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. And now, the NBA will spend All-Star weekend mourning a star’s death.
It has given the Los Angeles 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 that 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 Award-winning 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 Bryant-themed 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 proven 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 Golden State 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 game-high 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.”
‘This continues to haunt you’
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 Toronto-based 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-on-one, 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 it 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.”