This weekend in Chicago was different — both for James and for the NBA at large — given Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s tragic death last month. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver put on a brave face Saturday night, delivering an extended appreciation of Bryant and renaming the All-Star Game MVP trophy in his honor. But James’s unusual reticence at media day reflected the somber circumstances as the basketball community tried to honor Bryant while it continued to grieve.
“He’s watching over us,” James said of Bryant, who died at age 41 along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash Jan. 26. “I don’t really want to sit up here and talk about it too much. It’s a very sensitive subject.” In a rare move, James politely declined to answer when a reporter asked him to share his favorite personal memory of Bryant. “That stays with me,” he said.
James led Team LeBron past Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Team Giannis, 157-155, during Sunday’s All-Star Game, which served as an extended tribute to the Bryants. Every player on Team LeBron wore jersey No. 2, Gianna’s number on her AAU team. Every player on Team Giannis wore No. 24, Bryant’s jersey number for much of his career. Both teams wore jersey patches that featured nine stars representing the nine victims, and the game’s scoring format was changed so that each team chased a target score of 24 points in the fourth quarter to be declared the winner.
The format experiment paid dividends, delivering a tense, back-and-forth fourth quarter that saw Antetokounmpo swat James, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid wrestle for possession, and James Harden’s apparent game-winning three-pointer wiped out by an offensive foul drawn by Kyle Lowry.
James put Team LeBron on the precipice of victory with an uncontested dunk, and Davis delivered the winning point in anti-climactic fashion from the free throw line. Leonard led Team LeBron with 30 points, seven rebounds and four assists, earning All-Star Game MVP honors. Antetokounmpo paced his team with 25 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. James finished with 23 points, five rebounds and six assists.
“It’s very special,” Leonard said of being named the first Kobe Bryant MVP award winner. “I had a relationship with him. Words can’t explain how happy I am for it. I’m able to put that trophy in my trophy room and see Kobe’s name on there.”
But even after the compelling ending, it was Bryant, not any of the sport’s current superstars, who was the center of attention all weekend. His name and image appeared on the back of credentials handed out to media members and NBA staffers. Former Lakers forward Pau Gasol gave a speech in his honor before Friday night’s Rising Stars game. Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard wore a jacket that read “Mamba Forever” while rapping before the slam dunk contest Saturday night, and Lakers center Dwight Howard wore the No. 24 on his chest while competing in the event.
Much of Silver’s news conference was devoted to honoring Bryant and former commissioner David Stern, who died Jan. 1 after suffering a brain hemorrhage in December.
“[Kobe] and David were both determined to win,” Silver said. “They could be difficult at times because they prioritized winning, and often they didn’t have time for some of the niceties around personal relationships because it was about winning. So many of [this generation’s players] grew up with Kobe as their role model as a player [and] as a competitor. He found a way to connect to so many of this current generation. He was talking to them about the belief in winning — that extra drive, that inner beast he called it, that was necessary to truly be a champion.”
Sunday’s All-Star Game opened with a speech from Lakers legend Magic Johnson, who led an eight-second moment of silence after asking the all-stars and the United Center crowd to hold hands.
“We’ll never see another basketball player quite like Kobe,” Johnson said. “Scoring 81 points in one game [in 2006]. Scoring 60 points in his last game [in 2016]. And then winning five NBA championships. What I’m really proud of when we think about Kobe Bryant — there are millions of people in Los Angeles who don’t have a home. Kobe was fighting to get them homes and shelter every single day. He was passionate about that. He was also passionate about being a great husband, father, and filmmaker. We’re all hurting. This is a tough time for the NBA family.”
The pregame ceremonies continued with a musical tribute from Jennifer Hudson, who sang “For All We Know,” and a spoken word poem by Common, which connected Bryant and his childhood idol, Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan. “Even in the darkest times,” the Chicago rapper and actor’s poem concluded, “you’ll feel Kobe’s light.” Images of Bryant and his daughter were displayed on the stage before player introductions, and the arena lights switched to the Lakers’ purple and gold.
Much of Sunday’s first half was played in front of a relatively quiet crowd, which cheered highlights but otherwise sat in relative silence. Bryant jerseys were visible throughout the stands, including in the courtside seats, where NBA legend Allen Iverson wore a yellow No. 8 Lakers jersey.
On the court, multiple players offered smaller, personal tributes. Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo wore Bryant’s signature Nike sneakers, and Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker wore a Bryant jacket during warmups. At halftime, Chance the Rapper performed while a montage of Bryant photographs and video clips played behind him, and Lil Wayne took the stage wearing pants comprised of Bryant’s jerseys.
“Anything else would be uncivilized,” James said Sunday when asked about the night’s many tributes. “He’s one of the greatest basketball players, one of the most impactful players, and the inspiration that he has is showing.”
There were memorable moments throughout the weekend in Chicago, from a snowstorm scare on Thursday, to former president Barack Obama’s visit and Zion Williamson’s Rising Stars debut Friday to Derrick Jones Jr.'s controversial slam dunk contest victory Saturday to the nail-biting fourth quarter Sunday. But Bryant’s death hung over the proceedings, turning a typically jubilant showcase into a serious time of reflection.
“He was my idol. He was the Michael Jordan of our generation,” said Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s 25-year-old reigning MVP. “He was one of those guys who gave back to the game so much, gave back to the players. A lot of people, when they’re so big, they don’t do that. There’s a quote that talent is worthless if you don’t share it. He was one of those guys who would share his talent with us. He’s definitely going to be missed.”