Highlights from All-Star weekend included a controversial dunk contest (you got hosed, Aaron Gordon), a light celebrity game (do better, NBA) and a big man winning the skills competition (how about Bam Adebayo?). On Sunday, with new rules making the game more competitive, Team LeBron edged Team Giannis on an Anthony Davis free throw.
But this weekend … this weekend was all about Kobe Bryant.
It’s hard to believe it’s been three weeks since Bryant was killed in a helicopter accident. The crash took the life of Bryant’s 13-year old daughter, Gianna, along with seven others, and sent a shockwave throughout the NBA. In the immediate aftermath, there were powerful reactions. At the NBA’s marquee event, there were more.
On Saturday, Adam Silver delivered his midseason state of the NBA address. He talked about David Stern, the former NBA commissioner who succumbed to a brain hemorrhage on New Year’s Day. And then he turned to Kobe. He linked Bryant and Stern, calling both “determined to win … difficult at times … [and] two people who didn’t have time for the niceties around personal relationships because it was about winning.” He recalled the phone call from Mike Bass, the NBA’s communications chief, his voice choking up on the phone as he informed Silver of the crash. He recounted an emotional conversation he had with Chris Paul, the NBAPA President and Bryant’s close friend, during which both struggled to find words.
“Kobe, in his post-playing career, we got to be particularly close,” Silver said. “His loss, together with his daughter and those other seven people, is unspeakable.”
LeBron James, understandably, was a lightning rod for Bryant-related questions. The relationship between James and Bryant was cordial during Bryant’s playing days, but had started to evolve during James’s first year with the Lakers. James spoke powerfully about Bryant before the Lakers’ first game since his passing. He had little interest in offering anything more this weekend.
“We know that he’s watching over us,” James said. “It’s our responsibility to just represent the purple and gold not only for him but for all the greats, everybody that’s ever come through the Lake Show. I really don’t want to sit up here and talk about it too much. It’s a very, very sensitive subject, but he’s with us every day.”
On another dais, Giannis Antetokounmpo held court. Make a list of NBA players most influential in the global growth of the game, and Bryant is on it. The Dream Team introduced the NBA to the world in 1992. The player who drew those early eyeballs was Bryant, a teenage sensation in the 1990s, an NBA champion and MVP in the early 2000s. Among them was Antetokounmpo, a skinny Greek kid with Bryant-like dreams. Antetokounmpo called Bryant “my idol” and the “Michael Jordan of our generation.” He said Bryant mentored him these last few years, willingly sharing his institutional knowledge.
“A lot of people when they’re so great, they don’t do that,” Antetokounmpo said. “There was a quote that said that talent is worthless if you’re not willing to share it, right? And he was one of those guys that was sharing his talent with us.”
Everywhere players were asked about Kobe. Paul said Bryant’s death still didn’t feel real. Kemba Walker said Bryant was the reason he was such a hard worker. Anthony Davis recounted how Bryant called him after Davis was named Bryant’s All-Star injury replacement, in 2014. Bryant’s message: Go out there and make me look good.
The All-Star game itself was a tribute to Bryant. Inside Team LeBron’s locker room, Frank Vogel, the Lakers coach who spent several days as the face of a grieving franchise, finished his pregame speech with a 1-2-3, Mamba. Team LeBron wore No. 2, for Gianna; Team Giannis were all clad in No. 24. Magic Johnson eulogized Bryant before calling for an eight-second moment of silence. Jennifer Hudson, clad in Lakers purple, sang a stirring rendition of “For All We Know (We May Meet Again)” with images of Bryant flashing behind her. Grammy-winning hip hop star Common ended a Bryant rap with “Even in the darkest times, you’ll feel Kobe’s light.”
It was fitting then that Bryant’s legacy was honored at one of the most competitive All-Star games ever. The NBA took some flak for overhauling the rules, which included quarter-by-quarter scoring and an untimed finish. But it couldn’t have worked out better. Teams scrapped at the end of quarters. Coaches burned timeouts. The final 12 minutes had a playoff feel. Joel Embiid battled in the post. Kyle Lowry attempted to take a charge against James … and then took two against Kawhi Leonard and James Harden, respectively.
Coaches issued challenges.
The referees came this close to handing out technical fouls.
“You could definitely feel [Bryant’s] presence,” said James.
When it was over, Leonard held the MVP trophy. The Kobe Bryant MVP Award, which the NBA announced it would be renamed to over the weekend. Indeed, while the wound Bryant’s death will scar over, it will never be forgotten. Bryant’s legacy will live with a generation of players, maybe more. His name will be inscribed on the All-Star trophy for decades to come.
Facing the media a final time on Sunday, James acknowledged the magnitude of the moment. When a reporter accidentally addressed him as Kobe, James said “I don’t mind being Kobe this weekend.” And when a reporter asked about all the tributes to Bryant, James declared anything else to be “uncivilized.”
“He’s one of the greatest basketball players, one of the most impactful players, and the inspiration that he has, it’s showing,” James said.
“How many people not only in the basketball world, but also outside the basketball world, [were] touched by a person such as himself. Obviously, we all saw what he was able to do on the floor as a competitor, as a champion, someone who strived for excellence every single day, but we also saw the father he was as well to his beautiful daughters and to his wife. The things that he was doing, winning an Oscar, just doing so many things that people would aspire to do, and gaining inspiration from him because of his drive.”