Besides the playoffs, All-Star Saturday used to be the best event the NBA had, and it could have been that again — if LeBron James had wanted to make it so.
All he had to do was enter the slam-dunk competition the way Jordan did and Kobe did when they were hot-shot kids and everybody, including people who had never watched an entire NBA game, wanted to see what all the hype was about. It would have injected a huge shot of excitement into a Saturday that has become duller than the décor in an unemployment office.
But James apparently had too many things to do this weekend. He had to make appearances for Nike, after all, along with his other sponsors. And there was that game between the rookies and sophomores on Friday night in which James showed his stuff. But James opted out of the slam dunk contest, which was won by the Pacers' Fred Jones on Saturday.
This is beyond a shame. It’s an insult to the game that has made him fabulously wealthy at a time when most of his high-school classmates are wrestling with freshman composition in college. It’s a kid barely old enough to have his own checking account and credit cards telling the game that made him what he is that it’s not worth his effort to give something back.
When he was asked about it after his Cavs lost to the Nets Wednesday, he couldn’t even be bothered to give a reason for his decision. “I’m out. I’m out. I’m out,” he told reporters. “No more questions about the slam dunk.”
That’s how superstars deal with issues that fans care about these days — they refuse to discuss them. It’s not as if James didn’t have time to talk because he had to catch a plane. He went to Los Angeles to work for his sponsors by private jet, a mode of transportation I’m willing to bet Bill Russell never took to an all-star game.
The NBA put on a slam-dunk contest without him, but it was hard to get excited.
All-Star Saturday has been hard to watch for years, mostly because the entrants aren’t true superstars. Take the star appeal out of the slam dunk and all you have are four guys doing things you’ve seen hundreds of times before, including on last night’s sports highlights.
The three-point contest isn’t much better. Years ago, Larry Bird was in it and you had to watch. Now, it’s four great shooters but none that have great appeal beyond their home cities.
Even the skills competition, a great idea added last year showcasing ball-handling ability, can’t get it straight. Last year, Jason Kidd won it. This year, he’s not even in it. It’s advertised as the best point guards in the league showing their stuff. And it doesn’t have the best point guard and defending champ in it.
But the slam-dunk was the original competition king of All-Star Saturday. And this year, the four contestants were: two-time defending champ Jason Richardson of the Warriors, Ricky Davis of the Celtics, Chris Andersen of the Nuggets and Jones.
Unless you're hopelessly addicted to the NBA, there was no reason to watch, no reason to get excited, and, most important, no reason to care.
We care about competition when we know the people involved, when there are superstars out to cement their reputations. Jordan stopped entering the slam-dunk, but only after he went in as a kid and won it, proving that he was as good as his press clippings said he was. Kobe tested himself in the competition. All the young hot-shots do.
But James apparently sees himself as too good for such frivolity. His coach, Paul Silas, didn’t want him to compete because Silas wants the kid to get some rest. And for a while, James had suggested that an ankle sprain suffered some weeks ago might preclude his competing.
Neither of those excuses is adequate or sufficient. Coaches never want their players doing anything other than playing in regular games. If Silas were so worried about James’ rest, he wouldn’t be giving the kid more than 40 minutes a game. And if the ankle were a problem, James wouldn’t be performing highlight-reel dunks every chance he gets. You can dunk in a game, you can dunk in an exhibition.
Besides, people don’t get hurt practicing dunks or doing them in a contest. The only person I can remember getting hurt dunking was Manute Bol, who hit his mouth on the rim the first time he tried it and knocked several teeth out.
So there’s no good reason for James not to be in the slam dunk, no good reason for him to deny the NBA a shot of excitement. It was all upside, not just for him, but for the game that already has taken care of his financial needs for life.
He’s in L.A., having played with the rookies and maybe an invite to the big game Sunday if the East finds itself short a player. But mostly he’s in L.A. to fulfill his obligations to his sponsors. If Nike hadn’t wanted him out there, you get the feeling he would have blown off the rookie squad, too.
This is what we’ve created: a kid who finds his sponsors more important than his game and his fans.
He may think he doesn’t need the slam-dunk contest and the glitter it could add to his resume, just as it did for Jordan nearly 20 years ago. But the game needs it.
You wonder when, if ever, he’ll realize that.
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