CHICAGO — The NBA paid homage to Kobe Bryant during this year's All-Star festivities, in ways both large and small. The Los Angeles Lakers' purple and gold, which he wore all 20 of his NBA seasons, were the primary colors of the weekend. Commissioner Adam Silver opened both the NBA Tech Summit and his annual press conference, in which he introduced the Kobe Bryant All-Star MVP Award, describing Bryant's impact.
From the referee whistles to the All-Star Game uniforms to the newly named MVP trophy (taken home by Kawhi Leonard in this year's contest) to the back of each media credential, the league made sure Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who died two weeks ago in a helicopter crash, were as omnipresent as the event's signature star trim, their absence universally felt as much as the weekend's chill wind.
But the true measure of what Bryant meant to the league and the lasting impression his abrupt death has made may be better reflected in the less publicized, organic and highly personal ways in which his peers are choosing to keep him in their hearts and minds. That's in keeping with the way Bryant chose to offer guidance to NBA players as well as great athletes in other sports—privately but no less passionately, pursuing results more than recognition. Every All-Star Weekend participant, from those who only knew him as the player who inspired their basketball dreams to those who knew what it was to play alongside him, they all feel an obligation to keep Bryant's spirit alive.
"It's all around us," says Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. "You listen to Pau [Gasol] speak and [Shaquille O'Neal] speak and those guys who knew him really well, it always touches a nerve. It's something we have to carry with us."
The reality is the entire league has been in an unabated state of sorrow and disbelief since Jan. 26, when a helicopter with Kobe, Gianna and seven others crashed in Calabasas, California, killing everyone on board.
"Our players are still devastated," says one Eastern Conference general manager, referring not just to his team but also to the entire league. That was evident in the somber faces of this season's All-Stars as NBA legend Magic Johnson talked about Bryant before Sunday night's pregame ceremonies.
"Every time I think about it I'm in shock," says Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke, who played for the Rising Stars' Team World Friday night. "It's tough to be on the court, knowing that I watched him so much, looked up to him so much. It's weird to know that his presence is no longer here. I can't really accept it."
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker warmed up in a custom-made bright yellow and purple hoodie with Kobe and Gianna’s names on the front and a black Mamba, Kobe's adopted symbol, on the back. Booker tasked clothes designer Warren Lotas with creating the hoodie as soon as he was named an injury replacement for Damian Lillard.
"He had to put it together quick," he says. "Kobe and Gigi have been on my mind, and I wanted to find a way to represent them the best way I could. Warren did an incredible job. I was [just] the one who presented the idea of making a one-of-one piece for Gigi and Kobe."
Others took a more subtle approach. Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young wore custom-made shoes with "Mamba" on the heel cups. WNBA star Liz Cambage had Kobe’s tri-pronged Mamba symbol tattooed behind her left ear.
And then there's Clarke, whose act of commemoration is not anything anyone will ever see or hear. For some time now, Clarke has said a short prayer during the national anthem before every game for a friend and his grandfather, both of whom he lost a few years ago.
"It's three now," he says. "I added Kobe to my prayer."
Still others are adopting Kobe's approach in some shape or form to honor him. Rising Stars Team USA coach Phil Handy, a Lakers assistant coach who worked closely with Bryant in his final playing years, made "Mamba Mentality" part of his pregame speech. The players then broke every huddle by saying "Mamba!" After a lackluster first-half performance, Golden State Warriors forward Eric Paschall attributed the late comeback over Team World to a desire to do more than talk about honoring Bryant.
"We didn't want to lose," Paschall says. "We said to ourselves, 'Do we really want to continue not playing hard?' That's why we started to turn it up and ramp up our defense."
Thinking about Bryant consumed the Team World locker room as well, Clarke says, but it was unspoken. "We all definitely thought about it, but we didn't really talk about it," he says.
"We don't have to talk about it. It's non-verbal now."
Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte' Graham, who played for the winning Team USA squad, hopes to be a living symbol of Bryant's legacy. "I didn't get a tattoo or anything," he says. "I feel like the best way is having his mindset. Keep attacking every situation with your all, on and off the court."
Booker vows to "[live] by the words that he left me with, the last ones being 'Be Legendary,' that he wrote on a pair of shoes for me. I take that to heart. I don't think a guy would say that if he didn't see it in you."
Bryant's example off the court is what Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley is determined to replicate. Bryant routinely used a helicopter to circumvent the Los Angeles-area traffic, specifically to spend time with his family instead of other commuters on the freeways. Beverley has no plans to utilize a helicopter, but he does hope to sneak home whenever the schedule permits.
"Sometimes you take it for granted, you're on the road so much away from your family," Beverley says. "Any off days, any couple of days off, I'm going to find a way to be with my kids because family is important."
The Hawks' Young plans to do something for Bryant's surviving family—his wife Vanessa and their three daughters—that he's not ready to discuss. He also intends to put the names of Kobe and Gianna "somewhere on my body," he says.
Lakers center Dwight Howard, who played with Bryant in an earlier stint with the team, made Bryant a prominent part of his performance in the Slam Dunk Contest, tearing off the Superman badge on his chest to reveal Bryant's No. 24. But the death of Bryant, who at one time was critical of Howard but more recently spoke glowingly of his return to the Lakers, is still too fresh for Howard to discuss.
"For some people, it's still something that's hard to talk about," he says. "Being his teammate, it's really hard to discuss how I feel. My emotions are still running pretty high about what happened."
As for his personal salute to Bryant, well, that will remain beneath the 24 on his dunk costume.
"That," Howard says, patting his chest, "stays with me."
That may be the truest form of recognition Bryant would ever want. It's easy to imagine Kobe hearing that and—fierce gaze, clenched jaw and all—nodding in approval.