All-Star Game will be a Kobe salute


Mark Me­d­ina

LOS ANGELES – Nearly 28 years ago, the NBA spent All-Star Week­end cel­e­brat­ing a star’s un­ex­pected ap­pear­ance. Nearly four years ago, the NBA spent All-Star Week­end hon­or­ing a star’s ca­reer. Now, the NBA will spend All-Star Week­end mourn­ing a star’s death.

It has given the Lak­ers plenty to process.

Nearly three months af­ter an­nounc­ing he was di­ag­nosed with HIV, Magic John­son ap­peared as a starter in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game and fin­ished with the MVP award. As part of his sea­son-long farewell tour to cap a 20-year ca­reer, Kobe Bryant spent the 2016 All-Star Game re­ceiv­ing count­less trib­utes and gifts. And less than a month since his death, along with daugh­ter Gianna and seven other friends who were en route to an AAU game, Bryant will be hon­ored through­out All-Star Week­end in Chicago.

“We be­lieve that pretty much ev­ery arena we go to is going to be some type of emo­tion, just be­cause of the im­pact the guy had as an op­po­nent, his com­pet­i­tive na­ture and as a win­ner,” Lak­ers star LeBron James said. “We un­der­stand that. We’re going to con­tinue to lean on each other, no mat­ter what’s going on.”

Be­cause of that, this week­end might pro­vide some heal­ing for the play­ers, coaches and fans who Bryant in­spired.

For Sun­day’s game, “Team LeBron” will wear No. 2 in honor of the num­ber

that Bryant’s 13-year-old daugh­ter Gianna wore on her AAU team. “Team Gian­nis” will sport the No. 24 in honor of the num­ber that Bryant wore dur­ing the sec­ond half of his ca­reer. And in the fi­nal quar­ter, the win­ner will be de­cided on which team first scores 24 points.

The NBA has not re­leased all of its plans on how it will honor Bryant dur­ing All-Star Week­end. But Academy Award­win­ning actress and Chicago na­tive Jennifer Hud­son will per­form a trib­ute to Bryant, Gianna and the other vic­tims who died Jan. 26 when a he­li­copter crashed in Cal­abasas, Cal­i­for­nia. It seems likely United Cen­ter will hold a mo­ment of si­lence and present a Bryant video trib­ute just as all NBA teams have done. James, who will host 23 high school stu­dents from his “I Prom­ise School” pro­gram dur­ing All-Star Week­end, will in­vite them to Satur­day’s prac­tice where they will wear Bryant­themed T-Shirts, read­ing: “We are Fam­ily.”

Those mo­ments might be cathar­tic and painful.

“It’s emo­tional. It’s tough,” Lak­ers for­ward An­thony Davis said. “It’s tough for me, but bas­ket­ball is kind of like my stress re­liever.”

News of the crash was shock­ing and touched people around the world. The NBA world an­tic­i­pated tragedy, though, when John­son an­nounced on Nov. 7, 1991, that he would re­tire af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with HIV. John­son vowed he would over­come the dis­ease and raise aware­ness about the virus that causes AIDS. Yet many feared John­son faced a death sen­tence.

Those fears have proved un­founded. John­son even­tu­ally played on the 1992 Dream Team, plot­ted two come­backs and be­came a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man through the next two decades. The come­back first started when he re­ceived enough fan votes to play in the 1992 All-Star Game only three months af­ter his an­nounce­ment. Karl Malone and Mark Price ex­pressed reser­va­tions out of safety con­cerns. But for­mer com­mis­sioner David Stern ap­proved the se­lec­tion. And for­mer War­riors guard Tim Har­d­away vol­un­teered his start­ing spot for John­son.

“At that par­tic­u­lar time at the All-Star Game, there were no con­cerns,” Har­d­away said about how NBA play­ers felt about John­son play­ing. “Ev­ery­body knew what to ex­pect and what was hap­pen­ing. We had got­ten a lot of education.”

