CHICAGO – Kobe Bryant would have been proud.
As expected, the NBA had an amazing tribute to the former Lower Merion High School and Los Angeles Laker great during Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game at the United Center.
Anthony Davis hit the winning foul shot as Team LeBron defeated Team Giannis, 157-155, in the game dedicated to Bryant, among nine people who died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 outside of Los Angeles. Bryant, 41, was traveling to a youth basketball function with his daughter, Gianna, 13, when the helicopter crashed.
The league also changed the game’s format to elevate the entertainment level with Bryant in mind.
Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Los Angeles Lakers forward/guard LeBron James were voted captains of the Eastern and Western conferences, respectively. They divided the other All-Stars into two teams, Team LeBron and Team Giannis, during an on-air draft.
On this night, Team LeBron’s Kawhi Leonard led all scorers with 30 points to win the newly minted Kobe Bryant MVP Award.
The Los Angeles Clippers small forward dedicated the award to Bryant.
“Like I said, I had a relationship with him,” Leonard said. "Words can’t explain how happy I am for it. Able to put that trophy in my room, in 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. He did a lot for me.”
In his third straight All-Star starter appearance, 76ers center Joel Embiid finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds for Team Giannis and Sixers teammate Ben Simmons had 17 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and one block for Team LeBron.
Simmons was much more aggressive than in last season’s All-Star game.
“That’s just how I’ve got to play,” he said. “I’m just trying to carry that mindset whenever I step on the floor.”
The night began with Hall of Famer Magic Johnson addressing the crowd with all the All-Stars behind him. He began his address by talking about former NBA commissioner David Stern, who passed away on Jan. 1. Then he turned his attention to honoring Bryant. Johnson ended his tribute by having the sellout crowd stand up, hold hands and have an eight-second moment of silence. Bryant wore No. 8 for the first 10 seasons of his career.
After Johnson addressed the crowd, recording artist and Chicago native Jennifer Hudson did a musical tribute to Bryant. Chicago artist Chance the Rapper also concluded his halftime show with a musical tribute to Bryant.
“I think it was amazing,” Simmons said of the tributes. "They had great performances, a lot of touching words. It’s always going to be tough, especially when you do something like that before a game. But his legacy is going to carry on.
“He’s one of the greatest to ever do it. I think that’s what everyone is going to take from it.”
Said Embiid: “Just watching it, a lot of us were emotional. But it was cool. Kobe, he deserved it. David Stern, they both deserved it, and obviously the other people that were killed in the crash. I thought it was great and emotional.”
Team LeBron donned No. 2 in honor of Gianna, and Team Giannis wore No. 24 for Bryant.
Under the game’s new format, the teams competed to win the first three quarters. All of them started with the score tied at 0-0 and 12 minutes long. Then there was an untimed fourth quarter during which the teams played to a final target score.
Team LeBron won the first quarter, 51-43. Team Giannis won the second quarter, 51-30. The teams were tied, 41-41, in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, the teams played to a final target score of 157. That score was determined by adding the 24 points (in honor of Kobe) to the leading team’s total cumulative score through three quarters (133 by Team Giannis). The first team to reach the target score during the untimed fourth quarter would win the game.
Embiid, who played in the fourth quarter, said the players felt like they played with a purpose, trying to win money for charities.
“Me personally where I’m from, when you make it, you’ve got to go back and help as much as you can,” said Embiid, a native of Cameroon. "Having an opportunity to be here, and being able to help people, it meant a lot.
“I’m proud of my team. I felt like everybody played hard.”
Embiid pulled Team Giannis within one point (156-155) on a pair of foul shots. But Davis, after missing the first free throw, made the second to get to the target score and win the game.