Holding Court: All-Star Weekend becoming a drag?

Manila, Philippines - This year’s All-Star Weekend came and passed, with the East All-Stars snapping a three-game losing streak to beat the West 163-155, and John Wall (slam dunk) and Marco Belinelli (three-point shootout) becoming the top individual winners in the side events, but no one beyond the great city of New Orleans and incorrigible diehards (and that’s supposed to include this scribe) would be visibly excited nor end up feeling like he just went through an unforgettable experience with the way the annual midseason festivities have evolved over the past few years. 

The main event alone, the All-Star Game, has turned into a dunkfest and shootfest, with nary any defense – or a semblance of it – being applied and the crowd of 14,727 at the Smoothie King Center (which falls a few thousands below its capacity of 17,003) virtually being treated to a glorified scrimmage. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no illusion that defense is really seriously played during All-Star Games.  But this year’s midseason contest (I won’t even dare call it by its usual nomenclature “classic”) takes the cake in terms of utter disregard for defensive effort.

Look, this year’s All-Star Game set a plethora of records on offense simply because this year’s All-Stars set their minds to not playing defense. At the end of the first half alone, the West already broke the mark for most points in a half with 89, beating the old record of 88 set by the West itself in 2012. A measly four fouls, meanwhile, were called on both teams. No wonder a total of just seven free-throw attempts were made.  

In the end, the game finished with not a single block being recorded, a total of 21 fouls being called, and as many free throws being awarded while 11 All-Star Game records were being broken: most combined points (318, shattering the old mark of 303 set in 1987), most points by one team (163 by the East, breaking the 155 the West scored in two overtimes in 2003), most combined field goals made (135, smashing the old standard of 128 in 2007), most field goals made by one team (70 by the East, breaking the previous mark of 69 by the West in 2007), most combined three-pointers made (30, replacing the 26 set in 2012 and 2013), most three-pointers made by one team (16 by the West, resetting the 14 made by the East in 2012 and by the West in 2013), most combined three-point attempts (100, breaking the 71 attempted in 2013), most three-point attempts by one team (56 by the West, bumping off the 39 by the East in 2013), most combined assists (88, resetting the 85 in 1984), most field goals made by one player (19 by Blake Griffin, shattering the 17 by Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Kevin Garnett), and most three-pointers made by one player (eight by Carmelo Anthony, replacing the six by Mark Price and LeBron James).

The game itself went through an interesting enough storyline, with the West taking an 18-point, 123-105 lead in the third quarter before the East, perhaps with a little more motivation after having lost the last three editions of the contest, finished the period with an 18-3 burst to cut the deficit to just three. The East, led by Paul George’s five free throws and the last of Anthony’s record three-pointers, then closed the game out with a 10-0 blast to win going away and give the East a 38-26 overall lead in the series. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland’s peppery point guard, won MVP honors as he keyed the East’s strong second half with 24 of his 31 points while adding 14 assists and five rebounds.

It was not, however, nearly enough to make up for the continuous slide the All-Star Weekend has made over the years, as attested to be a survey made by ESPN, where 48 percent of more than 22,000 respondents said they watched none of the All-Star events and 30 percent did only parts of it. The NBA can take heart that 45 percent of respondents still regard its midseason contest as the best, edging Major League Baseball that got 43 percent of the fans’ preference, but how long will this hold up?

The slam-dunk contest alone, which used to be the showcase event on the eve of the All-Star Game, confused even the players with the new format implemented to supposedly spice up what’s become a moribund event.  Instead of the purely individual format that it’s supposed to have, organizers featured a team concept of East and West dunkers, with the East’s 6-foot-4 Wall eventually emerging as the champion after fans combined with the judges, made up of Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Dave Cowens, to give him the award after his East team beat the West. 

