The first taste of All-Star Weekend starts on the trip you take to get there. Mine was from Charlotte at 9 a.m. on Friday. In front of me was a 20-something guy wearing a jacket that said, "I’m Bout Dat Life" on the back. To my left, a woman with her hair dyed bright red with bedazzled nails and three-inch clear platform heels. Pretty sure she was bout dat life, too.
But that's only part of it. Then you get to the airport and baggage claim is full of a hundred different limo drivers holding signs for God knows what sponsors. You get to the hotel and everything’s branded with NBA and Adidas signage. You stop by media day at a different hotel, and the only thing more amazing than 500 reporters from around the world are the 250 over-caffeinated NBA employees sprinting around to keep it all running. All of them are bout dat life in one way or another.
Yes, to someone who doesn't care about the NBA, all this probably sounds like a goddamn nightmare. And it sort of is, sometimes. But All-Star Weekend's also a perfect microcosm of everything makes the NBA so much fun. But we'll come back to that at the end.
For practical purposes, it's like being dropped into a giant trade convention for basketball. So what do people write after trade conventions happen? Do they come up with "winners" and "losers" from said convention? Let's say they do, for the sake of this column. Without further ado ... here are some winners and losers from this past weekend in Houston.
WINNER. One day we will say, "Hey remember that year the entire sports media decided to turn Michael Jordan's 50th birthday into an inescapable cultural event?" Because, uh, for some reason that's what happened last week. As Sports Illustrated wrote in its special commemorative issue for Michael Jordan's 50th birthday, "It's only natural to do what anyone does upon reaching such a big, round number -- assess his place in life, take stock of what has gone before and ponder what is to come." Is it really, though? Who decided this?
If you told someone two weeks ago that Michael Jordan was turning 50, they'd have said, "Oh wow cool, I bet there'll be a great TNT montage or something."
Not an avalanche of nostalgia from every media outlet on earth ... but hey! I read everything and loved it so this isn't a complaint. We just weren't prepared. MJ dominated the headlines, he threw the best party of the weekend (a Jordan brand affair at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, featuring a 90 minute performance from R Kelly), and somehow the All-Star Weekend after the most outrageous two weeks of LeBron's career became a celebration of Michael Jordan's greatness. Even by MJ's standards, pretty incredible.
Imagine the phone call.
NBAPA: "Hey Billy, we're going to meet over All-Star Weekend to discuss your future with the NBAPA."
Billy Hunter: "GREAT. I can have a chance to tell my side of the story."
NBAPA: "No no, you're not coming."
NBAPA: "Yeah ... no."
Hunter: "So you're voting me out and I can't even defend myself?"
Hunter: "I don't even think that's legal."
Hunter: "I'm going to sue you for al--"
NBAPA: "Right okay, whatever.
Hunter: "Are you serious?"
NBAPA: "Yeah, that's how terrible you've been. We'd rather risk the lawsuit then deal with you again."
Hunter: "WHAT. But -- "
NBAPA: "Hey Billy we got another call here. But good luck with the U.S. Attorney!"
So yes, Billy Hunter was an All-Star loser for the weekend. Just ... RUTHLESS.
WINNER. What's the polar opposite of the Billy Hunter exit strategy? That would be Stern, taking an 18-month victory lap and looking more bulletproof than ever. That all continued this weekend, with Stern smiling his way through another successful All-Star experience. The whole weekend is its own monument to what Stern's done as commissioner. The shameless branding at every turn and possibly ruining the dunk contest, sure, but also the global approach to media and turning his superstars into the biggest stars in the world.
Stern basically invented this weekend as one big commercial for his league, and it's become a tentpole in sports that everyone agrees is meaningless and over the top, but we still watch every single year. David Stern is bout dat life.
ANYONE WHO WENT TO JAM SESSION
Loser. All due respect to Czar Stern, but Jam Session is what the world would look like if capitalists like Stern could control EVERYTHING. Every year it takes place in a massive convention center, full of various "activities" brought to by Taco Bell-Sprint-Adidas-Kia-Sprite-Haier-Foot Locker.
Imagine an airplane hangar full of screaming kids, adults who are about to lose their mind, bad music, and announcers at every station screaming over the kids. And SO MUCH BRANDING. We need to force David J. Roth to spend 10 hours at Jam Session just so he can write 2,000 words about it. For an 11 year-old kid I imagine it would still be pretty cool, but for anyone else it's either a scary vision of what the world will look like in 30 years or an uncomfortably accurate microcosm of what life's actually like now. In either case, way too much to handle.
COACH JESUS CHRIST
WINNER. My favorite moment of the weekend. As I staggered out of Jam Session Saturday afternoon, I needed fresh air and silence. I found a park across the street, and started wandering, and a few minutes into the sanity break someone handed me a flyer. Now, 95 percent of the time someone hands you a flyer at All-Star Weekend it's promoting a party with someone like Wale at a club you've never heard of. But THIS flyer? THIS was special. It was an All-Star Weekend-themed Jesus pamphlet. Sample:
Just like in the game of basketball, life boils down to two teams who go up against each other. From the moment you are born you are drawn to be on one team or the other. Both teams have their origins way back before the creation of mankind. ... Team Darkness uses force, violence, trickery, witchcraft, and deception to lure you in while Team Light uses tact, mercy, compassion, self-sacrifice and love to win you over. Team Darkness wants you to live for the moment while Team Light wants you to live forever.
