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On The NBA

This Game Has Lacked Star Appeal Since 1992

February 10, 2002|Mark Heisler

PHILADELPHIA — I got those Low-Down, All-Star, What-Am-I-Doing-Here (well, you've got to do something) Blues Again, Baby.

Oh no, bloated corporate sellout time again so soon?

With Michael Jordan back in the nick of time, the NBA bids farewell to prime time, network style, with today's All-Star game, the last one to go out over the air before the event moves to cable as part of the new TV deal next season.

As they say in the league offices, please, Mike, don't ever leave us again.

When Jordan made his last appearance, in New York in 1998, Kobe Bryant, then 19, tried to shoot it out with him before a Madison Square Garden chock full of celebrities. The NBA was still deemed healthy and its leaders marketing geniuses.

Then Jordan departed. Let's just say the transition to the NBA's young stars wasn't everything Commissioner David Stern hoped for.

This event, in particular, suffered. The 1999 game was called on account of lockout. In 2000, the day after Vince Carter's electric lead-in in the dunk contest at Oakland, Tiger Woods ran the NBA over in the ratings. Last season at Washington, the East came from 19 points behind in the fourth quarter to slay the mighty West, but the ratings ticked upward only slightly.

Of course, All-Star games are now hard sells everywhere. Baseball's game, once a marquee event--the Midsummer's Night Classic!--sets new rating lows annually. Being selected doesn't even mean anything any more, since every team must be represented. Barry Bonds was an All-Star last season, along with Ben Sheets.

The NFL's Pro Bowl was a nonstarter. Baseball and basketball players may be able to put on a show while coasting, but it doesn't work in football, where the attraction is speed and contact. It's a rare newsman who can talk his boss into a trip to Waikiki.

The NHL just held its game in Los Angeles, whether or not you were aware of it, while several players suggested that, with Olympic play next, it was superfluous.

Then there's this game, swallowed as it has been by a three-day marketing and sponsor-schmoozing pageant known as All-Star weekend.

Old-timers hate it. Even if he couldn't get reservations in Cabo at this late date, Phil Jackson would rather be staked over an anthill than here. Milwaukee's resident philosopher, George Karl, compares it to "the burning of Rome."

The first one I covered was here in 1970. The NBA threw a banquet for everyone involved, players, team officials and press.

Now it takes three hotels just to house them. In order of importance, it's 1) high league officials, team owners and sponsors at the Four Seasons; 2) players at the Marriott; 3) press at the Marriott Courtyard.

As a peculiarly star-driven enterprise, the NBA was well-suited for All-Star competition, which thrives on star turns, assuming, of course, your stars feel like taking turns.

As late as 1992 in Orlando, where HIV-positive Magic Johnson made his controversial appearance and Isiah Thomas, his estranged friend, led everyone over for a group hug, it was still great.

After that, it has been downhill, like riding a bicycle off a cliff.

In the absence of a galvanizing personality, like Magic, Larry Bird, Pete Rose or Wayne Gretzky, it's merely an exhibition, no longer a show.

Once, such NBA stars as Johnson or Julius Erving talked about passing the torch. Then they passed it to Jordan, who left it in his hotel room. After making his rep in the '80s, Jordan began showing up late, paying his $10,000 fine for ducking the media session and chilling through the game as long as no one tried to embarrass him. Now, you never hear a word about any torch.

After '92, the most memorable moments were the '94 game in Minneapolis, when the West ganged up on Shaquille O'Neal, and the '96 game in San Antonio, when Shaq stomped off after the writers gave Jordan the most-valuable-player award.

Carter's dunk show at Oakland breathed life into that hype for all of one weekend. The next season, Vince dropped out, leaving a bunch of nobodies to dunk it out. This season, they're down to four entrants with the Phoenix Suns' Shawn Marion sending his regrets.

In the '80s, Jordan, himself, defended his dunk title, including the big dunk-off with Dominique Wilkins in Chicago in '88. Now for the stars, it's one and done. The winner may start lamenting he doesn't "just want to be known as a dunker," while they're handing him his trophy.

These days Stern has enough to worry about, just getting his stars into the game. The new rule is, if you're playing in your team's games, you have to play in this one. The Lakers thought of a nifty way out, resting O'Neal against the lowly Chicago Bulls so he could take the weekend off and rest his sore big toe. There was speculation he would attend the Bulls game in a wheelchair, with his leg up, a cast on his foot and, perhaps, a bandage on his forehead.

Of course, the Lakers thought they'd win. Now they'll really have to pay the Bulls back the next time they see them.

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