CHICAGO — Bill Russell’s body of work – 11 championships in 13 professional seasons as Boston’s essential leader — spoke for itself in 2005 when the NBA made the no-brainer decision to rename its Finals MVP award after the legendary Celtics center.
The same sort of clarity quickly became obvious when the league began to search for ways to honor Kobe Bryant in the aftermath of his tragic passing Jan. 26. With its annual All-Star Game three weeks away, and with Bryant’s unparalleled success in the event across his 20-year career, the NBA swiftly settled on a fitting tribute:
Meet the Kia NBA All-Star Game Kobe Bryant MVP Award. It will be presented for the first time with that particular nomenclature Sunday at the conclusion of the 2020 event at United Center.
Commissioner Adam Silver unveiled the renamed trophy during his annual All-Star news conference Saturday. He cited some of Bryant’s All-Star achievements, from making his debut at age 19 in 1998 to his record 18 consecutive All-Star selections. Bryant was named MVP of the game in 2002, 2007, 2009 (sharing the award with Shaquille O’Neal) and 2011 to tie Hall of Famer Bob Pettit with four.
Silver began his media session with extended personal reflections about Bryant – who perished with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter accident in southern California – and about his predecessor, former Commissioner David Stern.
Stern, who died at age 77 on Jan. 1 after suffering a brain hemorrhage three weeks earlier, built the NBA from a so-called “Mom ‘n Pop” basketball league into a multi-billion dollar global sports and entertainment juggernaut in his tenure from 1984 to 2014. And for 22 of those years, beginning in 1992, Stern served as Silver’s mentor.
“He was a force of nature for those who got to work for him,” Silver said, revving into his reminiscences. League executives still are considering ways to appropriately honor Stern, Silver added.
Bryant and Stern shared some characteristics, in the commissioner’s view. “They were both determined to win,” Silver said. “They could be difficult at times … and often, they didn’t have time for some of the niceties around personal relationships because it was about winning.”
But as Silver knew them, the two men assumed a style to draw out others’ potential. “That [driven] aspect of their personality was a bit contrived in that they pushed people because they wanted them to be their very best,” he said.
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Silver covered a variety of other topics in his All-Star Saturday session, including:
China and the NBA’s relationship with that nation was the basis for four separate questions. The league’s lucrative business dealings with the basketball-loving Chinese took a hit in October when Houston general manager Daryl Morey expressed support on social media for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.
Government officials in China were outraged and took measures to reduce the NBA’s footprint there, from shutting down apparel sales to removing games from its state-sanctioned television network.
The current coronavirus epidemic complicated matters, yet has offered perspective for the NBA to take humanitarian action same as in the past, Silver said.
“From the data we look at, there continues to be enormous interest for the NBA in China,” he said. “My sense is that there will be a return to normalcy fairly soon, but I can’t say exactly when, when it comes to CCTV.”
Any decision about staging games in China this preseason could hinge on the fact that Team USA may play pre-Olympic games there.
When asked about reports that splintered relations with China could cost the league $1 billion or more in revenues, Silver countered: “Much less.” He estimated the true cost, based on current projections, at some amount shy of $400 million – still significant enough to impact the salary-cap and franchise operations.
“It’s substantial, I don’t want to run from that,” Silver said. We were taken off the air in China for a period of time and it caused our many business partners … to feel it was therefore inappropriate to have ongoing relationships with us.
“But I don’t have any sense there’s any permanent damage to our business there. And as I’ve said before, we accept the consequences of our system and our values.”
The Basketball Africa League begins play on March 13 in Senegal. Silver noted the growth in basketball and player development there from 1984, when Hakeem Olajuwon was the league’s No. 1 draft pick. And today? “It’s hard to imagine but 40 players [were] either born in Africa or one of their parents were born in Africa,” Silver said. The presence of an estimated 450 million smartphones in use on the continent allows for massive streaming of NBA games, too.
The much-discussed “in season” tournament, floated as a possible way to generate fresh interest and excitement, remains just that for now: an idea. Silver said the teams, the players and the league’s media partners continue to discuss the concept with a goal that any format would be embraced as more than a one-year experiment.
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