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Veteran Shaq still the class clown
by David Friedman / February 18, 2007

For the most part, the East’s practice Saturday at the Jam Session Center Court followed standard All-Star Saturday protocol. The East team went over some basic NBA plays and how the point guard will signal them during the game. There were the usual shooting contests, with the squad divided into two groups, one at each basket. Then came the half-court shot contest, with “pride” on the line as Coach Eddie Jordan put it, although one strongly suspects that the players privately increase the stakes.

Gilbert Arenas, LeBron James and Vince Carter each sank half-court shots. Just as the practice appeared to be winding down, Shaquille O’Neal made a special request: that the players hold an impromptu breakdancing contest between the big and the smalls. The packed crowd loved it as Shaq went first and showed off an array of moves belying his size and age. James took center stage and received enthusiastic support from the audience as well. Dwight Howard then offered some freestyle moves. Shaq joined in during both James’ and Howards’ performances as the fans roared their approval. It is easy to see why Shaq is so well liked – he is charismatic and fun loving and really knows how to give the crowd what it wants. He revels in being, as he puts it, the “class clown.”

After the East’s practice finished and before the West’s practice began there was a media availability period on the court. I spoke with some players who I did not catch at yesterday’s media session.

Caron Butler looks forward to a potential Scottie Pippen comeback.

“Pippen was my idol (as a kid),” Butler told me. “I hope that he (Pippen) comes back to play. The game needs it. He’s a great ambassador for the game. Everybody out here grew up watching him.”

I asked Kevin Garnett what he thinks about the possibility of Scottie Pippen coming back.

“No thoughts whatsoever,” he replied tersely.

I then asked him if he would be happy to play with Pippen if the Timberwolves signed him.

“If he came to the Timberwolves I’ll be happy to play with him but other than that I have no thoughts.”

How long will Garnett continue to have to hear questions are trade rumors and about when will he finally win a title?

“I’m pretty sure that until I win it, that will be the next question,” Garnett replied. “If you are single the next question is, ‘When are you going to get a girlfriend?’ If you have a girlfriend, the next question is, ‘When are you going to get engaged?’ When you get engaged the next question is, ‘When are you going to get married?’ When you get married the next question is, ‘When are you going to have kids?’ When you have a kid the next question is, ‘When are you going to have another kid?’ So people are always going to come up with new questions.”

I asked Garnett if he watched the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge and he replied to that query with a lot more energy and enthusiasm than he displayed when talking about Pippen.

“Yeah, I watched,” he said. “It was terrible. Terrible. The rookies were too laid back. The rookies did not come out with the fire that I thought they would have. It looked like they did not want to be there.”

He did not accept the idea that the young players got caught up in the hype and did not know how to prepare for that type of showcase.

“They know how to prepare for a game,” he declared, incredulous that anyone would propose such an excuse. “I know that it’s entertainment and their chance to display their skills and stuff, but they still have to put forth some effort. It looked like they were just out there.”

I asked Gilbert Arenas if the half-court shot that he nailed on his first attempt foreshadows the kind of performance that he is going to have on Sunday.

“No, I’m going to go out and have fun,” Arenas replied. “If having fun gets me close to the MVP, then I’m going to take it. If not, then it’s up for grabs for somebody else.”

He is not concerned that his comments and predictions of 50 point outbursts will create a backlash against him.

“I said that I was going to score 50 against Phoenix and I scored 50 against Phoenix. I said I was going to score 50 against Portland.”

I pointed out that the Portland players seemed to resent what he said – and that Arenas did not come close to getting 50 against them.

“At the end of the day, I still have one more game against them. So if I score 50, hey, everything that I said was true.”

Arenas does not believe that Portland shut him down the last time he faced the Trail Blazers despite the fact that he scored just nine points on 3-15 shooting.

“I was playing possum. I just tried to win the game. I want to hit 50 in their building; I didn’t want to hit 50 in my building.”

After the media availability ended, the West held its practice, which went pretty much like the East’s – except that no one breakdanced. Tony Parker and Ray Allen were the only players who sank half-court shots. Yao Ming deserves an honorable mention for trying an over-the-head half-court shot that hit the front of the rim.

Another All-Star Saturday tradition is a press conference by commissioner David Stern, sort of the NBA’s version of a State of the Union address. Stern was joined on stage by Players Association executive director Billy Hunter as he announced that the NBA and the Players Association had finally reached an agreement to close the one open item in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement: how to deal with the pensions of the so-called “pre-65ers,” players who retired before the pension fund was founded.

