Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down on my Trip to All-Star Weekend
By Craig Kwasniewski
The regular season resumes with a full slate of games today and officially bringing a close to All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. Being a short yet not so short 6-hour drive from LA, I was able to drive to Phoenix and take in a few events on a very tight budget (read: no All-Star Saturday Night or All-Star Game). Here are some brief thumbs up or thumbs down moments from my All-Star Weekend experience:
Thumbs Up to the NBA for making parts of All-Star Weekend affordable. Like I said, I made the trip with a very tight budget. In this economy I really can't afford dropping $350 for last row seats at All-Star Saturday or $450 for the All-Star Game on Sunday. But for a combined $90 I was able to get tickets to Friday's Rookie Challenge and Saturday's All-Star Practice which included admission to NBA Jam Session. I really don't know any other professional league that sets up so many events for its All Star Game Weekend. There also was a Celebrity Game on Friday afternoon along with the D-League All-Star Game on Saturday afternoon. I know these are waaaaayyy off Broadway entertainment-wise, but you still can get a feel for the weekend without maxing out a credit card.
Thumbs Down to the Rookie Game. There's a reason why I was able to get first row upper deck seats at Ticketmaster for $35... the game is borderline an abomination. I get why the NBA separated the Rookie Game from All-Star Saturday Night a few years ago, they wanted to allow as many people possible access. And with both rosters loaded with future and present (Kevin Durant) NBA superstars you'd think the game would be memorable. Unfortunately it always fizzles into a bad pick-up game (2004 was the WORST, the entire half broke into an impromptu lob and dunk contest in a bad way). Mix in literally half of the lower section being filled with screaming 8-12 year olds (the NBA rewarded kids who adhered to a health regimen) and the game was CLEARLY the worst event of the weekend. With all the screaming and yelling kids I felt like I was stuck at Walmart in West Hills on a Tuesday night. Maybe the NBA was subliminally telling the players to practice safe sex. It took 2 beers to calm me down enough for the rest of the game.
Thumbs Up to Kevin Durant. The main story of the weekend was Shaq and Kobe, but the All-Star breakthrough story was Durant. The guy DOMINATED the Rookie game for 46 POINTS! Even if there was zero defense being played, 46 points in 40 minute game with a running clock is impressive! He had a moment in the second half where he hit three straight jumpers (back-to-back off a steal) with a Kobe-like dominance. Oh and he won in the first ever All-Star Weekend version of H-O-R-S-E (which needs to be brought back but with flashy veterans like Arenas and Sheed). Durant will be back as an All-Star next year!
Thumbs down to the crowd control for H-O-R-S-E. Look, I wanted to see it... and so did most of the fans in downtown Phoenix. There was a buzz about the return to an old-school favorite but having very limited seats in the smallish All-Star Block Party killed any chance of me seeing it (lines to get in were around the block). The NBA clearly underestimated the interest of the fans for it.
Thumbs Up to the All-Star Practice Session. We're all hoops junkies here, right? So watching NBA All-Stars run though the same drills and shooting games like I did way back in the varsity HS days is always a cool thing. Side bonus is that the practice is held at the Jam Session in a high school sized gym (a typical Indiana State HS or the CSUN Matadome-sized arena, basically a lot smaller than an NBA arena). There's always two ways to run an All-Star practice: serious and playful. The East ran plays for 10 minutes and then broke into shooting games for the last 20. The West ran drills to loosen up (more on why later) and ran plays for the rest of the practice (Phil ran some base Triangle plays like a proud parent, "THAT was part of the Triangle!" with an I'm Phil Jackson gleam in his eye). PJ had the respect of the players while Mike Brown deferred to LeBron... just like he does with the Cavs. Kobe and Shaq ran drills together appearing as though they were remiscing the old days (it looked like Kobe was telling Shaq, "Awww come-on! You remember this!" When Shaq was confused on the running drills).
Thumbs Down to the ONE HOUR downtime between East and West practices. The Eastern Conference just completed their 30-minute session and the Phoenix faithful was primed and ready to see the Western Conference go at it. The PA guys started pumping up the crowd with the "We can't hear ya!" bullshit and everyone was ready to go... and ready to go... and ready to go... and.... Hey, where the hell are they? This happened for literally one full hour. And killing that hour was the same "Phoenix, we can't hear youuuuu!!!!" guy with some DJ from the Miami Heat. So for one hour all we heard was this guy telling us to make noise while he throws 99-cent gear into the crowd. After 55-minutes of him telling us how bad of fans we were, the crowd started chanting ,"We want the stars!" This was terrible!!! Where were the Suns Dancers? Where were the Harlem Globetrotters (who were literally whoring themselves to everything there... but OF COURSE not now!)? All they had to kill time was this asshole telling me I need to make some MORE noise??? Hey, here's some noise: SHUT THE HELL UP!
Thumbs Up to Shaq and Phil Jackson at the Practice Session. Before either session started, there was a media free-for-all with the All-Stars for 30 minutes right there on the court. Obviously in pursuit of the main story of the weekend, the media flocked to Kobe, Shaq and Phil for a three-way media gang bang. Shaq and Phil stood back-to-back under one of the hoops fielding questions. I don't know if they planned it or if it was instinct but as they both stood within feet of each other it suddenly felt like it was 2004 all over again, especially with Kobe fielding questions 50-feet away. At the end of practice Phil had Shaq shoot freethrows blindfolded for some Guinness Book of Records (most made freethrows made blindfolded in 60 seconds) which completely brought the house down.
Thumbs Down to the Guinness Book of Records Bit. They had Devin Harris *SET* the record for fastest dribble from end-to-end on an official NBA court. They had some random guy *SET* the record for the longest time twirling two basketballs on one finger. The operative word here was SET, no records broken just records being...S-E-T, set. With so much going on, these records killed a lot of the practice momentum. I'd much rather see NBA ballers take turns shooting from half court than SET-ing obscure world records. It didn't work.
Thumbs Up to Jam Session. Not much to say here except I've been to two Jam Sessions (also LA in 2004) and the NBA puts on a good show. I saw Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill running separate clincs, Iceman Gervin and Detlef Schrempf at the autograph table, Mutombo at the store telling his kids to calm down (high comedy hearing cookie monster discipline his kids!), John Starks pitching his gear at the store... unlike LA in 2004 there seemed to be players everywhere and all were having a good time.
Thumbs down to the line to get into the NBA Store at Jam Session. Waiting in line to spend money doesn't make much sense. Maybe the economy played a role, but the store seemed a lot smaller than in 2004 and the NBA understimated the amount of people willing to shop. I had to wait 20 minutes just to enter the store and get my Pau Gasol AS jersey.
As soon as I left the Jam Session I tried to see the H-O-R-S-E event but the line was ricockulous so it was time for me to pile back in the car for the LONG 6-hour drive back to LA. TRUST ME, I really wanted to hang around and at least get tickets to All-Star Saturday Night, but I couldn't swing it. But still I had a great time catching what I could! Phoenix was a great host for All-Star Weekend. The police were in good spirits, traffic was non-existent and I never had the feeling that I was being ripped off. I was able to drive up to the arena minutes before the Rookie Challenge without any delay and parking across from US Airways Arena was $10 (Staples Center would have been easily $60). Except for the Nazi photo enforcement zones on the freeway (literally every mile, which means NOBODY goes faster than the speed limit in Phoenix... well except Jason Richardson), Phoenix was the perfect host.