The NBA All-Star Weekend is a hectic time for anyone who takes part in the festivities: players, coaches, fans, writers and broadcasters. Few people were busier this weekend than Kobe Bryant. He took second place in the Skills Competition, served as a judge in the Slam Dunk Contest and made the various public appearances that are part of the All-Star experience. He capped everything off on Sunday night with a command performance in the main event, earning All-Star Game MVP honors after producing a game-high 31 points, six assists, six steals and five rebounds. His West team cruised to a 153-132 win.
It’s not like Bryant spent the earlier part of the day resting to prepare for the game, either. He was a presenter at the eighth annual Legends Brunch, held this year at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
“This is absolutely the best part of the weekend for me,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said in his opening statement.
The Legends Brunch honorees this year included Cheryl Miller, Bob Cousy/Tom Heinsohn, the ABA Alumni, KC Jones, Magic Johnson and Dr. Jack Ramsay/the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers championship team. Each year this event gets bigger and better, providing retired players a chance to reconnect with other and also affording fans an opportunity to mingle with their heroes and get autographs and take pictures.
Last year, TNT’s Ernie Johnson served as emcee and comedian Chris Tucker did a standup routine at the end. This year, comedian George Wallace was the emcee and he interjected his comedy throughout the brunch, adlibbing deftly when something happened that provided an opportunity for a joke or a funny remark.
Cheryl Miller, the recipient of the Legends Humanitarian Award, was presented by Julius Erving.
“She looked me straight in the eye,” Erving recalled of the first time he met her, “and said, ‘I’m going to be a champion in college and then I’m going to take your job.’ I said, ‘Are you serious?’ and she said, ‘Absolutely – if they let me.’”
Erving pointed out that in addition to Miller’s well documented on-court accomplishments that she also has “taken an active, supporting role with a number of charities.”
Derek Fisher presented co-honorees Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn, who received the Legends Visionary Award. Neither Celtic legend was able to attend the brunch but both expressed their gratitude via prerecorded videos.
For too many years, the ABA has been treated like a crazy relative that has to be kept hidden from view and not discussed in polite company, so it is very fitting that the Legends Brunch recognized that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of that league.
“(The ABA) featured dazzling above-the-rim players like Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving, Connie Hawkins, George ‘Ice’ Gervin, David Thompson, George McGinnis, Moses Malone and Roger Brown,” Bryant said as he introduced the five ABA superstars (Rick Barry, George Gervin, Julius Erving, Spencer Haywood and Artis Gilmore) who presented ABA 40th Anniversary tribute award to a large group of ABA alumni. It is heartening to see a current player of Bryant’s stature have such an awareness of the history of the game and it is a very nice touch that he mentioned Brown, a vastly underrated player who I wrote about two years ago.
John Havlicek introduced a video tribute to his legendary coach Red Auerbach.
“Red Auerbach was a great man and the godfather of the Celtics,” Havlicek declared.
He explained that one of Auerbach’s best attributes was that he did not overcoach. Havlicek quipped that if someone gave Auerbach some chalk and a chalkboard at the start of his coaching career, those items would have still been like new when Auerbach retired from coaching. Auerbach’s strength was understanding how to motivate people to continue to work hard to be successful. Havlicek added that the numerous overseas clinics that Auerbach did set the stage for the emergence of top level basketball talent around the world.
Satch Sanders introduced his teammate KC Jones, the winner of the Legends Coaching Achievement Award, by relating two stories that capture the essence of Jones’ insight into how to play winning basketball. Sanders said that during their playing careers Jones once noticed that a certain player on an opposing team always put a lot of backspin on his bounce passes, slowing the ball down. Instead of taking advantage of that observation to get steals in the regular season, Jones waited until the playoffs to apply this knowledge in a practical way, stealing the ball at a critical time that shaped the outcome of a playoff series. Sanders also mentioned that Auerbach had such faith in Jones that he let Jones decide when the Celtics would employ a pressure defense and when they would pull back from it.
