A weekend for the impressionable
All-Star weekend is a great opportunity for the NBA to market to the young
The Kobe vs. LeBron MVP debate was a hot topic among their fellow All-Stars
LeBron bought his Eastern Conference teammates a crystal keepsake
PHOENIX -- "Excuse me," the teenager in the Suns hat says. "Who is that guy?"
He is pointing to my right and up, way up. We are in a hallway at the Sheraton in downtown Phoenix, home of this year's All-Star media day.
"That," I say, "is David Robinson."
The boy looks at David, looks back at me. His face remains blank. "Who's he?" he asks.
Ah, how quickly they forget. No doubt the boy didn't recognize George Gervin or Clyde Drexler, either, both on hand for an NBA Hall of Fame event. He may even have been flummoxed by the tall guy with the stubbly gray beard chatting with the press in one corner. But that's how it goes at these things. Only at All-Star weekend can someone like Nate Robinson prove more recognizable than Dr. J.
And that, to a certain extent, is how the league wants it. More so than the other major U.S. sports, the NBA markets to the young and impressionable. Ideally, basketball stars are seen as superheroes (Dwight Howard) or cartoon characters (Space Jam) or big, goofy giants (Shaquille O'Neal). And once a player's superhuman qualities fade, so does his popularity. Take Vince Carter. He's having a nice little season for the Nets, but now that he's shooting jump shots instead of cramming his elbow halfway into the rim, he's fallen out of favor with the teenagers of America. Once the leading All-Star vote-getter, Carter finished 14th this year (for perspective, players who received more votes include Ron Artest, Tracy McGrady and Manu Ginobili, all of whom have been hurt and/or crazy this season). Whereas Howard, he of the resplendent dunks and goofball persona -- he's like Shaq, but with hops! -- became the first NBA player to surpass three million votes.
Not that Shaq is ready to cede his big-man throne just yet. He may have lost a step (or four), and with his Shel Silverstein facial hair he certainly looks the part of the old master, but he can still dance (remember All-Star weekend a couple years back?) and freestyle rap (even when he probably shouldn't) and, of course, he Twitters (post from after today's media session: "David stern just asked me if i twittered today, i love dat man, he understands, love u all, peace, shalom, and happiness 2 everyone"). As Erving, the old graybeard, said earlier in the day, "You can't discount the Shaquille O'Neal era. Even though it's ending, he's still here." And indeed he is, the biggest presence in any room, literally and figuratively.
Nonetheless, it's already clear that this weekend will revolve around two men, and one debate. Asked who the league MVP is right now, Chris Paul said, "Well, it's either number 23 or number 24." One heard both this question, and this answer, echoed around the room at media day. Both stars even brought a touch of theater to the event. Kobe Bryant -- he would be No. 24 -- was the last Western Conference All-Star to arrive for the media session, half an hour after his compatriots, forcing an increasingly anxious semicircle of foreign journalists to fret as they staked out positions at his empty table. This was an old Michael Jordan trick -- perhaps you've noted Kobe likes to emulate MJ on occasion? -- only Jordan wouldn't just be late. He wouldn't show at all.
LeBron James, on the other hand, arrived on time but swept into the room with a small entourage. He then strolled from one interview table to the next, handing out gifts to all his Eastern Conference All-Star peers, the tallest, most heavily tattooed Secret Santa you'll ever see. Inside, according to Ray Allen, was a crystal keepsake with each player's name engraved upon it.
"It's very thoughtful," said Allen, admiring the present. "I've never gotten anything from the NBA like this." Asked if this meant he now had to be nice to James, the Celtics' conference nemesis, he thought for a second. "No," he said.
Other observations from Friday in Phoenix:
The hot topics were the Heat-Raptors trade, which most players believed to be a step up for Miami, and a rumored Suns-Bulls swap that had Amaré Stoudemire and parts headed to Chicago in exchange for Tyrus Thomas and parts. This was considered enough of a sure thing that Chicago media folks were already making their introductions to Amaré.
Things you learn only on All-Star media day: When in Phoenix, Paul likes to "hit up Benihana's and go to the mall."
NBA All-Star who drew the smallest media crowd: Brandon Roy. Whereas Stoudemire and Yao Ming and Bryant and James had crowds three-deep, Roy was conducting one-on-ones. Which is strange, because he's one of the best interviews. Perhaps it has to do, as my colleague Ian Thomsen so nicely chronicled in Sports Illustrated recently, with Roy's "old man" game.