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Jesus said, "Ye cannot serve both God and mammon," but that didn't stop everyone from trying during NBA All-Star week in Los Angeles, where Magic Johnson took the stage of the Shrine Auditorium and said earnestly, after a three-hour tribute in his honor, "First I want to thank God, but also American Express."
It was like that all week in L.A., God and money intersecting, sometimes literally, as in the gold cross of diamonds that dangled from the neck of Indiana Pacers forward-center Jermaine O'Neal. Or the silver cross of diamonds that accessorized the Kobe Bryant jersey worn by TV's Laverne, actor-director Penny Marshall, a Lakers and Clippers season-ticket holder who owns Labradors named Magic and Larry. " Larry Bird the dog," she said, "is dumb as a post."
But those ancient basketball wars—East versus West, Larry versus Magic—were mere backdrop for the even older competition of God versus Mammon. As Congress held hearings on the Super Bowl halftime show, Hollywood was on its best behavior, even while on its worst behavior, so that the week became a shotgun wedding of solemnity and celebrity, piety and Variety.
Praise the Lord and pass the Amaretto. When Behind the Bench—the official organization of NBA wives—honored Janet Jackson for her "humanitarian" endeavors at a fund-raiser last Friday at the Beverly Hills Hotel, there was no chance of seeing a breast on naked display, unless you ordered the Cobb salad.
This timeless tug-of-war between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other was best expressed on Saturday night, outside the NBA players' association party. There a cardboard arrow—bearing the single word HOSPITALITY—pointed to the VIP entrance. As Latrell Sprewell and Carmelo Anthony stood glumly in line (a line that was one part Gucci, two parts hoochie), someone tore down most of the sign, so that the arrow pointing the way inside read simply...HOS.
But then, hospitality and hos—virtue and vice—are two sides of the same coin. As are admiration and excess. And so a 17-foot, 2,800-pound statue of Magic Johnson was unveiled last week outside the Staples Center, even though Magic played at the Forum, with its apt echoes of ancient Rome. On Sunday, Christian protesters, shouting "Jesus hates sin," picketed at the feet of the golden idol.
Today's athletes don't resemble those of ancient Rome so much as they resemble those of ancient Greece. "Songs were written about them," pointed out Jeff Greenfield, the CNN correspondent. "They were exempted from taxes. According to some Greek legends, they were immortal. They were given eternal life, which is a gift bestowed now only on Larry King."
Still, there were signs last week that we may be moving, however glacially, toward a New Austerity. There were no pimp chalices at this year's All-Star week—the bejeweled goblets from which posses swigged Hennessy last year in Atlanta. The warning NO JERSEYS OR SPORTS APPAREL appeared on all the players' party invitations, even though the hottest gig in L.A. was thrown by throwback-jerseymakers Mitchell & Ness. "I'm going to have to do damage control," sighed M&N owner Peter Capolino, squiring Allen Iverson's mother around Skybar on Sunset Boulevard hours after the All-Star Game. "The fire marshal wouldn't let David Stern in. Or Derek Jeter. There are three NFL All-Pros on the sidewalk." Even, alas, Urkel was denied at the door.
At the NBA's annual Technology Summit, Greenfield moderated a panel discussion—titled "How Fans View Athletes"—in which the word accountability was mentioned more than once. "Playing in the NBA is not an entitlement; it's a privilege," said Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo. "We had a player, Robert Horry, who threw a towel in the coach's face, and I called him in off the road and said, 'If I were 15 years younger, I'd kick your tail. But since I'm not, I'll trade it.' "
Of course, all of this was said in Beverly Hills, where Chastity is—first and foremost—the daughter of Sonny and Cher. Sure, there were many calls for moderation, but those calls were made (metaphorically speaking) on the diamond-studded cellphone that Paris Hilton was clutching while coaching in Friday's celebrity game.