The gist of the new plan is that the “pre-65ers” will now be included, retroactive to July 1, 2005. Each player who was previously ineligible will receive a lump sum payment of $20,000. After that, many players who never received benefits will begin to receive regular payments, while established members of the pension plan will receive a 50 percent increase in their benefits. This is welcome news for the pioneers who laid the foundation for today’s game.

All-Star Saturday of course culminates with the various skills events on Saturday night. Each squad in the Shooting Stars competition consisted of a current player, a retired player and a WNBA player. Each one shot from a prescribed area on the court in a designated sequence, with the winning team being the one that made all of the shots in the fastest time. The Bulls team of Scottie Pippen, Ben Gordon and Candace Dupree seemed to have pulled out a dramatic win by a margin of less than three seconds when Pippen sank a half-court shot – but after a video review the Bulls were disqualified because earlier in the round Gordon and Dupree had shot out of sequence, a fact immediately and gleefully pointed out by Detroit participant Bill Laimbeer. His team won the trophy, but the crowd booed him lustily. It seemed like the more they booed the wider his smile became.

“The era I played in was very intense and competitive,” Laimbeer later explained. “There was no shaking hands or hugging or kissing or anything like that. It was we’re going to go out there and kick your butt in basketball. People miss those days, so they still hang on to them.”

The Miami Heat won the next two contests, as Dwyane Wade knocked off Kobe Bryant in the Skills Challenge finals for his second consecutive win in that event and Jason Kapono won the Three-Point Shootout with a final round score of 24, one shy of Craig Hodges’ 1986 single round record of 25.

The Slam Dunk contest is always the marquee event of All-Star Saturday night, whether or not it ultimately lives up to that designation and its positioning as the final, headlining contest of the night. Defending champion Nate Robinson made a gallant effort to repeat but Gerald Green literally leaped over him to win.

Green was going to jump over a life-sized cutout of Robinson to reprise Robinson’s dunk over Spud Webb last year, but Robinson was a good sport and stood in for the cutout. Green clinched his victory on his last dunk by earning the only perfect score of the night by soaring over a table that was placed just inside the free throw semicircle.

Another of Green’s dunks involved an old-school homage to Dee Brown, the first Boston Celtic to win the Dunk Contest. Green pumped up his shoes and covered his eyes with his arm a la Brown in 1991. Real tall competitors in this event rarely receive much love and Dwight Howard was no exception, despite a jaw-dropping dunk during which he slammed the ball with his right hand while simultaneously slapping a sticker of his face on the backboard with his left hand. Howard put the sticker 12 feet off of the ground. That was impressive to see even if the judges only awarded it a 42 (out of 50).

Former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker sat across from me on the shuttle bus ride to the MGM Grand after the Dunk Contest. I asked him if he ever wonders what it would have been like to play Roger Federer when he was in his prime. Becker admitted that he does think about that kind of thing and said that, in his opinion, Federer would beat him on hard courts but lose to him on grass.

I made my way over to the Tropicana Resort and Casino for the NBA/ABA All-Star Reunion Party, an event organized by Roland “Fatty” Taylor, a former teammate of Julius Erving’s with the Virginia Squires. The party featured a very nice buffet, a DJ spinning a combination of new and older music and concluded with a performance by BET comedian Chris Thomas. If you are in Vegas but don’t have a ticket for the All-Star Game, you can watch the game at the Tropicana with Taylor and other former ABA players. Prior to that, there will be the premiere screening of the movie “Something to Cheer About,” which portrays the story of Oscar Robertson’s Crispus Attucks high school state championship team.

“We had a wide open game, pushed the ball up the court and ran,” Taylor recalled of his ABA days. “I’m pretty sure that before the (1976) merger we were more exciting than the NBA.”

Playing in the ABA taught standout defensive guard Mike Gale that life is full of trials and setbacks and how important it is to be strong enough to bounce back from the low moments. Gale’s 1972 Kentucky Colonels went 68-16 in the regular season but lost in the first round of the playoffs.

“You can be up and then in an instant you can be down,” Gale noted.

He later played for the 1974 New York Nets squad that Julius Erving led to an ABA title. “Pogo” Joe Caldwell was known as a tough defensive player for many years in both the NBA and the ABA. For the past three decades he has been embroiled in a complicated dispute involving the language in his contract regarding his pension benefits. Caldwell never played another professional game after this disagreement began and his new biography titled “Banned from Basketball” tells his side of the story.

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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