CHICAGO -- The night, his night, ultimately proved to be a setup that 24 players and a pair of entertainers managed to pull off wonderfully and tastefully without a snag. Let’s just say it was Kobe flavored, Kobe-centric and with the intense finish, certainly would have been Kobe approved.
This 69th edition was a different NBA All-Star Game, in feel and format and in look and emotion. All that energy swirled inside the United Center, whipped around by memories of the late Kobe Bryant. The 18-time All-Star died in his adult prime after a horrific helicopter crash just three weeks ago, barely enough time for it to start seeming real. Some of his peers and competitors and the pupils he once mentored came together to honor him and, oh yeah, play a game that dripped with his inspiration.
Pregame sorrow soon gave way to Kobe-like tenacity in the game's final minutes, as the NBA’s best players brought a June zeal to a mid-February exhibition. From start to finish, this was a meaningful experience, and it managed to accomplish what it so desperately wanted and quite frankly, needed.
When a free throw by Chicago kid Anthony Davis dropped in to reach the target score and seal a Team LeBron victory, 157-155 over Team Giannis, everyone had a chance to exhale. How many times in the recent past has an entire crowd stood and watched two teams go back and forth on next-basket-takes-all possessions?
Yes, perhaps there is something freaky about a game ending on a free throw, and giving players credit for being competitive seems odd; aren’t they supposed to play every game this way? Still, fans applauded it. And the players?
“Everybody was like, that was pretty damn fun,” said LeBron.
With 30 points for the winners, Kawhi Leonard now has the distinction of owning the first Kobe Bryant trophy, an award freshly named for the winner of the All-Star Game MVP. Leonard, raised a Kobe fan in the Los Angeles-area, was a frequent workout partner of the recently named Hall-of-Fame finalist. Again, everything fell just right, almost magically so.
“We definitely felt his presence,” Kemba Walker said. “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.”
The big assist and tone-setter for that was provided by Magic Johnson, as the Laker great appeared onstage before tipoff and asked fans for an eight-second moment of silence. That was the proper touch and The City of Big Shoulders offered a soft one the rest of the night.
Next up was singer Jennifer Hudson, born and raised locally, belting out the song "For All We Know" in Kobe’s honor. Dressed in a full length Laker-purple dress with a memorial patch on the left shoulder, Hudson went to church on her stirring rendition.
"For all we know/This may only be a dream
We come and we go/Like the ripples of a stream
So love me, love me tonight
Tomorrow was made for some/ Tomorrow may never come/ For all we know.”
Understand that Hudson knows the personal pain of loss; her mother, brother and nephew were horrifically murdered roughly 12 years ago and it was not unexpected to see her reach deep.
Another Chicago performer, the rapper and actor Common, then delivered a lyrical tribute to Chicago and Kobe with "If This City Could Talk." He spoke about boys and dreams and cited those who rose from the streets to make it to the NBA and elsewhere.
With his best song, "The Light," playing in the background, Common said: “Twenty-four hours a day you put in the work, forget the salary, being in Chicago, you can possess that Mamba Mentality.” When he added that “you’ll feel Kobe’s light,” thousands of giveaway wristbands glowed gold.
In an effort to roust more spirit from players who approach the All-Star Game with caution and an allergy toward playing defense, the league had introduced a new format: The first three quarters were played separately, with the winning team after each quarter earning money for a local charity; the fourth quarter was played without a clock and with a set final score, first team to reach it earning the win.
It received the blessing of the players’ association, whose president, Chris Paul, said: “The good thing for our league is that we’re always trying things, adding things, to see what our fans like.”
Well, in the flurry of a finish, these were the scenes: Giannis Antetokounmpo blocking shots by LeBron and Davis … LeBron returning favor by forcing Giannis to lose the ball out of bounds … and a bucket exchange down the stretch by Leonard and Joel Embiid.
Paul even risked getting a technical foul while arguing in favor of a jump ball … in an All-Star Game. He didn’t get T'd up, and the call was ultimately reversed in his favor. Yes, there was not one, but three coach’s challenges … in an All-Star Game.
The best way we could honor Kobe, Gigi and everyone involved is to play like we played."
On the game’s final possession, Kyle Lowry was caught in a defensive switch and had no choice but foul Davis, who provided one last measure of suspense by missing his first free throw before sinking the second.
Davis wisecracked: “I told my team I was gonna miss the first free throw to put more pressure on myself.”
Victory accomplished for his team, mission accomplished for all.
“The best way we could honor Kobe, (his daughter) Gigi and everyone involved is to play like we played,” Paul said.
Leonard was wistful while accepting the award and discussing what it meant to take a piece of Kobe home with him.
“I didn’t come in saying I’m going to take this trophy home,” he said. “I think I came in and made my first two shots and kept shooting and making shots, and ‘Bron with his vision he’d seen me open and passed the ball … (but) it’s very special. I had a relationship with him. Words cannot explain how happy I am for it. Able to put that trophy in my room and just to be able to see Kobe’s name on there, it means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”
Kobe Bryant’s public memorial will be one week from Monday at Staples Center, yet in some ways the United Center was a precursor. Everything he stood for, and how many felt about him, was compacted into three hours of basketball and entertainment.
LeBron summed it up for every player who wore No. 2 or 24 on this unusual night and for this unique All-Star Game:
“How many people in the basketball world, and also outside the basketball world, were touched by a person such as himself? I was happy to be part of this weekend.”
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