Magic Johnson, Jennifer Hudson and Chance the Rapper all used a microphone to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant throughout All-Star Sunday.
The actual All-Stars?
They had their skills, their pride, their showmanship and their intensity to give.
As he walked through the United Center hallway, his child in his arms and his Kobe Bryant All-Star MVP Award nearby, Kawhi Leonard smiled when he thought about how Bryant would’ve reacted to Sunday’s show.
“He would’ve loved this,” Leonard said. “We were out there competing. We had the 10 best players in the world on the floor at one time, going out there to compete, there’s nothing like that.”
Leonard scored a game-high 30 points while hitting a very fitting eight three-point shots in Team LeBron’s 157-155 dramatic win over Team Giannis.
With the first team to 157 winning, the two teams battled through a rugged untimed fourth quarter. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry drew multiple charges, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo took turns stopping one another and multiple players were sent to the court while teams scrambled for loose balls.
The stakes were high — $300,000 for charity — with the possible recipients sitting underneath the basket energizing the players and the arena. When James’ team needed a missed free throw, he called on the Chicago Scholars kids to make as much noise as possible — cheers that were rewarded with a miss.
And with Bryant’s spirit all through the arena, his trademark competitiveness wouldn’t be too far behind.
The night began with Johnson eulogizing former NBA commissioner David Stern and Bryant. Then Hudson filled a silent United Center with her voice, sadly belting out, “For all we know, we’ll never meet again.”
While rhyming his way through the story of Chicago basketball, rapper Common detoured to honor Bryant. Hall of Famer Allen Iverson wore a golden No. 8 Bryant jersey. Team Giannis wore No. 24 for him; Team LeBron wore No. 2 for his daughter, Gianna.
Both teams wore a patch with nine stars on it, symbolizing the nine lives lost three weeks ago when Bryant’s helicopter crashed in Calabasas.
“You could definitely feel his presence just from the start,” James said. “From every moment from the fans chanting his name till you seen the numbers. Every time you saw Giannis’ team run on the floor, you saw the 24. So, he was definitely here.”
So much of the weekend was dedicated to Bryant’s remembrance, with the most permanent memorial coming on Saturday when the league announced the All-Star MVP trophy would forever be known for the Laker great who won the trophy a record-tying four times.
“I thought that was amazing,” Leonard said. “Watching him young, seeing him compete and try to go for this trophy, it was amazing. For me to have the first one with his name on it — it’s very exciting.”
The night — and in particular the second half — was very exciting.
Debuting a new format where the score reset at the start of the second and third quarters, the two teams split wins in the first half, with $100,000 going to James’ Chicago Scholars charity after the first and $100,000 going to Antetokounmpo’s After School Matters charity in the second.
By the time the third quarter began, the game stopped looking like a slam-dunk exhibition and started looking much more like a basketball game.
“It was a crescendo,” Utah center Rudy Gobert said.
After the two teams tied in the third, the first squad to 157 — a score 24 points more than Team Antetokounmpo’s 133-point total after three — would win $300,000 for their charity.
“None of us knew what to expect,” James said of the format changes. “But throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun.’ ”
Gone were the early quarters, where Chris Paul could catch (and dunk) an uncontested lob and where Gobert could turn and slam the ball without defenders swatting at his arms. In the fourth, the two teams combined to shoot 35.5% from the floor after making more than half their shots in the three quarters prior.
With the game on the line, Anthony Davis missed the first of two free throws, adding pressure to his next attempt. After swishing it, he put his arms up in the air while players (and fans from the winning charity) rushed the court.
It was the perfect way to honor Bryant, an emotional, competitive game between the greatest.
“It was tough early, especially early,” Paul said. “For a lot of us, it’s still surreal. It’s not real until you start showing pictures and talking about it. But I think the best way we could honor Kobe, Gigi, and everyone involved was to play like we played, you know what I mean? … That’s one thing about Kobe, whenever he was on our team in the All-Star Game, there wasn’t none of that cool stuff.
There wasn’t none of that. It was like, as long as they throw the ball up, let’s get to it.”
And that’s what Leonard did, hitting his first four threes while scoring 25 in the first half. And because of that hot start, his trophy room at home will get some new hardware — his first All-Star MVP — and a permanent reminder of his friendship with Bryant.
“I had a relationship with him. Words can’t explain how happy I am for it,” Leonard said. “[To be] able to put that trophy in my room, my trophy room, and just to be able to see Kobe’s name in there, it just means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”
And as he walked through the hallway before heading home , the normally stoic Leonard smiled.
“I’m just happy that I was able to know him,” Leonard said.
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