By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
They sure don't play NBA All-Star Games the way they used to.
A brainchild of Walter Kennedy, owner of the Boston Celtics, the first ever was held on March 2, 1951, in Boston. Back then, most sports fans considered the fledgling NBA, with its rapidly folding and shifting franchises, to be strictly a curiosity -- and its new-fangled All-Star Game was dismissed as a paltry imitation of baseball's midsummer classic. The 10,094 who did eyeball that initial contest were part of a comparatively small coterie of pro basketball diehards. While the game itself wasn't very close (the East led 53-42 at the half, and won by 111-94), it was fraught with meaning.
Sure, there was the thrill of seeing the league's top 20 players (chosen by the coaches) on the court at the same time -- the West's leading pointmakers were Alex Groza, Frank Brian, Dike Eddleman and Bob Davies; while the East was paced by "Jumping" Joe Fulks, Dolph Schayes, Paul Arizin, "Easy" Ed Macauley, and the "Cooz." And the players played with all their might, eager (and needing) to capture the $100 bonus paid the members of the winning team. But what made that game so intense and so significant was that the two teams had historical reasons to try and best each other.
The NBA had been officially chartered in August 1949, when the last surviving franchises of the Basketball Association of America absorbed the remnants of the National Basketball League. Pointedly, many of the West All-Stars were NBL veterans, while most of the East cagers were refugees from the BAA. As a result, the sharpest competitive edge of that pioneering All-Star Game was the reprisal of an historic rivalry between two defunct leagues.
This was a real-live ballgame with both honor and meat-and-potatoes money at stake. That's why the defense was authentic, the cuts hard, the rebounding ferocious, and the game faces highly serious.
There were two crucial turning points in the devolution of the All-Star Game. One came in 1966 in Cincinnati, when the Royals' Adrian Smith was picked for the East squad to satisfy (and sell tickets to) the hometown fans. Okay, Smith was a fine ballplayer -- the third-leading scorer on his team (behind Jerry Lucas and the Big O) at 18.4 ppg. But he was also the Royals' fifth-worst shooter (ahead of only George Wilson, Art Heyman, Bud Olsen and Jay Arnette), who missed 59.5 percent of his field goal attempts. More of a quasi than a legitimate All-Star.
In any case, the game's MVP was to be awarded a brand new automobile, and since the game was nolo condendere (the West prevailed 137-94), Smith was force-fed the ball for the entire second half. Encouraged by his teammates and the fans, Smith just kept firing away. He finished with 18 shots in 26 minutes, scoring 24 points and winning the car.
Oh, what fun! An All-Star Game turned into a shooting gallery. And besides, who the hell cares?
Me, that's who. Because I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that basketball is all about competition, and that its value as entertainment value is strictly a secondary by-product.
The next violation came in 1972, when the fans were allowed to vote for the starting fives. Ever since then, the All-Star Game has been little more than a popularity contest (Yao Ming is starting in place of Shaq?!?!) with the rationale being that since the fans are paying the freight, why not let them choose to see who they want to see?
In truth, the NBA always takes over about three-quarters of the All-Star Game tickets to distribute to their corporate sponsors. At any given All-Star Game, the season ticket holders are routinely x'ed out.
Bah and humbug. I understand that I'm on the wrong side of 60 and a fuddy-duddy to boot. But I have no interest in seeing a meaningless basketball exhibition, where the politically correct attitude on defense is "Hurry up and do your thang, so I can do mine."
The NBA All-Star Game is only half a game. Imagine the baseball All-Star Game with no fielders. Or the NHL gala with no goaltenders. How about the NFL's postseason extravaganza sans defensive backs. Would these games be "fun," or just trivial gimmicks designed to attract ratings?
Phil Jackson recalls another All-Star travesty that he chanced to be in the middle of: "I coached the East in 1992. That was the year of the Magic Johnson Show, when the NBA permitted Magic to play after a positive HIV test had forced him into an early retirement. He hadn't played at all that season, and it was unbelievable that the league would allow such a thing to happen. There was a great outpouring of love for Magic, but there was also a circus atmosphere."
And what was the message that Magic's participation conveyed to youngsters? Hey, kids, how bad can HIV be if Magic's still one of the league's best?
Obviously, many players are eager to be honored as an All-Star. Just last week, before the coaches named the alternates, Shawn Marion was asked if he thought he deserved to be so named. After fussing and mumbling about how much he didn't care, Marion finally blurted this: "If they don't pick me, then (expletive) them!"
At the other end of the Phoenix locker room Stephon Marbury couldn't care less about spending the weekend in Atlanta. "I've got more important concerns right now," he said. "Like the Suns finding a way to win a game on the road."
For most All-Star veterans, the flavor doesn't last very long. They'd much rather spend the long weekend getting reacquainted with their families, or just staying in one place and letting their bodies heal. Most keep their own council, but Karl Malone, for one, has traditionally sought any variety of excuses to avoid the game. In 2000, he claimed to be injured, but David Stern decreed that if Malone was too hurt to participate then he would likewise be barred from playing in the three games Utah had scheduled after the All-Star break. This year, Malone finally got a pass. Odds are, the Mailman won't even watch the telecast.
Nor will I. Given a choice, I'd much rather watch the Denver Nuggets play the Cleveland Cavaliers in a game that counts for something.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."