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The specter of Kobe Bryant was omnipresent throughout All-Star weekend. Too often, it felt that the city of Chicago was not.
But both took center stage at the All-Star game itself on Sunday night. The result was poignant, powerful and downright enthralling.
Magic Johnson set the tone early with a eulogy to Bryant that elicited multiple, impassioned ‘Kobe!’ chants from the crowd. That gave way to South Side native Common seamlessly weaving a cadenced monologue dedicated to Chicago, Bryant and daughter Gigi, as images of city legends from Barack Obama to Michael Jordan to Hebru Brantley flashed across the screen. The United Center rippled with emotion from start to finish.
Stand up, Chicago! 🙌— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) February 17, 2020
The 2020 #NBAAllStar Game is tipped off by Chicago legends @BarackObama, Michael Jordan, @KekePalmer, @common, @chancetherapper, @HEBRUBRANTLEY, @iJesseWilliams, @TheRealBuddyGuy, @DwyaneWade, @Candace_Parker & @IsiahThomas. pic.twitter.com/VyrI6Ajg2S
For Bryant, the homage was a culmination. For Chicago, it was an essential re-centering to cap a weekend that saw only one Bull participate in an event — Zach LaVine, who exited after round one of the 3-point shootout. After 32 years since last hosting, this city deserved its moment in the sun. That one delivered.
“Chicago held it down,” Anthony Davis said. “I think they showed the league and everyone around the world about our Chicago history, about the city. I think everyone enjoyed it and respects Chicago a little bit more.”
Of course, there was a game to play, too — and embedded within were moments of pure symbolism.
On the surface: Members of Team Giannis and Team LeBron donned No. 24 and No. 2, respectively, in honor of Bryant and Gigi. The final quarter of the game went untimed, a slog to 157 (24 points more than the 133 Team Giannis entered the period with, per the league’s new Elam-inspired format).
Chicago charities — Chicago Scholars ($400,000) for Team LeBron, After School Matters ($100,000) for Giannis — also received a cumulative $500,000 over the course of the game. Seventy-nine assists between the two teams means $79,000 will go towards STEM research in the greater Chicago area, too.
But now, let’s get a little nebulous.
That fourth quarter, after a familiarly lackluster previous three, was electric. The offenses were legitimately running plays, the defenses were scrapping. There was controversial officiating, sweat dripping, and charges and clutch blocks galore. By the end, you could cut the tension with a knife.
“It felt like playing in the league in a playoff game,” Davis said.
Forgive me this contrivance, but how fitting a finish to commemorate both this city and Bryant. A true grind-it-out, scratch-and-claw affair. And as epic a pickup run as you’re like to find.
Most poetic, then, was the winning bucket. Yes, it was a free-throw — an anticlimactic ending to a memorable night — but the man that took it, Davis, was both born and bred in Chicago, and currently reps the same purple and gold Bryant did for 20 seasons as a member of the Lakers.
“It was a great feeling, to be back home,” Davis said. “And I’m happy I was able to be the one to knock down the free throw to seal the game.
“For our side to get a win, for Kob (Kobe), this whole weekend was honoring him. And I think the league did a great job of doing that.”
Davis went on to congratulate Kawhi Leonard, who tonight took home the first ever Kobe Bryant All-Star game MVP award. His 30 points led all scorers in the game.
“It’s very special,” Leonard said. “I had a relationship with him (Bryant). Words can’t explain how happy I am for it. Able to put that trophy in my room… And just to be able to see Kobe’s name on there. It just means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”
On Thursday, normalcy will return to the United Center in the form of the Bulls and Hornets. But this was a night no one will soon forget. Thank you, Chicago. Thank you, basketball.
Team LeBron defeated Team Giannis 157-155.
Team LeBron’s charity, Chicago Scholars, won $400,000. Team Giannis’ charity, After School Matters, took home $100,000.
Kawhi Leonard won the first Kobe Bryant All-Star game MVP award.
Another winner? How about the sport of basketball, the NBA and critics of All-Star games everywhere?
Thanks to a new format that featured charities benefitting by whichever team won each quarter, plus the first usage of an Elam Ending, the United Center featured a fourth quarter whose intensity might make Michael Jordan smile.
Man, that was fun. They fixed the NBA All-Star game. It still seems surreal.
Anthony Davis sank the second of two free throws after Team Giannis coach Nick Nurse used a second coach’s challenge — and third of the fourth quarter overall — to finalize matters.
But not until — deep breath here — Giannis Antetokounmpo dived for a loose ball; Kyle Lowry took two charges; Antetokounmpo blocked Davis twice and LeBron James once at the rim; officials called back-to-back offensive fouls, one of which felt like a makeup call; and players argued with officials like the NBA Finals, or maybe playground bragging rights, were at stake.
“Throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun,’” James said.
That it was.
In an interview with NBC Sports Chicago last month, NBA commissioner Adam Silver credited Chris Paul for bringing him the idea to incorporate the Elam ending, which establishes a target score rather than using a clock to discourage late-game fouling. Paul returned the compliment.
“The good thing about our league is we’re always adding new things and trying to figure out from our fans what they like,” Paul said.
Silver and the league introduced their own twist by making the target score 24 points more than the leading team after three quarters — a nod to Kobe Bryant’s number — and having the quarter-by-quarter charity winners.
Actually, nobody won the third quarter. It ended tied despite Nurse and Team LeBron coach Frank Vogel trading timeouts in the waning seconds to try to win the quarter.
“Every quarter from a coaching standpoint was really fun,” Nurse said.
Several players likened the ending intensity to that of a playoff game. How much did the Elam Ending benefit the ramp up in effort?
After three quarters of lob dunks, behind-the-back passes and uncontested 3-point shots that featured 55.5 percent shooting, the teams combined for 35.5 percent shooting in the fourth quarter.
“The end was amazing,” Nurse said. “Offensively, it was hard to get anything started. Even first passes were being denied. It felt like the end of a playoff game, which was really cool.”
Fans greeted it as such, standing down the stretch. What better way to honor Bryant’s legendary competitiveness than the way this one played out in the waning minutes?
That it was Davis who sank the winning free throw seemed a fitting end to honor the legacy of Chicago basketball that had been on display all week and then intensified with a beautiful pregame tribute to the city narrated by the rapper Common.
Davis, who attended Perspectives Charter High School, is the latest in a long line of stars this city has produced.
“Listen man, Chicago is right up there with one of the top cities in the world with producing some of the greatest basketball players to ever play this game,” James said. “You’ve even got Ben Wilson, who was on his way to being a star and obviously we know the story about that. So you got it all the way from grade school-era through high school through college and then so many pros and so many Hall of Famers.
“KG (Kevin Garnett) is about to go into the Hall of Fame soon. The great Isiah Thomas. DWade (Dwyane Wade) at some point will go into the Hall of Fame.”
That James cited Wilson, the late Simeon star gunned down on the eve of his senior season, showed the ultimate respect to this city’s rich heritage. A heritage that was honored by a competitive ending that would make anyone playing on playgrounds from Margate Park to Murray Park proud.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.