Sunday, February 9, 2003

Another weekend at Sterny's

Contests, sponsors, gimmicks & then, eventually, a game

By Ryan Ernst
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Since its inception in 1984, the NBA's All-Star Weekend has been a crowd-pleaser. After all, the two most exciting plays in the pro game, the 3-point field goal and the dunk, each has its own contest.

As those contests' popularity increased, however, the corporate sponsorships also bloomed, forcing the NBA to add new All-Star events, which, with every new year, began to feature fewer and fewer actual NBA All-Stars and more and more future CBA All-Stars.

Among them: the Jeep All-Star Hoop-it-Up (which last year featured Justin Timberlake and Moses Malone on the same team, entertaining on a variety of levels); the NBA All-Star Jam Session (this year starring Nelly, Ja Rule and a few backward vintage NBA jerseys); the got milk? Rookie Challenge; the Sports Skills Challenge; the Philips $1 Million Big Shot; the NBA-WNBA 2ball competition (sort of like H-O-R-S-E with your sister); and the Schick Legends Classic (the team-with-the-fewest-knee-surgeries-wins game).

Well at least there's still the slam dunk competition, kind of. This year's competition featured four contestants, a far cry from the original 10.

But no matter how good or bad Saturday's events are, there is always the All-Star Game on Sunday, a tradition that goes back to 1951. No special rules, no celebrities, no color-coded "money balls." Just good, old-fashioned, no-defense, shoot-it-from-anywhere, try-not-to-get-hurt All-Star basketball. It's faaaaaaannnnntastic!

Added up over the last 20 years, with both good and bad changes, the spectacle that has become All-Star Weekend has supplied plenty of memories. The top 10:

10. Jason Williams unveils new pass, 2000 rookie game

In transition, the new Pistol Pete goes behind his back, then elbows the ball back to a streaking Raef LaFrentz, who is fouled on the way up. The next day, every kid with a basketball forgets about defense, free throw shooting and boxing out, and just tries to make that pass.

9. Craig Hodges heats up, 1991 3-point shootout

The Bulls bench-warmer hits 19 straight 3s in the semifinals en route to the second of three straight titles before stepping back into the shadow of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, etal.

8. West wins 154-149 in overtime, 1987

Thirteen players score in double figures; Julius Erving has 22 points in his final All-Star Game; and Tom Chambers, who was added to the West squad late because of an injury, walks away with 34 points and the MVP trophy. Exactly half of the 24 players at the game later were voted among the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All Time. And Tom Chambers wins the MVP? That's like Joan Rivers getting all the attention at the Playboy Mansion.

7. Stockton, Malone split MVP honors in Utah, 1993

In another overtime game, Utah Jazz teammates John Stockton and Karl Malone lead the West to a 135-132 win on their home floor. The most boring inside-outside duo in NBA history combine for a ho-hum 37 points, 16 rebounds and 15 assists. It's a "they'll never win a title, but let's give them this" moment. And it's nice.

6. Vince Carter dominates, 2000 slam dunk contest

He catches a ball in midair, then takes it between his legs for a windmill dunk. He stuffs a ball and shoves his arm down the rim to his elbow. He does a 360 that shortens announcer Hubie Brown's life by at least five years. This is when they should have discontinued the slam dunk competition. Every subsequent year has been an insult.

5. Iverson, Marbury lead East comeback win, 2001

In the 50th anniversary of the game, the East overcomes a 21-point deficit for a 111-110 win as Allen Iverson scores 15 in the fourth quarter and Stephon Marbury drains two 3s in the final 53 seconds. Even better, there's defense, and the two teams actually seem to care.

4. Spud wins one for the little people, 1986 slam dunk contest

Atlanta Hawks 5-7 guard Spud Webb captivates the crowd in his hometown of Dallas en route to beating the reigning champion and Webb's teammate, Dominique Wilkins. The one-handed 360 and lob two-hand reverse he shows are unbelievable, even by today's standards.

3. A Legend is born, 1986 3-point shootout

Prior to the first 3-point shootout, Larry Bird walks into the locker room and proclaims everyone else is playing for second. He then rips through the competition, beating Hodges 22-12 in the finals. On his final shot, the two-point "money ball," Bird fires, then immediately turns and walks away with his index finger in the air, splash. Bird at his best.

2. M.J. vs. 'Nique showdown, 1988 slam dunk contest

The comparisons to a shootout have been drawn, but more than that, it was a defining moment for both players. Dominique windmills and two-hand clutches his way to the finals, while Michael soars and glides through the field in front of the Chicago crowd. In the end, it's M.J.'s foul-line dunk that wins the title and becomes a must-have poster for an entire generation.

1. Magic, 1992

After announcing his contraction of HIV and retiring from basketball, and before his ill-advised television show, The Magic Hour, Magic Johnson returns to the court as an all-star starter. His 25 points and nine assists earn him MVP honors. In the last 90 seconds, he throws a textbook backdoor bounce pass, forces Jordan and Isiah Thomas into missed jumpers, then hits a deep 3 with time running out. That's the way it should have ended for Magic. Three failed comebacks later, this is how we should remember Magic.

So very, very painful

A look at the worst moments in NBA All-Star Weekend history:

Brent Barry wins with the foul-line dunk, 1996 slam dunk contest: It was a slap in the face to Dr. J., M.J. and slam dunk history. As soon as his feet hit the floor, Barry should have run to the sideline, knelt before His Airness and begged for forgiveness. It would have been a Bobby-after-sweeping-Daniel's-leg-in-Karate Kid moment. He had to know it was wrong.

Zeke gives a cold shoulder to a young Jordan, 1985: With Michael Jordan beginning to steal his star power, Isiah Thomas leads an alleged "freeze-out" of Jordan in the All-Star game, keeping the ball away from No. 23. The result: Thomas scores 22, while Jordan is held to nine. The other result: Jordan allegedly uses the same kind of politics to keep Zeke off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. Paybacks are hell.

Cedric Ceballos' blind luck, 1992 slam dunk: The same generation that thought pro wrestling was real actually believed Ceballos' "blindfolded" jam was legit. At least until the kids tried the same dunk on Nerf hoops and lowered rims and realized they could see well enough to dunk a basketball. Fortunately, Ceballos couldn't fake his way through an ill-fated recording career.

Jordan does Clark Kent impersonation, 1990 shootout, 2002 All-Star Game: Already with a pair of Slam Dunk crowns, Jordan tries his hand at the Shootout, failing miserably. M.J. comes in dead last with five points in the first round.

"We know, we know, you're a complete player. Right, so is Craig Hodges. Now, dunk the ball."

But 12 years later, an over-the-hill Jordan can't even do that, bricking a wide-open dunk in the All-Star Game. It's like watching Willie Mays with the Mets, stumbling over himself in the outfield. An entire generation cries.

This year: Four players in the Slam Dunk? Vince Carter elected as a starter despite playing in only 10 games before the ballots were counted? The game's not even aired on network television. It's on TNT, yet NBC is televising Arena Football earlier in the day. On second thought, who needs cable?


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