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Honoring the past, anticipating the future
by David Friedman / February 18, 2006

My first stop on Friday was the Hilton-Americas Hotel, site of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame press conference announcing the 2006 Finalists for election. Dick Stockton stood on a stage flanked by Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Bill Walton, Dr. Jack Ramsay, Gail Goodrich, David Thompson, Clyde Drexler and Moses Malone and read off each of the names of the 16 Finalists, followed by brief career summaries. Ten candidates were nominated by the North American Screening Committee – players Charles Barkley, Ralph Sampson, Chet Walker, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars and Dominique Wilkins, coaches Don Nelson and Gene Keady and contributors David Gavitt and Dick Vitale. The Women’s Screening Committee selected coaches Van Chancellor and Geno Auriemma, the International Screening Committee chose coaches Pedro Ferrandiz and Sandro Gamba and the Veterans Screening Committee tapped player John Isaacs and contributor Ben Kerner. The final vote takes place later in the year and the results will be announced on April 3 during Final Four weekend; at least 18 votes from the 24 member Honors Committee are required to earn induction.

When Stockton concluded, Barkley came to the podium and addressed the assembled media, saying “Moses Malone was most influential in my career” while also acknowledging guidance provided by Adrian Dantley and John Drew. He thanked the Hall of Famers for taking the time to come to the event and offered much respect to Oscar Robertson, saying that there is a “short list” of players who can legitimately be considered for the title of greatest ever: Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

After Barkley’s remarks, the Hall of Famers were available for media interviews. Barkley was the center of attention, attracting a media horde three rows deep packed tightly around him, jockeying for position and lobbing questions toward him. Asked about the difference between playing in the Olympics in 1992 and 1996, Barkley noted that in 1992 the players from other countries did not mind losing by 40 or 50 points as long as they received some signed jerseys or shoes but by 1996 the foreign players were telling Barkley where he could stick the shoes – the intimidation factor was gone and Barkley knew then that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. lost to a foreign team.

I asked Drexler if he thinks that Kobe Bryant has a realistic shot to break Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star Game record of 42 points. He thinks that this is very unlikely because of the energy expenditure it would require and because it is difficult for one player to cast up so many shots in an All-Star Game. When I mentioned that Michael Jordan once had 40 points in an All-Star Game, Drexler correctly noted that that took place in Jordan’s home city of Chicago and that when you are playing in your home city, the other players are more apt to feed you the ball.

Next came the media availability sessions for the All-Star Saturday participants, followed by the All-Stars themselves. That rapidly turned into a three-ring – or, to be precise, dozen-plus table – circus. The crowd at Kobe Bryant’s table dwarfed the one that had been around Barkley and some media members seemed to be employing martial arts maneuvers in an effort to cut in front of others and get better access. Of course, that meant that it was the perfect time to talk to other players.

Slam-dunk contestant Hakim Warrick told me that Dr. J was his favorite dunk artist as a kid; his pick among recent dunkers is Vince Carter: “He raised the bar,” Warrick said. He noted that his Memphis teammate Shane Battier has been offering unsolicited dunk contest advice and claims to have won a dunk contest in the county where he grew up. Warrick agreed with me that he needs to see some footage of that before he listens to Battier, who is not known as a high flyer.

Shooting Stars contestant Steve Kerr has done no preparation for the event other than playing in some pickup games but believes that shooting, like riding a bike, is something that you never forget how to do. I asked him who he thinks will win the Three Point Shootout and he chose Ray Allen. Allen, however, does not consider himself the favorite and thinks that any of the contestants could be hot or cold on a given night. He told me that he does not have a strategy for the contest and does not consider contest shooting to be fundamentally different from game shooting, although he noted that some players rush because they don’t think that they will have enough time to shoot all of the basketballs.

Vince Carter likes Josh Smith’s chances to defend his Slam Dunk title, but he added that he thinks most people do not really know how well Nate Robinson can dunk; Carter played against him in the preseason and was very impressed.

One reporter noted that this was his first All-Star Weekend and asked Carter, a veteran All-Star, to tell him one “do” and one “don’t.” Carter’s “do” was to see the Slam Dunk Contest in person to fully appreciate it. He drew some laughs when he hesitated before offering his “don’t,” finally saying, “Don’t try to go to every party because you might miss the game.”

Rasheed Wallace likes Warrick, who he calls “my Philly boy,” to win the Slam Dunk Contest.

