CHICAGO—The emotions are still very raw and still very real, and the larger-than-life presence of Kobe Bryant remained everywhere as the NBA celebrated itself at its all-star weekend.
Uniform patches and jersey numbers, speeches and fans in the streets and stands, sporting uniforms in tribute to the late Los Angeles Lakers great.
Everywhere, Bryant remains. For some closest to him, it’s still almost too painful to talk about.
“I really don’t want to sit up here and talk about it too much,” Lakers star LeBron James said during one of the many times over the weekend when Bryant’s death became part of the conversation. “It’s a very, very sensitive subject, but he’s with us every day.”
There was a sombre mood to the all-star game itself after a moving, emotional, soulful performance of “For All We Know” by Chicago native Jennifer Hudson, who had the United Center audience in dead silence as she sang.
Lakers icon Magic Johnson paid tribute to both David Stern (“the greatest commissioner any league has ever seen”) and Bryant (“We will never see another basketball player quite like Kobe”) before asking the crowd for eight seconds of silence, commemorating one of the jersey numbers Bryant wore.
“We all are hurting,” Johnson said. “This is a tough time for the whole NBA family.”
It is the totality of the tragedy, its unimaginable scope, that really hits home. A man too young taken from his fans and the game he lorded over in so many ways. A life’s second act cut short.
The death of young girls who were just beginning their lives rips at people, tears their heartstrings. We think of Bryant as the basketball icon, but there was so much more to that horrific helicopter crash just three weeks ago.
“His loss, together with his daughter (Gianna) and those other seven people on the helicopter, is unspeakable,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “As the father of a child, I mean, that’s the unimaginable.”
And maybe that’s why it’s hard for players and officials to speak too openly about it, even now. They all live the same kind of life, and to know — to have seen and felt — how it can be ripped away at a moment’s notice, through nothing more than the intervention of fate and a foggy Southern California morning, lays bare the vagaries of life. There but for the grace of God …
“We know that he’s watching over us,” James said.
And touched them all at some point. That has been one of the enduring memories of Bryant, how he was a touchstone for this generation of player — their Michael Jordan, their Magic Johnson, their Bill Russell.
The players in Sunday night’s game not only cut their basketball teeth watching Bryant in his 20-year career, they remained in touch and in tune with him, even in retirement.
“A guy that mentored me in the last few years of my career, a guy that was always there for me,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “In the regular season, the playoffs, a guy that told me that whenever I need something, I could just reach out to him, and he was really always there. If I needed something, he would text me back, call me.”
That’s why it hurts so badly, even today. Bryant was very much one of them, still.
“I didn’t really know Kobe personally, but I think he did a (video breakdown) on me during the playoffs and it was something that I really watched,” Raptors star Pascal Siakam said. “All the little pointers that he gave me about my game is something I’m going to take. It’s definitely going to stay with me for the rest of my life. Just his impact and everything that he’s done for the game of basketball is incredible. He’s a legend.”
Bryant dominated the all-star games like few others of his generation. He was chosen to play in a record 18 straight, named the game’s most valuable player four times and never once treated it as some kind of game for giggles: It was a competition. Maybe it wasn’t as intense as the NBA Finals, but if he was going against the best in the game, they were going to get his best.
He famously waved off a potential screen from teammate Karl Malone so Bryant could go at the legendary Michael Jordan one-on-one in his first appearance in New York in 1998, and he treated every all-star game after that as a competition rather than a fun exhibition.
It has been the underlying theme in many discussions about Bryant here: The way to best honour him is to respect the competitive nature of sport and always — always — play hard.
“Because of Kobe, I am a very, very hard worker, for sure,” Boston’s Kemba Walker said this weekend.
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Naming the all-star game MVP award after Bryant is just one of the tributes the NBA will eventually settle on for a “transformational player,” as Silver called him. It is a way to publicly pay homage to a player who meant so much to so many.
“Growing up, he was my idol,” Antetokounmpo said. “Not just my idol, probably the whole generation, a lot of people my age … He was one of those guys that gave back to the game so much, gave back to the players.
“A lot of people when they’re so great, they don’t do that. There was a quote that said that talent is worthless if you’re not willing to share it, right? And he was one of those guys that was sharing his talent with us.”