No time to sleep
NBA All-Star Weekend is the place to see and be seen – and that goes double this year with the festivities being held in Las Vegas. Naturally, over the next few days I expect to speak with many current and former NBA players, but my first celebrity sighting of the weekend came much earlier than I expected: noon on Thursday to be precise. Warren Sapp of the Oakland Raiders was on my flight from Cincinnati to Las Vegas. I introduced myself and said that I just wanted to ask him a couple questions. “I’m off duty,” he replied gruffly – not exactly the quote that I was seeking but I guess it will have to do.
The flight was otherwise uneventful, but the three-hour time zone shift brought to mind Bob Costas’ favorite Marvin Barnes story: when the Spirits of St. Louis forward saw that the team’s itinerary involved taking off at 8:00 and landing at 7:59 he declared, “I ain’t getting in no time machine” – or so the story goes.
Time disappears quickly in Vegas – casinos have no clocks, after all – and the only thing that disappears faster here than time is money. I had thought that there was a free shuttle from the airport to the hotel, but when I mentioned that to one of the shuttle service people he chuckled and said, “The only thing that is free in Vegas is the air.”
I suspect that I will hear that phrase more than once before the weekend is over.
After you arrive in Vegas, the first thing that you notice is the subtle, understated approach that the city has about hosting All-Star Weekend – not!
Images of All-Star Weekend participants such as Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Chris Paul are on the walls and ceilings in many building and are even taking up the entire sides of some of the hotels. The NBA Communications office’s Vegas headquarters is located at the MGM Grand Hotel, so I stopped there to pick up my credential for the All-Star Game, All-Star Saturday night and the other events.
The MGM Grand is the second largest hotel in the world. Remember Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back? It is something like that, only with more gambling and no Darth Vader. The place is massive! It’s always nice to see a familiar face when you are in a new environment and the first one I saw today was Branson Wright, the Cleveland Cavs’ beat writer for the Plain Dealer. Actually, I saw him twice – once when I was leaving the Communications office and he was just arriving and then again when he was leaving the Communications office and I was arriving again after wandering in circles; I told you the place is huge, but I’ve got my sea legs now.
Whoever decides on the play list for the songs that are piped into the lobby/hallways at the MGM Grand has a nice sense of irony; one selection was Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” (“Now you swear and kick and beg us that you’re not a gamblin’ man; then you find you’re back in Vegas with a handle in your hand.”)
After I got my credential I headed straight for the Mandalay Bay Hotel’s South Convention Center, site of this year’s NBA Jam Session. You know that you’ve taken a long walk when there are video screens overhead offering encouragement: “Almost there, just a little further.” After the second one, though, my faith was beginning to weaken. I arrived in time for the official Opening Ceremony, hosted by NBA TV’s Andre Aldridge and featuring NBA Commissioner David Stern, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman (flanked by two showgirls, naturally), NBA legend Dominique Wilkins and various other local political leaders and Adidas corporate figures.
Commissioner Stern began his remarks by noting that the Mandalay Bay’s facilities for Jam Session exceed 400,000 square feet, making it perhaps the largest Jam Session yet. He also noted that a record 8,000 tickets have already been sold for the event, which lasts throughout All-Star Weekend. Jam Session is really an excellent opportunity for fans to participate in All-Star Weekend, because tickets for the game itself and the other side events are almost impossible for most people to get. Jam Session features contests involving every form of basketball imaginable: pop a shot, video games, full court games and more. There are also a variety of types of food available, although the fare is a touch on the pricey side. There are also autograph sessions with current and retired players, a large section featuring basketball collectibles for sale and various interactive exhibits.
Mayor Goodman mentioned that he attended last year’s All-Star Weekend in Houston and then declared, “What Las Vegas is going to do is going to dwarf the events that took place last year because we’re the greatest city in the world and the Jam Session is going to be the greatest Jam Session in the world… The NBA comes into town and they have embraced the city of Las Vegas and the city of Las Vegas has shown our love for the NBA. What they have done since they’ve been in this community is awesome. They’ve been to the schools, they’ve been to the community centers. Today they went over to Sunrise Hospital to visit with children who are ill.”