But though this year’s contest marked the first time since 1988 that three All-Stars – Paul George, Damian Lillard and Wall – competed in the event, it’s obvious that the way the league’s supposed biggest names, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade among them, have spurned the contest has a lot to do with its eventual decline and failure to generate excitement.  Remember when Michael Jordan never minded risking embarrassment by almost annually entering the contest and competing against the likes of Dominique Wilkins?  There were no prima donnas at the time who were thinking they were too big for this All-Star Game sidelight.

Erving, for one, thinks James should reconsider his stance and enter the contest even once.  At 29, LeBron he says still has what it takes to win it, citing the fact that he himself competed in his last dunk contest when he was about to turn 34. Question is, will the man they call King James respond? 

In the end, the league should realize that it’s still the substance of the game that counts, and sells to fans, not the form which it has unfortunately gotten fixated with, as demonstrated by this year’s colorful socks and sneakers worn by the players in an effort to pay tribute to the host city’s Mardi Gras festival.  No, not even some of the biggest musical names that are called upon to stage a concert in the middle of the All-Stars are gonna do it.  Basketball is still the name of the game, and the sooner the NBA does something about the quality of its midseason contest and its side events, the better its showcase weekend will be. 

Mount Rushmore fallout

LeBron James reportedly received a stinging rebuke from Bill Russell in this year’s All-Star Game when Russell thanked him for leaving him out of his mythical Mount Rushmore. James had earlier said in an interview aired this week that he would “for sure” end up among history’s top four players to earn a place on that hypothetical mountaintop, but while working on that resume named the players he thought should be up there now before his time to bump off one of them comes – Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.

As I said in our previous column, it would be a tad awful not to put any of the greatest big men in history in there, and so we did insert Russell alongside Michael, Larry and Magic.  He, after all, is generally regarded as the greatest winner in all sports history, winning 11 NBA championships in 13 years for the Boston Celtics by revolutionizing defensive play in his sport.  And he used as platform his stature as an athlete to fight for equal rights for blacks at a time when racial prejudice reigned.

Russell, who turned 80 last February 12 and was serenaded with the “Happy Birthday” song by the All-Stars and the crowd, was reported to have met James before the annual midseason contest and gave him a piece of his mind about the slight.  Reported Craig Sager, “Before the game, LeBron James was talking to Bill Russell and Bill said, ‘Hey, thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore.’ He said ‘I’m glad you did. Basketball is a team game; it’s not for individual honors. I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college, I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship in my last year, and nine in between. That, Mr. James, is etched in stone.’ ” 

Sager didn’t say how James reacted to Russ’ diatribe, but the 6-foot-8 forward later told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick: “Well, obviously, (I have) the utmost respect for Bill Russell, and what he’s been able to do.  Not only just on the floor, but off the floor, too.  Being a pioneer that helped me get to this point, he paved the way for myself and guys who came after him.  Hopefully I continue to do (that) for the guys who come after me.  But for me to comment on his comments, I really don’t want to do that.  He has his own opinions, he is his own man.  I’m my own man, too.” 

It’s obvious, though, that LeBron doesn’t fully get it.  Russell was a pioneer, all right, but it’s not about being a pioneer; it’s about his real worth as a player. Heck, George Mikan was a pioneer, too, and is a great player himself, but nobody discusses the great Minneapolis Lakers center among the very best of the greats. And when James says he hopes to continue to pave the way for guys who come after him, what is exactly his idea of paving the way, as Russell did? It’s simply because, honestly, he hasn’t done anything to advance the welfare of his fellow players.

For example, James, after considering running for president of the players’ union last year when Derek Fisher’s term expired, decided against it in the end, saying he was not sure he had the time for it and that the union was going backwards and was “not in a good place right now.” Jerry Stackhouse, an executive member of the players’ union, disagreed. “He needs to be informed in speaking on our union business,” said Stackhouse.  “I don’t think he’s had any dialogue with anybody since the (2013) All-Star break, but it is what it is.  To make that statement about where we are as a union right now, he was misinformed.” 

Obviously, James’ idea of paving the way for his fellow players is different from that of Russell’s. 

