Saturday, February 19, 2005

Hard Hits: Turning Back The Clock

This weekend, the NBA All-Star Game festivities got underway Friday night in Denver with the Got Milk Rookie/Sophomore Challenge. Led by hometown star Carmelo Anthony's 31 points and LeBron James' 20, the super sophomores prevailed 133-106.
And so another All-Star weekend will continue tonight with the once very popular dunk contest and three-point shootout as well as who can dribble a ball through a maze the fastest. At one time, this stuff along with a highly anticipated game between the best the league had to offer meant something to fans. But today, the game isn't the same. Sure, there is plenty of talent to go around. You have your Shaq's, Kobe's, Garnett's, McGrady's, Iverson's, Nowitzki's, Carter's and the fresh face of the league, LeBron James.
However, as gifted as they are, they never got to play in arguably the best era when the NBA was on top. We're talking about the 80's and early 90's when superstars were larger than life and had flambuoyant personalities which fans could identify with. Gone are the days when All-Star weekend was an easy draw for fans. With stars such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Doctor J, Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Stockton and Malone, it was worth watching.
This wasn't only because of how exciting these players were but because of how they respected the game. They treated the fans well and the fans returned the favor by worshipping their heroes. It was much easier to identify with the players because you could tell that they genuinely cared. There weren't any selfish egos asking to be traded or pushing coaches out the door. There weren't any guys making check me out poses and showing disrespect on the court with poor sportsmanship. You never had to worry about a Ron Artest losing his head and instigating a brawl with drunk fans in The Palace.
Back then, the NBA slogan, "It's FAN-TAS-TIC" was appropriate because no other sport captivated the audience like Commissioner David Stern's game. They had some of the best talent ever assembled on a basketball court who put all their skills on display in an eventful weekend. Twenty years ago, back when the Slam Dunk contest reigned supreme, fans and players gathered around to watch Wilkins outduel Jordan in one of the most electrifying events ever. A year later, with Air Jordan out due to injury, the Human Highlight Film was out to defend his title. But instead, teammate Spud Webb stole the spotlight in the final. They watched in awe as the small wonder mesmerized a crowd by defying the laws of gravity to become the new champion. I still remember thinking, 'How could a guy five-six get up that high?' With Wilkins sidelined in '87, Jordan took his first dunk contest. A year later in Chicago, the highly anticipated rematch between Wilkins and Jordan took place. As each player outdid the other with windmill and double clutch dunks that sent the crowd into a frenzy, it came down to one final dunk for the ages. With the pressure on to defend his title, Jordan gave his supporters what they came for when he took off from the free throw line and soared through the air and completed a jawdropping jam to take the contest edging his counterpart 147-145. The dunk, which drew a perfect score of 50, is still shown on TV today and became a poster. This was the defining moment of the contest.
There were other exciting contests like when Kenny "Sky" Walker won in '89 and Wilkins took his second slam title edging Kenny Smith. Yes, the same Smith who now works for TNT as one of the game's best studio analysts. There were also remarkable performances turned in by Dee Brown and Cedric Ceballos enroute to victories. These kinds of highlights were what made All-Star Weekend big.
While the dunk contests were always the thing, not to be outdone, there were some exciting three point contests which featured some deadly shooting from some of the league's top gunners. This included Larry Legend knocking down trey after trey in an '88 victory to capture his third consecutive shootout trophy. It also included Craig Hodges shooting the lights out to win three straight trophies of his own. Mark Price and Jeff Hornacek also won it twice. Remarkably, one of the game's best riflemen Reggie Miller never won one. Shows how stiff the competition was.
Aside from the contests, the games themselves had their moments. In '88, Jordan put up 40 to take MVP honors. Two years earlier, Thomas stole the show with 30 points and 10 assists in an East victory. In '87, in front of a home crowd, Seattle star Tom Chambers scored 34 points to win MVP in a thrilling 154-149 game that needed overtime. But maybe the most memorable game was a '92 West blowout triumph over the East. While the game was uncompetitive, a compelling story was Magic Johnson's final All-Star appearance. Due to him contracting the HIV Virus and making the stunning announcement on November 7, 1991, he was forced to retire from the game he loved. But with his popularity never in question, fans elected the Laker legend as a West starter. With permission from the league office, Johnson suited up and turned in a vintage performance, scoring a game-high 25 points and dishing out nine assists to garner MVP honors. While there have been other feel good moments like when Stockton and Malone combined to lead the West to a '93 victory at Salt Lake City, sharing the MVP trophy, none will be remembered better than Magic's because of what he meant to the game.
These were the kind of memories that made the NBA All-Star Game larger than life. The stars are still there. But there isn't that same feeling you once had, when it didn't just feel like a meaningless exhibition. It was something you had to watch because you didn't know when the next great moment would occur.
The Slam Dunk contest will take place tonight but just features four players. But out of the four, only the Suns' Amare Stoudemire is an established star. He'll be up against Chris Andersen and rookies Josh and J.R. Smith. At one time, as many as eight participants took part in three action-packed rounds. Now, just four players compete with one less round and fewer competition.
One player, who will be absent from tonight's contest is King James. James, all of 20 has fulfilled lofty expectations thus far in his first two seasons with Cleveland after being selected first overall out of high school in the 2003 Draft. This year, he's putting up MVP numbers averaging 25.4 points-per-game, 7.1 rebounds-per-game and 7.7 assists-per-contest. The remarkable second-year phenom has the Cavs sitting second in the Central Division with a 30-21 record. He has them in line to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since '97-98. James declined the league's invitation to participate in the dunk competition because he's under the weather. However, that didn't stop him from having four slams the night before including a windmill jam. After the game, James discussed what's happened to the art of dunks. "Why don't guys do it anymore? Because all the dunks are taken," James said Friday night. "There are no more dunks. If we come up with some new dunks, people might do it. Every time there's a dunk out there, people say they've seen it before."
This kind of thinking is what's been missing lately. It's ashame the game's newest sensation will not be able to show off his incredible leaping skills tonight. The game needs a boost. James is a burst of energy for what's become a tired league. Nobody wants to read about why Vince Carter dogged it in order to get traded out of Toronto. Nobody cares about Kobe's problems off the court or his feud with Shaq. Nobody wants to hear Allen Iverson complain about the lack of a supporting cast he gets in Philadelphia. Fans want to embrace a bright young star like LeBron because of how he goes about his business on and off the court. He wants to win, plays the game with a flair and handles himself with class. This is the way the all-time greats like Russell, Chamberlain, Reed, Bird, Johnson and Jordan did it. They never blamed others and didn't ask out of games. James has a chance to put his stamp on the game tomorrow.
Time to turn back the clock.


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