Wilkins did not speak at the press conference, but spoke to several members of the media afterwards. Asked what he hopes to get out of this year’s All-Star Weekend experience, Wilkins noted that previous All-Star Weekends have been very tiring, concluding, “At the end of the day, if I get a little rest, I’m happy.”
The NBA has put in a regulation size court on the Jam Session site. A short time after the opening ceremony, two All-Star wheelchair teams squared off on that court in the NBA/National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Wheelchair Classic. NBA Legend George Gervin served as an honorary assistant coach for the West squad, while WNBA players Ruth Riley and Shona Thorburn filled that role for the East team.
These wheelchair athletes are highly skilled and if you think that they take it easy on each other because of their handicaps then you are sorely mistaken. I don’t think that I had ever previously seen a wheelchair basketball game from start to finish. They play a very physical game, crashing into each other while setting screens or on plays that involved a block/charge call. On several occasions, wheelchairs were flipped sideways with the athlete still in them. He either righted himself quickly or the person who hit him helped him up, if he could. The way that they could land on their wheels (or at least be quickly back on them) is like the way that cats always land on their feet.
Riley was very involved on the sidelines, cheering her team on, laughing and joking with the players, slapping five with them as they came out of the game and even fetching water or Gatorade for them. I asked her about that and about how All-Star Weekend has come to embrace so many more elements – legends, WNBA players, wheelchair athletes, the Saturday night competitors – than just the game on Sunday.
“The NBA All-Star Weekend is definitely about more than just the game,” Riley replied. “It is a week long event filled with things like this (All-Star Wheelchair Game) where we get out in the community and are interact with different groups. It is a fun week for whatever ever city the All-Star Game is in. I had a great time today. Just talking to the players and hanging out with them as a coach is a lot of fun. I’ve been an honorary coach for a couple years now. It is something that I like to do and is a lot of fun. It is one of my favorite events of All-Star Weekend.”
I mentioned that the skill level of the players is quite amazing and Riley said, “I actually played in a (wheelchair) against the guys in a game in Detroit and it was very difficult.”
Later in the evening, the Jam Session Center Court hosted the NBA Legends Shootout, which pitted Jo Jo White, George Gervin, David Thompson and Randy Smith against each other in a modified version of the three-point shootout. They only used three racks of basketballs (one on each baseline and one at the top of the key) and each rack contained four basketballs instead of five. The last ball is worth an extra point, just like in the three point shootout. Also, the players shot from about 20 feet out, not from the three-point line. There did not seem to be a definite spot from which they all shot. Thompson inched up the closest during his attempts. Watching the warmups, Randy Smith not only looked like a shoo-in to win the contest he looked like he was in good enough shape to sign a ten day contract. He went first and disaster struck as he scored just five points, which turned out to be the worst total in the first round.
Afterward, I asked Smith what happened. “I jumped to shoot (during the first round) and it just pulled,” Smith said of a balky muscle in his leg. He had a slight but noticeable limp as he left the court after the event. Hopefully it is nothing serious.
Jo Jo White went next, scoring seven points. Thompson took the lead with nine, canning the money ball at the buzzer. Gervin, the only player to start on the left baseline and work himself around as opposed to starting on the right side, tallied just six, missing the finals. Thompson went first and put up a 10 spot, placing the pressure on White, the oldest player in this competition. White managed just four points and Thompson earned the trophy as the Legends Shootout winner.
The city of Las Vegas is on a 24-hour-a-day adrenalin rush right now. There are parties everywhere, the casinos are packed and the nightclubs and restaurants are bustling. The Vegas hotels are so huge (I’ve been in the MGM Grand, Excalibur and Mandalay Bay so far) that the casinos, nightclubs and restaurants all basically meld into each other, a blur of sound, color and movement as people shift from eating and drinking to gambling to dancing and back again. Sleep is an unspoken four letter word as All-Star Weekend kicks into high gear.
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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