CHICAGO -- Perhaps no one in recent history cared more about winning the All-Star Game than Kobe Bryant. The format changes and his memory combined to create a game Sunday night at the United Center that would've made Bryant proud.
Technically, the winners were Team LeBron over Team Giannis 157-155 and local charities, as $500,000 was donated. The last hero was Chicago native Anthony Davis, who made the winning free throw. But the real victor was the competitive spirit Bryant embodied. Regardless of the headwinds that have made this a difficult NBA season, this contest was a reminder of the greatness of NBA basketball.
As the late David Stern used to say when the league faced troubles: "The greatness of the game will always carry us."
This All-Star Game was great. The Elam scoring system created a wonderfully enriching fourth quarter, the most intense play this weekend has seen in decades.
LeBron James was stealing the ball from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo was blocking James, including a crucial one at the rim that created the most intense replay review we've seen to date. Kyle Lowry was taking charges. Chris Paul, who brought the idea of the target scoring to the league months ago, was everywhere -- from finishing alley-oops to leading a late comeback. Joel Embiid was trying to single-handedly bring back the post player.
And, of course, the final play, on which James, who has spent this season doing everything he can to make Davis as happy as possible to cement his re-signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, gave up the chance to win the game to gift wrap a pass to Davis that forced a final foul.
"You could definitely feel [Bryant's] presence," James said. "So he was definitely here."
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There were tributes everywhere. From jerseys honoring Bryant and his daughter Gianna that each player will likely treasure as a keepsake, to pregame and halftime ceremonies.
But the real honoring came with the play, and perhaps no one embodied it more than Kawhi Leonard, the game's MVP, and Paul.
At All-Star Weekend in 2012 in Orlando during his rookie season, Leonard found Bryant at a Nike party and used the meeting to ask probing questions about offseason workouts and strategies. A few years later, after Bryant's last game in San Antonio on his retirement tour, Gregg Popovich asked Bryant for a favor in a private moment. He wanted Bryant to keep an eye on Leonard and help guide him now that they would no longer be competitors, the San Antonio coach knowing just how much Leonard looked up to Bryant.
If Bryant was the closest successor to Jordan's mindset, it's possible Leonard could take that torch by the time he's done. They both possess the mix of competitiveness and ruthlessness that is only for the 1% of the 1% of the greatest athletes on the planet.
So for a player who has redefined load management and would typically ration energy in the All-Star Game -- last season Leonard played just 18 minutes in Charlotte, the fewest of any All-Star starter -- Sunday was his own way of making a tribute.
"I came in, and I made my first two shots. ... That's when I told myself, 'I'm going to go try to get [MVP],'" Leonard said. "It's very special. I had a relationship with him. Words can't explain how happy I am for it. Able to put that trophy in my room, my trophy room, and just be able to see Kobe's name on there, it just means a lot to me. He's a big inspiration in my life."
Leonard played to win and to chase records. Amid an emotional string of tributes, Leonard put up 25 points in the first half and finished with 30 points, the most of anyone. He hit eight 3-pointers, one shy of the All-Star Game record.
Bryant, as is well known, won the MVP Award four times, the core reason the trophy has been named after him.
In Bryant's first All-Star Game, in 1998 in New York, he made it clear to everyone how he was going to go about this business. The veterans, some of whom weren't thrilled the young guy who was still a backup for the Lakers had been voted in by the fans, weren't exactly down with it.
He treated the game like a one-on-one matchup with Jordan and like he was the biggest star on the West team, shooting 10 of the first 11 times he touched the ball. He famously waved off Karl Malone in the third quarter when Malone came to set a screen for him because Bryant wanted to attack Jordan. Malone was not happy.
West coach George Karl benched Bryant for the fourth quarter, partially to haze him and partially to satisfy the veterans who didn't want him winning MVP, as was possible -- he had 18 points. Bryant never forgave Karl for this slight and later said he used it as motivation whenever he played Karl's teams, particularly the three times the Lakers beat Karl's Denver Nuggets in the playoffs.
Paul, another contemporary of Bryant who was cut from the same competitive cloth, was just as worthy of the honor Sunday. He shot the ball well, making seven 3-pointers on his way to 23 points, and he was his fiery self on the defensive end. His strong leadership helped Team LeBron overcome a deficit heading into the fourth quarter.
"For a lot of us, it's still surreal," Paul said. "I think the best way we could honor Kobe, Gigi and everyone involved was to play like we played."
The effort level shown in this game could have rewarded numerous players with the MVP honor. Antetokounmpo had 25 points, James had 23 and Embiid 22. Any of them could have won it in other years.
But this year was different, with so much grief saturating the league, and everyone was thankful for it.
"Anything else would be uncivilized," James said. "It's a beautiful time, it's a beautiful day, and his presence was felt here in Chicago. So appreciate it."