It has become one of the NBA’s most revered traditions: On the morning of the NBA All-Star Game, the league pays tribute to retired players with what is called the Legends Brunch. It brings together about 3,000 guests, and every year a recent retiree with ties to the game’s host city is honored.
When the game was in Los Angeles two years ago, the NBA wanted to honor Kobe Bryant.
He declined. He couldn’t attend. His reason: his daughter Gianna Bryant had a game that morning.
"That said, to us, everything about his priorities," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Sunday as he recalled that conversation with Bryant.
This All-Star weekend, which was held in Michael Jordan’s longtime home of Chicago, was highlighted by a game where LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo served as captains — but it was, predictably and understandably, overshadowed by the mourning of Bryant.
Jennifer Hudson, wearing the Lakers' deep purple, performed a pregame tribute to Bryant and sang "For All We Know." Players on James’ team wore Gianna’s No. 2 on their jerseys and players on Antetokounmpo’s team wore Kobe’s No. 24 on theirs. And all players wore a patch with nine stars, one for each victim of the crash.
Common, in his pregame tribute to Chicago, also paid homage to Bryant, saying that "even in the darkest times, you'll feel Kobe's light."
Everyone at the All-Star Game on Sunday got a 24-page tribute published by Sports Illustrated devoted to Bryant's career. On the last page of text, just before the back cover, was a quote from Jordan: "I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me," it began. Next to that quote was a photo, Bryant guarding Jordan in 1997, sticking his tongue out much in the same way that the Bulls' guard often did.
And when the night was over, Kawhi Leonard was the first recipient of the Kobe Bryant MVP Award, given to the player voted as the biggest star of the All-Star Game — a trophy that Bryant hoisted four times.
It’s been three weeks now since Bryant, 13-year-old Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in Southern California.
And the mourning period is still very active, very real, very necessary.
It’s a doubly somber time for the NBA, since the league is also coming to grips with the Jan. 1 death of Commissioner Emeritus David Stern — the person credited for taking a fledgling league and turning it into one of the planet’s most powerful sports brands, a multi-billion-dollar entity with a reach that touches nearly every outpost on earth. Stern was remembered as well at the Legends Brunch, and Silver drew a parallel between Bryant and his former boss.
"Just as a reminder: Who more embodies the spirit of All-Star than Kobe? ... He always played hard. He didn’t care if it was an All-Star game," Silver said. "And I think that’s what he and David had in common. They always competed. They believed in the power of sports. They believed in winning and they believed it was necessary to always give their all. And I think that’s why their losses have resonated with so many people around the world."
Magic Johnson — like Bryant, a Los Angeles Lakers legend — had been hired two years ago to introduce Bryant at the Legends Brunch, the one that Bryant couldn’t attend because his daughter had a game that morning.
On Sunday, Johnson finally got his chance to speak at the event and pay tribute to Bryant. He told the story about how, before Bryant was drafted in 1996, Jerry West called him to say that he had seen the greatest draft workout that he could recall.
He was speaking of Bryant’s workout.
"And I said, ‘Really,'" said Johnson, who also paid tribute to Stern and Bryant at United Center before Sunday's game by addressing fans. "He said, ‘Yes, this guy named Kobe Bryant. Just was incredible in his workout and we’re going to do everything we can to draft him."
The rest is history. Bryant came to the Lakers in a draft-night trade and played there for 20 years, winning five titles. Johnson said he was quickly impressed with Bryant’s work ethic, how he would work for two hours before practice and then go through another two-hour session with the team.
"That’s who Kobe Bryant was," Johnson said. "He was always thinking about 'How can I get better? How can I lead my team to victory?' And when you think about him scoring 81 points in a game, only second to Wilt Chamberlain, and then five NBA championships, and then to score 60 points in his last game — that was probably the greatest thing I’ve ever seen from any athlete. He said, 'Hey, I’m going to go out Mamba-style.'"
The brunch paid tribute this year to four individuals: USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo received the Lifetime Achievement award, newly retired three-time NBA champion and Chicago native Dwyane Wade received the Community Ambassador award, retired WNBA player and another Chicago native Cappie Pondexter was the Hometown Hero recipient, and longtime Chicago Bulls star and six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen was the Legend of the Year.
Pippen was at his Los Angeles home when he got the news on Jan. 26 about Bryant.
"It was a weird morning," Pippen said. "And I’m still today regretting that I didn’t get a chance to tell Kobe Bryant how great he really was."