By Keith Giagnorio
Every event of the 2020 NBA All-Star weekend was blanketed with melancholy air. Seemingly every show, contest and person associated with basketball’s most star-studded weekend paid homage to the late Kobe Bryant, as well as his daughter Gianna.
“It’s still very fresh in people’s minds and in people’s hearts, so he definitely has a big presence here,” said first-time All-Star Jayson Tatum, who idolized Bryant and had been training with him in recent years. “There’s so many Kobe jerseys here and tributes, as there should be.”
On January 26, the heartbreaking news that Kobe, 13-year-old Gigi, and seven others died in a helicopter crash sent people all over the planet into shock and mourning. Just three weeks later, the basketball world gathered in Chicago to compete on a stage where Bryant had long shined brightest: the NBA All-Star weekend.
Even though the Lakers legend is no longer here, there was no question that this weekend was all about Kobe. His larger-than-life presence inspired countless tributes and invoked the sharing of memories and stories about him throughout the weekend.
Before the All-Star festivities could even officially begin, a massive canvas mural honoring Bryant was erected on the set of ESPN’s First Take and The Jump. NBA legends like Dwyane Wade, Isiah Thomas, and Scottie Pippen wrote messages to the fallen superstar on it, along with countless other players, media members, and fans.
A night later, Bryant’s former teammate Pau Gasol and WNBA legend Sue Bird shared a touching tribute with the United Center crowd before the Rising Stars Game in which they spoke about his impact on the game of basketball. The thousands in attendance responded with a thunderous “Kobe” chant.
Even the usually lighthearted and comical Celebrity All-Star Game shared a 24-second moment of remembrance for Bryant prior to tip-off, which concluded in another resounding “Kobe” chant.
Friday’s announcement of Bryant as a Hall of Fame finalist was somehow almost lost in the fray, possibly as a result of NBA commissioner Adam Silver delivering the monumental news that the All-Star Game MVP Award would be renamed the Kobe Bryant MVP Award at his Saturday press conference. Silver spoke about the transformative careers of both Bryant and former NBA commissioner David Stern, who passed away on New Year’s Day, as well as the decision to honor Bryant’s legacy through renaming the award.
“The NBA wouldn’t be where it is today but for Kobe… Nobody embodied All-Star more than Kobe Bryant,” Silver said.
On Sunday morning, Hall of Famers and NBA stars from all generations took their turn honoring Kobe at the annual NBA Legends Brunch. Fellow Lakers legend Magic Johnson was one of many who took the stage to speak about Bryant’s legacy. He began by leading the 3,000-plus people in attendance with a prayer and had everyone put a hand up in an “L” sign in honor of Bryant, who played his entire 20-year career with the Lakers.
Nearly tearing up at one point, Johnson recalled a phone call he received from Jerry West more than 20 years ago. On the call, West told Johnson he just watched the best prospect workout he had ever seen, and that the Lakers needed to go get this guy named Kobe Bryant. Johnson also reminisced on how Bryant seemed to enjoy life after basketball and the time with his family even more than he did winning those five NBA championships during his career.
The ovation Bryant received from the crowd, which consisted of retired NBA players, team executives and fans of all ages, illustrated the positive effect he had on people from all different generations and on the game as a whole. “His impact on the game of basketball was immeasurable, as was his impact on the world,” said Thurl Bailey, former Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves big man and current Jazz broadcaster.
A big part of that impact Bryant had on the world outside of basketball was in the entertainment industry, where he won an Academy Award in 2018 for his animated short film “Dear Basketball.” Bryant made himself more than just an athlete, he was a true icon who meant as much to people outside of sports as he did to those in it.
“He accomplished so much and inspired a lot of people,” said actor and comedian J.B. Smoove, who recalled Bryant’s tenacity and passion both on and off the court. “I saw what hard work, what dedication, and what teamwork really meant.”
As could be expected, the topic of Bryant’s legacy and his impact on the world was a prominent conversation among this year’s All-Stars as well, many of whom had formed friendships with him and still felt the pain of losing someone they considered special.
“I think he impacted the world, not just basketball players,” 2018 league MVP James Harden said. ” There’s only a handful of people that can actually do that.”
“It’s tough, it’s hard,” Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said, “But I think we’re doing our part in terms of making sure that we keep his legacy going.”
Prior to Sunday night’s All-Star Game, Magic Johnson led a packed house at United Center in an eight-second moment of silence in honor of Bryant. Grammy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson then followed with a passionate tribute, belting out the song “For All We Know (We May Meet Again)” in front of a photo montage of Kobe and Gigi. Hudson’s beautiful rendition sent a tidal wave of emotion crashing over the arena and the players, many of whom shared the court with Kobe just a few years ago at his final All-Star game in 2016.
“It was emotional, man. I started tearing up a little bit, just because it’s like, unreal that Kobe’s not here anymore,” Harden said.
In addition to the new All-Star Game format, which included an homage to Bryant by adding 24 points to the leading teams score after three quarters to set the target score to win, Harden and his teammates on Team LeBron all proudly donned Gigi’s No. 2 on their jerseys, while the opposing Team Giannis wore Kobe’s No. 24.
But staying true to the Mamba mentality, the sting of their recent loss did not stop the NBA’s finest from coming out and competing with a fire that would have made Bryant proud. This fire that the athletes displayed was only fitting, given Kobe’s history as an 18-time All-Star, four-time All-Star game MVP and Slam Dunk Contest champion.
Both teams significantly upped their intensity as the game reached the fourth quarter. The chain of recent apathetic All-Star Games was shattered, as a competitive spirit almost akin to a playoff game came to life on the court. There were charges, coaches’ challenges, strategic timeouts and genuine defense, all things normally unheard of in an All-Star Game. You could see it on their faces, these men were playing for something more than themselves. They were playing for Kobe.
It was only fitting that a Laker would make the final shot, as Anthony Davis sank a free throw to secure a 157-155 victory for Team LeBron.
After the game, Harden reflected on the weekend and spoke about how Kobe would have appreciated the heightened intensity of this year’s contest. “He’d love that, that’s the competitive dog he was,” Harden said. “He was a competitive beast. I think all of us were playing for that, to go out there and play for Kobe.”