Team Light has the best coach, Jesus. He is a winner! ... Even though our first parents lost the first battle in the Garden of Eden, Jesus reclaimed that title at the cross.
There has been one game, two Teams, but only one winner! You too can be part of the winning team. You decide. The ball is in your court. Which team will you be on?
COACH JESUS IS BOUT DAT LIFE.
More lessons from the All-Star Jesus pamphlet:
Team Darkness wants to degrade you mentally, physically and spiritually and distract you from the heavenly blessings. Check this out from the Bible "It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time. Repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habits of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on..."
Okay. All due respect to Coach Jesus, but it seems clear that Team Darkness STAYS WINNIN' on All-Star Weekend. Either way, that pamphlet belongs in the NBA Hall of Fame.
WINNER. Let's be real, Worldwide Wes and the Illuminati are undefeated at All-Star Weekend. Last year, They decided that everyone was going to wear these glasses, and this this year They decided that the All-Star shoes would look like a pack of highlighters. Don't ask questions here, because you don't want the Answers. This guy knows what's up.
Loser. We all lost, really. James White's the greatest dunker we've seen since Vince, Saturday was his chance to save the dunk contest, and ... nope. Life is horrible.
KYRIE IRVING AND PAUL GEORGE
SHOUTOUT TO THEM FRESHMAN.
IN THE ALL-STAR GAME STRAIGHT FLEXIN.
[/ducks flying brick]
But they're winners, yes. Kyrie basically owned the weekend and launched himself into the conversation with the six or seven best players that will own the league for the foreseeable future, and Paul George quietly had as great an All-Star Game debut as you can hope for, rounding out his case as the most underrated star in the league.
Additional praise goes to All-Star freshman Joakim Noah, who on Sunday night told Nick Friedell and ESPN Chicago: "I haven't slept in three days, man. I had all my best friends; there's not one of my friends who isn't here. I got my pops [Yannick] here. I'm looking up, he's smiling and proud. It just really means everything. I just felt like I might as well go out there and just give it everything I got. I can't half-ass it because otherwise I would really look like [****]." Joakim Noah is the greatest.
Loser. Poor Brandon Knight. As Zach Harper said Friday night, "Brandon Knight is really good at almost making plays." Right. He put up a good fight with lots of impressive crossovers in his war against Kyrie Irving in the rookie game, but he could never quite finish, and now all anyone remembers is that he got disemboweled by Kryie on National TV. That one will be tough to live down.
PEDs CONSPIRACY THEORISTS
Losers. On Saturday David Stern was asked about PEDs testing the NBA. His answer:
Well, I would say that we have a comprehensive drug testing program that has a long list, probably a hundred or so, I'm not even sure the number, of drugs that are prohibited, including HGH, subject to an agreement of the validity of an appropriate testing protocol. And we expect that to happen, we really do, before the start of next season.
With respect to the biological passport, I think the blood test is the precursor to the biological passport. And that's a subject for discussion with the Players' Association. And let me say, our players have been front and center with us on this one. They want to be and be perceived as playing in a drug free sport. We have six unannounced tests a year. Two of those are authorized out of season.
And we have an independent group of experts that adds drugs to the list of prescribed drugs. And we test in a way that the samples get sent to an approved lab and we're there. There will always be some kind of leap frogging there, as there was in 1983 which we were the first league to have an anti drug program and dealt with a variety of things. So it's always subject to be improved. But together with our Players' Association, which I think has taken a leadership role here, I'm sure we'll continue to improve it.
Perfect. It's easy to play the cynic when PEDs are brought up, and lately there's been whispers about the NBA. That's fine, because there are obviously people taking performance enhancers who don't get caught. But that will always be true, so unless you honestly believe most of the league is taking PEDs, cynicism here is its own kind of pointless naivete. Next to all that gossip and paranoia, Stern's approach is dead on -- understand you can't guard against everything, commit to vigilance, and do the best you can. This should be everyone's attitude about PEDs. End of the story.
Losers. Mayor Kevin Johnson was apparently in Houston all weekend but never met with the NBA, which isn't terribly promising. There's no real news either way, but it feels like this will end badly. David Stern made it clear Saturday that if a Sacramento provides a competitive bid to the one from Chris Hansen and co., it'll be up to the owners to decide between the two. Now, David Stern controls everything in the NBA. We know that. So if he's shrugging his shoulders and (already) publicly shifting attention to the owners? Again, seems like a bad sign. In brighter news ...
BILL BELLAMY AND NAS
WINNERS. Nas made an appearance Sunday night, and it was definitely the highlight of the game for me. Mostly because it's great to remember that Nas is still alive, and his presence was an essential counterpoint to the Drakefication of everything in 2013. Added bonus? When Nas appeared on screen at the Toyota Center he was next to Bill Bellamy, except they only announced Nas. This led a few seconds of wonderful awkwardness while Bill Bellamy stared sheepishly into the camera and everyone asked, "Hey, who is that... Bill Bellamy?" It was! And they finally announced his name, so this story has a happy ending.
