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Superman takes over New Orleans
by David Friedman / February 17, 2008

By the time you read this, you probably have already seen the events of All-Star Saturday night – or at least the highlights. I can absolutely say that there was a tangible buzz in the New Orleans Arena both in anticipation of Dwight Howard’s dunks and right after he completed them. I don’t have a problem with the fans voting to select the winner, but the several minutes that elapsed after the final dunks and before the announcement of the results were alternately anti-climactic and awkward. Each of the NBA legends who judged the first round of the contest offered his opinion over the house microphone. The crowd grew restless as Julius Erving made a slight case for Gerald Green, pointing out that most fans probably do not understand how difficult it is to jump off of an arena floor and dunk without wearing shoes. There was even some scattered booing, either because people thought that Erving talked too long or because they wanted him to choose Howard. Erving did in fact give Howard the nod, as did each of the other judges in something akin to a non-binding Congressional resolution. Erving was simply being himself: he had the class to acknowledge Green’s great effort and enough experience as a dunker to better understand what Green had done than just about anyone else in the building.

No one really put up a huge score in the three-point shootout until the final round, when defending champion Jason Kapono channeled Larry Bird and Craig Hodges to score 25 points to rout Rookie-Sophomore Game MVP Daniel Gibson, who matched his first round total with 17.

Although the Skills Challenge is supposed to test a wide variety of skills, it often comes down to simply who can make the top of the key jumper on the first attempt. Dwyane Wade, the two-time defending Skills Challenge champion, struggled massively on this night, paralleling the dismal season that his Miami Heat are having. Wade dribbled the ball off of his foot, fired errant passes and even missed a layup. Deron Williams defeated Chris Paul in a showdown of rising young point guard stars. The Spurs kicked off All-Star Saturday with a victory in the Shooting Stars competition, an entertaining event that somehow does not seem to have fully captured the public’s imagination.

Earlier in the day, both All-Star squads held brief practices at the NBA Jam Session in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. These practices are an opportunity for the teams to break a light sweat, work on some simple plays and get some shots up. The head coaches are miked up so that the crowd and the television audience can clearly hear what they are saying. East Coach Doc Rivers wants his bigs to run the court “wide” in transition from defense to offense, with the trailing big stopping to set a screen around the top of the key. “Keep our space,” he instructed. “They have size, we have speed and skill.” All-Star practices always include some split squad shooting contests. The East All-Stars who have eight or more years of playing experience in the league faced off against the youngsters to see which team could make more shots from various locations, including both elbows, both corners and the top of the key. The youngsters won, although there was a friendly dispute over the rules, specifically whether or not a shooter had to rebound his miss and then pass to the next shooter.

All-Star practices traditionally end with a half court shot contest. This time there was an added twist: Guinness World Records representative Stuart Claxton, who monitored the wheelchair free throw shooting record that I described in my first report, was on hand to certify a new world record for most half court shots made in 60 seconds. After all of the team members warmed up for a couple minutes by shooting one at a time from half court, they selected six players to go for the record: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Chauncey Billups, Ray Allen and Jason Kidd. James got things rolling by making three half court shots. Wade, Johnson and Billups went next, but could only make one apiece. Kidd batted cleanup and employed a novel strategy: a one hand, underhand toss that kind of resembled a slow pitch softball pitch. This actually worked relatively well and he tied James by making three shots, although not all of his makes were underhand because midway through he switched to the conventional form before reverting back to the underhand technique. Rivers announced to the crowd that the players could either share the record or have a tiebreaker round. The fans clearly wanted to see a tiebreaker but after the players briefly discussed this they decided to share the record, which actually fits in well with the unselfish way that James and Kidd play.

There has been a decided Guinness Book of World Records theme throughout All-Star Weekend. Apparently, someone in the NBA offices decided that it would generate excitement and have some promotional value to be able to say that various world records were set. Most of the various record attempts have been entertaining to watch but one quibble is that most of these records are in new categories, so any kind of performance by definition sets a record—and that is not something that has been clearly explained to the audience; I even heard some fans scream out from time to time asking what the old records were.

