Circus of the (All) Stars: A brief history of the spectacle known as the NBA All-Star Game



You know the NBA All-Star weekend in New Orleans has turned into a surreal circus when one of the centers of attention of the hoopla is a 5-foot-4, suddenly ubiquitous comedian-turned-actor.

  As the two-time defending contest MVP, funnyman Kevin Hart is headlining the seventh annual Sprint — gotta get that corporate sponsor in there — NBA All-Star Celebrity Game Feb. 14. The diminutive wisecracker is getting as much press as some of the, you know, actual NBA All-Stars who will play in what is ostensibly the "big game" Sunday.

  Of course, little guys have become a theme at the All-Star weekend, especially in the much-anticipated slam dunk competition, which in the past has been spectacularly won by Spud Webb (5-foot-7) and Nate Robinson (5-foot-9). Robinson pulled off perhaps the most memorable slam in the history of the competition when he bounded over previous winner Dwight Howard, all 6-feet-11 of him, to jam it home. (Howard, remember, won the Slamma Jamma contest in 2008, the last time the NBA came to NOLA for its All-Star festivities — and he did it wearing a Superman cape.)

  But that's what the NBA All-Star Weekend has become. Contests of all kind — slam dunk, 3-point shooting, ball handling skills, celebrity pickup games, rookie showcases, even D-League all-star scrums — fill the three-day extravaganza scheduled for the New Orleans Arena this weekend. As for the All-Star game itself, critics carp that, because the starting lineups for the East and West squads are selected by fan balloting, the event has become little more than a popularity contest for fawning fans and distinctly non-camera shy celebrities who show up to mug with the players.

  The actual match of the best basketball talent in the world is now practically an anticlimax to an otherwise insanely frenetic weekend that includes a slew of celebrity-squeezed parties — hey, we're the ultimate party town, right? — and plenty of bacchanalian revelry swirling around a pointless exhibition game that serves, for all intents and purposes, as a nice little vacation and a chance to show how little defense truly matters in American professional basketball.

  That was even the case six years ago, when the Crescent City last hosted the All-Star game in 2008, a fact that drew an odd mixture of derision and giddiness from The Times-Picayune writer Teddy Kider, who asserted that year's brouhaha was "exactly what it should be — an excuse to have a glitzy and glamorous weekend-long celebration of professional basketball.

  "The game itself," Kider added, "as many who attend the weekend will admit, has become a mildly entertaining afterthought, the anticlimactic Sunday night finish to days of festivities. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, for the simple reason that just about everybody seems to be getting what they want."

Things were, shall we say, different way back in 1951, when the very first American Basketball Association (ABA) All-Star game was held at the almost-mythical Boston Garden. Back then, the NBA, or at least the name National Basketball Association, was only two years old following the absorption of the weakened National Basketball League by its stronger sibling, the Basketball Association of America.

  With only a pair of seasons under its belt, the NBA was still very wobbly, trying to find its place among baseball, college football, pro football and even hockey. Today, the NBA generates about $5 billion of revenue a year — at least that's what longtime (and now retired) league Commissioner David Stern estimated in 2012. In 1951, cash was a little harder to come by, according to David George Surdam in his book, The Rise of the National Basketball Association. There was no merchandising, no corporate sponsorships, no luxury boxes to rent. Everything — including the relatively paltry salaries of the players — was almost entirely dependent on gate receipts at games.   

  There also were no multi-million-dollar contracts; in fact, on the morning of the 1951 All-Star game, Boston Globe writer Clif Keane gushed that coaches Joe Lapchick and John Kundla "have a million dollars worth of talent to handle" in the ensuing game — a figure that by today's standard is laughable.

  For everyone involved, there was just a need to scrape for every ounce of new fandom you could. While the NBA now has 30 teams, in 1951 the circuit had only 10. And yes, the Lakers were still in Minneapolis and today's Sacramento Kings were still the Rochester Royals. League officials (led by then-commissioner Maurice Podoloff) were, according to Surdam, "aware of the need to generate favorable publicity about the league."

  One of the solutions? An All-Star, just like the ones Major League Baseball, the National Football League and National Hockey League enjoyed.

  In 1951, the fans had nothing to do with choosing the all-star lineups, which were selected by sportswriters and broadcasters in each of the 10 league cities. Interestingly, legendary black sportswriter Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American noted the distinct lack of ethnic diversity in the whole affair, penning sarcastically that "Baltimore basketball writers (whiters) voting on players to make up two all-star teams for the first annual NBA ... all-star game were able to find 20 men in the league 'better' than Nat Clifton and/or Chuck Cooper."

  In 1951, the All-Star game itself actually mattered to the players, who all apparently wanted to win, and very badly. The East team, a massive underdog, shocked the West team with a 111-94 upset. Podoloff bragged that gate receipts were roughly $13,250.

  Many league officials and owners still doubted the long-term viability of a mid-season All-Star game, Surdam wrote. It took Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown volunteering to again host the game the next season to ensure its continued existence.

Nike Swoosh forward 57 years to 2008 New Orleans, a city still trying to regain its footing — and its identity — three years after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. After more than a half century, the NBA All-Star was now a multi-ring circus, although the NBA hierarchy attempted to allay that now-routine criticism by hitching the success of the weekend's hoops-centric festivities to the rebirth of a devastated city via player appearances, volunteer projects and the injection of revenue the event would inject into the struggling economy. The New Orleans All-Star Game was broadcast to 215 countries and covered by more than 1,000 credentialed journalists, including 300 from 33 foreign nations — placing New Orleans on a world stage for all to see the region's recovery.

  And, oh, purely by coincidence, NBA execs said, that exposure gained from the All-Star Game was now more than ever a chance to market pro basketball — and the NBA in particular — around the world, the ultimate stamp of global branding for a league that was already swimming in billions of dollars in revenue. (For the record, the East won the game 134-128 behind an MVP performance from — who else? — LeBron James.)

  Now it's six years later, and more changes are afoot for the Crescent City's second All-Star Weekend — most notably, the recent retirement of Stern as NBA commissioner, a post he held with a combination of iron-fisted authority, hip modern sensibility and the global vision that has largely been responsible for the league's worldwide growth (and billions in income).

  So how do we assess what's going to happen this weekend? We have something that bears absolutely no resemblance to what took place in Boston Garden 63 years ago.

  The NBA, once the stepchild of pro sports, is now, as celebrity headliner Kevin Hart aptly describes himself, "a grown little man."

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