LOS ANGELES - More often than not in recent years, the NBA All-Star Game has ended up revolving in some way around Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal.
In Atlanta last February, Bryant’s foul shots forced overtime and prevented a storybook ending for Michael Jordan.
In Philadelphia two years ago, Bryant was booed unmercifully in his hometown.
In 1996, fans in San Antonio booed Jordan’s MVP selection as a tribute to O’Neal. In 1998, Bryant waved off a pick from Karl Malone at Madison Square Garden, prompting a tirade on generational respect from the Mailman.
The two superstars will play on their home turf in Sunday night’s game, and chances are one of them will seize the spotlight again.
“If I’m feeling it, I’m going to try to take it,” O’Neal said. “But if I’m not feeling it, I’m not going to try to force the issue.”
The league’s showcase event has gone Hollywood this year, with the Staples Center — home of the Lakers and Clippers — playing host to the event. Jack Nicholson, Magic Johnson and Dyan Cannon will be courtside, the lower bowl will be liberally sprinkled with Academy Award winners, Grammy nominees, hip-hop impresarios and other varieties of the beautiful people that make this city a perfect place for such a spectacle.
Aside from O’Neal and Bryant, there are other All-Stars in this year’s game with ties to Los Angeles — Paul Pierce grew up there, and Baron Davis was a star at UCLA.
But will anybody care about those story lines when the ball goes up for the opening tip-off at 5:52 p.m. Sunday? Or will all eyes turn to the two Lakers whose uneasy relationship has lent a plot-twisting undertone to the team’s continually evolving story.
O’Neal remains an icon in Los Angeles, a larger-than-life figure beloved for bringing three championships in the past four years.
Bryant’s stature is not what it once was, the rape allegation against him in Colorado tarnishing the image of a player once thought to be the perfect face of the NBA for its transition into the post-Jordan era.
He even had to deflect reports Friday that he has been telling friends and teammates that there's no way he'll return to the Lakers after this season. But he quashed those reports, saying "I want to be a Laker for the rest of my life."
“I don’t know if he (Bryant) is into it as much as he would have been,” said Elton Brand of the Clippers. “I think Shaq, especially because he’s been pretty vocal, he’s been upset at the refs, he’ll want to shine. And it’s in his city.”
O’Neal will come off the bench for the second straight year behind Yao Ming of Houston, who outpolled him in fan balloting.
Other Western Conference starters are Kevin Garnett of Minnesota, Steve Francis of Houston, Tim Duncan of San Antonio and Bryant.
Starting for the East are Vince Carter of Toronto, Allen Iverson of Philadelphia, Tracy McGrady of Orlando, Ben Wallace of Detroit and Jermaine O’Neal of Indiana.
Minnesota’s Flip Sanders and Rack Carlisle of the Pacers are the coaches.
Among the reserves are six first-time All-Stars: Andrei Kirilenko of Utah, Michael Redd of Milwaukee, Kenyon Martin of New Jersey, Jamaal Magloire of New Orleans, Ron Artest of Indiana and Sam Cassell of Minnesota.
At 34, Cassell will be the second-oldest first-time All-Star in NBA history, one month younger than New York’s Sweetwater Clifton in 1957.
O’Neal is making his 11th All-Star appearance — four more than anyone else in the game. Bryant is an All-Star for the sixth time, as is Tim Duncan, while Carter and McGrady are five-time All-Stars.
Jason Kidd and Garnett are second in seniority with seven appearances apiece.
“I sort of like one of the young elder statesmen,” said O’Neal, co-MVP of the 2000 All-Star game. “I just want to go out there and give the fans a good show with my special shoes that I’ve designed myself.”
Ah, the shoes.
All-Star Weekend is as much about selling shoes and retro jerseys as it is about the game. Paul Pierce of the Celtics has worn shiny green sneakers in recent All-Star games, and others have made footwear fashion statements since Scottie Pippen dominated the 1994 game in Minneapolis while wearing a pair of garish red kicks.
The player with the biggest shoe contract, LeBron James, will have to watch Sunday after fans did not vote him in as a starter and the Eastern Conference coaches did not select him as a reserve. James played in the Rookie Challenge on Friday night, teaming up with fellow rookie Carmelo Anthony against a team of second-year players and stealing the show.
On Sunday night, the court gets turned over to the veterans.
Bryant is expected to get a favorable reception from his hometown crowd and a chance to achieve some measure of image-rebuilding.
“Playing in the All-Star game is fun, especially with the amount of votes I received. I do want to get out there and play and show the fans I appreciate all the votes,” Bryant said.
One player who could keep the game from being all about Bryant or O’Neal is Garnett, who earned MVP honors a year ago by scoring 37 points in the West’s 155-145 double-overtime victory.
Garnett scored in double figures in five straight All-Star games and never missed a free throw in the event. He shot 17-of-24 in last year’s game and scored nine points in the second overtime.
Iverson has the highest career average in All-Star history, 22.8 points, while Bryant is second averaging 21.0.
Kidd needs two 3-pointers to tie Johnson for first place in All-Star history with 10, and Allen is likely to add to his record of 23 3-point attempts.
A total of 325 international media members from 41 countries and territories are scheduled to cover All-Star Weekend, the NBA said, and Sunday’s game will be broadcast by 103 international telecasters to 212 countries in 42 languages reaching an audience of more than 3.1 billion.
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