The Mercy Rule

All-Star Weakened

By David Roth

For something all of them agree that No One Cares About, sport-pundit types tend to get awfully riled up by the NBA’s All-Star Weekend. Some mustard-stained grump-o local newspaper columnist will fret over a perceived uptick in crime for the host city, and national columnists will draw up whimsical plans for "saving" the game, or the weekend, or the NBA itself—which, despite record revenues and high ratings, is another thing they are certain No One Cares About. Radio guys will be odious and wrong and dead certain about some shit they obviously don't care about. ESPN's Bill Simmons should be counted on for another wide-eyed, faintly skeeve-inducing Safari Among the Urban People domestic travelogue, and fearless Fox Sports truth-teller Jason Whitlock (last seen in this space fearlessly telling jokes about Asian men's peeners) might run one of his NBA All-Star Weekend Makes Me Despair for the Future of My Race columns up the troll-pole and see who salutes. For something that so definitively doesn't matter, the NBA's All-Star Game still makes some people pretty pissy.

Of course, it's worth remembering the people we're talking about here and the khaki-bots writing the nation's sports columns are generally still capable of conveying peevishness even when powered down into energy saver mode. None of these dudes—and forgive the gendered pronouns, please, but they’re all male—put the same effort into, say, plans to "save" the Pro Bowl, the NFL's annual full-pads scrimmage between hungover and sunburnt stars. And baseball's struggles to make its own All-Star Game interesting are, as I wrote last year, primarily a result of a baffling insistence upon the game being important, instead of loose, lazy fun. Still, there’s a special kind of antipathy reserved for the NBA’s annual event.

Because fans mostly care about games that matter, and because the various sports insist on pretending that all-star games somehow do matter, and because said games by definition don't matter—and because there is so much else to watch on TV—there's a sense that these jolly, meaningless exhibitions are, to a certain extent, on the road to extinction. Imagine all-star games in general as extravagantly brand-sensitive televised events pitting dodos against dinosaurs, basically, but with Kobe Bryant running around annoying all the dodos and dinosaurs by trying too hard for a chance at a new Honda. The evolutionary clock is ticking on the all-star game as a concept, in the NBA and everywhere else. But this does not mean that it wouldn't be fun, and quite possibly awesome, depending upon the dinosaur, to hang out with one of those doomed creatures before the end comes. "The end," in this case, being the replacement of these All-Star events with Dr. Drew Presents: Celebrity Bumfights or Judge Kardashian or whatever barfo cultural fate awaits.

The NBA’s All-Star problem is, not surprisingly, none any of the stuff which Simmons or Whitlock or whoever pretend to care about. Fundamentally, the problem is that it's so hard to get to the basketball itself, which is the fun part; secondarily, the problem is the refusal to recognize that fun is the most important thing. There is so much palpable and frankly aggro brand synergy—Blake Griffin winning last year's dunk contest by jumping over a car is cool (even if Javale McGee's dunks were better), but its development into a scripted turn in Griffin and the NBA's sponsorship deal with Kia is notably less so—and such a weird insistence on showing us what rigorously family-friendly fun everyone is having, that the basketball itself shrinks.

Which is a shame, because the basketball is the only really good part. Given that all of the players in these games are stars, and given that all these players—besides the aforementioned Bryant, who is a sociopath and as such, incapable of fun that doesn't involve embarrassing someone else—are mostly there to have fun, the All-Star Game itself is usually fun to watch. The Slam Dunk and Three-Point contests—even the Skills Challenge—are similarly enjoyable, at least for people who enjoy basketball, because of how spectacularly good at basketball the people involved are.

Which, honestly, would be a fine place for the NBA to leave it, if only it could. If the league decided to let Frederick Wiseman direct next year's All-Star Game—hold a slam dunk contest in a gym without much in the way of rules or scoring, then let the 30 best players in the league run five-on-five all day with a few cameras rolling—basketball heads around the globe would sport dork-boners hard enough to cut diamonds. But there is, in that shaking-out-the-dregs way, still scads of money to be made off all this, and sponsorship agreements to honor. And so the NBA, like other sports, will wrap all the good stuff—the awesome basketball stuff, courtesy of the best players on earth—in lucrative, sponsored artificiality that no one could ever possibly care about. It's not anything to get mad about really, and it's probably not something anyone can "save," given how big-time sports get done. But it is kind of a shame.

@david_j_roth

Previously – Linfinite Narcissism

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