Call it pyrite, it's shiny for a reason
I don’t want to talk about All-Star selections. By now, any half-conscious NBA fan should know the drill: homers vote for their stars and, shamefully, their half-decent subs; Yao racks up a ton of votes and the xenophobia kicks in; Vince makes the starting line-up and purists feign outrage (ironically, he deserves to start this year but isn't getting the votes); and every columnist in the universe weighs in about who deserves a spot and why. The thing is, this serious consideration of "merit" and "accomplishment" is misleading, if not an outright joke. The All-Star Game isn’t a real game; it’s a glorified exhibition, and we watch it to see crowd-pleasing players at their most loose, brash, and exceptional. All the arguments that apply so readily to the MVP race—key guy on winning team, big numbers in the service of mediocrity, effect on teammates, clutch ability—have zero to do with what someone can make of a J-Kidd lob on the break. In fact, the Association has fifteen spots set aside for the Rip Hamiltons and Tim Duncans of this world: they’re called the All-NBA teams, and they’re supposed to reward players for outstanding work done during the regular season. I guess the East/West rivalry meant something a few years ago, when the West had such a gaping advantage that the occasional East victory came as a revelation and proof of substantial basketball worth. But with the two about even again, there’s hardly the need to excel at success that should be the hallmark of, say, the Olympic squad.
All-Star rosters should be most concerned with compiling that season’s most enthralling players. They’re out there to please the crowd, show up each other, and appeal to pure sickness, with the outcome irrelevant if it’s not a product of style. In a close game, it comes down to which team can discipline themselves without losing that all-important playfulness. It’s worth noting that T-Mac is historically a far better All-Star that Kobe, for the simple fact that Kobe has it in him to be methodical and gravely determined. T-Mac, on the other hand, takes chances and is immortal enough to improvise his way to a thirty-point outburst. Iverson may be the consummate All-Star performer, since for AI getting loose and bearing down are one and the same. I’m not proposing that we open the floodgates and fill each team with raw dunkers, but certainly the All-Star Game, consumed as a contest of style, needs to be recognized as that by those who take this “honor” seriously.
Now for the inevitable FreeDarko socio-cultural angle. If the NBA is making a conscious effort to downplay its hip-hop constituency, All-Star Weekend might as well be a lost cause. The Weekend is the Association’s dirty little admission of how much it owes the very fans it’s slighted as of late; in a month, it goes down in Houston; reliable sources tell me that last night, one of the local news channels ran a segment on the Ying Yang Twinz. The three day long party and highlight production tank pretty much screams “core audience,” and is as notable for its off-court action (AI renting out the whole damn Gallery comes to mind) as the celebration of dunking, long-range bombing, and the backward competitive spirit. And as much as Stern is concerned about the pale, corporate faces at courtside and in the luxury boxes, it’s that public’s willingness to treat All-Star Weekend like a national holiday (whose joke was that?) that gives it some sense of occasion and allows local businesses to capitalize. I know of no other sporting event whose identity hinges as violently on its pre- and post- merriment; you could have the most sorry, dog-earred East and West rosters imaginable, with a defensive gem of a Rookie Game and a Fred Jones-style dunk contest to boot, and it wouldn’t do a thing to the atmosphere of All-Star Weekend.
I’m not looking to racialize style—I think any FreeDarko reader knows that, for better or worse, I’ve done enough of that to last a lifetime. More to suggest that, as fans of “real” basketball exert more and more of a stranglehold on the Association’s official agenda and propaganda machine, would it kill the league to acknowledge that it does acknowledge the importance of style and the fans who find value in the “polluted” game? You can argue that, by this logic, All-Star Weekend amount to a caricature, segregation, or some other belittling of the excessive baggage that comes with the sport’s internal strife over the role of style. Politics, however, is rarely done in shades of gray, and in this case, conceding All-Star Weekend seems like a relatively minor gesture of goodwill. Yes, people of many colors vote in the starters, but everyone knows where those preferences originate; going platinum doesn't automatically make a rapper pop.
Then again, Stern seems to have his own ideas about the relationship between All-Star Weekend and the "real" game: