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Inside the NBA | Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

An Event Stretches While Many Yawn

February 15, 2004|Mark Heisler

We're in the belly of the beast now.

It's not like the commercial in which those surfers get swallowed by a whale and paddle around in the dark. This is more of a neon-lit, Las Vegas-strip treatment, in which you're locked in a basketball theme park for three days with 20,000 party-seeking tourists in $250 retro jerseys.

Not that it's good manners to object to people who get off planes waving money. Of course, the benefit to Los Angeles might not match the benefit to Beverly Hills, with the All-Stars, whose average income is around $10 million, and their families and entourages in the Century Plaza, where stretch limos can pick them up and deliver them by the dozen to Rodeo Drive in five minutes.

Whatever this is, it's getting bigger. I have seen the future and it lasts two weeks, like the Olympics.

This was once a charming one-day event, in which everyone stayed in the same hotel and schmoozed. The league held a banquet Friday night for all attendees, even the media, and there was a night off Saturday for people to go out to dinner.

My first was in 1970 in Philadelphia, or Lower Merion Township, as the Bulletin's George Kiseda kept datelining his stories, to highlight his complaint that the league couldn't find a hotel it liked that was actually in the city.

Yes, long before the prosperity hit, the NBA was getting the irreverent treatment.

I have two enduring memories: Eddie Gottlieb, the old Philadelphia Warrior owner, who had carried the ball when it really was a YMCA league with players making $2,500 and holding off-season jobs, sitting in the Marriott lobby, with people coming up to greet him as if he were a don or their grandfather.

The other is the story of Laker announcer Chick Hearn, who was told at the front desk they were out of rooms and asked if he'd mind sharing one with another All-Star attendee.

"Hearn doesn't share a room!" Chick announced, and went across the street to the Holiday Inn.

I don't remember much from any of the games, except those in which the veterans ganged up on some young player they thought was getting too much attention, such as Shaquille O'Neal or Michael Jordan.

In today's crowded sports schedule, all-star games are becoming passe as mass-audience events and going to cable, one after another. For all the discussion about the NBA's doing it last season, the NFL followed suit last week.

But as festivals, they're spilling all over the landscape. The NBA game became a Weekend, expanding to two days, which became two nights, according to the preferences of the TV partners.

It just flowed over into a third night -- so much for dinner with your friends, ever again -- with the rookie game, or got milk? Rookie Challenge, in its own marquee spot Friday night, leading off the festival.

This might be why the league didn't fix things for its wunderkind, LeBron James. The NBA doesn't cheat the way the conspiracy theorists, who still want to know how the New York Knicks got Patrick Ewing in the first lottery, believe, but in any case, the league seemed very happy at the prospect of James and Carmelo Anthony hyping the TV audience for the new Friday night lead-in.

For his part, James, who has traveled the longest, most-hyped road any rookie ever saw, looked as if he was out on his feet in the Cavaliers' last few games, prompting Coach Paul Silas to note LeBron needed "to get his mind off this game and get some rest" over the All-Star break.

Good luck.

"I don't think I'll be able to get no rest here," said James, at yet another news conference before the rookie game. "There's so much going on, but I'm going to get as much as I can. Tell Paul I'll be ready for the last 29 games of the season."

Happily, for you, the fan, life goes on as before. You can still go to dinner with friends.

The league says forthrightly that this is its only entertainment opportunity for its "relationships" (sponsors), because its postseason games belong to the fans. This is a reminder that it only ropes off the All-Star game, while the NFL reserves most of the Super Bowl house for its "relationships."

Meanwhile, there's the Jam Session, which could also be known as the People's All-Star Game, with more than 50,000 circulating through over four days.

The NBA still steadfastly guards your right to vote, or your kids' right, even if they're still making Vince Carter a starter after he retires.

As for the game, itself, the league has saved you a seat. It's called ... your couch!

Only 1,100 tickets went to each local team, who distributed them via lottery, they said. My hunch is, it'll be amazing how many movie stars and their agents got lucky.

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