CHICAGO (AP) — Kobe Bryant always seemed to be in top form when he stepped onto the court for the NBA All-Star Game. The league's current best will try to match his effort when Team LeBron and Team Giannis meet on Sunday.
The All-Star festivities returned to Chicago for the first time since 1988 when Michael Jordan beat Dominique Wilkins in a slam dunk contest that remains the standard and scored 40 points to lead the East over the West.
But Bryant is casting a huge shadow over the events this weekend, just weeks after he and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people killed when their helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain near Los Angeles.
Commissioner Adam Silver announced Saturday night that the All-Star Game MVP award has been renamed in Bryant's memory.
“We know that he's watching over us," the Lakers' LeBron James said. "It's our responsibility to just represent the purple and gold not only for him but for all the greats, everybody that's ever come through the Lake Show. I really don't want to sit up here and talk about it too much. It's a very, very sensitive subject, but he's with us every day.”
Bryant played on five NBA championship teams, won a league MVP award and two scoring titles in a career that spanned 20 seasons and has him poised to enter the Hall of Fame after he was announced Friday as one of eight finalists.
He was the youngest All-Star in league history, ranks second with 18 selections and took game MVP honors a record-tying four times, including on his home court in 2011 when he dazzled with 37 points and 14 rebounds. Bryant scored 20 or more seven times.
“The whole thing of paying respect to Kobe is awesome, so I think it’s going to be fun,” said Toronto's Kyle Lowry, making his sixth straight All-Star appearance. "I’m hoping it’s really, really intense. Hopefully, we’ll give the fans one of the best All-Star Games ever.”
Here are some things to know:
James is looking to go 3-0 as an All-Star captain, after his team beat the one picked by Golden State’s Stephen Curry in 2018 and topped the one Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo selected last year. James had the No. 1 overall pick for the starters round because he received the most votes from the fans and took teammate Anthony Davis.
Antetokounmpo used his first pick on Philadelphia's Joel Embiid.
The Clippers' Kawhi Leonard, Houston's James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and Dallas' Luka Doncic were among the players joining Davis on James' team.
Toronto's Pascal Siakam, Boston's Kemba Walker, Atlanta's Trae Young and Miami's Jimmy Butler helped round out Team Giannis.
“I'm just competitive, and I'm just going to try to go out there and get a win, get my first All-Star (win)," Antetokounmpo said. “I'm 0-3 so far. But at the end of the day, I've just got to keep a smile on my face because we've got to put on a show for the people.”
The league announced major changes to the All-Star format last month, turning quarters into mini-games.
The scores will be reset back to 0-0 prior to the second and third quarters, then be reinstated for the fourth. The All-Star game winner will be determined by a target score, set by the combined point total the team in the lead had in the first three quarters plus 24 — a nod to Bryant, who wore that number over the final decade of his career. That's just one of multiple tributes to him over the weekend.
The teams are also playing for Chicago-area charities, with at least $500,000 going to local organizations.
The support for Bryant and his daughter is uniform.
Team Giannis will wear No. 24 on its jerseys and Team LeBron No. 2 for Gianna, a promising player who wore that number.
All participants in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday and 3-point, slam dunk and skills competition on Saturday wore patches showing the numbers 24 and 2 and nine stars to commemorate the victims of the helicopter crash. The patches worn Sunday will only have the nine stars since players will be wearing the numbers 24 and 2.
“He was the Michael Jordan of our generation,” Antetokounmpo said. “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. He's going to be definitely missed.”
Davis, a Chicago product, won't be the only player in familiar territory. Butler will be playing where his career began.
Unheralded as a late first-round pick, he emerged as an All-Star and one of the league's best two-way players in his six seasons with the Bulls before getting dealt to Minnesota in a 2017 draft day trade.
“Man, this city's done a lot for me,” Butler said. “To me, kids are so important, and I love this city. So every time I come back, I try to do as much as I can with them.”
With eight non-Americans suiting up, the game will have an international flair. Greece (Antetokounmpo), Slovenia (Dončić), Serbia (Nikola Jokić), Lithuania (Domantas Sabonis), Australia (Ben Simmons), Cameroon (Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam) and France (Rudy Gobert) will be represented.
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