PHOENIX – Shaquille O’Neal wore a white mask and danced with the JabbaWockeeZ, which by itself was reason enough to cough up a few hundred bucks for a seat at the NBA All-Star game. The big guy even added a strip tease of sort, but it was his home court and maybe his last time in this game so he was entitled to a bit of fun.
Shaq wasn’t too bad once he got on the court either, but that wasn’t really what this night was about. East or West, what really mattered was who looked good and how many style points they could win.
That was enough to keep both John McCain and Spike Lee, sitting a few seats from each other, interested at courtside. Down the row a bit was Muhammad Ali behind dark glasses and Eva Longoria, there to cheer on her husband, Tony Parker.
Even the nation’s No. 1 basketball player got in the act, with President Barack Obama speaking at halftime in a videotaped message.
No league depends on star power more than the NBA, and it was on display everywhere in the league’s annual midseason celebration. If Kobe and Shaq hugging and sharing an MVP trophy wasn’t enough, LeBron James gave everyone who stayed until the final seconds a taste of what the slam dunk contest really could be if the best players took part.
The beautiful and the not-so-beautiful were all there at US Airways arena for the usual array of dunks and alley-oop passes, and the superstars of the NBA delivered as usual. They even kept score, with the West winning 146-119.
The best part of the night, though, was that there wasn’t one person among the 20,000 or so in the house wondering whether Shaq was on human growth hormone.
After a week of tolerating the seamy underbelly of sports, the All-Stars offered a badly needed reprieve from news of all things A-Rod and the bumbling idiots who run baseball. It gave us a chance to celebrate instead of speculate, a chance to believe for at least a few hours that the athletes we saw didn’t need any help from a test tube.
The same league that just a few years ago was in danger of being dragged down by recreational drugs and a gangsta mentality has reinvented itself in a remarkable way. Even more remarkable is that while baseball’s All-Star games have been filled with juicers both known and unknown, the NBA’s big weekend took place with few questions about what’s real and what’s not.
Real was the huge dunk Shaq threw down in the third quarter to everyone’s delight, including his own. He may be a freak of nature, but it’s hard to find anyone who believes he and his fellow All-Stars are freaks out of a chemist’s lab.
“There are no questions,” Tim Duncan said. “They know we’re tested. They know we’re clean and they know the product that’s put on the floor are natural athletes that are performing the way they perform.”
The real reason, though, may be that steroids never became a big part of the NBA culture because the perception among players is that they wouldn’t help much.
“I don’t know why, but it’s never been a part of our game,” Chauncey Billups said. “Our game is sheer athleticism and running up and down. It’s kind of mental. It’s not about who’s got the biggest muscles.”
Attendance is holding up even with the economic meltdown, and league is doing something baseball should have done years ago and starting games in its championship finals – at least those on Sunday – an hour earlier so that more kids can watch.
That was good news, but the decision to honor one of the league’s icons for years to come was even better.
Former Celtics great Bill Russell turned 75 this week, and he was delivered a giant cake during a second quarter timeout to mark the occasion.
“This is one of my proudest moments in basketball,” Russell said.
In a league built on stars, Russell was one of the earliest — and the biggest. He won 11 championships with Boston because, as he said, the only statistic he ever thought about was winning.
Today’s NBA stars may not be as single-minded, as the fuss over LeBron’s recent triple-double that wasn’t showed. But the league is lucky to have two of them in Kobe and LeBron who can carry it for years.
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