NBA: All-Star Weekend Warriors

Yao Ming boasts a custom-made red PlayStation 3 with a dragon laser-etched across the top.

"Video games are my big problem. It's like a drug. I play too much," Yao says with a laugh.

But he's not the only NBA player who spends a good amount of his spare time mowing down zombies, aliens or any opponent who challenges him online.

In fact, during All-Star Weekend in Phoenix, video games played a key role in player activities and downtime before the actual event.

EA Sports awarded the top "NBA Live 09" gamer $25,000 in a hotly contested tournament that came down to the final seconds.

In a separate event, Shaq took on a soldier stationed overseas in Live, then surprised the serviceman by holding the man's son up to the webcam so the two could be reunited via the game.

And PlayStation not only sponsored the skills competition during All-Star Saturday Night, but it also hosted Derrick Rose and Devin Harris in its Player's Suite before the event to preview the competition with "NBA 09 The Inside." And boy did Rose need the preview, as when he played the game and tried bouncing the balls through the targets, he asked whether that was really what he was going to do in the competition just a few hours away.

Oh yeah, and if you're looking for someone to blame for those hideous rookie/sophomore uniforms, the designer was a gamer, too; he won the right to gear up the players during an "NBA Live" jersey creator contest. (Cool idea, but if that's the jersey that won, how bad were the losers?)

Like I said, video games were the talk of the weekend around All-Star, but the biggest sensation was the aforementioned Sony suite at the players' hotel, where the company set up a lounge with early copies of "Killzone 2" and "MLB 09," then made custom PlayStation 3's for the athletes in attendance.

LeBron James walked away with a gold PS3 covered by a royal lion and the words "King James." Derrick Rose opted for a red system with the words "Pooh 1." David West, a self-proclaimed "Fight Night" fanatic, had the artist write out "Fight Night King" on his machine to go along with a crown. Brandon Roy wanted a purple PS3 with "B. Roy" and the logo for the Washington Huskies.

But the most popular custom machine had to be the Obama. That's right -- players like Paul Pierce wanted their video game systems with President Barack Obama's picture and the word "Hope" along the bottom.

"The Celtics won the championship the same year he was elected," Pierce told me. "That's championship green." Then as he walked out of the suite, Pierce turned back and shouted, "Man, I bet I can sell this thing online for like two million dollars ... just kidding."

Funniest sight from the suite, though, was Kevin Durant playing "MLB 09" so much the first night that the PS3 test unit he was using actually broke.

Now that's a gamer.

The Salute

But if you want to know just how much video games have infiltrated the NBA, you just need to look at the Knicks and the origin of Nate Robinson's free throw salute.

"Me and my friends play 'Call of Duty' all the time, and one of my brothers asked me during a game about the dunk contest, like, 'What dunk you doing?' A couple of the guys who were playing online against us, they were like, 'Dunk contest? Who is this guy supposed to be?'" Robinson said. "My brother told them, 'Nate Robinson,' but they didn't believe him. So then they asked me a whole bunch of questions. I guess they went on the computer and wanted to know my birthday, where I was from, and I answered all of the questions right back to back, and they thought I had a computer in front of me. They didn't believe me. But then I gave tickets to a couple of the guys out in Oakland, and now they believe me, so I told them I would do the 'Call of Duty' salute for them every time I make a 3-pointer or a free throw."

And just how serious a gamer is Robinson?

"If I don't have a game, I'll come home after practice, and that's all I want to do is play video games," he said. "Games like 'Madden,' 'Call of Duty' and 'Grand Theft Auto,' that's what I play the most. When 'Grand Theft Auto' came out, I played that all the time. Me and my brother would get in a match and drive around the city, getting all the nice cars, wrecking them and chasing each other. The new 'Street Fighter' just came out, so after this weekend, that's what I'm going to get into."

Your Favorite's Favorites

And Robinson isn't the only one into fighting games like "Street Fighter." When I asked Tim Duncan what he's been playing lately, he talked up "Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe." "I'm a big Green Lantern fan," Duncan said, "so it's cool to be able to fight as him in the game. It's my time to jump on the Internet, be incognito and relax."

Other favorite games from around All-Star? Chris Bosh said he played so much "Gears of War 2" that he had to retire from gaming for a little bit just to recover. Chris Paul said the Hornets are finally good enough in "NBA 2K9" that he can use his own team in the game for the first time in his career. Danny Granger plays a lot of "Madden" and "NCAA Football." Chauncey Billups still has a hard time beating his daughters at "Wii Sports" tennis or bowling. Roger Mason boasted that he's a beast with Ken in "Street Fighter." And David West, the guy who put "Fight Night King" on his custom PS3, already is counting down the days to when he can play as Mike Tyson in "Fight Night Round 4."

As for Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis, they say gaming actually helped them become better friends and teammates.

"We hooked up an Xbox 360 on the plane, and we play 'Call of Duty' all the time," Lewis said. "We started playing games together, and that's how we got close."

But in terms of a favorite game, the biggest surprise of the weekend came from LeBron. I already knew he was a gamer, as we've talked before about how much he likes to play as the Cowboys in "Madden." But when I asked him what he is playing these days, I was pretty shocked by his answer. He smiled and shot back: "Right now I'm playing 'Buzz' on the PlayStation 3."

Buzz? Who knew? King James is also the trivia champ.

A Question of Character

To Jameer Nelson, though, it's not about picking a favorite game, it's about getting his character right in the NBA games coming out next season.

"My character, he's all right ... not like the real thing. I don't think they have my hops, my ups," Nelson said, laughing. "People don't think I can dunk, so in the games, that automatically makes me not a dunker."

Old School

When Nelson's teammate Dwight Howard throws down a jam in real life, he says people on the Magic bench actually shout out "Boomshackalacka!" like the old days of "NBA Jam." One of the centers Howard used to dunk as in that game was David Robinson, who really enjoys his legacy on the virtual courts of "Jam" and "David Robinson's Supreme Court."

"To me, it's fun to think of these guys growing up playing video games as my character. I used to play 'NBA Jam' all the time," Robinson said. "I never wanted to play as a big man, though. I wanted to be a small guy because they did all the scoring in those games. I remember when I first started playing games, how rudimentary they were. I was playing 'Atari Basketball,' where they were all stick figures. It's not like today where you actually see who you're playing as. I was passing to little block guys.

"It's great that they still include us in the games today. You can put us in our primes against the players of today. I'm glad to be a part of that."

Another "Jam" legend I caught walking around Phoenix was Gary Payton. The "Jam" team of Payton and Shawn Kemp might be the most popular duo in the history of the franchise.

"A lot of the young kids were always telling me how they played as me and Shawn, and it's funny that some of these guys are now playing in the NBA. I appreciate the game because being good in the game gives credit to what I was doing on the court for real," Payton said

As for the only "NBA Jam" legend still lacing them up, Shaq says he likes the influence the game has had on current players. He also still insists that "Shaq Fu" was the height of technology, even if he can't keep a straight face while saying it.

One old-timer's video game that never did his real game justice, though, was that of Bill Laimbeer. The one-time Pistons brute also was the one-time pitchman for the infamous "Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball." When I saw Laimbeer during media day, I couldn't resist asking him about the product.

"The game was interesting, I'll give it that," Laimbeer said of the game in which he used bombs and hockey checks to destroy his robot opponents in a sci-fi basketbrawl.

"Every now and then, my sister will go on eBay, and someone is selling the game for like 10 cents."

A far cry from the two million dollars Pierce joked about getting for his Obama PS3.

Then again, Laimbeer's game wasn't lasered in championship green.