How the NBA All-Star Game’s tribute to Kobe Bryant came to be

The seed that spawned the way this year’s NBA All-Star Game will end — shaped as the most fitting of tributes to Kobe Bryant — was planted all the way in 2004.

As Duke and Xavier battled it out in the Elite Eight of that year’s NCAA Tournament, a University of Dayton senior named Nick Elam sat watching the game with his college roommates.

On the screen, a thriller of a contest was headed towards the same conclusion that so many basketball clashes at all levels end up at, a cycle of deliberate fouls, free throws, time outs and precious little action.

“It was painful to watch,” Elam told me in a telephone interview on Wednesday morning. “Here we had this great game, but, by the end of it, the air had left the building. I started talking with my friends about how weird it was that basketball games turned into an inferior product at the end. And it got me thinking.”

That thought turned into thousands of hours of research as Elam went on to become a high school math teacher, then a school administrator, while trying to decipher a better alternative for basketball finishes in his spare time.

The concept that he struck upon involves stopping the game clock at a certain point of the fourth quarter, at which point a target score is created. In the case of the All-Star Game, the clock will stop for the entire final frame and the target score will be 24, in honor of Bryant. For example, if Team Giannis is leading Team LeBron 100-98 after three periods, the first team to hit 124 will be the winner.

Chris Paul, in his role as head of the NBA Players Association, petitioned commissioner Adam Silver with the idea months ago, and, as circumstances have it, it might be the most appropriate tribute to Bryant of all. The concept means that there has to be a game winning shot — imagine the fearlessness with which Bryant would have attacked such a situation.

Paul’s interest came about due to his coaching involvement in The Basketball Tournament, a popular single-elimination event founded in 2014. Elam’s work was a result of a lifelong passion for the sport and an interest in trying to make it better.

“I love basketball dearly,” he told me. “I love everything about it, and it always just seemed strange how you would get this situation where the trailing team is purposely violating the rules of the game because it is their only chance.”

And not much of a chance at that. After researching a sample of 2,900 games from the NBA and college, he figured that the fouling strategy only works around 1 percent of the time.

“You get big, monumental games fading out with a whimper,” he added. “Great battles become an excruciating crawl to the finish.”

Elam wrote a book about his findings and mailed it off to countless people in the hoops world. The responses were polite and encouraging. He kept working at it. He fired off hundreds of emails. There were some small wins, which delighted him.

A Div. III college used his ending at a skills camp. It was in place for a girls’ preseason event in Cincinnati. A men’s league in Egypt got on board. The Basketball Tournament, with its national exposure, was a major breakthrough, enhanced when the tournament’s organizers officially named the system the Elam Ending.

Paul’s backing brought things to a whole new level. Commissioner Silver revealed to NBC Sports how Paul had contacted him last summer about the idea.

“If that’s something you’re serious about, why don’t you talk to other members of your executive committee and other players whose views you respect,” Silver told Paul. “I’ll talk to my colleagues at the league office and members of our competition committee. And what we heard back from everyone was it sounds really intriguing. Let’s try something new.”

The league reached out to Elam on Jan. 23, with the original idea being to set the target score at 35. Bryant’s tragic passing led to the tweak to 24 points.

Elam is now Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Ball State but remains enough of a diehard that he hasn’t missed a Dayton Flyers home game all season, driving two hours each way to take it in. He’s grateful there isn’t a home tilt this weekend, as the NBA are bringing him to Chicago for All-Star as their guest.

He’s proud of his formula, and he should be. Basketball is a glorious sport that ends in a way that most of us hate, or have conditioned ourselves to tolerate. Elam’s work has been done for the right reasons. He’s not trying to change the sport, he’s actually trying to stop it from alter itself so drastically in the waning minutes.

He thinks of his idea as an anti-gimmick and there is credence to that.

“I hope this catches on all the way,” he said. “I hope that when people see what type of basketball it produces, the excitement and the positive end to games, that we see it in college, the NBA, the Olympics, everything.”