Amidst the spectacle, the heart of All-Star weekend
TOYOTA CENTER — Out of place amidst the smoke and pyrotechnics of his All-Star Game introduction, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich stood on stage taking in the moment.
Over the years, NBA All-Star weekend has evolved into a celebration of basketball that had relatively little to do with the game of basketball. The sideshow would seem to be against everything a no-nonsense personality like Popovich holds dear.
Yet there he was at his media session Saturday, enthusiastically speaking of the events with reverence while reminiscing about some of his favorite All-Star moments and the opportunity to spend it with his extended Spurs family.
“It’s always fun to have some of your players at the All-Star game with you. Tim and Tony are here to share and it’s been great fun with them,” Popovich said. “There’s always something new every year. Whether it’s someone blind-folded or glowing in the dark. I was just in the locker room looking at the shoes for some of these players. My gosh. I’m going to have to wear sunglasses for the [All-Star game].”
The ease in which Popovich carried himself during All-Star weekend was refreshing compared to the cynicism displayed in criticism of the event. At the same time, Pop’s presence kept the game itself grounded in the game itself, as evident by the advice given to his team before the game.
“From the beginning, he just said, ‘don’t treat this like an All-Star game, go out there and try and win,” said James Harden. “Because you’re still in the middle of the season, you don’t want to create bad habits.”
The Western Conference won 143-138 with perhaps the most exciting moment of the game the intense defense played on LeBron James by Kobe Bryant.
“Those guys are the best in the world and they competed and worked hard,” Popovich said. “They respected the game, they respected each other.”
No matter how much the weekend deviates from the game of basketball, there remains something pure and enjoyable about the event.
The BBVA Rising Stars game began with a familiar set the San Antonio Spurs once used to spring Richard Jefferson free for a dunk. The resulting Kawhi Leonard alley-oop might have been the only scripted play of the night and the last time coach Mike Budenholzer had any type of control.
“I think [I lost control] when we showed up at practice this morning,” Budenholzer joked after the game. “Fortunately I had done this a couple of years ago. But it’s fun to watch these guys play and make spectacular plays and passes.”
The game was rough at times, and devolved quickly, but even the stoic Leonard cracked a smile or two during the festivities.
There were broken ankles highlighted by highlighter sneakers, as Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving stepped to the forefront of the weekend. Some of the best All-Star weekends are those that a player uses to spring himself towards stardom, and Irving’s performance in Houston had the feel of such a moment.
Irving dazzled the crowd with a ball attached to a string dribble, dropping defenders and shots one night, then ripping out the hearts of Spurs and social media fans the next in the 3-Point Contest.
That very 3-point contest was, to me, the highlight of the weekend. Headed into Bonner’s performance there was the nervousness of a parent watching their awkward kid step to the plate in a big moment of a little league game.
You hope for the best and pray simply that they don’t fall on their face, and he represented himself quite well in defeat with a score of 20 in the finals.
If you’re looking for a the heart of what All-Star weekend is, look no further than Bonner. With family and friends in tow, the moment was a great honor for someone who otherwise would lack the spotlight for his craft.
“Is Matt nervous? Is the sky blue? He lives nervous,” Popovich joked early Saturday. “He’s been practicing like crazy someplace shooting I’m sure. I know for a fact. I just don’t know where. He lives for this kind of stuff and now he gets to go on TV in front of a national audience and he’s never been able to do it before.”
If Bonner’s unbridled joy and Irving’s spectacular takeover represent some of the highs of All-Star weekend, the dunk contest represents the other end of the spectrum, though I’d like to take a moment to redirect the fault.
Inflatable mascots. Kid reporters. T-shirt cannons. Nick Cannon. These are a small list of things that fired up the crowd more than a free throw line dunk performed with two hands by James White. I’m not sure when a man launching himself from such a distance and finishing easily with two hands became as uninspiring as a left-handed layup off the correct foot, but it’s obvious we’ve become a bit jaded as fans. We ask athletes to push the envelope and bring dunks we’ve never seen before, but lament the multiple and failed attempts it takes to pull off dunks whose innovations are outpacing the boundaries of athletic limits.
Jeremy Evans lost the dunk contest, but his unveiling of a self-painted portrait as a prop for a dunk was the sort of individual insight into an athlete we rarely get during the NBA season. Amidst the smoke and mirrors and music basketball can seem out of place at times during All-Star weekend. But if Popovich can stop and take in the moment, why can’t we?