Kobe and David, partners forever …
Most All-Star Games are only, or barely, that. This one is different, with the NBA honoring David Stern, its former commissioner who had stepped down in 2014 and passed away Jan. 1 at 77, and Kobe Bryant, who died 25 days later at 41.
Bryant and Stern were longtime partners … the showman and the show … as this event showed.
Stern’s wizardry turned his All-Star Game into the three-day pageant that all leagues now feature, as surely as he guided the NBA through riots, officiating scandals and other misadventures to today’s undreamed-of prosperity.
Bryant arrived with a sizzle as the answer to a marketing wizard’s prayers, starting 15 All-Star games … the first at 19 in 1998 in New York, with full-page newspaper ads hyping his “duel” with Michael Jordan, showing them towering over the Manhattan skyline like Godzilla vs. King Kong.
With NBC carrying NBA games, sports head Dick Ebersol even got Bryant and other young players on “Meet the Press.”
“It was great to be on there,” Kobe gushed afterward, “because they were asking some terrific questions, not just about basketball but just about society in general and about our youth. Those are questions I really look forward to answering.”
That was our phenom. First, he would fix the Lakers, then society in general.
That game became a mano a mano with the 30-year-old Jordan, a five-time NBA champion, managing to outscore the teenaged Bryant 23-18 to be named MVP.
Kobe, being Kobe, took the duel seriously, shooting 10 of the first 11 times he touched the ball, or, as Lakers publicist Raymond Ridder, sitting next to me, noted, “That’s one less shot than he took in the Rookie Game.”
Reactions split between excitement and horror. In the third quarter, Bryant’s Western Conference teammate, Karl Malone, set a screen for him, only to see Kobe wave him aside … whereupon Mailman took himself out. West coach George Karl said several others asked not to play, including David Robinson.
The Lakers were among the horrified. Bryant, in his second season, wasn’t even a starter for them, with GM Jerry West, Coach Del Harris and all involved waiting anxiously for him to fit in with Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie Jones and the guys.
Embarrassed? Not Ebersol.
“Promoting Kobe is no different than what we were doing promoting Michael in 1990,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Business is business.”
Back in the Forum a few nights later, I saw one of Stern’s bright young marketing guys, Seth Sylvan. I asked what he thought about Kobe, assuming there was some regret at exploiting him so nakedly that it triggered a backlash.
Said Seth, beaming, “Wasn’t he great?”
Well, he was definitely Kobe.
Decline in interest in the event led to last season’s all-time low TV rating of 3.8, prompting the NBA to go to this year’s gimmicky scoring format, designed to keep you watching … assuming that you start
As explained on NBA.com:
“1. Every Quarter Counts for Charity – The All-Star teams will compete to win each quarter for Chicago-based community organizations.
“2. New Game Ending – The fourth quarter will be untimed and the teams will play to a Final Target Score, meaning that the game will end with a made basket or a made free throw instead of with the clock running out.”
Good luck following that.
With declining interest across sports, these exhibitions are now branding exercises in which leagues schmooze sponsors for directing billions of dollars of their budgets their way.
The NFL’s Pro Bowl, formerly scheduled after the Super Bowl, was only a chance for football-starved fans to say good-bye, even if it looked more like touch tackle.
Baseball’s game was the granddaddy of All-Star games, dating to 1933 when Babe Ruth homered in a 4-2 American League victory … drawing box-office TV ratings … in the 20s as late as 1988 … still in double figures as late as 2001 … before cratering in the new millennium, bottoming out with last year’s all-time low of 5.5.
Professional basketball was the little engine that could. It was in one of the endless, how-can-we-sell-tickets sessions that three American Basketball Association executives thought up the dunk contest for their 1976 All-Star Game in Denver, where Julius Erving dunked from behind the free-throw line to win a spectacular duel with hometown fave David Thompson.
Actually, the video shows Doctor J’s size-15 sneaker almost entirely over the line, but, hey, no one had ever seen a basketball player with a Jimi Hendrix hairdo dunk from 14 feet, either!
Stern promptly stole the ABA’s idea, which was a hit through the ’70s and ’80s, capped by Michael Jordan’s victory over Dominique Wilkins in Chicago in 1988 … even as things were changing.
Veterans such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird embraced All-Star weekend, remembering the humble NBA they had found.
Jordan arrived five years later to find a league with a new glow as it ascended to new heights. Despite his role as NBA savior and the face of Nike, Mike retired from the dunk competition at 24.
Star players were soon fleeing from the honor, leaving the league to fill out the field any way it can. This season’s contest has four contestants – three of them reserves in Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton, Miami’s Derrick Jones and the Lakers’ Dwight Howard – with Orlando’s Aaron Gordon.
New Orleans’ Zion Williamson, the 280-pound rookie with the 45-inch vertical leap everyone wanted to see, sat out the contest despite having played only nine NBA games to date.
The weekend, with TNT’s State Farm Saturday Night, will be capped, or, at least, followed, by the All-Star Game with teams chosen by … pause to look this up … LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo!
Hopefully, you’ll be able to tell who won, but in any case, I’m sure the league will announce it.