Now that it is all but impossible for Detroit to win 70 games, I asked Detroit assistant coach (and a player on the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that won a record 72 games) Ron Harper if he thought that any team would ever win 70. He doubts it, saying that the Pistons faltered because too much was made of it too soon. He thinks that it just has to happen, that you can’t set it as a goal at the start of the year. I also asked him to name some players who simply have to be on TNT’s Next 10 List (a supplement to the 50 Greatest Players List from 1996) and he chose Bob McAdoo and Dominique Wilkins. He also mentioned Sidney Moncrief.

At 5 p.m. the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania and the Lithuanian National Men’s Basketball Team Foundation held a “Lithuanian Basketball Party” at the Hilton-Americas. The back wall featured a big screen showing footage of great Lithuanian stars, many of whom are quite familiar to American fans, including NBA players Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis (the first Lithuanian in the NBA) and Sarunas Jasikevicius.

The wall to the left as you entered the party had giant posters of numerous Lithuanian stars with NBA ties plus one of Donn Nelson, son of Hall of Fame Finalist Don Nelson, who has worked with the Lithuanian national team since 1992. Regimantas Silinskas entertained the partygoers by playing a traditional Lithuanian instrument known as a skrabalai (wooden bells), which bears some resemblance to a xylophone that is standing upright instead of flat. Later, Zilvinas Zvagulis and Irena Starosaite performed Lithuanian folk music.

NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBA Vice President for International Basketball Operations Kim Bohuny each received The Cross Commander of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. Both gave brief speeches discussing the longstanding ties between the NBA and Lithuanian basketball. Bohuny recalled that she brought Lithuanian sharpshooter Rimas Kurtinaitis to the 1989 All-Star Game in Houston for the Three Point Shootout. He was jet lagged and fared poorly in the event, but when the two of them went to a bar afterward no one knew who he was and they played Pop-a-Shot for drinks, wiping out everybody in the place.

Detroit coach Flip Saunders, Dallas assistant coach Del Harris, Donn Nelson and Rolando Blackman and TNT’s Craig Sager were among those in attendance.

Blackman’s favorite All-Star moment is obviously his two free throws with no time left in regulation to send the 1987 game to overtime. Isiah Thomas memorably tried to distract Blackman before he went to the free throw line; Blackman told me that Isiah was just messing around but to him those free throws were “life and death.” He believes that making them was a big milestone in his career. As he declared while the ball was going through the hoop, “Confidence, baby, confidence.”

Many people wanted to get their picture taken with Manute Bol when he arrived. He walks with a cane now but seemed to be in good spirits, particularly when he exchanged a warm greeting with Marciulionis, his Golden State teammate.

It is only a short walk from the Hilton-Americas to the Toyota Center and I easily arrived in time to see the Rookie Challenge. Andre Iguodala offered a possible preview of tomorrow’s Slam Dunk Contest, delivering nine dunks en route to 30 points and MVP honors in a 106-96 victory for the Sophomores over the Rookies. In his postgame remarks, winning coach Del Harris noted that he was pleased not only with the victory but the fact that this contest more closely resembled a real game than many previous Rookie Challenges, which have all too often degenerated into sloppy play. Harris noted that this is one of the few times that a team has been held below 100 points in the Challenge.

After the game I headed over to the 1001 McKinney Building, site of the Air Jordan XXI Launch Party. In honor of the 21st edition of Air Jordans, Michael Jordan brought in three-time Grammy winner John Legend and a host of other performers to entertain some of the most well-known figures in sports and entertainment. At the end of the evening, a special auction of items – including a rare set of one pair of each of the 21 Jordan shoes – was held to benefit Habitat for Humanity Relief for Hurricane Katrina.

I received a media credential for this event. Unfortunately, most of the attending players and celebrities chose not to be interviewed by the assembled media, which would seem to defeat the purpose of assembling us there in the first place. As a writer for People Magazine commented to me, no one wants to read an article listing the names of a bunch of people who refused to talk. I’ll leave it to People to list their names if they so choose.

I did get a chance to ask Antoine Walker some questions. He told me that the All-Star event that he is most looking forward to is the Slam Dunk Contest. He expects Josh Smith to repeat as champion but added, “Don’t sleep on Iguodala.” Walker had just seen Iguodala’s Rookie Challenge performance and was very impressed. As for the Three Point Shootout, Walker said, “I’ve got to go with Chicago – Quentin Richardson, the defending champion.”

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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