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Friday, February 12, 2010

Dreary Weather Does Not Put a Damper on the Start of All-Star Weekend in Dallas

Global warming has definitely not reached Dallas, Texas. Those of us who left the Eastern and/or Midwestern regions of the country to cover All-Star Weekend found a disturbingly familiar sight upon arrival in the Lone Star State: snow falling from the sky, snow piled up on the ground, slick roads/sidewalks and minimal visibility on many roadways. I am not big on reading/watching weather reports, so I did not receive my first warning of trouble until I boarded my connecting flight from Atlanta to Dallas; my seatmate had been stranded in Atlanta because his American Airlines flight never arrived from the East but he was fortunate enough to be provided a seat on this Delta plane. He contacted his family to let them know about the delays and he found out that Dallas already was blanketed by several inches of snow, with more on the way. Ground transportation from the airport might be a problem, he warned me as we sat in a huge "traffic jam" waiting for takeoff (four planes were ahead of us and at least that many were behind us). I naively asked why the Dallas authorities would not have the roads plowed by the time we arrived but he replied that Dallas is completely unprepared for this type of weather.

The strange thing about air travel these days--besides the fact that a tube of toothpaste may be confiscated as a potential weapon of mass destruction--is that the airlines are so desperate to avoid having flights classified as late that they rig the schedules to allow far more than the necessary time to reach a given destination; thus, my Atlanta flight took off a half hour late but still arrived five minutes "early"! Between the wacky scheduling, the time zone change and the bizarre sight of a snow storm in Dallas it truly felt like I had ventured through some warp in the space-time continuum.

I read somewhere that the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport is bigger than the city of Manhattan, so I had this nightmare vision of wandering around for two hours before being able to leave the premises but fortunately my plane landed at a gate right next to the exit for ground transportation; I walked out the door and immediately encountered a limo driver. I asked him the going rate to ride to my hotel and he offered to take me in his limo while only charging the normal rate for a cab (I knew that the number he cited for cab fare is reasonable because I researched it prior to making this trip). As we walked to his car I asked him how unusual it is for Dallas to get this much snow and he thought for a moment before saying that he believes that it has been close to 20 years since Dallas last had a winter storm like this. He pulled out of the airport and despite driving at a very reasonable speed we slid gently into a curb--the streets in Dallas are extremely slick; he got out of the car to inspect the damage and promptly slipped and fell. I was about to get out to check on him when he stood up and came back in to the car; the car was undamaged but he had suffered a bruise between his pinkie and ring fingers when his hand got caught on the front bumper as he braced his fall. Visibility was extremely poor during the 20-25 minute drive to the hotel but we arrived safely without any further incidents.

After checking in, I hailed a cab for the short trip to American Airlines Arena to pick up my credential; the credential facility is a nondescript trailer that you could easily miss if you did not know exactly where to look for it but I managed to find it without too much trouble. Unfortunately, the NBA does not provide shuttle bus transportation to All-Star venues until Friday, so media members who arrive earlier are left to their devices; last year in Phoenix that was hardly a problem: the weather was great and the credential facility was located right across the street from Jam Session. However, in Dallas none of the venues are within walking distance of each other, so I stood in the trailer with credential in hand but no readily apparent way to get to Jam Session (which is located this year at the Dallas Convention Center)--but then I overheard another media member asking about Commissioner David Stern's upcoming appearance at the opening ceremony for All-Star Weekend, so I mentioned to him that this would take place at Jam Session at 4 p.m. and I asked him if he was heading that way. He immediately told me that he would be glad to drive me there.

It turns out that my Good Samaritan is Cedric Bailey, a Dallas-based editor, reporter and radio personality. Only when we arrived at Jam Session did I realize that Bailey had not actually been heading in that direction; he went out of his way to help me because he said that if he had just arrived in a strange city he hopes that someone would provide a similar kindness for him. Bailey is a man of deep faith and it is clear that he felt that there was a reason I encountered him precisely at that moment in the credential trailer. Bailey gave me a copy of La Vida News--the Black Voice (he is the paper's sports editor) and I look forward to seeing him again during All-Star Weekend.

