Bryant and Gianna.
“Every time Giannis and his teammates ran down the court, I seen the back of them, No. 24. I noticed my finger band that has a 24 on it. His legacy is living on every single day with us,” James said.
The game itself was an overwhelming tribute to Bryant’s athletic gift. It featured tons of out-of-your-seat plays and dunks.
“I think the best way we could honor Kobe, Gigi and everyone involved was to play like we played, you know what I mean?,” Chris Paul told ESPN. “Me and Russ (Westbrook) kept talking about it. That’s one thing about Kobe: Whenever he was on our team in the All-Star Game, there wasn’t none of that cool stuff. There wasn’t none of that. It was, like, as long as they throw the ball up, let’s get to it.”
Kawhi Leonard won the MVP after Team LeBron defeated Team Giannis 157-155. Leonard scored 25 of his 30 points in the first half and made eight three-point shots. He needed just one more three to tie Paul George’s All-Star record set in 2016.
“It’s very special,” Leonard said. “I had a relationship with him. Words can’t explain how happy I am to be able to put that trophy in my room, in my trophy room, and just be able to see Kobe’s name on there. … It just means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”
The game featured something called the “Elam Ending” which had the game conclude when one team reached the specific score of 157 (Team Giannis’ third-quarter leading total of 133 plus Bryant’s No. 24).
“It felt like playing in the league in a playoff game,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “It’s a great competition, and it’s 24 players who go out and compete at a very high level, and to do it in front of a crowd like this, with a new format that we were a little skeptical of, we didn’t know how it was gonna go, but everyone, at the end of the day, they loved it. It brings back the competition, so it was great.”
The game ended when Davis made the second of two free throws after being fouled during a post-up of Kyle Lowry.
“At the end, everybody was so ready to win the game,” James Harden said. “We were coming up with different strategies every time we scored or didn’t score. It was pretty cool to actually strategize the possession.”
There were two major changes to the All-Star format. The score was reset to zero after the first, second and third quarters, with the winning team from each quarter earning $100,000 for a local charity James and Antetokounmpo had picked out.
Kids from the charities sat courtside during the game and each player received a letter from a child from his team’s charity.
“I think it was really interesting,” Team Giannis coach Nick Nurse said. “It was really fun. Each and every quarter was, from a coaching standpoint, really fun. I thought the quarters got interesting really early in the quarters because the game was moving pretty quick.
“With the cumulative score, even though we were down in the first quarter, we thought we had to keep plugging to keep it close so it didn’t get too far away. Then, when we were on the other side of it, we said, ‘Let’s keep increasing our lead,’ and get as big of an advantage going into the fourth.”
All in all, everyone who participated in it thought the game – the entire weekend – was an apt tribute to Bryant’s memory.
“We definitely felt his presence,” Kemba Walker told NBA.com. “Growing up, watching Kobe in these games, I felt he was always competitive, and he was kind of the one who got the game going. I think we kept that going tonight. I think he definitely would have loved to watch the way we went out there and competed tonight.”