Magic Johnson won the Legend of the Year award and was introduced by his son Andre. Magic gave credit to several veteran ballplayers who helped and inspired him as a youngster and early in his NBA career: Terry Furlow, George Gervin, Ralph Simpson and Dave Bing. He wished that more of the current players had a greater understanding and appreciation for the sacrifices that players from earlier generations made.
“It’s a shame that young players don’t understand that the reason they are making $15-20 million a year is the guys out here (at the Legends Brunch),” Magic said.
Dr. Jack Ramsay spoke about his 1977 Portland team that was anchored by the multi-talented Bill Walton, whose chronic injuries prevented that team from possibly becoming a dynasty.
“For one season and most of another,” Ramsay declared, “this team was as good as any.”
Several players and team officials from that 1977 championship team were on hand to receive their awards, including players Walton, Johnny Davis, Lionel Hollins and Maurice Lucas, assistant coach Jack McKinney, team physician Bob Cook and broadcaster Bill Schonely.
After the various honorees received their awards and Dave Bing led a moment of silence for the Legends who passed away in the past year, National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) president Len Elmore concluded the brunch by emphasizing the organization’s renewed commitment to its slogan “We made this game.” The NBRPA keeps alive the memory of the contributions of the game’s pioneers and helps out any retired players who need financial and/or medical assistance.
“We have set our sights on helping others and committed to helping our own,” he explained.
After the Legends Brunch, I followed a circuitous route to the Thomas & Mack Center, the site of the All-Star Game. No direct shuttle service was provided from the Mandalay to Thomas & Mack, so I had to take one shuttle to the MGM Grand and then board a different one to get to the arena.
Fortunately, I made it there in plenty of time – something that cannot be said of most of the East squad. LeBron James had 28 points, six rebounds and six assists and Dwight Howard contributed 20 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, but most of the East squad played as if the players had enjoyed the weekend in Las Vegas a little too much.
In the pregame media availability session, East Coach Eddie Jordan was asked about the difference between the two All-Star teams and he quipped, “I see the West being old and the East being young."
But during the game, the East looked tired and sluggish while the West played both faster and more crisply. The West set All-Star Game records for most field goals made with 69, surpassing the previous mark of 67 (2003, in a double overtime game), and most assists with 52, shattering the old record of 46 (1984, in an overtime game).
“Probably the biggest thing I’m proud of,” West Coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game, “is that we set the record for most assists. That’s a great thing. We shared the ball and played hard.”
Amare Stoudemire’s strong performance represents perhaps the culmination of his comeback from microfracture surgery. He had stated before the season that he would make the All-Star team and Stoudemire not only met that goal but played very well.
“A lot of people didn’t think that I’d be here today,” Stoudemire said. “I stayed focused with my goals and I reached them.”
Carmelo Anthony played very well in his first All-Star appearance, finishing with 20 points and nine rebounds.
“This was the validation of all the hard work that I put in,” Anthony commented after the game.
In the end, though, it was Bryant’s night and Mike D’Antoni lauded him for setting the tone for the West’s win.
“Kobe has a competitive edge to him that you can feel,” he said. “He wasn’t letting up, he said, ‘Let’s go guys, let’s put the hammer down on them.’ So you can feel that edge. And he’s going to play hard all the time he’s on the floor.”
After the game, Bryant said that the memory that will last the longest for him from this All-Star Weekend happened outside of public view, when he and fellow Dunk Contest judges Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins interacted with each other.
“We pretty much talked trash the whole time,” Bryant said. “You’ve got guys in the same room who are extremely competitive and you start comparing records and sneaker technology and what a guy could have done if they had the technology that we have – comparing hand size and who can palm the basketball and who can do what. These are things that are fun to talk about. We had a blast doing it.”
When Bryant received the MVP trophy from David Stern at center court after the game the crowd reaction was completely different from what it had been in Philadelphia in 2002 when Bryant won his first All-Star MVP and the fans booed to express their displeasure with a statement he had made about being an L.A. player and no longer a Philadelphia person.
“I just feel very blessed and very fortunate to be able to come out tonight and put on a really good show,” Bryant concluded.
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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