Despite the delays and the snow, I actually arrived at Jam Session about an hour before it opened to the public--but with my media credential I was able to go inside and give myself an unguided tour. As I have mentioned in several previous All-Star Weekend reports, Jam Session is a perfect and economical way for you to really get the flavor of All-Star Weekend if you are in town but unable to get tickets for the "main" events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Jam Session includes over 40 different exhibits, stores and/or activities, plus many food and beverage options--Taco Bell even provides free food at regular intervals.

The All-Star Weekend Opening Ceremony featuring Commissioner David Stern started about 10 minutes late--presumably because of the inclement weather. Commissioner Stern declared "North Texas is the capital of the basketball world" for this weekend and that Jam Session is the "nerve center" of that capital. Perhaps those words sound like hyperbole but they are nevertheless true: All-Star Weekend does in fact bring together the legends, the current NBA stars, the WNBA players and the future stars and it is possible for fans to interact with players from each of those categories by visiting Jam Session's various games, autograph sessions and player exhibitions.

The Panini Company recently bought out venerable card manufacturer Donruss and now owns a license to produce NBA trading cards. In the past few years, trading cards have lost a lot of the youth market due to escalating prices, market saturation and the appeal of other hobbies like video games and Yu-G-Oh!. So Panini has countered this trend with a savvy strategy, lowering the price to $1 per pack for the new Adrenalyn NBA cards (available at the NBA Store, located right in front of the main Jam Session entrance); the cards can simply be collected like any other trading cards but they can also be used to play the new Adrenalyn game, either face to face or online. Even better, if you visit Jam Session you can spin a Wheel of Fortune-style wheel free of charge, after which you receive a pack of cards plus one special Panini card embossed with the All-Star 2010 logo (the card you receive depends on where the wheel's pointer lands). The Panini folks also supply a free game board, plus the opportunity to practice playing the Adrenalyn game. The creator of the game explained to me that the simple board version of the game is geared toward kids aged roughly six to 11 but that the online version can be played in a more complex fashion that should appeal to fans of fantasy sports; also, if you play online you can accumulate points and Panini is running a contest so that the person who gets the most points will have an opportunity to meet Kobe Bryant face to face and play the game against him! Bryant is the official endorser of the Adrenalyn cards and he is scheduled to make an appearance at Panini's Jam Session station on Saturday. I had this conversation before finding out that Bryant will not play in this year's All-Star Game due to his sprained ankle, so I am not sure if that will change Bryant's plans regarding Jam Session; as you likely have already heard, Bryant will be replaced on the West All-Star roster by Jason Kidd, while Allen Iverson--who will miss All-Star Weekend due to an illness in his family--will be replaced on the East All-Star roster by David Lee.

I proceeded straight from the Panini station to Center Court to watch the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Classic; this is the fourth straight All-Star Weekend that I have covered the NWBA All-Star Game--for me it is a can't miss event (here are the links to my coverage of the game in 2007, 2008 and 2009). I really enjoy watching the game and trying to give my readers some sense of the flavor of the event. This year, 22 players participated, selected by the NWBA coaches and divided into two teams of 11 players each. The game lasted 40 minutes (two 20 minute halves with a running clock). The West team took a quick 6-2 lead after David Gonzales of the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks went coast to coast for a layup but David Kiley of the Charlotte Rollin Bearcats nailed two straight midrange shots to put the East up 26-25--and he just missed hitting three in a row, as his third shot looked true before bouncing in and out. The teams battled to a 31-31 halftime tie as Kiley led the East with eight points while Gonzales scored 13 for the West. The East relentlessly pounded the ball inside early in the second half, with Curtis Lease of the Chicago Wheelchair Bulls and Willie Hernandez of the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks each scoring on nice drives to the hoop (Dallas had seven All-Stars, four who played for the West and three who played for the East). After Lease pump faked and made a shot off of the glass from just inside the free throw line the East led 45-37 and seemed to be in control--but then the West ramped up their defensive pressure, forced several turnovers and repeatedly scored on quick drives off of nifty feeds by Jason Nelms of the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks. The West regained the lead with a few minutes left and held on for a 61-53 win. Rodney Hawkins earned MVP honors for the West on the strength of a fantastic all-around box score line--13 points, nine rebounds, four assists and seven steals--while Kiley's early sharpshooting and his deft playmaking throughout the game (five assists) were rewarded with recognition as MVP for the East. Gonzales finished with a game-high 23 points, while Kiley and Jeremy Day (Orlando Magic Wheels) led the East with eight points each. Nelms had a game-high six assists.