Unrelated: Here's a picture of 2 Chainz playing basketball at halftime.
Leather shorts and leggings! #Illuminati
CHRIS PAUL AND LEBRON JAMES
WINNERS. Obviously. Chris Paul was the face of the West team all weekend long -- impressive considering Kobe and Durant's presence - -and then went out and won MVP, celebrated with his adorable son, all of it adding to his resume as the most perfect person in the world. Meanwhile, LeBron's more entrenched than ever as king of the league, and you can tell as much because nobody really cared that Kobe blocked his shot in crunch time. Compare that to this column after last year's All-Star Game. Or my column after that game. Now we just get to enjoy LeBron without making the entire experience insufferable, and watching it all this weekend, the future of the league is in good hands. (And horrible leather pants).
Loser. We don't have the exact figure, but there were probably around 100,000 Dwight Howard jokes told in Houston this weekend. For one thing, he's the only player in the NBA who could complain about an injury all season long and then think it's a good idea to go play in the All-Star Game. Gregg Popovich benched him Sunday night, because of course he did. How far has Dwight's fallen? I read this COLUMN on the way to the airport Monday morning and couldn't stop laughing. Take five minutes to check it out. Ken Berger's not wrong about any of it, but still.
It's like we went down the columnist checklist for ways to praise CP3, threw in some love for LeBron and nostalgia for MJ, and then someone said, "You know what? Screw it, let's throw in some Dwight Howard bashing at the end there. Just fit it in there somehow. People love that shit." The year of Dwight rolls on!
LOSER. Such a loser. Things I didn't do at All-Star Weekend A) Find a way to get into Michael Jordan's 50th party to see R Kelly perform, B) See Beyonce's house, C) Become best friends with Bun-B, D) Hang out with Jimmy Goldstein or Worldwide Wes, or E) Go to ANY clubs and wait two-and-a-half hours to see 2 Chainz perform for 15 minutes.
I did get to hear Mark Cuban tell a great story about his night at Club LIV after the 2010 Finals and also become best friends with Clipper Darrell, but it's no excuse. I need to re-read this paragraph before next year. And hey look that's a nice segue!
NEW YORK CITY AND NEW ORLEANS
WINNERS. All-Star Weekend's in New Orleans for 2014, and Adam Silver said it's "likely" headed to either Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center in 2015. So ... All-Star Weekend in NYC?
First thought: "That will be AWESOME."
Then a second passed, I remembered the traffic in Houston and the general chaos of the entire weekend, and imagining all this dropped into New York City sort of broke my brain. But then I kept thinking, and even beyond the New York City part -- it’s just crazy to imagine where we’ll be in two years. For instance, this weekend I asked Wizards rookie Bradley Beal whether he was overwhelmed by his first All-Star experience.
"Yeah," he said. "A year ago I was in college, year before that I was in high school. I never really pictured myself being in this situation." Right.
In February 2011, Beal was a 17 year-old kid in St. Louis, Kevin Durant was 22 years-old playing in his first All-Star Game, LeBron James was the most unpopular player in NBA history, Kobe and the Lakers still owned the league, Dirk was too soft to win with Dallas, Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard were competing for MVP, and nobody on earth had heard of 2 Chainz.
Now here we are, and that paragraph looks 10 years old.
In 2015, we’ll be asking Andrew Wiggins whether he’s overwhelmed, Kyrie Irving will be something close to what Durant is now, Kobe will probably be gone altogether, and depending on who wins the next two titles we’ll either be in the middle of the ‘80s glory days (with KD and LeBron as Magic and Larry) or the ‘90s glory days (with LeBron as MJ), and 2 Chainz will almost definitely own an NBA team.
So, in case you don't understand why people go to this or why anyone cares about any of it, why is All-Star Weekend the greatest? Two reasons.
1. You have all these strange worlds that orbit the NBA on a daily basis, but then once-a-year they collide in one place. Rappers and groupies, billionaire owners and endless corporate sponsors, current players who look invincible and old legends reminding them otherwise, grumpy old media and stupid new bloggers, overachieving young employees and NBA-lifers who've been with the league for 30 years, Jimmy Goldstein and Worlwide Wes.... All in the same place, doing the same things, having the same arguments. If All-Star Weekend's basically an industry convention or a glorified commercial, it's also a kaleidoscope of everyone and everything that makes the most surreal sport on earth.
2. Next to that blur, you have a perfect snapshot of exactly where the NBA is in any given year. Last year LeBron was the best player on the floor who wouldn't take the last shot, and that's where we were. Now it's all about whether LeBron can be Jordan, Kyrie and CP3 are everyone's favorite players, Dwight Howard's everyone's favorite punchline. And so on. In two years, who knows. The only guarantee is that in the middle of February 2015, an insane, overcrowded, completely unneccessary 72-hours will bring it all into focus for us.
Then the game will start on Sunday night, everyone will remember that the All-Star Game actually kinda sucks, and we'll start wondering what happens next.