Despite all the hype and hullabaloo, the NBA All-Star Game is a joke.
What’s the true appeal of watching the “greatest players in the world” avoid contact, avoid defense and try to be as spectacular as possible every time they touch the ball? It’s akin to having a dunk contest with five on a side. Or like watching a baseball game played with only two infielders and two outfielders.
It was not always thus.
A brainchild of Walter Brown, owner of the Boston Celtics, the first NBA All-Star contest was held on March 2, 1951 in Boston. Back then, most sports fans considered the fledgling NBA, with its rapidly folding and shifting franchises, to be strictly a curiosity. The 10,094 who did attend were part of a small coterie of pro basketball diehards. Although the game itself wasn’t very close (the East won 111-94), it was fraught with meaning.
Sure, there was the thrill of seeing the league’s top 20 players (chosen by the coaches) on the court at the same time — the West’s leading scorers were Alex Groza, Frank Brian, Bob Davies and George Mikan; while the East was paced by “Jumping” Joe Fulks, Dolph Schayes, Paul Arizin, “Easy” Ed Macauley, and the “Cooz.” And the players played with all their might, eager (and needing) to capture the $100 prize paid to the members of the winning team. But what made that game so intense and so significant was that the two squads had historical reasons to win.
The NBA had been officially chartered in August 1949, when the last surviving franchises of the Basketball Association of America absorbed the remnants of the National Basketball League. Pointedly, many of the West All-Stars were NBL veterans, while most of the East hoopers were holdovers from the BAA. As a result, the sharp competitive edge of that pioneering All-Star Game resulted from an historic rivalry between two defunct leagues.
This was a real live ball game with both honor and meat-and-potatoes money at stake. That’s why the defense was authentic, the cuts hard, the rebounding ferocious and the game faces highly serious.
For the next several seasons, the game was considered by its participants to be so important that numerous All-Stars were delighted to play 40 minutes and more. Imagine how thrilled Phil Jackson would be should Pop elect to play Kobe for 40 minutes on Sunday.
There were two crucial turning points in the devolution of the All-Star Game. One came in 1966 in Cincinnati, when the Royals’ Adrian Smith was picked for the East squad to sell tickets to the hometown fans. OK. Smith was a fine ballplayer — the third-leading scorer on his team (behind Jerry Lucas and the Big O) at 18.4 points per game. But he was also the Royals’ fifth-worst shooter who missed 59.5 percent of his shots. More of a quasi than a legitimate All-Star.
In any case, the game’s MVP was to be awarded a new car, and because the game was nolo contendere — the West prevailed 137-94 — Smith was force-fed the ball for the entire second half. Encouraged by his teammates and the fans, Smith kept firing. He finished with 18 shots in 26 minutes, scoring 24 points and winning the car.
Oh, what fun! An All-Star Game turned into a shooting gallery.
The next violation came in 1972, when the fans were allowed to vote for the starting five. Since then, it has become a popularity contest with the only rationale being that the fans choose to see whom they want to see. As if they can’t get enough of their heroes in 82 games.
Jackson recalls another All-Star travesty that he chanced to be in the middle of.
“I coached the West in 1992," he said. "That was the year of the Magic Johnson Show, when the NBA permitted Magic to play after a positive HIV test forced him into an early retirement. He hadn’t played at all that season, and it was unbelievable that the league would allow such a thing to happen. There was a great outpouring of love for Magic, but there was also a circus atmosphere.”
And what was the message that Magic’s participation conveyed to youngsters? Hey, kids, how bad can HIV be if Magic’s still one of the league’s best?
And what could be more boring than still another dunk-a-thon? This guy wears a cape. That guy jumps over another guy. Ho hum.
To say nothing of another one-on-none long-distance shooting contest.
In truth, the entire All-Star weekend is a carnival of sloppy, flashy, trashy basketball.
Given the choice, I’d rather watch the Cleveland Cavs play the Minnesota T-wolves in a game that counts for something.
So, what’s to be done?
The only possibility to rescue the All-Star Game is to pit American-born players against foreign-born ones. And ditch all the other glittering, meaningless exhibitions.
Instead of the media blitz and prime-time nonsense, the NBA should also revert to gimmick that accompanied the first all-star team at the conclusion of the BAA’s inaugural season of 1946-47. That’s when the reward for each of the all-stars was an autographed 8-by-10 glossy of Maurice Podoloff, the league’s president.
I’m sure all of the players involved would greatly treasure a personally inscribed photo of David Stern.
Once again, I’m surprised and disappointed by much of the reaction to my latest mid-term grades. In the opening sentences, the premise of that column was clearly delineated:
“These grades are not meant to be comparative. Instead, they are designed to evaluate how each team is measuring up to preseason expectations. So a C-rated team is playing approximately the way it should be playing. An A-rated team is performing way above expectations. And so on.
“Accordingly, an A-team is not necessarily better than a C-team.”
Even so, several commenters reacted with venom, castigating me for “stating” that, for example, the Cavs (D+) are better than the Heat (F).
There appear to be several reasons why so many responses were so far off-base:
Readers either didn’t bother to read or didn’t understand the ground rules. Or perhaps they were simply determined to criticize me for giving their favorite team a low grade.
Overall, these examples of insufficient reading comprehension, of carelessness, and/or of predetermined ideological bias serve to further demonstrate that America’s education system has indeed become substandard.
• Disregarding the respective strengths and weaknesses of Jim O’Brien, his recent dismissal by the Pacers represents a disjointed relationship between many general managers and coaches that is all too common.
Since, in most cases, the GMs are solely responsible for assembling their team’s roster, they have a natural inclination to overvalue the players they have signed, drafted, or obtained in trades. In essence, the coach has the task of coaching the GM’s hand-picked players, who might not be nearly as good as the latter believes them to be.
So there was Larry Bird making the absurd statement that the Pacers are a legitimate playoff team, and putting the onus on O’Brien for Indiana not achieving that goal. For sure, O’Brien must share some of the blame, but Bird is not entirely guiltless in Indiana’s poor showing.
In other words, it’s NBA business as usual as another coach get canned.
• Wrongly or rightly, Kevin Durant identified Chris Bosh as being a “fake tough guy.” Here are some players who definitely fit into the same category: Kevin Garnett, Brendan Haywood, Robin Lopez, Jamaal Magloire, Kenyon Martin and Brad Miller.
Thus far, the Coach of the Year is Nate McMillan in a runaway. Despite the continuing series of devastating injuries to key players, McMillan has the Blazers playing above .500 and somehow managing to hold onto the last playoff slot.
• Here are the NBA’s bona fide tough guys: Tony Allen, Ron Artest, Renaldo Balkman, Matt Barnes, Raja Bell, Reggie Evans, Chuck Hayes, Jarrett Jack, Eduardo Najera, Andres Nocioni, Shaquille O’Neal, Kendrick Perkins, Luis Scola, Craig Smith, Ben Wallace and Delonte West.