All-Star weekend has become the NBA’s annual convention, an accounting of where the league stands — what was, what is, and what will be.
This particular weekend was focused on the “what was” part of that trinity, and so it was easy for anyone to get lost in the sweet and sappy and — considering how ornery he’s been at stages of his career — surprising Kobe Bryant sendoff.
That sendoff included predecessors and peers fawning over the 18-time All-Star in interviews; Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul co-hosting a Saturday dinner for him, in which Wade said, “we got a chance to show our respect”; and Magic Johnson honoring him prior to Sunday’s tipoff and the public address announcer adding positive commentary (”he’s got the rim working for him tonight”) whenever the Lakers legend did something decent.
It was easy enough to get lost that even LeBron James and Stephen Curry sometimes seemed like stage props in Bryant’s show, at least until Curry made a 42-footer to conclude the West’s 196-173 win. Still, the Heat’s one active representative, Wade, who pressed his hands together and bowed slightly upon his 12th All-Star introduction, did have some memorable flashes Sunday as part of what he called “one of my favorite” All-Star weekends.
“On the court, I gave the fans what they wanted,” Wade said, his voice hoarse from a common cold, and the rigors of a whirlwind weekend.
Sunday, he showed the world what was — not so-way-back-when, during the Heat’s Big Three era.
“I know they wanted me to throw an alley (oop) to LeBron, so I gave them that real early,” Wade said.
Well, Heat fans may not have wanted to see it, since it may have made them weepy. Others may have even found the nostalgia nauseating. Wade and James hadn’t played together in a sanctioned game since losing Game 5 of the NBA Finals on June 16, 2014 in San Antonio, but for the duo, who were often participants in Miami’s Critical Mass ride, it was easy as riding those bikes.
“It was second nature playing with him,” Wade said. “I’ve been playing with him for 13 years.”
Often just like this. On the East’s second possession, Wade caught a pass from Kyle Lowry in mid-air with his back to the basket, then served it up to an approaching James for a slam. It resembled so many of their kinetic, electric connections during their four seasons and postseasons together, until James left for the Cavaliers in 2014. And it wouldn’t be the last either, with Wade assisting James twice more in the first half, including another lob for a James dunk.
Wade also showed the world what is.
Wade’s 12 selections are one more than Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Elgin Baylor and Patrick Ewing — and when eliminating ABA selections, one more than Julius Erving, too. Yet he remains capable of keeping up with younger players at a frenetic pace, as he showed in his 23 minutes. At one point, he led all players in minutes, with his wife Gabrielle Union joking on Twitter that East (and Cavaliers) coach Ty Lue “is trying to crush our mini vacation. Wade finished with 10 points, five rebounds and six assists. (Incidentally, Bryant had 10 points, six rebounds and six assists in 26 minutes before exiting to a “Kobe” chant, while Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook was the MVP).
There was little defensive resistance, for sure — OK, no discernible resistance — but it’s a promising sign that, at this stage of the season, Wade’s 34-year-old legs still look this live; last year in New York, he couldn’t even play in the game due to a hamstring injury. And if he gets off to a solid start next season, there’s a reasonable shot that he’ll be selected for a 13th time, which — if James is also — would put them among only 14 players picked for that many. That would be more than Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas, Oscar Robertson and the aforementioned Magic Johnson.
So what about the last part?
What will be?
Well, next season, the guy Wade was guarding at the start on Sunday — the guy that Wade called the “Michael Jordan of our generation” —will be gone.
“We all, at one point, wanted to be Kobe on our driveway,” Wade said.
But when Bryant will merely be watching, Wade will slide into the official elder statesmen spot among the NBA’s two-guards.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Wade said. “If they vote me back in, I’ll be the old guy here, unless Pau (Gasol) comes again. Or Tim Duncan makes it next year. But I’m cool with it. It’s a cool thing. They already call me O.G. So I’m next. I’m on deck.”
And, someday, way into the future, when the new young pacesetter at his position — guys like James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler — leave the stage too, maybe another Wade will get a chance to carry the two-guard tradition.
Dwyane’s oldest son Zaire, who turned 14 earlier this month, spent halftime guarding Bryant on the West end of the court, dribbling around James at the halfcourt line, and then shooting over Wade on the East side — something that most teens only get to do in the NBA2K series.
“He went out there and got his Kobe moment, like the rest of us,” Wade said.
So maybe Kobe didn’t have the most memorable weekend, after all.