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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Kobe Show is in Full Effect/Veteran Shaq Still the Class Clown

As you probably already know, Kobe Bryant won the 2007 All-Star Game MVP award as he led the West to a 153-132 win with 31 points, six assists, six steals and five rebounds. My fourth and final 2007 All-Star Weekend report for HoopsHype.com describes that performance--and also tells you about the busy schedule he maintained throughout the weekend. Also, I did not have an opportunity to post a link to my third report, which described Saturday's All-Star Weekend happenings. Here are those two links (10/5/15 edit: the links to HoopsHype.com no longer work, so I have posted the original articles below):

Veteran Shaq Still the Class Clown
February 18, 2007

For the most part, the East's practice Saturday at the Jam Session Center Court followed standard All-Star Saturday protocol. The East team went over some basic NBA plays and how the point guard will signal them during the game. There were the usual shooting contests, with the squad divided into two groups, one at each basket. Then came the half-court shot contest, with "pride" on the line as Coach Eddie Jordan put it, although one strongly suspects that the players privately increase the stakes.

Gilbert Arenas, LeBron James and Vince Carter each sank half-court shots. Just as the practice appeared to be winding down, Shaquille O'Neal made a special request: that the players hold an impromptu breakdancing contest between the bigs and the smalls. The packed crowd loved it as Shaq went first and showed off an array of moves belying his size and age. James took center stage and received enthusiastic support from the audience as well. Dwight Howard then offered some freestyle moves. Shaq joined in during both James' and Howards' performances as the fans roared their approval. It is easy to see why Shaq is so well liked--he is charismatic and fun loving and really knows how to give the crowd what it wants. He revels in being, as he puts it, the "class clown."

After the East's practice finished and before the West's practice began there was a media availability period on the court. I spoke with some players who I did not catch at yesterday's media session. Caron Butler looks forward to a potential Scottie Pippen comeback. "Pippen was my idol (as a kid)," Butler told me. "I hope that he (Pippen) comes back to play. The game needs it. He's a great ambassador for the game. Everybody out here grew up watching him."

I asked Kevin Garnett what he thinks about the possibility of Scottie Pippen coming back. "No thoughts whatsoever," he replied tersely. I then asked him if he would be happy to play with Pippen if the Timberwolves signed him. "If he came to the Timberwolves I'll be happy to play with him but other than that I have no thoughts." How long will Garnett continue to have to hear questions are trade rumors and about when will he finally win a title? "I'm pretty sure that until I win it, that will be the next question," Garnett replied. "If you are single the next question is, 'When are you going to get a girlfriend?' If you have a girlfriend, the next question is, 'When are you going to get engaged?' When you get engaged the next question is, 'When are you going to get married?' When you get married the next question is, 'When are you going to have kids?' When you have a kid the next question is, 'When are you going to have another kid?' So people are always going to come up with new questions.”

I asked Garnett if he watched the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge and he replied to that query with a lot more energy and enthusiasm than he displayed when talking about Pippen. "Yeah, I watched," he said. “It was terrible. Terrible. The rookies were too laid back. The rookies did not come out with the fire that I thought they would have. It looked like they did not want to be there." He did not accept the idea that the young players got caught up in the hype and did not know how to prepare for that type of showcase. "They know how to prepare for a game," he declared, incredulous that anyone would propose such an excuse. "I know that it's entertainment and their chance to display their skills and stuff, but they still have to put forth some effort. It looked like they were just out there."

I asked Gilbert Arenas if the half-court shot that he nailed on his first attempt foreshadows the kind of performance that he is going to have on Sunday. "No, I'm going to go out and have fun," Arenas replied. "If having fun gets me close to the MVP, then I'm going to take it. If not, then it's up for grabs for somebody else." He is not concerned that his comments and predictions of 50 point outbursts will create a backlash against him. "I said that I was going to score 50 against Phoenix and I scored 50 against Phoenix. I said I was going to score 50 against Portland." I pointed out that the Portland players seemed to resent what he said--and that Arenas did not come close to getting 50 against them. "At the end of the day, I still have one more game against them. So if I score 50, hey, everything that I said was true." Arenas does not believe that Portland shut him down the last time he faced the Trail Blazers despite the fact that he scored just nine points on 3-15 shooting. "I was playing possum. I just tried to win the game. I want to hit 50 in their building; I didn't want to hit 50 in my building."

