The 2020 NBA All-Star Game was a perfect tribute to Kobe Bryant

All the symbolism and nostalgia was on point. All the tributes were aligned and appropriate and thoughtful and right. Yet for all the effort that went into honoring Kobe Bryant at the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, the greatest nod to the recently-departed, much-missed superstar came in the way the game was played.

As what has for years effectively amounted to a defense-free exhibition of little genuine consequence rolled towards its conclusion, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d clicked on the wrong channel.

A casual observer just tuning in might have wondered what championship prize was on the line, instead of bragging rights and a bunch of money for a deserving charity.

For there was Kyle Lowry, throwing his body on the line and taking charges. There was Giannis Antetokounmpo, face straining, leaping towards the heavens in a desperate, against-the-glass block attempt. There was LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard and other members of the ultimately victorious team, screaming at the referee, begging for a call to go their way.

“You actually have to compete,” Anthony Davis said. “You argue with the refs. It felt like a real playoff game.”

This was All-Star basketball with a difference, the culmination of a weekend that showed what a great showpiece can look like, one where the best players in the game don’t just turn up and receive applause and platitudes, but strive to show what it is that earned them their elite status to begin with.

That’s how Bryant saw the game. Until his tragic death, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash last month, the career-long Los Angeles Laker never found a game he didn’t want to win, whether it be pick-up, practice, regular season or Olympic final. His All-Star debut saw him attack Michael Jordan at every opportunity. He ended up being selected for All-Star 18 times, winning four MVPs — and to him, the result always mattered.

“For a lot of us, it is still surreal,” Paul told reporters afterwards. “It’s not real until you start showing pictures and talking about it. I think the best way we could honor Kobe, Gigi and everyone involved was to play like we played.”

Oh, they played. And, thanks to the Elam Ending, the special conclusion brought in to maximize entertainment and adopted in Bryant’s memory, they played some more. Instead of a timed fourth quarter, a target score of 157 (24 more than the leading team’s three-quarter tally) was set, ultimately reached after a frenetic final burst when Team LeBron’s Davis knocked down a dramatic free throw to stave off the game challenge of Team Giannis.

The ending was met with near universal approval. Much credit is due to the league for trying it out, and it is fascinating to think what part it might play in the future of the sport.

“Guaranteed drama,” wrote CBS’ Brad Botkin, while wondering if we might ever see a version of the Elam Ending in actual NBA action. “So many of these frustrating loopholes from traditional endings would be closed.”

It felt right. All too often, All-Star occasions have been depressing affairs, seeing players who matter to the game play a game that doesn’t matter to them. This one mattered, the fire ignited both by recent events and the way the structure of the thing tapped back into that old playground spirit.

The weekend was a salve in some ways, perhaps the start of basketball moving on, as, of course, it must do eventually, as much as it and we can. Within a week, Bryant and the victims’ public memorial will have taken place, and, crazy it at seems, nearly a month will have passed since they were taken.

It has been a strange time, hasn’t it? Bryant’s death has served as a reminder of both our own mortality and of those who act and live — and play — as if they are immortal.

Sunday night was a reminder of a different kind, that for all we emptily talk of the desire to build a legacy, sometimes the greats do leave something tangible behind. It is hard, coming out of a game like that, to think the recipient of the Kobe Bryant All-Star MVP Award, as it will be called moving forward, would ever earn such an accolade without the kind of exhaustive effort Bryant himself lived and breathed.

Leonard got that honor on this occasion, courtesy of an intense first half burst that saw him collect 25 of his 30 points before the intermission.

But in truth, for all of Team LeBron’s ultimate victory – and as cliché as it sounds – basketball was the winner. Because, in the spirit that Bryant brought to everything, they all wanted to win.