This year's NBA All-Star Game was the last for Michael Jordan and the first for Yao Ming. But I'll remember it for my coaching debut with ... Faith Hill.
Yes, I sat next to the superstar singer at the Celebrity All-Star Game. But it was simply part of my job -- and hers too, actually -- because we were both assistant coaches for head coach Charles Barkley of the celebrity 76ers team. Actually, the teams were a combination of celebrities, former NBA players and current WNBA players.
Barkley, an All-Star in his playing days with the Sixers, had the first draft pick for the celebrity game. Naturally, he selected country-music star Tim McGraw -- because assistant coach Faith came with her husband as a package deal.
|Faith Hill can now add "assistant coach" to her accomplished resumé.|
This was Barkley's coaching debut, and after the game I realized that as a coach, well, he was a great player. With 11 seconds left and his team down by one, he forgot to call a timeout. His excuse? He was talking with Faith Hill. As his assistant, I told him to call a timeout, but he was distracted by Faith's presence on the bench. Go figure.
Faith sat with her daughters during the first half, but realizing the celeb Sixers needed an infusion of coaching talent, she joined us on the bench during the second half.
Barkley made space for her by giving me a forearm shiver that knocked me two chairs down (for some unknown reason, no technical foul was assessed). When Barkley stopped coaching in the second half -- i.e., when he was talking with Faith -- our team started playing better.
As it turned out, McGraw can play. Wearing his new Air Jordans and a red bandana, he was fired-up and he played hard. He wasn't out there to hear the girls' screams, he was there to compete. In fact, he takes a ready-to-assemble basketball court on the road with him when he goes on tour -- he's that serious about it. He's only 5-foot-9 or 5-10, but he scored on a nifty left-handed floater over 7-7 Manute Bol!
Our celeb Sixers faced head coach Kenny Smith's celeb Rockets. The TNT analyst (and former Rockets star) had Jamal Mashburn as his assistant. Of course, the 76ers and Rockets were two of the three NBA teams Barkley played for (the other being the Suns).
Besides McGraw, the celebrities included Ice Cube, Nelly, Mark McGrath, Brian McKnight, Jonathan Lipnicki and Justin Timberlake. Sometimes, celebs portray themselves as being athletes, but when you see them on the floor, it's a different story. In one of his songs, Ice Cube talks about posting a triple-double. Well, there wasn't even a double-double in his on-court repertoire.
McGrath performs for fans all over the world, but he was a nervous wreck before the game. Nelly was just dancing around throughout the contest -- he must have thought he was shooting a video. McKnight, though, could play. He had 3-point range (we used the NBA 3-point line).
Current WNBA players included Nikki McCray, Rebecca Lobo and Ticha Penicheiro. Besides Bol, former NBA players included Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues and Moses Malone.
This was Barkley's coaching debut, and after the game I realized that as a coach, well, he was a great player.
Bol and Malone didn't match up much because Bol mainly played, yes, point guard. Malone basically tried not to get hurt or to hurt somebody. Barkley said Malone is in better shape now than when he played (safe to say that's not a claim Charles can make). Whether the rail-thin Bol has put on weight is hard to say -- who would notice? Bogues and Webb looked like they could still play in the league.
Why didn't I play Friday night? According to Barkley, I wasn't a big enough celebrity -- which couldn't have meant I wasn't tall enough, because I was like Yao Ming to most of the celebs. So I can only assume that in my little world at ESPN, I don't mean much to the world at large. It's his loss, though -- I know I could have pulled out the win for him with a clutch jumper at the end.
Barkley told me I was lucky to be sitting on the bench next to him. Lucky sitting next to him? Not quite. But sitting next to Faith Hill, I felt like the MVP.