After the media availability ended, the West held its practice, which went pretty much like the East's--except that no one breakdanced. Tony Parker and Ray Allen were the only players who sank half-court shots. Yao Ming deserves an honorable mention for trying an over-the-head half-court shot that hit the front of the rim.

Another All-Star Saturday tradition is a press conference by commissioner David Stern, sort of the NBA's version of a State of the Union address. Stern was joined on stage by Players Association executive director Billy Hunter as he announced that the NBA and the Players Association had finally reached an agreement to close the one open item in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement: how to deal with the pensions of the so-called "pre-65ers," players who retired before the pension fund was founded. The gist of the new plan is that the "pre-65ers" will now be included, retroactive to July 1, 2005. Each player who was previously ineligible will receive a lump sum payment of $20,000. After that, many players who never received benefits will begin to receive regular payments, while established members of the pension plan will receive a 50 percent increase in their benefits. This is welcome news for the pioneers who laid the foundation for today's game.

All-Star Saturday of course culminates with the various skills events on Saturday night. Each squad in the Shooting Stars competition consisted of a current player, a retired player and a WNBA player. Each one shot from a prescribed area on the court in a designated sequence, with the winning team being the one that made all of the shots in the fastest time. The Bulls team of Scottie Pippen, Ben Gordon and Candace Dupree seemed to have pulled out a dramatic win by a margin of less than three seconds when Pippen sank a half-court shot--but after a video review the Bulls were disqualified because earlier in the round Gordon and Dupree had shot out of sequence, a fact immediately and gleefully pointed out by Detroit participant Bill Laimbeer. His team won the trophy, but the crowd booed him lustily. It seemed like the more they booed the wider his smile became. "The era I played in was very intense and competitive," Laimbeer later explained. "There was no shaking hands or hugging or kissing or anything like that. It was we're going to go out there and kick your butt in basketball. People miss those days, so they still hang on to them."

The Miami Heat won the next two contests, as Dwyane Wade knocked off Kobe Bryant in the Skills Challenge finals for his second consecutive win in that event and Jason Kapono won the Three-Point Shootout with a final round score of 24, one shy of Craig Hodges' 1986 single round record of 25.

The Slam Dunk contest is always the marquee event of All-Star Saturday night, whether or not it ultimately lives up to that designation and its positioning as the final, headlining contest of the night. Defending champion Nate Robinson made a gallant effort to repeat but Gerald Green literally leaped over him to win. Green was going to jump over a life-sized cutout of Robinson to reprise Robinson's dunk over Spud Webb last year, but Robinson was a good sport and stood in for the cutout. Green clinched his victory on his last dunk by earning the only perfect score of the night by soaring over a table that was placed just inside the free throw semicircle.

Another of Green's dunks involved an old-school homage to Dee Brown, the first Boston Celtic to win the Dunk Contest. Green pumped up his shoes and covered his eyes with his arm a la Brown in 1991. The tallest competitors in this event rarely receive much love and Dwight Howard was no exception, despite a jaw-dropping dunk during which he slammed the ball with his right hand while simultaneously slapping a sticker of his face on the backboard with his left hand. Howard put the sticker 12 feet off of the ground. That was impressive to see even if the judges only awarded it a 42 (out of 50).

Former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker sat across from me on the shuttle bus ride to the MGM Grand after the Dunk Contest. I asked him if he ever wonders what it would have been like to play Roger Federer when he was in his prime. Becker admitted that he does think about that kind of thing and said that, in his opinion, Federer would beat him on hard courts but lose to him on grass.

I made my way over to the Tropicana Resort and Casino for the NBA/ABA All-Star Reunion Party, an event organized by Roland "Fatty" Taylor, a former teammate of Julius Erving's with the Virginia Squires. The party featured a very nice buffet, a DJ spinning a combination of new and older music and concluded with a performance by BET comedian Chris Thomas. If you are in Vegas but don't have a ticket for the All-Star Game, you can watch the game at the Tropicana with Taylor and other former ABA players. Prior to that, there will be the premiere screening of the movie "Something to Cheer About," which portrays the story of Oscar Robertson's Crispus Attucks high school state championship team. "We had a wide open game, pushed the ball up the court and ran," Taylor recalled of his ABA days. "I'm pretty sure that before the (1976) merger we were more exciting than the NBA."

