Monday, February 16, 2004

Hoops with hoopla at NBA All-Star game


West 136, East 132

By Steve Wilstein
AP Sports Columnist

LOS ANGELES - Singing "Happy Birthday" to Bill Russell, celebrating his 70th at courtside, brought a sweet touch to the NBA All-Star game.

It was a day of sentimentality from coast to coast in sports Sunday, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Daytona 500 three years after his father's fatal crash at the track, and with golfer John Daly emerging from his tough and tortuous life to win his first PGA Tour title in nine years.

The NBA remembered its past with the tribute to Russell at the end of the first quarter by "American Idol" star Kelly Clarkson, though the ever-dignified old center of the Boston Celtics might well have been baffled by what he saw on the floor the rest of the time.

This was not basketball as Russell remembers it.

It was flashy and fast and pure fun for a different generation, a 136-132 victory by the West over the East in a game filled with acrobatic moves, alley-oop passes and high-flying dunks - 44 dunks in all.

It was NBA star power surrounded by show biz stars - Janet Jackson, not risking another wardrobe malfunction as she barely budged from her courtside seat; Beyonce singing and dancing sexily at halftime; Jay-Z, Heather Locklear and basketball junkie Jack Nicholson, among others, bringing their charisma to the court.

The Chicago Bulls' Bucket Boys, kids beating out wonderful drum rhythms on plastic buckets, drew some of the biggest cheers of the night.

In Russell's day, the NBA All-Star game was a relatively sedate affair with none of the made-for-TV glitz that has grown up around it. Now it's All-Star weekend, with the Rookie Challenge against the sophomores, the 3-point shooting contest, dunking contest, skills contest, celebrations for the fans and parties galore.

Has it gotten better? Maybe. It's hoops with hoopla, more exciting for sure, and no less an exhibition of basketball prowess. If it turns off old-time purists with its high-wire act of uncontested dunks, it appeals to younger fans who can't get enough jams.

When Kobe Bryant took a mere layup on a breakaway after a steal by the West team in the fourth quarter, fans booed him. They came for sizzle and pop, not basic shots.

Bryant didn't disappoint the crowd most of the night. After getting the loudest, longest ovation of all the players introduced between Oscar-style gold statues before the game, Bryant delivered his share of dunks, alley-oop passes and spinning fadeaways and scored 20 points

Playing on the Lakers' homecourt, Bryant was the fans' favorite to stand out in this All-Star game. The second favorite, Shaquille O'Neal, claimed the MVP award with his 24 points and brought roars from the crowd with his steal and full-court drive toward a thundering dunk that landed him in the second row of seats.

"I moved all the way out of the way," Jason Kidd said. "You've got to think about your family. There's not too many times you're going to take a charge on a guy that size with the ball going that fast. I don't know if he has an antilock brake system, but I was just going to get out of the way and see if we could score two points back on the other end."

O'Neal left the backboard shaking on other slams and tossed his weight around enough to let everyone know he meant business, especially as both teams went hard for the win down the stretch after three quarters of showtime.

"He's not your typical big man," Bryant said. "He can handle the basketball and do a lot of creative things on the perimeter. He had an incredible game today, running the floor, getting second-chance opportunities, taking pictures of himself. It was showtime, man."

One of best moments of the second quarter came when O'Neal goaltended a shot into the lap of Russell, sitting not far from actress Paris Hilton.

"Can you dig it?" O'Neal screamed to the crowd afterward.

They could dig it, enjoying the show, but in truth no one really claimed the fans' hearts and respect as some players have in years past. These were all terrific performers, but none has the stature of Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. The NBA hasn't yet found its icon for this decade.

---

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org




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