The Legends Shootout followed the NWBA All-Star Game. Detlef Schrempf attempted to defend his 2009 Shootout title but even though he looks to be in excellent condition he finished last with just two points (the players had 45 seconds to shoot three pointers from three racks of four balls each--two on the baseline and one at the top of the key--with the last "money" ball counting as two points instead of one). A.C. Green scored six points and Mitch Richmond tied Bruce Bowen with seven points, necessitating a tiebreaker round under the same rules. Richmond went first and appeared to be fully warmed up, having a Run TMC flashback while blistering the nets for 12 points (out of a possible 15); Bowen slumped to just three points, unable to consistently nail his trademark baseline treys. The four players ribbed each other good-naturedly throughout the event and then concluded the proceedings by autographing t-shirts and throwing them into the stands, providing some nice souvenirs to the enthusiastic and grateful fans.

After pausing to get a bite to eat, I spent the rest of the evening exploring as much of Jam Session as I could. Windows has a cool exhibit of the new Windows 7.0 program, a free copy of which they raffled off every hour on the hour. Next to the Windows exhibit is "NASA Launch Pad," where you can see scale models of various famous NASA spaceships--including the Space Shuttle and one of the Apollo rockets--and watch interactive videos about the history of man's exploration of the Moon. You can also touch a 14 gram fragment of an 8000-plus gram Moon rock that astronauts brought back to Earth decades ago; the Moon rock has been carbon-dated to be more than 3.7 billion years old, older than virtually anything on Earth! The rock probably arrived on the Moon via a collision with an asteroid or other celestial body. The NASA folks also have some nice free handouts, including a 3D viewfinder about "the amazing future in space" and a pair of holographic information cards. One card lists the many ways that NASA technology has led to the invention of consumer products that we take for granted, including home security systems, flat screen TVs, scratch-resistant glasses and cordless power tools; the other card notes how NASA technology has impacted the sports world by improving everything from stadium materials to shock-absorbing athletic shoes to tennis rackets to pool purification.

If you have appropriate gear with you and are not afraid of being embarrassed then you can test your skills versus the "ballers" at the adidas Court; "the ballers"--several players with college and/or low level professional experience--play three on three to five points (by ones) versus all comers. Be warned that if your trio beats the "ballers" then the "ballers" automatically get a rematch to prove that your win was not a fluke. Taking on opponents ranging from little kids--against whom the "ballers" charitably extended the length of the games by dribbling around as opposed to just scoring instantly--to some pretty solid players in their late teens/early 20s, the "ballers" unofficially compiled a record of 30-2 on Thursday and have yet to be defeated twice by the same team. The "baller" called "Maurice" is my favorite: he has very quick hands and tremendous dribbling skills.

The inclement weather likely prevented many ticket holders from making it to Jam Session on Thursday, so the NBA will be opening Jam Session two hours early (2 p.m.) on Friday; fans who bought a Thursday ticket with a 4 p.m. entry time will be permitted to enter Jam Session at 2 p.m. on Friday, while fans who have Thursday tickets with an entry time of 5 p.m. or later will be permitted to enter Jam Session at the corresponding time on Friday.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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