During the break between the East and West practices, players from both squads were made available to the media for interviews on the court. As usual, some players were rapidly surrounded by media swarms, while other players spoke to one or two interviewers. Bryant once again attracted the most attention, both from the fans who screamed his name and the media members who followed in close formation as he took a seat courtside and prepared for another round of questioning. I took a position directly to Bryant’s left, but soon got nudged aside a bit by ESPN’s Mark Jones, who had a cameraman in tow. Jones said, “Excuse me,” but also kept trying to move me out of the way. Finally, realizing that was not going to work, he whispered, “Let’s try this,” and he moved to my right and took a seat directly to Bryant’s left, which opened up a space for me between Jones and his cameraman. I made sure to put my recorder close enough to Bryant to be effective, but low enough that it did not interfere with the cameraman’s shot, one of the skills you learn after doing a few of these sessions.

I asked Bryant if there has been any change or update regarding his situation with the NBA, which has a rule stipulating that if a player participates in the last game prior to the All-Star Game and then does not play in the All-Star Game he is suspended for the first regular season game after the All-Star Game. Bryant answered, “It’s not really a situation. If I have to play, I’ll play.”

Right after Bryant injured his finger, his shooting percentage went down briefly but since then it has bounced back. I asked Bryant what he is doing to compensate for the injury. “We adjusted how we tape the finger,” he explained. “Then, it took me a couple games to get used to feeling like I don’t have a finger, if that makes any sense. It just feels like the finger is not there; it’s like a spaghetti noodle. It took me a while to get used to that, because when you pick up a basketball and you don’t feel that last finger it feels like the ball is going to slip out of your hand every time. So I was constantly checking before I shot. Once I got used to understanding that the ball is not going to fall out of my hand and it’s fine then I was able to shoot well.”

I asked Bryant if he has to hold the ball differently than normal. “No, I’m just getting used to the sensation. I have to be careful when I catch the ball, though. I can’t go and palm the ball; I have to ease into it a little more.” I asked Bryant to clarify exactly how the initial injury occurred: “I went for a steal against New Jersey and my finger got caught, I believe, against Jason Kidd’s arm. I was going this way (points forward) and my finger popped out that way (points back toward his hand).” Right now the plan is to use ice, rest and treatment to try to keep the swelling down so that Bryant can finish out the season and participate in the Olympics before having surgery to fix the torn ligament. “If it dislocates again, I’m probably in trouble,” he candidly admitted. Still, he is able to look at the bright side. “I’m lucky that it was this knuckle here,” Bryant said, pointing to the base of the finger, “and not this knuckle here (pointing to the knuckle in the middle of the finger), because then you get the Larry Bird thing where you can’t point anywhere and have people understand where you are pointing. Hopefully, I won’t have that problem.”

Although Bryant thinks that it is in his best interest not to play in the All-Star Game this time around, he definitely is disappointed about missing an opportunity to battle against the league’s best players. “I enjoy playing and the reason I enjoy playing is because of the competition. I enjoy competing, matching up and playing hard.”

After the media availability period ended, the West All-Stars practiced. Bryant did not wear a jersey or participate and he spent most of the time with his finger wrapped in ice. He cheered on his teammates and stood on the court cracking jokes during the various shooting games. Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and hometown favorite Chris Paul each tried to match the half court shot record set by James and Kidd; only five players attempted this due to time constraints because the start of the practice had been delayed and the D-League All-Star Game was scheduled to begin right after the All-Star practice ended. With fans sporadically chanting for Bryant to participate left handed, Nash and Stoudemire made one shot each and Iverson put up the only goose egg laid by either team. Duncan made one shot, leaving it up to Paul to uphold the West’s honor. Paul displayed good form, tying the mark with plenty of time to spare and then earning a spot in the record book by making his fourth half court shot.

Prior to the All-Star Saturday Night events, Commissioner David Stern held his annual All-Star Weekend press conference. He did not say anything that was Earth-shattering, unless you held on to the faint hope that Seattle will be able to prevent the SuperSonics from relocating. The thing that strikes me, as I mentioned in a conversation with Stan McNeal of the Sporting News literally minutes before Stern spoke, is how the Tim Donaghy situation has so quickly vanished from the public eye. I had thought that this would be a lingering sore spot for the NBA throughout this season but it seems to be a complete non-issue with both the media and the fans. One question about Donaghy did come up during the press conference; someone asked Commissioner Stern if he has followed up on his intention to debrief Donaghy about the full scope and nature of his activities. Stern replied that the law enforcement authorities have requested that the NBA not be in contact with Donaghy until after he is sentenced.

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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