By Brendan O'Brien
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A few blocks from Chicago's United Center, a sprawling mural depicting the late Kobe Bryant looms over a nondescript city street, his intense gaze surrounded by Laker purple and gold catching the eyes of motorists as they drive by in the frigid air.
The portrait, which popped up after the former Los Angeles Lakers star and his 13-year-old daughter were killed in a helicopter crash, is a solemn reminder of the shadow his death has cast over the 2020 NBA All-Star weekend.
The event, hosted this year by Chicago, is normally a festive occasion for both the players and fans who love the game.
But at this year's 69th annual rendition, which culminates on Sunday with an exhibition game featuring the sport's best players, the celebrations are likely to be muted as the National Basketball Association pays homage to a fallen star.
"It's still fresh for everybody," said Jesse Sims, a 33-year-old truck driver who wore a Bryant jersey as he stood in line waiting to get into a pre-game NBA event. "It's going to be heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time."
Tributes to Bryant, both planned and spontaneous, are expected to be the highlights of a weekend loaded with events designed to showcase the skills and personalities that have made NBA basketball one of the world's most popular sports.
The weekend officially tips off in Chicago, which last hosted an NBA All-Star game in 1988, on Friday evening with the NBA Rising Stars game, featuring promising young players. It continues on Saturday night with the Slam Dunk and 3-point Shot contests. There is also a Skills Challenge featuring ball-handling, passing and shooting.
"You still have a lot of sad and somber people. It's a bittersweet moment," said a 26-year-old woman who goes by the name J Monet. She wore a Lakers cap and bright yellow lipstick as she shopped along Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile.
Players in Sunday's All-Star game will wear No. 2 jerseys to honor Gianna Bryant, who wore that number when she played basketball in her father's Mamba Sports Academy. Bryant's nickname was “Black Mamba."
"Kobe for life! Mamba forever!" two young male fans cried out as they walked past the United Center on Thursday afternoon.
All-Stars will also wear No. 24, the jersey number worn by Bryant during part of his 20-year career in which he ruled the NBA, winning five championships and retiring with the third-most points in league history.
Even the game's format will pay tribute to Bryant, who was an 18-time All-Star and won the All-Star game's MVP award four times. The team with the most points after three quarters will need to score 24 to win. The team that is trailing would need to score 24 plus the number of points they are down.
Before tip-off, the singer and actor Jennifer Hudson, who is a Chicago native, will perform a tribute to Bryant, his daughter and the seven other victims who were killed in the helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Jan. 26.
For 25-year-old Chicago accountant Nelson Serrato, the weekend is all about honoring Bryant along with former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who also died in January. Stern oversaw explosive growth in the popularity of the game during his 30-year tenure.
"It's all about what Kobe would want us to feel ... enjoy basketball, enjoy this moment," Serrato said in downtown Chicago. "Even though they are not here, they would like us to celebrate."
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty and Matthew Lewis)