It’s become pretty standard these days to write columns explaining “how to fix X institution”, be it the Pro Bowl, the NCAA tournament, the college bowl system, Hollywood movies, Homeland, The Walking Dead, etc. These types of columns tend to be hyperbolic and humorless in nature, advocating for wild changes that are neither plausible or all that creative in the first place. NBA All-Star weekend is one such event, and we’ve reached a point in the event’s history that unless you’re under the age of fifteen, the weekend is completely unsalvageable. The chief problem seems to be that the league’s narrowly-focused star-laden mission statement is given the night off on the one eve when it’s non-expendable.
Let me open this by saying that I don’t particularly care for or about NBA All-Star weekend. It’s mindless filler, and unless I can get together some sort of gambling pool, I’m resigned to the fact that just about every year I’ll passively watch it at my house with a laptop in front of me or passively watch it at a bar with a cocktail in hand. It doesn’t really matter what they do to change it, what events they add or who they can convince to participate in their various competitions: 90% of my attention will inevitably be procured elsewhere while I catch updates out of the corner of my eye. That said, a lot of people look forward to this thing, and it just couldn’t seem more uneventful. From the almost objectively dreadful music (and I usually like Alicia Keys) to the various competitions that induce the sound like 10,000 sequential pins dropping, it’s difficult to imagine anyone walking away from All-Star Weekend feeling like their time or money was well-spent.
The televising of All-Star Weekend tends to go like this: Friday night they play a celebrity basketball game and a rookies vs. sophomores game. The masses are notably ambivalent about what happens in either of these games and the potential outcomes, but not less so than the actual participants. Saturday is the Shooting Stars Challenge, the Skills Challenge, the 3-Point Contest and the Dunk Contest. These events are bridged together by generic pop music that anyone with a fully developed frontal lobe and low-threshold for manufactured, low-tech, psuedo-pop garbage will abhor. It’s the NBA’s magnum opus of televised spectacles, second only to pregame coverage of the Super Bowl in the country, nay, THE WORLD. It’s all contrived style and no substance. The 3-point contest seems to be the only event that holds up to its earlier years, and that’s because the event will occasionally still attract A-list players. Otherwise, these competitions the NBA puts on are as forgettable as they are bland.
This all leads into the all-star game on Sunday, and given all the drinking that takes place during this weekend, it makes sense that the game itself feels like a poetic hangover in motion. For roughly three hours the best players in the league trudge up and down the court with all the enthusiasm of a toddler going to the dentist. The last five to ten minutes (depending on the scoring margin) there is a concerted effort given from both sides, but the game doesn’t feel or look like basketball until then. When you consider that the effort will look somewhat halfhearted from a lot of players during actually regular season games, none of this should come as a surprise.
But the disappointment of the game isn’t what people are complaining about when they take the NBA to task for their all-star weekend, it’s All-Star Saturday. It’s the artifical energy pumped into the arena via Fall Out Boy and various synthesizers that’s supposed to culminate in the weekend’s signature event, the dunk contest, that is often just as much of a letdown as everything leading up to it. We’ve had maybe one noteworthy dunk contest since 2000 – which was done in the aftermath of the strike shortened 1998-99 season and is probably the best dunk contest in the history of the league – and that was 2006, when Nate Robinson beating out Andre Iguodala in a somewhat sketchy decision by the fans. Even with that mostly being a resounding success, the only thing anyone remembers from the past thirteen dunk contests is LeBron saying at the 2010 installment he’d be competing in it the following season, something he never actually followed through on. Yes, it’s been a vastly bleak experience ever since 2000, highlighted mostly by actual all-stars excitedly mugging from the sidelines at the feats of their backups, yet seldom actually volunteering to participate themselves. It’s at the point where the dunk contest feels like a form of hazing, where the younger bench players are subjected to public mockery by their supposed mentors. The over-exhuberant reactions after each dunk from the leagues A-listers could easily be mistaken for sarcasm.
Last Saturday felt like one of the more drab iterations of NBA all-star Saturday thus far. Case in point, look at Tony Parker and Jeff Teague’s performances in the skills challenge. They slogged through it like the fattest nihilist at fat camp with almost uncontainable benevolence at their indifference, clocking times most high school point guards could best. There isn’t any incentive for them to even look like they care, much less show genuine concern for this poor imitation of a Survivor Immunity Challenge that the NBA’s props team has thrown together.. That’s how inconsequential this whole spectacle actually is: Even Tony Parker’s effort is insincere.
When the dunk contest finally rolled around, whatever meaning or entertainment value the night was supposed to offer had long been sucked out of the building. And despite some fairly impressive dunks (your mileage may vary on that point), no one could pretend that they were watching something they’d ever discuss after this weekend. It was the type of event you willingly plunk down entirely too much money for and you convince yourself that it was worth it while in the moment, but then two months later you’re warning all your friends against ever doing something similar and regretting financial investment, which you now consider to be wasted.
To be honest, I don’t have any concrete ideas on how to “fix” All-Star weekend. I don’t know if switching events around, dropping some of them in favor of others or anything else is going to appeal to the sensibilities of the American viewing public. But the NBA as currently constructed and marketed is focused on the individual over the team, it’s a league fixated on and driven by celebrity. Given these circumstances and that we’re talking about an ALL-STAR weekend, it makes sense that the same celebrities who carry the league should also carry a weekend that exists solely to celebrate them. Instead, we get, Terrence Ross besting James White, Eric Bledsoe and Kenneth Faried for the slam dunk title. These are four guys who are far better known for their collegiate accolades than professional careers, while LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and countless other noteworthy players whom every casual fan would tune into watch, simply look on and pretend to be astonished by anything Gerald Green is trying on.
The NBA sort of made its bed in this regard and they seem tone-deaf enough to comfortably lie in it. The weekend seems to be geared towards entertaining children as much as anything else, and they’re content with that. As it stands, they’ve divided the league into haves and have-nots, the haves get the calls, the money, the endorsements, their choice of market and everything else that comes along with being better than 99% of your peers. As a result they’ve basically dismissed the have-nots as even being part of the league, and most everyone seems fine with this arrangement. But if that’s the case, they’re going to struggle selling the American public on the likes of Ryan Anderson, Jeff Teague, Matt Bonner and Jeremy Evans during a weekend that promises “star-studded” events. Sure, there are better competitions that are fairly self-explanatory. “Let’s see a 2-on-2/1-on-1 tournament”, as if a 2-on-2 game between the aforementioned four people is something that will revolutionize the NBA’s marketability.
Don’t get me wrong, this would be great if the NBA and the media surrounding the league pretend like these guys were non-existent for the four months leading into and the subsequent two months surrounding All-Star Saturday, then expect the world to care enough to tune into one of their signature events that makes the explicit promise of being star-heavy. I don’t want to be a total debbie downer here, there are some enjoyable aspects of the weekend (mostly the stories that come out of it and the televised banter between various TNT personalities). But if there’s any lessons to be learned from what is almost a universally loathed sports weekend at this point, it’s that if you’re going to take a league of roughly 350 participants and whittle its public face down to 10-15 of them, you probably want them at center court, not on the sidelines.