Playing in the ABA taught standout defensive guard Mike Gale that life is full of trials and setbacks and how important it is to be strong enough to bounce back from the low moments. Gale's 1972 Kentucky Colonels went 68-16 in the regular season but lost in the first round of the playoffs. "You can be up and then in an instant you can be down," Gale noted. He later played for the 1974 New York Nets squad that Julius Erving led to an ABA title.

"Pogo" Joe Caldwell was known as a tough defensive player for many years in both the NBA and the ABA. For the past three decades he has been embroiled in a complicated dispute involving the language in his contract regarding his pension benefits. Caldwell never played another professional game after this disagreement began and his new biography titled Banned from Basketball tells his side of the story.

The Kobe Show is in Full Effect 
February 19, 2007 

The NBA All-Star Weekend is a hectic time for anyone who takes part in the festivities: players, coaches, fans, writers and broadcasters. Few people were busier this weekend than Kobe Bryant. He took second place in the Skills Competition, served as a judge in the Slam Dunk Contest and made the various public appearances that are part of the All-Star experience. He capped everything off on Sunday night with a command performance in the main event, earning All-Star Game MVP honors after producing a game-high 31 points, six assists, six steals and five rebounds. His West team cruised to a 153-132 win.

It's not like Bryant spent the earlier part of the day resting to prepare for the game, either. He was a presenter at the eighth annual Legends Brunch, held this year at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. "This is absolutely the best part of the weekend for me," NBA Commissioner David Stern said in his opening statement. The Legends Brunch honorees this year included Cheryl Miller, Bob Cousy/Tom Heinsohn, the ABA Alumni, KC Jones, Magic Johnson and Dr. Jack Ramsay/the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers championship team. Each year this event gets bigger and better, providing retired players a chance to reconnect with each other and also affording fans an opportunity to mingle with their heroes and get autographs and take pictures.

Last year, TNT's Ernie Johnson served as emcee and comedian Chris Tucker did a standup routine at the end. This year, comedian George Wallace was the emcee and he interjected his comedy throughout the brunch, ad-libbing deftly when something happened that provided an opportunity for a joke or a funny remark.

Cheryl Miller, the recipient of the Legends Humanitarian Award, was presented by Julius Erving. "She looked me straight in the eye," Erving recalled of the first time he met her, "and said, 'I'm going to be a champion in college and then I'm going to take your job.' I said, 'Are you serious?' and she said, 'Absolutely--if they let me.'" Erving pointed out that in addition to Miller's well documented on-court accomplishments that she also has "taken an active, supporting role with a number of charities."

Derek Fisher presented co-honorees Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn, who received the Legends Visionary Award. Neither Celtic legend was able to attend the brunch but both expressed their gratitude via prerecorded videos.

For too many years, the ABA has been treated like a crazy relative that has to be kept hidden from view and not discussed in polite company, so it is very fitting that the Legends Brunch recognized that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of that league. "(The ABA) featured dazzling above-the-rim players like Julius 'Dr. J' Erving, Connie Hawkins, George 'Ice' Gervin, David Thompson, George McGinnis, Moses Malone and Roger Brown," Bryant said as he introduced the five ABA superstars (Rick Barry, George Gervin, Julius Erving, Spencer Haywood and Artis Gilmore) who presented ABA 40th Anniversary tribute award to a large group of ABA alumni. It is heartening to see a current player of Bryant's stature have such an awareness of the history of the game and it is a very nice touch that he mentioned Brown, a vastly underrated player who I wrote about two years ago.

John Havlicek introduced a video tribute to his legendary coach Red Auerbach. "Red Auerbach was a great man and the godfather of the Celtics," Havlicek declared. He explained that one of Auerbach's best attributes was that he did not overcoach. Havlicek quipped that if someone gave Auerbach some chalk and a chalkboard at the start of his coaching career, those items would have still been like new when Auerbach retired from coaching. Auerbach's strength was understanding how to motivate people to continue to work hard to be successful. Havlicek added that the numerous overseas clinics that Auerbach did set the stage for the emergence of top level basketball talent around the world.

Satch Sanders introduced his teammate KC Jones, the winner of the Legends Coaching Achievement Award, by relating two stories that capture the essence of Jones' insight into how to play winning basketball. Sanders said that during their playing careers Jones once noticed that a certain player on an opposing team always put a lot of backspin on his bounce passes, slowing the ball down. Instead of taking advantage of that observation to get steals in the regular season, Jones waited until the playoffs to apply this knowledge in a practical way, stealing the ball at a critical time that shaped the outcome of a playoff series. Sanders also mentioned that Auerbach had such faith in Jones that he let Jones decide when the Celtics would employ a pressure defense and when they would pull back from it.

