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MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

NBA All-Star story lines go according to script

Results of the dunk contest and MVP voting seemed preordained, not to mention unnecessary. The league, healthy again after its post-Jordan malaise, no longer needs to put the fix in.

February 22, 2009|MARK HEISLER

So much for reality programming. . . .

People used to say televised sports were the original reality shows, but real life is s-o-o-o unreliable.

Thus we have last week's NBA All-Star game with its heartwarming story lines: Nate Robinson playing "Krypto-Nate" to Dwight Howard's Superman in the dunk contest; Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal falling into each other's arms -- well, metaphorically -- as co-MVPs of the game.

If it seemed too good to be true, it's because it may have been -- literally, not metaphorically.

The most impressive player in the dunk contest wasn't Krypto-Nate, or Howard, but Portland's Rudy Fernandez, who threw down two great jams in the first round but got two 42s.

The crowd had barely stopped booing the total after Fernandez's first dunk when the judges gave Howard a 50 for a ho-hum jam.

The same thing happened in Round 2 -- 42 for Fernandez, boo, 50 for Howard -- suggesting the judges were out to lunch, again, until the finals.

Suddenly, they started bringing out props for Howard: an 11-foot basket; a telephone booth spotlighted on the stage, where he donned his Superman cape.

Yes, barring an incredible coincidence -- I just happened to be there with a forklift and an 11-foot hoop when Dwight said to come over! -- the fix was in.

Not that anyone cared, the dunk contest already representing the Height of Schlock.

The game itself was a bore with one redeeming feature. No one cared whether the West beat the East, including the members of the West and East teams, but who could resist a last Shaq-Kobe story with something new, an uplifting ending?

Of course, it would be another massive coincidence if they actually tied in the balloting, with fans at home texting in votes, which counted "toward choosing the official" MVP, according to NBA.com.

Do you have a picture of Bryant and O'Neal tying in the Internet vote, 1,672,488-1,672,488?

Me either.

So, the NBA, which alone decided how to weight the Internet vote, effectively chose its MVPs too!

"It's all about the story lines," an Eastern Conference executive told Yahoo's Johnny Ludden. "You think the league didn't want this to happen? Is this the NBA or WWF?"

The interesting part is how unnecessary it was.

I've always maintained this corporate schmooze/sellout to TV actually tells you something about the NBA, which, if nothing else, gives me another column out of it.

And here it is:

With the NBA in post-Michael Jordan eclipse since 1999, Commissioner David Stern and his merry men have marketed their rear ends off, even as they were dogged by one controversy after another: the 2004 Auburn Hills riot, the 2006 Madison Square Garden melee, the 2007 Tim Donaghy scandal, the Donaghy accusations that started a feeding frenzy at the 2008 Finals.

Now, suddenly, there's . . . nothing.

It's not just that the NBA has gone six months without a pratfall. All of a sudden, the league works again.

Last spring brought a totally unexpected Lakers-Celtics Finals, even if it didn't quite live up to expectations, ratings-wise, not to mention Lakers-wise.

Now the league doesn't have to cross its fingers, hoping its two marquee teams meet, because it has more: the Cavaliers elevated to glamour status by LeBron James; the Man of Steel's rising power in Orlando.

And it looks good for the future. If James leaves Cleveland, his likeliest destination is New York, in that much-rumored package with Toronto's Chris Bosh.

Instead of yawner Finals (the West won six of eight from 1999 to 2007 by a combined 31 games to 17), there's a balanced structure, promoting drama, and a 20% jump in ABC's heretofore subterranean ratings.

If last year's 9.3 Finals rating was disappointing, it beat the 8.4 for the Philadelphia Phillies-Tampa Bay Rays World Series. It was only the third time it had happened, the first since 1998, and the only one without Jordan.

There are two little Jordans vying for global supremacy. Bryant and James have even become friends after playing together on the U.S. Olympic team, recalling the golden age of the '80s when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird became close friends, who still lived to beat each other.

You couldn't see this revival coming in 2007, when the Spurs swept the Cavaliers in the lowest-rated Finals -- on merit -- after NBA legalists suspended Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, effectively handing the Spurs the second-round series the Suns had just tied, 2-2, in San Antonio.

Now, it seems, everyone is content to sit back and watch the show, except on All-Star weekend.

Of course, if none of this pans out, they can always bring back Nate, Dwight, Kobe and Shaq.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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