By: Shaun Powell
TORONTO — He didn’t invent the blessed game of basketball, but was honored anyway on the court during a brief stoppage of play Sunday and felt the warm applause of many inside Air Canada Centre, who paid their respects.
If you’re thinking this is about Kobe Bryant, who’s taking bows here in his 20th and final season, well, yes, in a sense, but not in this instance.
Jim Naismith is the grandson of James Naismith and he took home a few parting gifts from the All-Star Game. One was a basketball signed by players on the East and West squads and handed over by LeBron James.
The other was the confirmation that what his grandfather did many decades ago is still being enjoyed by fans as it continues to go through evolutionary stages, which was fairly evident during the most festive NBA weekend in Canada history.
“Oh, if he could see what has become of the game. He’d be amazed,” said the grandson, who watched from the second row. “The players, the athleticism, the skill, it’s all on such a high level. I think he’d be pleased.”
The first All-Star Weekend north of the border was well received based purely on turnout and turnt-up. It helped that the game itself had a predetermined theme, thanks to the fans who had sympathy for an old man and appreciation for what he has done to Naismith’s creation. They voted Kobe as a starter, and he indeed heard the loudest applause and felt the love from both squads, and wait a minute, DID AARON GORDON REALLY PLUCK A BALL FROM THE SCALP OF A FURRY ANIMAL AND GO UNDER HIS LEGS FOR THAT SLAM?
Sorry. Dunk contest hangover.
It was just bittersweet being out there on the floor with him, knowing that the matches between us two are coming to an end soon.
– LeBron James on sharing the All-Star Game court with Kobe Bryant
Where were we? Yes: Kobe was the clear headliner; right from the jump, and literally at that, the game was tailored to suit him. When Magic Johnson grabbed the mic and said farewell, and a video montage played on the big screen before the start, and West coach Gregg Popovich had Kobe compete in the opening tap against LeBron James, this was designed to be about an 18-time All-Star and four-time All-Star MVP.
“It was just bittersweet being out there on the floor with him,” said LeBron, “knowing that the matches between us two are coming to an end soon.”
The East squad took it easy on Kobe, and on several occasions almost begged him to posterize them. But Kobe is an old 37 with heavy tread and admittedly is done with trying to prove anything to anyone; that tank dried up soon after he realized the obvious and announced his retirement. And so the night was about being playful, taking LeBron’s dare and going one-on-one during a sequence, and throwing lobs, and managing to get up and down the floor without signaling to the bench for a breather.
“I had a blast playing with those guys, laughing and joking on the bench,” he said. “A great, great time.”
The West nearly rolled up 200 points, and in a game that saw his team win 196-173, Kobe scored 10 points and left it to the next generation to handle it from here. Therefore, Russell Westbrook snatched a second consecutive MVP, becoming the first to do so outright. And Paul George, less than two years removed from a horrific broken leg, came one point shy of matching Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star Game scoring record of 42 points.
“I don’t believe he had surgery, personally,” said LeBron, laughing.
And Steph Curry sent everyone home with a half-court shot in the final seconds, to remind the basketball world of what he and the Warriors are capable of doing. In case anyone forgot.
It was the rare All-Star Game that took a backseat to All-Star Saturday and specifically the most tantalizing dunk contest in years if not ever. After a center, Karl-Anthony Towns, won the skills contest, and Klay Thompson upstaged Curry in the 3-point contest, something more improbably happened. Gordon and defending champ Zach LaVine posted more 10s than you’ll ever see on a model runway.
I had a blast playing with those guys, laughing and joking on the bench. A great, great time.
– Kobe Bryant on his final All-Star Game
“We did some things that nobody else did,” said LaVine.
In some way, Kobe had a role in the basketball life of LaVine and Gordon and Towns and almost everyone who was involved in All-Star Weekend. Most of them grew up on Kobe, or became fixated with him, and certainly learned something from him. As he soaked everything in during the weekend, Kobe said he’s happy to leave the game in good hands.
“As far as the league, when we first came in, the elder statesmen said this younger generation has no idea what they’re doing, they’re going to kill the game,” said Kobe. “When we came in, we were just young kids that wanted to play. It was a new generation, newer culture, but I think where the game ended up, it ended up in a beautiful place. The game is in a beautiful place now.”
It seems that way. Thousands came to honor Kobe and the game itself all weekend, braving sub-zero temperatures that froze the entire city but was powerless against the desire to see basketball. Sometimes All-Star Weekend can be hit-and-miss, and the Saturday events fall flat, and the game endures brutal stretches. But not this weekend. This was one of the better ones.
This was one to savor, because of Gordon and LaVine, and a half-court shot from Curry, and the tributes for Kobe. Absorbing it all first-hand was a man with a very familiar and important last name.
“This is a great game,” said Jim Naismith. “And it keeps getting better.”
A Canadian named James Naismith made it possible for one generation after another to put its unique touch on a game that began with a ball and a peach basket. As we saw over the weekend, his invention was, and remains, a slam dunk.