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Friday, February 13, 2009

Jam Session Grand Opening, Wheelchair All-Star Game Highlight First Day of All-Star Weekend

This is my fifth time covering NBA All-Star Weekend; it is hard to believe how quickly the time has flown since my first All-Star Weekend in Denver kicking it with the ABA veterans. I learned pretty quickly that it is impossible to see and do everything, which means that each year I strike a delicate balance between making sure that I cover certain events that have become "can't miss" occasions from my perspective while also being open to the new and different flavor that each host city provides.

The obvious "can't miss" events are the All-Star Game itself and the All-Star Saturday Night festivities but there are plenty of other activities that make the All-Star Weekend so special. I have often said that for anyone who can make it to the All-Star host city but is unable to score tickets for Saturday or Sunday night the NBA Jam Session presents a great alternative destination with plenty of features that the whole family can enjoy, ranging from pop-a-shot to clinics hosted by NBA and WNBA stars to autograph sessions to exhibits about the sport's history to a kids zone and much more.

Phoenix has hosted All-Star Weekend twice before but NBA Jam Session is the first major event held in the city's brand new, huge Convention Center downtown--and that is where Commissioner David Stern and a host of dignitaries formally kicked off the 2009 All-Star Weekend with a brief ceremony at the adidas Court. Commissioner Stern said, "Phoenix has been a great All-Star host" in 1975 and 1995 and he noted that "5000 fans signed up to be volunteers" for All-Star Weekend, the most for any host site. "We are looking forward to our greatest All-Star Weekend ever," he concluded. "This is what NBA basketball is all about and it doesn't show up any better than in Phoenix."

Suns' owner Robert Sarver said that Jam Session is his kids' favorite event and that they will spend most of the weekend participating in various activities there. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon enthusiastically declared, "We are so excited--this is our downtown coming out party."

Shortly after the opening ceremony ended, the Jam Session Center Court--which will be the site of Saturday's All-Star practice and media availability--hosted the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) All-Star Game. I first covered this event in 2007 and then in 2008 I had the great opportunity to interview Susan Katz and some of the players, conversations which greatly deepened my understanding of the nuances of the sport.

This year, the West jumped out to a 10-0 lead, enjoyed a 38-15 halftime advantage and cruised to a 66-40 win. Points in the paint were a decisive factor, as the West repeatedly set up close range shots with deft passing or dribble penetration. One cool sequence featured a give and go between Chuck Gill and Juan Soto, with Gill making a short shot in the paint to make the score 36-15 West. Gill scored a game-high 21 points and won the West MVP, while David Radbel scored 11 points and was honored as the East's MVP. Trooper Johnson, who was one of the players I interviewed last year, scored eight points for the West.

Ryan Hundemer coached the West, while Bret Remington coached the East. Former NBA All-Star A.C. Green and former WNBA player Bridget Pettis served as honorary coaches for the East, while Hall of Famer Rick Barry and current WNBA player Adrian Williams-Strong were the West's honorary coaches. After the game, I asked Barry how he became involved in the NWBA All-Star Game and he replied, "(NBA Vice President) Charles Rosenzweig, who deals with all of the retired players, asked me if I would be willing to do it and I said 'Certainly.' I've been involved with wheelchair tennis and basketball a number of times and I am always willing to help out. I really admire what these guys do. They are really amazing. It's fun to watch them play."

I also spoke with Dick Bryant, NWBA commissioner and a former player who was inducted into the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Fame in 2008. He has won a total of five championships: one as a player (in 1978) when the sport consisted of one 16 team division, two more titles as a player/coach (1996, 1998) in the second division after the sport had been split into three divisions and then another pair of championships (1999 and 2000) as a coach in the third division. Bryant told me that he has been the NWBA Commissioner for six years: "I started (participating in wheelchair basketball) when I was 20 years old, so this is my 39th year as a player or administrator." I asked him if he still plays now but he said, "No, I'm totally retired." He informed me that the NWBA was founded by war veterans, has existed since 1949 and now comprises over 220 teams in the United States; those teams are split into five divisions--two men's divisions, a women's division, a juniors division and a college division that has about a dozen men's teams and four women's teams.

I asked Bryant if there is a difference in the adjustment process to the sport between someone who has always been wheelchair bound and someone who becomes wheelchair bound later in life. He answered, "No, I think it's still the same. It still requires training and practice. I think probably that the (only) advantage would be how athletic a person is, which would stand true for an able bodied person as well. There is nothing special that you are going to do whether you have been wheelchair bound or you are newly wheelchair bound; you have to get in the chair, practice and learn the game."

Bryant emphasized that wheelchair players, like able bodied ones, must learn "the basic skills of basketball: You have to be able to dribble the ball, you have to be able to catch the ball, you have to be able to shoot the ball. Then, the chair skills are the next thing: learning to handle the chair, pushing the chair as fast as you can, being able to stop the chair, being able to use your left and right hand--those kinds of things."

After the NWBA All-Star Game was over, there was an awards ceremony on the court for the winning team and the two MVPs. Several players got autographs from Barry and/or got their pictures taken with him.

Then, everyone in the stands received a real treat when the Harlem Globetrotters--featuring the legendary Curly Neal--performed their famous "Magic Circle" routine at midcourt. After they finished, Neal did a quick circuit around the court, fist bumping as many people as he could touch (I was one of the fortunate ones, thanks to my courtside seat at the media table). Then, the Globetrotters brought several kids from the audience on to the court and each Globetrotter taught one kid a specific "Magic Circle" move. After each kid had learned his new move, the kids formed a "magic circle" of their own. Fun stuff.

Then, George Gervin returned to defend his crown in the "Legends Shootout," facing the same field as last year (Detlef Schrempf, David Thompson and Jo Jo White). There was a slight format change this year: the legends each shot one rack of balls from the baseline, but a fan shot the rack of balls from the top of the key. Suffice it to say that none of the fans assigned to each player materially affected the outcome of the event. Gervin and Schrempf again met in the Finals and this time Schrempf won.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:37 AM

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