John­son’s con­tem­po­raries quickly learned he was still Magic. He won the All-Star MVP award by post­ing a game­high 25 points and nine as­sists en route to a 153-113 vic­tory.

Af­ter training for the pre­vi­ous two months, John­son wel­comed the com­pet­i­tive and phys­i­cal play against Isiah Thomas, Michael Jor­dan and Den­nis Rodman. The game ended with John­son mak­ing three con­sec­u­tive 3-point­ers be­fore team­mates em­braced him at half­court.

That left ob­servers won­der­ing 28 years later whether that was the big­gest mo­ment in NBA All-Star history.

“I would say so,” said for­mer Lak­ers for­ward James Wor­thy, now a Lak­ers an­a­lyst for Spec­trum Sport­sNet, the team’s flag­ship net­work. “There’s been some great dunk­ing con­tests and things like that. But I think the fact that ini­tially we all were un­e­d­u­cated about the dis­ease, this was a big thing. Magic was a great rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the cause.”

The NBA cel­e­brated Bryant dur­ing All-Star Week­end in 2016 in Toronto for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. In what marked the 20th and fi­nal year of his ca­reer, all with the Lak­ers, Bryant made his 18th ap­pear­ance, the sec­ond most be­hind for­mer Lak­ers cen­ter Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar.

When Bryant ar­rived for in­ter­views, a hand­ful of in­ter­na­tional re­porters greeted him with gifts. One Toron­to­based re­porter handed Bryant a per­son­al­ized thank you card. A Ja­panese re­porter gave Bryant a piece of art­work that de­picted Bryant as a samu­rai. Dur­ing a party later that night, Jor­dan pre­sented Bryant with his en­tire Nike cat­a­log, which in­cluded 30 pairs of Jor­dan’s var­i­ous shoes.

The next day, the Western Con­fer­ence All-Star team stopped prac­tice to watch high­lights of Bryant’s per­for­mances that yielded four All-Star MVPs, which tied Bob Pet­tit for a league record. Shortly af­ter­ward, coach Gregg Popovich play­fully de­fended Bryant dur­ing warm-ups, prompt­ing Bryant to el­bow him on his way to the bas­ket.

Be­fore the game, John­son told the crowd “there will never be an­other Kobe Bryant” be­fore his video trib­utes played. One showed Bryant’s high­lights. An­other played mes­sages from James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Du­rant and Pau Ga­sol. Cana­dian rap­per Drake wore a sports jacket with the mes­sage, “Farewell Mamba,” draped above Bryant’s im­age. Bryant hugged co­me­dian Kevin Hart be­fore play­ing with Gianna.

Bryant had just 10 points on 4 of 11 shoot­ing, seven as­sists and six re­bounds in 26 min­utes. On one play, Bryant stopped Ga­sol in the post. On an­other, James slapped the ground be­fore call­ing for Bryant to play him one-onone, which ended with Bryant miss­ing a fade­away.

Once Bryant ex­ited the game in the fi­nal minute, he hugged ev­ery team­mate, coach and Popovich.

“It’s kind of bit­ter­sweet,” Popovich said af­ter the game. “You re­mem­ber all the strug­gles against him and all of the com­pet­i­tive­ness. You re­spect him so much for bring­ing it night af­ter night af­ter night.

“A lot of play­ers don’t un­der­stand that re­spon­si­bil­ity to be able to do that at that level. He does it fiercely for all of these years. To see him now, it’s been like a pass­ing of a gen­er­a­tion.”

Only four years later, the NBA will cel­e­brate Bryant again for rea­sons they did not ex­pect.

“There will be some mem­o­rable Kobe mo­ments, but it will be sad,” Wor­thy said. “Things like this hit you much, much later. We’re at our strong­est right now. But try­ing to deal with it, that will be months and years later. This con­tin­ues to haunt you.”


Kobe Bryant dur­ing his fi­nal NBA game in 2016 with the Lak­ers, when he scored 60 points.

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