CHICAGO – Annually, the NBA Legends Brunch is one of the most anticipated events of All-Star Weekend, an oasis of reflection and perspective amid the exuberance and frenzied pace of the other attractions.
But everyone knew this one was going to be different -- more somber, more poignant -- and it was, owing to the recent deaths of league giants David Stern and Kobe Bryant.
So as the date approached, there was a challenge that needed addressing by Ernie Johnson, brunch host and Turner Sports broadcaster:
Anyone who has attended the brunch or watched via NBA TV in recent years knows about the poem. It is Johnson’s ice-breaker at the top of the show, an extended masterwork of rhythmic, sometimes corny lines and clever, occasionally tortured rhymes that manage to celebrate, honor and laugh about the league and its history.
But when the format changed this year to acknowledge Stern and Bryant as the show began, so did Johnson’s task.
This time, he came on stage at the Skyline Ballroom in the McCormick Place Convention Center and promptly introduced NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Next up, Lakers legend Magic Johnson. Together, the two who knew Stern and Bryant so well spoke about their friends and the loss to the league for more than 15 minutes.
“It’s going to be a tough thing,” Johnson had said as All-Star Weekend began Friday. “You want to celebrate the game. At the same time you want to honor these guys. I think after Adam and Magic get done, that will maybe give people permission to laugh. To cheer.”
That’s exactly how Johnson played it, and it worked. A couple of excerpts:
The road map to greatness is not just one path,
No Google or Waze apps can furnish the map,
The journey’s not simple, it’s not meant to be,
When you’re destined for greatness, nothing comes free.
The words shared by Adam and Magic thus far,
So heartfelt, uplifting and real,
And while memories bring smiles and also more tears,
We make room this morning to break into cheers…
From there, Johnson touched all the bases, mentioning Hall of Famers in the room and touching the bases of the Chicago-related honorees receiving honors Sunday. Such as Dwyane Wade, who was presented with the Community Ambassador Award and Scottie Pippen, the former Bulls star who was named Legend of the Year.
Also honored: Hometown Hero winner Cappie Pondexter, a star of the women’s game in the WNBA, at Rutger’s and for Team USA. Jerry Colangelo, meanwhile, received the Lifetime Achievement Award for his work with the Bulls and the Phoenix Suns as expansion franchises, as well as his ongoing roles as chairman of the U.S. Olympic basketball program and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Colangelo provided instant perspective on the NBA’s arc since he helped Chicago land a franchise in 1966. “The payroll was $180,000 for 12 players,” he recalled of those “Mom ‘n’ Pop” days. “Per diem [daily food money per player] was $6. The national TV contract was worth $100,000 per team.”
The league now is a global, multibillion dollar industry. A record 3,000 tickets were distributed for this 21st annual NBA Legends brunch, sponsored by the National Basketball Retired Players Association.
Grant Hill introduced Colangelo; longtime Miami teammate Udonis Haslem introduced Wade; 2020 Hall finalists Tamika Catchings introduced Pondexter, and Bulls teammate Horace Grant welcomed Pippen to the stage. In a playful moment, Grant said of their Michael Jordan-fueled, championship and “rock stars” run: “Thank God there was no TMZ or phone-cameras technology back in our day. … mmm, mmm.”
Pippen, like the other award winners, kept his remarks brief, with nods to Stern and Bryant. He recalled the morning three weeks ago, at his home in Woodland Hills, Calif., hearing news of the helicopter crash without initially knowing that Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the seven others who perished were aboard.
“I’m still today regretting that I didn’t get the chance to tell Kobe Bryant how great he was,” Pippen said. Then he asked the brunch audience to applaud to show how great Bryant was, sparking the loudest ovation of the morning.
By the end, South Side-born rapper Common was on stage working “yo, yo,” “Chicago” and “Colangelo” into his freestyle lyrics. But Rev. Jesse Jackson’s annual appearance to introduce the "In Memoriam" video tribute took on added meaning this year.
Two dozen more members of the NBA’s extended family, past and present, have passed away since the 2019 Legends Brunch in Charlotte. Among the players, coaches and NBA contributors: Celtics Hall of Famer John Havlicek, coach John MacLeod, Al Bianchi, Johnny Neumann, Tom Nissalke, Whitey Skoog and Cavs announcer Fred McLeod.
Then came extended moments for Bryant and Stern, ending with a photograph of the two, smiling, from the former commissioner’s presentation of the 2008 Most Valuable Player award to Bryant. There was poetry in that shot, too.
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