Magic Johnson won the Legend of the Year award and was introduced by his son Andre. Magic gave credit to several veteran ballplayers who helped and inspired him as a youngster and early in his NBA career: Terry Furlow, George Gervin, Ralph Simpson and Dave Bing. He wished that more of the current players had a greater understanding and appreciation for the sacrifices that players from earlier generations made. "It's a shame that young players don't understand that the reason they are making $15-20 million a year is the guys out here (at the Legends Brunch)," Magic said.

Dr. Jack Ramsay spoke about his 1977 Portland team that was anchored by the multi-talented Bill Walton, whose chronic injuries prevented that team from possibly becoming a dynasty. "For one season and most of another," Ramsay declared, "this team was as good as any." Several players and team officials from that 1977 championship team were on hand to receive their awards, including players Walton, Johnny Davis, Lionel Hollins and Maurice Lucas, assistant coach Jack McKinney, team physician Bob Cook and broadcaster Bill Schonely.

After the various honorees received their awards and Dave Bing led a moment of silence for the Legends who passed away in the past year, National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) president Len Elmore concluded the brunch by emphasizing the organization's renewed commitment to its slogan "We made this game." The NBRPA keeps alive the memory of the contributions of the game's pioneers and helps out any retired players who need financial and/or medical assistance. "We have set our sights on helping others and committed to helping our own," he explained.

After the Legends Brunch, I followed a circuitous route to the Thomas & Mack Center, the site of the All-Star Game. No direct shuttle service was provided from the Mandalay to Thomas & Mack, so I had to take one shuttle to the MGM Grand and then board a different one to get to the arena. Fortunately, I made it there in plenty of time--something that cannot be said of most of the East squad. LeBron James had 28 points, six rebounds and six assists and Dwight Howard contributed 20 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, but most of the East squad played as if the players had enjoyed the weekend in Las Vegas a little too much.

In the pregame media availability session, East Coach Eddie Jordan was asked about the difference between the two All-Star teams and he quipped, "I see the West being old and the East being young."

However, during the game the East looked tired and sluggish while the West played both faster and more crisply. The West set All-Star Game records for most field goals made with 69, surpassing the previous mark of 67 (2003, in a double overtime game), and most assists with 52, shattering the old record of 46 (1984, in an overtime game). "Probably the biggest thing I'm proud of," West Coach Mike D'Antoni said after the game, "is that we set the record for most assists. That's a great thing. We shared the ball and played hard."

Amare Stoudemire's strong performance represents perhaps the culmination of his comeback from microfracture surgery. He had stated before the season that he would make the All-Star team and Stoudemire not only met that goal but played very well. "A lot of people didn't think that I'd be here today," Stoudemire said. "I stayed focused with my goals and I reached them."

Carmelo Anthony played very well in his first All-Star appearance, finishing with 20 points and nine rebounds. "This was the validation of all the hard work that I put in," Anthony commented after the game.

In the end, though, it was Bryant's night and Mike D'Antoni lauded him for setting the tone for the West's win. "Kobe has a competitive edge to him that you can feel," he said. "He wasn't letting up, he said, 'Let's go guys, let's put the hammer down on them.' So you can feel that edge. And he's going to play hard all the time he's on the floor."

After the game, Bryant said that the memory that will last the longest for him from this All-Star Weekend happened outside of public view, when he and fellow Dunk Contest judges Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins interacted with each other. "We pretty much talked trash the whole time," Bryant said. "You've got guys in the same room who are extremely competitive and you start comparing records and sneaker technology and what a guy could have done if they had the technology that we have--comparing hand size and who can palm the basketball and who can do what. These are things that are fun to talk about. We had a blast doing it."

When Bryant received the MVP trophy from David Stern at center court after the game the crowd reaction was completely different from what it had been in Philadelphia in 2002 when Bryant won his first All-Star MVP and the fans booed to express their displeasure with a statement he had made about being an L.A. player and no longer a Philadelphia person.

"I just feel very blessed and very fortunate to be able to come out tonight and put on a really good show," Bryant concluded.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:32 AM



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