CHICAGO -- The untimely death of Kobe Bryant was the theme leading up to Sunday night’s All-Star game which was won by Team LeBron, 157-155.
The night began with a series of tributes to Bryant which included a stirring speech given by Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson.
Throughout Johnson’s speech, there was the occasional “Ko-be, Ko-be, Ko-be!” chant from the stands.
And the actual game itself was one of the better-played All-Star games in recent memory courtesy of a new format that seemed to go over well with all involved.
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The game came down to big shots and big stops by both teams, a fitting end to the night considering how all involved wanted to honor Kobe Bryant and did just that with a brand of basketball that in many ways was part of the Kobe narrative of elite play at both ends of the floor.
Chris Paul acknowledged the challenge of playing the game at a high level and not think about Bryant who was a major influence for many of today’s All-Star players.
“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? Me and Russ (Russell Westbrook) kept talking about it, 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.”
LeBron James added, “You could definitely feel his presence just from the start. 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 2-4. So he was definitely here.”
Former NBA All-Star Richard “Rip” Hamilton was among those in attendance at the game.
He and Bryant were both prep stars who grew up competing with and against each other in Pennsylvania and were at times roommates during all-star competitions.
Hamilton acknowledged he still hasn’t fully come to grips with what happened to Bryant and the others.
“It hurt me, man, it hurt me to my core,” Hamiton told NBC Sports Boston. “And I still haven’t fully recovered from it. Him and I go back way before the NBA and the glitz and glamor and everything else. It’s a thing that … it still impacts me to this day.”
And once the current crop of All-Star players stepped on the floor, Team Giannis wore jersey number 24 (Kobe Bryant’s number) while Team LeBron wore jersey number 2 (the number of GiGi Bryant, Kobe’s daughter).
Boston’s Jayson Tatum is among the many players on the floor whose game was heavily influenced by Bryant who along with his daughter Gigi, was killed along with seven others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
The relationship between Tatum and Bryant had grown into a friendship strengthened by Bryant’s interest in mentoring Tatum who has never shied away from acknowledging how influential Bryant has been in his life, both on the court as well as off the court since coming into the NBA.
“He was the reason I started playing basketball,” Tatum said recently. “To have him reach out and try and help me, wanna work with me was something I would never forget.”