As America was put on Orange Alert last Friday, Atlanta appeared well-fortified against a terrorist attack, filled as it was with armored stretch Hummers and blocklong bulletproof Escalades. In the lobby of the Hyatt Regency, where NBA All-Stars stayed in advance of their game on Sunday, men sipped Hennessy from golden goblets, wore mink top hats and terry-cloth tracksuits—in robin's-egg blue and traffic-cone orange—and proved, among many other things, that discretion is not the better part of velour.
Even Wolf Blitzer, an hour after announcing the terrorist alert on CNN, looked unruffled at the Ritz-Carlton, where he was lamenting, to a conference room full of athletes and executives, the 4 a.m. tipoff times for NBA games televised in Qatar. Which is to say that the only gravity on evidence in Atlanta was actual gravity. "Before I entered politics, I was 6'7"," said Bill Clinton, the 6'2" former president, in a private reception room at Philips Arena on Saturday night. "I had a chance to play pro ball." Then he was off to the National Basketball Players Association party, across the street, where it was said he'd be sitting in on saxophone with the Gap Band, whose biggest hit was—unfortunate, given the timing—You Dropped a Bomb on Me.
Perhaps it's to the country's credit that while standing at the brink of war, we'll still party like it's 1999. Or, rather, 1969: With all the 5XL throwback baseball jerseys in Atlanta, it was difficult to tell if this was the 2003 NBA All-Star Game or the 1973 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Jermaine O'Neal of the Indiana Pacers wore braids and a blaze-orange '84 Denver Broncos shirt around town. With their plumage and primary-colored suits, players are increasingly indistinguishable from mascots. All they're missing is the furry tongue.
Even those were easy to acquire in Atlanta, at parties like the Chris Webber-hosted Evening of Luxury, an invitation-only affair at which a 2003 SUV was to be given away to an already-rich reveler. Why not? Shaquille O'Neal on Friday wore a hooded sweatshirt whose leather sleeves could have been hewn from Louis Vuitton luggage. His knit watch cap bore the Yankees' NY logo done up in diamonds. Said Puck Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Why not go the final step and just start wearing a toga?"
Is this opulent decadence, this decadent opulence, what the world envies, or disdains, about the U.S.? On Sunday, with the terror alert in the headlines, war was on many minds. Steve Nash wore a khaki T-shirt that read NO WAR: SHOOT FOR PEACE. "In the Constitution it states that war is to be used in the case of self-defense," said the Dallas Mavericks guard, a South African-born Canadian, "and I don't think that this"—war with Iraq—"is self-defense." Jermaine O'Neal, Tracy McGrady and Antoine Walker each hosted the family of a serviceman stationed overseas.
And yet, televised talk of a "wartime economy" was rendered ridiculous by displays of conspicuous consumption so over-the-top that they'd have made Caligula do a spit-take: stretch Volkswagen Beetles, bowler hats made from Gucci handbags, men swaddled in so many chains that Atlanta looked like a city of Houdinis. Or Henry the VIIIs: Grown men really did carry, through the Hyatt lobby at 2 a.m., their own jewel-encrusted chalices.
At the NBA's Jam Session fan festival, children could buy a miniature model of an Escalade. A collectibles booth sold, for $100 apiece, framed photographs of Al Pacino in Scarface and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, each of which included two real bullets—and a Cohiba cigar—pressed under the glass. Meanwhile, Ian Naismith, grandson of the game's inventor, sat nearby in his own booth, dedicated to the history of basketball, and found himself largely bereft of visitors.
"My grandfather would detest all the money grabbing in the game," Naismith said, as LeBron James was scoring 52 points on cable TV. "He never took a dime from the game he invented. I'm concerned now with all the negative role-modeling we see." Indeed, the rapper on everyone's sound system last week was 50 Cent, whose debut album is called Get Rich or the Tryin'.
On Sunday morning I ascended in an elevator with a young man wearing, on a chain around his neck, a three-dimensional diamond-and-platinum baseball player that looked as if it had just fallen off the world's most expensive Little League trophy. And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I may merely be on the far side of a growing generational gulf. When 20-year-old Tyson Chandler of the Chicago Bulls said that he "grew up watching Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan," I nearly coughed out my dentures.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning Atlanta looked like Atlantis, an ancient empire preserved in amber. At the players' union party Lennox Lewis entered behind a chevron of bodyguards that served as a human cowcatcher, cleaving the crowds in front of him. I expected an attendant to scatter rose petals before him. But none did, which was—it must be said—vaguely disappointing.