A Black Mamba-shaped shadow looms large over this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend.
It is less than a month since NBA legend Kobe Bryant — as well as his daughter Gianna and seven others — lost their lives in a helicopter crash in California’s Calabasas on January 26.
All-Star Weekends in the past have been fun and light-hearted, but this year’s event will have a very different feel.
The 2020 finalists for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will be revealed at 5 p.m. ET on Friday, and Bryant will almost certainly be one of the names announced in his first year of eligibility.
There undoubtedly will be laughs and smiles, but the weekend will be focused on commemorating Bryant and honoring his memory.
The headline event
The All-Star game itself will be played on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
Like last year, the historical Eastern All-Stars v. Western All-Stars has been scrapped.
The respective teams will be captained by the two players to have received the most All-Star votes: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who take charge for the second year running.
The starting line-ups and reserves were selected in a draft not dissimilar from how teams might be picked in gym class or on a playground.
Both James and Antetokounmpo picked their respective regular season teammates at first opportunity, and somehow you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the last pick.
As the weekend is being hosted in Chicago, both captains have selected a Chicago-based charity for which they will play for.
Team LeBron will play for Chicago Scholars, a nonprofit leadership development organization that empowers academically ambitious students from under-resourced communities to complete college and become the next generation of leaders.
Antetokounmpo has chosen After School Matters, a nonprofit organization that provides life-changing after-school and summer program opportunities to nearly 19,000 Chicago teenagers each year.
Team Giannis will wear No. 24 and Team LeBron will wear No. 2 — the respective jersey numbers worn by the late Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna.
The rules of the game this year have been tweaked as well.
Each quarter acts as a mini-game, with the winner of each quarter earning $100,000 for their charity.
The score is set to 0-0 at the beginning of each quarter.
Still with us? Because the rules change again for the final quarter.
The game clock will be turned off for the fourth quarter and a Final Target Score will be set. For basketball fans in the US, this concept is known as an “Elam Ending,” which was conceived by college professor Nick Elam. The format is used in The Basketball Tournament, an annual $2 million event that airs on ESPN.
This will be determined by taking the leading team’s total cumulative score through three quarters and adding 24 points — 24 representing Kobe Bryant’s jersey number for the final 10 seasons of his NBA career.
The first team to reach the Final Target Score will win the NBA All-Star Game and $200,000 for their charity.
In theory, one team can earn $500,000 for their charity by winning all three quarters and the game overall and if this happens, the losing team will earn $100,000 for their charity.
As players look to preserve their bodies for the final stint of the regular season, the game has lost its competitiveness in recent times.
However, things could be different this year.
The chance to be a standout player in a game commemorating Bryant, a notoriously competitive combatant, will be too enticing for some to resist.
Bryant himself was an 18-time All-Star, and won All-Star MVP four times.
He missed out on selection only in his rookie season, in 1997, and 1999.
The most exciting game of the weekend?
While it is undetermined whether the All-Star Game will be a good game, could Friday’s Rising Stars game be more exciting than the main event?
Kicking off at 9 p.m. ET after the Celebrity Game, the game will be played between rookie and sophomore players on Team USA v. Team World.
The World team is led by Dallas Mavericks 20-year old Slovenian All-Star Luka Dončić, while the US team is led by Atlanta Hawks All-Star Trae Young.
Only in the second year in the NBA, both are already two of the biggest names in the league.
Dončić averages 28.9 points and nearly a triple-double per game.
The 21-year old Young averages more points with 29.7, and is doing his utmost to drag his second-bottom placed Hawks to higher in the Eastern Conference standings.
Young has nine games with more than 40 points, and 27 games with more than 30 points.
The point guard will have the busiest weekend, also competing in the 3-Point Contest.
Additionally, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant’s presence for Team USA will make the team tough to beat.
The much-hyped Williamson comes into the game on the back of his first two 30-point games.
Such is the impact he has made in the 10 games since his NBA debut in January, some believe he could beat Morant out for Rookie of the Year.
Morant himself goes into the game with a similar hot streak, after recording his first career triple-double against the Washington Wizards.
After that performance, Wizards coach Scott Brooks said Morant “plays like a five-year All-Star” already.
Superman is in the building
Saturday night sees the Skills Challenge, the 3-Point Contest and the always highly anticipated Slam Dunk contest, with proceedings beginning at 8 p.m. ET.
The 2008 Slam Dunk contest champion Dwight Howard returns for the first time since the last of his three appearances finishing in 2009.
The NBA veteran, famous for donning a Superman cape for his 2008 winning dunk, has the worst odds of winning going into the weekend.
He faces off against 2017 runner-up Derrick Jones Jr., Dunk contest rookie Pat Connaughton and 2016 finalist Aaron Gordon, who came a narrow second in what many consider to be one of the best Slam Dunk contests of all time.
Bryant won the Dunk contest at the age of just 18, becoming the youngest ever winner — a record that stands to this day.
The dunks on show have become more visually impressive than Bryant’s 1997 winner.
But that marked his arrival in the NBA.
A super confident rookie, performing in the clutch and establishing the start of a legacy.
His memorial service takes place February 24 at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, but this weekend will be the most prominent opportunity for the NBA and players past and present to pay their respects to a legend.