How the 2020 NBA All-Star Game format beautifully emulated what Kobe Bryant was about as a player

CHICAGO -- The NBA All-Star Game, normally a flashy but unwatchable act of basketball joy without an ounce of effort or passion, turned Sunday into something as powerful as it was surprising: An organic and beautiful tribute to the late, great Kobe Bryant.

Everything about the game seemed -- by design, and by whatever forces of chance or power shape such things -- calibrated to turn the mind back to Bryant, and to again find a way to say goodbye to someone who shouldn't be gone.

That fact was true all weekend: The pictures and constant reminders that one of the game's greats had died last month, with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in Southern California. The players here talking about what Bryant had meant to them, one after the other. The tributes from Common and Jennifer Hudson and Magic Johnson before the game. The sadness there, always, in the background, amongst the joyful giddiness that tends to surround All-Star Weekend.

But the main event, the actual All-Star Game itself, veered from Kobe tribute to a full on Mamba hoops battle royal -- a perfect, and perfectly unexpected, farewell.

Consider: the new format of the event, tweaked this year to make the winner the first team to get to 24 points more than the leading team's total after the third quarter, was a throwback to his No. 24.

And every single member of Team LeBron wore No. 2.

And every single member of Team Giannis wore No. 24.

And those things were touching, and appropriate, and expected. But the game itself the last many years has rarely been played with the kind of intensity that such talent and hoopla warrants. And it was Kobe, more than any player this century, who always played it like it was the most important thing going.

"Kobe was a player," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said over the weekend. "Here was someone who set the record for 18 consecutive All-Stars and four All-Star MVPs and a famous Slam Dunk Contest on top of that."

Those All-Star Game accomplishments came from the fact that Bryant gave it his all, always. Even at the All-Star Game. That is not common. It was the furthest thing from common the first three quarters of the game Sunday.

Over that stretch, there was, as expected, little to no defense. An abundance of points, trick shots, alley-oops. A fun, fast, not very pressing or impressive game of basketball with the world's best players not exactly worried about every single play.

Then the fourth quarter came, with a marker of first-to-157-points-gets-the-win, and with it came minutes of brutal, angry, aggressive, bloodthirsty basketball. It was, watching it and being awed by it because it is so rare in these games, the perfect tribute. Because it happened on the court naturally. And because it happened the way Kobe believed the game should be played.

With every last thing you have, for every single second that you have it.

The last time I can remember such chippiness and angry-passion in an NBA All-Star Game was when Dwyane Wade broke Kobe's nose in 2012.

It doesn't seem too much to think, watching the game morph into 10 guys playing Mamba-style hoops to an increasingly awed crowd, that Kobe Bryant might indeed be looking down, smiling.

Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry playing playoff-style, physical basketball. Giannis blocking LeBron twice in that fourth quarter. Multiple challenges in a game that was normally a challenge just to watch. James Harden blocking Pascal Siakam. Charges and fouls and angry players looking like a Finals Game 7 were on the line. LeBron James desperate and focused on the win. On and on it went. It was incredible.

The game ended on a free throw, yes, after Anthony Davis missed the first at the 156-point mark but sank the second to seal it.

It's true, too, that when Kawhi Leonard was named the game's MVP - renamed, of course, the Kia NBA All-Star Game Kobe Bryant MVP Award - that this, too, seemed eerily right.

"It's very special," Leonard said after the game. "Like I said, I had a relationship with him. 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."

Leonard is liked and obviously respected, but he can also hold himself apart. He is, in is own unique way, a different person when he's on the floor. Board Man Getting Paid. Buckets. A man with a singular focus for winning and very, very little interest in making friends.

That, too, feels Kobe Bryant-like, particularly at the All-Star Game.

The NBA will move on, as it does, and the world will keep spinning, as it will. The regular season will kick back in in the days ahead, and around the association, we'll continue to process the fact that Kobe Bryant is gone.

Goodbyes are hard, and they can take time. But in Chicago, during an NBA All-Star Weekend designed to honor him, and an All-Star Game that ended so beautifully by emulating what he was about as a player, we got another goodbye worthy of Bryant the basketball player.

National Columnist

Bill Reiter began his career as a newspaper journalist before becoming a national columnist at CBS Sports. He currently hosts a national CBS Sports radio show from New York City from 6 to 10 p.m. ET called... Full Bio

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