CHICAGO - Los Angeles native Kawhi Leonard made it look effortless, nailing one 3-pointer after another and nearly matching an All-Star Game record.
The tough part came afterward. Finding the right words to express how he felt after becoming the first Kobe Bryant MVP award winner wasn’t so easy.
Leonard scored 30 points and hit eight 3-pointers to lead Team LeBron to a 157-155 victory over Team Giannis on Sunday night.
He was presented the MVP trophy that the league renamed after Bryant on Saturday, three weeks after the Lakers great and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among the nine people killed when their helicopter crashed near Los Angeles.
“It’s very special,” Leonard said. "Like I said, I had a relationship with him. Words can’t explain how happy I am for it. 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."
Bryant had a huge presence over the first All-Star festivities in Chicago since 1988, when Michael Jordan delighted the home crowd by beating Dominique Wilkins in a classic slam dunk contest and scoring 40 points to take MVP honors in the game.
There were all sorts of tributes to Bryant, his daughter and late NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern. But once the game started, it didn’t take long for Leonard to make his presence felt.
The Los Angeles Clippers star has two NBA finals MVP trophies after helping San Antonio and Toronto win championships.
He was picked for his fourth All-Star team and put on quite a display from the perimeter, knocking down 8 of 14 3-pointers.
Had he made one more, he would have matched Paul George’s All-Star record set in 2016. And he appeared to be well on his way to breaking it after a scorching start.
Leonard hit one just seconds into the game. He made all four 3s in the first quarter — the only shots he took while scoring 12 points.
Leonard was 7 of 10 in the first half, only to cool off a bit after that. He missed a step-back 3 that could have won it with his team up 154-153, but was the runaway winner for the game’s MVP honors with seven votes. LeBron James got three and Chicago product Anthony Davis and Chris Paul received one apiece.
All that’s missing for Leonard now is the league’s regular season MVP award.
“My mindset is always just to try to make my team the best team at the end of the regular season,” Leonard said. “And if I’m fortunate enough to win a regular season MVP, then I’ll be happy with it. I always just want to win championships. I’m not really concerned with the personal goal. So I always want to play to win championships.”
Leonard could have signed with the Lakers and teamed with LeBron James and Anthony Davis with Frank Vogel coaching them after leading Toronto to the championship last season. Instead, it was a one-night-only affair, with Vogel on the sideline for Team LeBron.
The Clippers are third in the Western Conference behind the Lakers and Denver, five games off the lead. They could cross paths in the playoffs with the team that shares their arena. But for one night, anyway, Leonard enjoyed being on the same side.
"It was fun," he said. "I played with 'Bron and A.D. last year, and I think the year before that or so. But it’s always fun just to get around guys that are very competitive, see what they do on an everyday basis.
"Just talking, just being their teammate. We go at each other all year round. And just like I said, it’s great to be able to pick their brain and just be around them and joke and laugh."