James also turned defensive when he was asked about his declaration of himself among the top four ever when he’s through.  “It’s a true statement,” he says.  “I mean, the facts are the facts.  That’s what I believe in myself.  Once again, these are my personal goals.  I don’t care where no one puts me as far as best ever, or analysts, or so-called gurus of basketball place me when I’m done.  These are my personal goals.  I believe I could be one of the best, if not the best, to ever play this game.  And that’s my personal goal.  If someone wants to throw dirt on my personal goals, then they have a problem, not me.” 

Not to argue with LeBron, but the context of his earlier statement was certainly not about goals, but rather a definitive statement that he’s “for sure” going to be up there on the NBA’s mythical Mount Rushmore.  “I’m going to be one of the top four that’s ever played this game, for sure,” that’s what he actually declared.  “And if they don’t want me to have one of those top four spots, they’d better find another spot on that mountain.  Somebody’s gotta get bumped, but that’s not for me to decide (who I’d replace).”

Such audacity has, in truth, accounted for the perception that James, for all his greatness as a player, does not exactly merit a place among his sport’s true ambassadors, unlike other greats like Jordan, Bird, Magic, and, yes, Russ who have rightfully earned universal acclamation not only for their exploits on the court but also for their maturity, class and demeanor beyond.  The Miami Heat’s alpha dog has simply sent too many wrong signals throughout his career, including that ill-advised and much-reviled “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” TV special and subsequent “five, six, seven… championships” boast during the Heat presentation of their Big Three version in 2010, that his Mount Rushmore statements have again made him fair game.  

True, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, particularly one of James’ stature, and missing on one name, even one as deserving as Russell, is perfectly understandable considering such topics are completely subjective to possibly exclude some other all-time greats who may also have a strong case.  But one gets the feeling that LeBron was again caught with his foot in his mouth in this particular case.

This is if one bases the argument on what he did upon joining the Heat.  At the time, James paid tribute to Jordan by deciding not to wear the latter’s No. 23 – which Heat president Pat Riley retired anyway in honor of MJ despite His Airness not having played a single minute with the franchise – and instead opted to wear No. 6.  If he really wanted to lend substance to the tribute he paid Jordan, he should have also discarded the No. 6 that he now wears to pay a similar, well-deserved tribute to Russell, who by the way has handed to him the Finals MVP trophy bearing his name the past two years.  

Isn’t it presumptuous to pay homage to one legend and not do the same to another who is practically equal – some would say even greater because of his civil rights history – in stature?  But this again shows James has bitten more than he could chew on occasions, as the faux pas simply demonstrated his limited knowledge of NBA history. 

“There is a lot of irrational LeBron James hate around here,” John Karalis of Red’s Army says. “But he doesn’t do himself any favors either. Intentional slight?  Nah, probably not. It’s probably more lack of historical awareness.  Still, these are the things LeBron does to fuel the hatred. A lot of what he does happens because he’s never had anyone tell him ‘no’ once he became a basketball phenom.  Luckily, Bill Russell doesn’t give a s…t who you are.  When he’s got a piece of his mind to give, you’ll sit there and take it.  Russ is the baddest man on the planet.”

SHORTSHOTS: Incidentally, Kobe Bryant had exactly the same picks as Rappler in terms of the NBA’s Mount Rushmore composition – Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell.  Kevin Durant, however, differed with his fourth choice just like LeBron James who picked Oscar Robertson; instead of Russell or The Big O, Durant chose Kareem Abdul-Jabbar… ESPN also took a poll of more than 28,000 people on who is supposed to be on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore.  Michael Jordan topped the poll after earning 521,502 points while getting 14,385 No. 1 votes, and he was followed by No. 2 Magic Johnson (424,774 and 276 No. 1s), No. 3 Larry Bird (411,226 and 512 No. 1s), No. 4 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (383,538 and 451 No. 1s), No. 5 Wilt Chamberlain (377,437 and 757 No. 1s), and No. 6 Bill Russell (355,352 and 914 No. 1s).  - Rappler.com

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drank and slept sports most of his life.