50th All-Star Game is time of transition
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Michael Jordan is the host. Shaquille O'Neal isn't playing. Alonzo Mourning and Grant Hill haven't been on the court in months.
So much for the biggest star of the last generation and three of the biggest names of the current one.
As for what remains, the NBA hopes there's still enough to make the 50th All-Star Game intriguing to a public that seems to have lost interest.
Will people tune in at 6:36 p.m. EST Sunday to see the best of the rest of the new generation of stars? Or will they tune out the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and Latrell Sprewell because they haven't really connected with the NBA since Jordan left nearly three years ago?
In a way, it'll be another barometer All-Star Game for a league still working its way through the middle stages of a post-Jordan, post-dynasty comedown.
The bad news is that O'Neal and Theo Ratliff won't play because of injuries. Nor will Hill and Mourning, who were voted in as starters by fans despite being out for the season.
The good news is that Bryant and Vince Carter will play, their nagging injuries notwithstanding. Bryant didn't want to come and was threatened with a five-game suspension if he tried to get out of playing.
Other All-Stars have different attitudes.
Or putting it another way, for those who don't know a bling-bling (diamond jewelry that makes a "bling-bling" sound) from a Ring Ding, even crusty old Karl Malone is looking forward to this one.
"It's probably the first time in a long time that I'm just going to go and enjoy it," Malone said. "I'm getting older. I'm 37. I've lost a step. It might be my last one."
For the NBA, it'll be a golden anniversary game with eight gold medalists from Sydney and two from Barcelona mixed with six green first-timers among the 24 All-Stars.
"There's still a lot of talented players," said Sprewell, a four-time All-Star making his first appearance as a member of the New York Knicks. "Although it won't be quite the same, there's still enough talent for a good competitive game. It should be entertaining."
Whether it will be competitive is debatable.
Some believe the All-Star Game will mirror what's happened during the regular season, with the West being bigger and stronger than the East.
Bryant, Jason Kidd, Chris Webber and Tim Duncan will start for the West, along with Kevin Garnett, who was selected by Sacramento coach Rick Adelman to replace O'Neal. The reserves are McDyess, Vlade Divac, Gary Payton, Malone, Rasheed Wallace, David Robinson and Michael Finley.
The Eastern Conference team is comprised of starters Iverson, McGrady, Carter, Antonio Davis and Anthony Mason, and reserves Sprewell, Marbury, Allan Houston, Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen, Jerry Stackhouse and Dikembe Mutombo.
"If it was keepaway, I'd love our chances," Eastern Conference coach Larry Brown said.
Adelman said the strength of the Western Conference doesn't necessarily mean his team will win.
"The teams are so different this year," he said. "We're big and they're small, but that's not going to make a difference when you see the stars who are out there.
"It's not any easier just because the West has a lot of the best teams. That doesn't translate to the All-Star Game."
Television ratings for last year's All-Star Game were the lowest ever, continuing a five-year trend -- evidence that while the NBA has a strong base of hardcore fans who enjoy watching the league evolve, its attraction to the casual fan is fleeting.
This year, too, there is none of the buzz to match last year's hype of Carter competing in -- and winning -- the slam-dunk contest. (He didn't defend his title because of a sore knee).
Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson recently dismissed the whole weekend as a showcase for sponsors.
"I'm not offended," commissioner David Stern said. "It's a showcase for the world. It will be on television in 207 countries. We've issued probably over 1,000 media credentials.
"I guess Phil has a short memory. He doesn't remember that the reason we're all able to do very well here is because of the sponsors and, more importantly, because of the fans and because they're watching us on TV."
Stern will negotiate a new TV contract this spring, with NBC's four-year, $1.75 billion deal set to expire after the 2001-02 season. He spent this weekend discussing the state of the game and hoping that the fans whose interest has waned will somehow become intrigued enough to take another look at the NBA's best.
Attendance and interest are down in cities such as Houston, Phoenix and Charlotte, but other recently moribund franchises in Milwaukee, Dallas, Philadelphia and Sacramento are experiencing a renewed enthusiasm tied directly to the success of their teams.
"We've come into a state of parity," Heat coach Pat Riley said. "People don't see greatness shining every night, but they see developing teams having a real opportunity for the first time."
Successful teams are well-represented among the All-Stars, with only three players -- Marbury (Nets), Mutombo (Hawks) and Stackhouse (Pistons) -- from teams with losing records.
Before the tipoff at a 76ers-Nets game last week, Iverson came over to Marbury and congratulated him on the day Marbury learned he had been voted in as a reserve.
Marbury was elated because he considers it an honor -- not a duty -- to be an All-Star.
"This is a game that our players have, dating back to time, wanted to be selected to and wanted to play in,"' Stern said.
"It's one of the best All-Star games there is, and it's a time to reward the fans with lots of impromptu, good, fun basketball."