By Brendan O’Brien
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Team LeBron beat Team Giannis by two points at the 69th NBA All-Star game on Sunday at a packed United Center that fell silent for eight seconds before tip-off as about 21,000 fans joined hands to pay their respects to global sports icon Kobe Bryant.
The silence was broken by a string of thunderous “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe,” chants that rocked the stadium as the crowd honored Bryant, who wore the No. 8 and No. 24 during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers that was highlighted by five National Basketball Association championships.
The stirring pre-game tribute began with Laker great Magic Johnson rousing the crowd and paying homage to Bryant, killed along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven victims in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26.
“We will never see another basketball player quite like Kobe,” Johnson said, highlighting his work with the Los Angeles community along with the love he had for his family. “This is a tough time for the whole NBA family.”
Johnson also paid tribute to former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who oversaw explosive growth in the popularity of the game during his 30-year tenure. Stern died on Jan. 1.
Before tip-off, the singer and actor Jennifer Hudson, who is a Chicago native, sang with a montage of photos of Bryant and his daughter in the background.
The game was a culmination of a weekend filled with tributes to the former Los Angeles Lakers star who was an 18-time All-Star and won the All-Star game’s MVP award four times.
On Friday, Bryant, who is fourth all-time in league scoring, was named a finalist to the Basketball Hall of Fame. On Saturday, the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, announced that the league’s All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award has been permanently named for Bryant.
Bryant made his NBA All-Star Game debut in 1998 at age 19 – the youngest player to ever play in an All-Star Game. His 18 All-Star selections are the second-most in NBA history, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, at 19.
Players in Sunday’s All-Star game wore No. 2 and No. 24 on their jerseys to honor Kobe and Gianna Bryant, while the game’s format paid homage to Bryant.
The team with the most points after three quarters needed to score 24 points to win, while the trailing team had to score 24 plus the number of points it was down.
Team Giannis held a nine-point lead over Team LeBron after three quarters, but the LeBron James-led side had the last laugh, outscoring Team Giannis 33-22 in the final period to clinch a 157-155 victory.
Team Giannis was headed by Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Team LeBron’s Kawhi Leonard was named All-Star MVP after scoring 30 points, including eight three-pointers.
“Words can’t explain how happy I am for it,” Leonard said of winning the MVP trophy, now named after Bryant.
“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.”
(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Dan Grebler and Clarence Fernandez/Peter Rutherford)