Mike Fine: Does anyone care about the NBA All-Star Game?
The NBA will stage its gaudy homage to excess, All-Star Weekend, beginning Friday, and it’s a wonder that anybody outside of the overpaid, out-of-touch athletes gives a darn.
All-Star Games by nature have become monuments to the fine art of having fun and remaining healthy, a far cry from the normal cutthroat nature of regular-season and playoff games. Kevin Garnett, for instance, won’t be getting in the face of Carmelo Anthony and regaling him with a series of abasing expletives. Garnett, will, however, be looking to play as few minutes as possible at half speed. He might even be willing to pat Anthony on the butt and wish him well.
The NBA All-Star Weekend is typical of all the major sports. To justify its weekend-long runtime, it features 3-point contest and dunk contests, much as the NHL features slap shot and accuracy exhibitions, much as Major League Baseball features its home run derby and celebrity softball game. But wait! There’s more. The NBA sponsors community-service events, rookie/sophomore games, things called Jam Sessions, a technology summit, much of it on “All-Star Saturday night.”
No longer is this a matter of one game being played on one day. Now it’s a matter of catering to the networks, sponsors, frauds and hangers-on while using its stars as a lure. The game has become secondary, and if the leagues tell you otherwise, they’re lying.
The one league that seriously differs, out of necessity, is the NFL, where the threat of injury is so high that the game can’t possibly be held in season. Few players actually want to play in a football All-Star Game. After beating their heads against the wall from July through January, the last thing a football player wants to do is make a long trip to Hawaii to play in a meaningless contest that offers little interest even to the fans.
At one time all-star games were serious business. From 1959-62, someone in Major League Baseball even thought it was a neat idea to have two All-Star Games in one season. It was taken quite seriously. In the 1946 All-Star Game at Fenway Park, won by the American League, 12-0, only three pitchers (Bob Feller, Hal Newhowser, Jack Kramer) threw for the winning team. Four others pitched for the N.L. In last year’s MLB All-Star Game, 19 pitchers took to the mound. Nobody wants to get overworked because nobody really gives a darn.
For baseball, the landmark All-Star Game might have been July 14, 1970, when Ray Fosse, a 23-year-old catcher for the Cleveland Indians, was standing at home plate waiting for a throw from A.L. outfielder Amos Otis. The third base coach, Leo Durocher, furiously waved Pete Rose home. Rose never stopped, plowing into the catcher. The ensuing shoulder injury altered Fosse’s career. Having hit 16 home runs to that point in the season, he never hit more than 12 for the remaining nine years of his career.
Nowadays, though, the All-Star voting process is so convoluted that players who are injured even before the All-Star Game are being voted in. Houston center Yao Ming played only five games this season thanks to his injured foot, yet he led all West Conference centers with 1,146,426 votes (not that any of them were actually deserving). That, of course, brings up another issue: voting practices, whether in the NBA, NHL or MLB, are nuts. Yao was the recipient of the Chinese vote, which is being heavily courted by the NBA. But that’s the price the league pays for wanting to expand internationally. Meanwhile, deserving young stars such as Blake Griffin and Kevin Love were shut out (although they have been added subsequently).
The games themselves are something of a joke, of course. MLB games have been so unbalanced that the A.L. took a 13-game win streak into Angels Stadium last summer, before the N.L. finally eked out a 3-1 win. The closest the N.L. got was the 7-7, 2002, tie, when the 30-man rosters were exhausted and the game called.
The NHL can’t seem to get its All-Star act together. There was no season in 2005 and no 2006 game because it was an Olympic year. For several years the league staged us-against-the-world All-Star Games. The 2001 score was North America 14, World 12. The 2011 game was called Team Lidstrom against Team Staal. The score? 11-10 (Lidstrom). The previous game was 12-11, West over East.
The recently played NFL Pro Bowl ended up in a 55-41 win for the NFC, but that didn’t outdo the NFC’s 55-52 2003 win. You’ll probably never see a 21-18 game.
In the NBA, though, All-Star Game play has become a particular joke, with players openly going for show, going for flash over substance. Perhaps more than any other sport, NBA players are showmen who hear the oohs and aahs of the crowd. That means that defense pretty much goes out the window, resulting in the ludicrously high scores. The last time an NBA winner failed to score 100 points was 1954. Only once since 1991 has a winner failed to reach 120 points. A more likely score this year would approach last year’s 141-139 East win.
You wonder why anybody would give a darn.