It was the biggest celebration to date in NBA history.
When the All-Stars descended upon Cleveland in February 1997, it wasn't just any other All-Star weekend.
This was the commemoration of the 50th anniversary and as such, the league would be announcing and presenting the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. Never before or since have more stars aligned.
Michael Jordan. Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. In all, 47 of the 50 were in attendance.
Enough high wattage stars to power every NBA arena and then some.
Standing out from the stars at any All-Star weekend is a tall order. But doing it here? In front of all of these guys? Now that's a task reserved for only the brightest stars in the sky.
Enter Kobe Bean Bryant.
Up until that point, the 18-year-old rookie had more DNP-CDs to his name than starts. And while the preps-to-pros phenom was in the early stages of becoming a household name, he wasn't yet an All-Star himself.
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Nevertheless, Bryant was among those gathered in Cleveland to partake in the festivities, first as part of the rookie game and then in the slam dunk contest. More than an extra on the movie set, but certainly not on the marquee.
For most 18-year-old rookies, it would be an opportunity to bask in the presence of greatness, to marvel at the titans of the game from past and present, and to appreciate the revelry as a wide-eyed fly on the wall. For most 18-year-old rookies, it would be an out-of-body "pinch me" moment, the chance to play a bit part in a momentous event. For most 18-year-old rookies, it was a grand gala where simply having your name on the list to get in would be more than enough.
If you're making a list of "most 18-year-old rookies", the name Kobe Bryant wouldn't be on it. He was simply different.
And if you're making a list of "most All-Star weekends", the year 1997 wouldn't be on it. That, too, was simply different.
Including the rookie game.
Nobody knew it at the time, but that year's rookie class would eventually go down as one of the greatest ever. Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Peja Stojakovic, Stephon Marbury, Antoine Walker and Jermaine O'Neal. Not all of them played in that rookie game but if there were ever a year in which there's no shortage of talent, that's it.
Because it was the 50-year anniversary, it wasn't the usual cadre of assistant coaches manning the sidelines.
Coaching Bryant's West team? Hall of Famer Red Holzman.
Coaching against Bryant? None other than 9-time NBA champion Red Auerbach who, prior to becoming a legend with the Boston Celtics, coached in the inaugural 1946-47 season with the Washington Capitols.
Think about that for a moment. That's one degree of separation between Bryant and the first-ever season in league history.
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Re-watching it on YouTube, the rookie game featured so many Easter eggs of what we'd come to see over the years.
- The game's first basket? A mid-range jumper by Bryant off a feed from Derek Fisher, who would go on to win five championships alongside Bryant.
- The game analyst? Hubie Brown, who would be on the call 19 years later for Kobe's final game when he scored 60 against the Jazz
- There was Bryant leaping over 7-footers to haul rebounds and win tip balls
- There was Bryant dumping off no-look dimes to a Lakers big (Travis Knight playing the role of Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol)
- There was Bryant and Iverson going at each other one-on-one as they would four years later in the NBA Finals
- There was Bryant and Allen going at each other one-on-one as they would in the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals
Although his West team lost, Bryant finished with a game-high 31 points despite the game itself being played in just two 15-minute halves. Those 31 also proved to be more than any player would score in the All-Star Game the following day.
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Later that same evening, Bryant claimed the slam dunk title by putting it through his legs and showcasing that soon-to-be-signature snarl which stirred the crowd into a frenzy with chants of "Kobe! Kobe!" emanating from the stands. Among those losing it in the crowd? None other than Brandy, whom Bryant famously took to high school prom less than a year prior to that.
As he's being interviewed by Craig Sager after claiming victory, the 18-year-old Bryant looked the part of someone participating in his 18th All-Star weekend, casually offering up quips and jokes with a disposition that telegraphed his comfort level. He even volunteered some inspiration and motivation taken from not receiving MVP of the rookie game earlier in the day. Ever the competitor, even afterwards.
"They don't make kids the way they used to." That was the opening line penned by Los Angeles Times writer Mark Heisler to open up his piece the next day recounting the rookie's sensational showing.
Unlike perhaps anyone before him, Bryant was instantly in his element.
As All-Star Saturday in 1997 foretold, nobody did the All-Star Game quite like Kobe Bryant.
There's a reason he would go onto win four All-Star Game MVPs, tied for the most ever.
There's a reason he retired as the all-time leader in points scored in the All-Star Game.
There's a reason he remains the all-time leader in steals in the All-Star Game, a nod to his unwavering commitment to compete on both ends of the floor.
When the stars align once more this weekend in Chicago, it will be a time to reflect on and celebrate the legacy of someone who simply shined brighter amidst the stars.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.