Hustle and Flow

About this time last year, the city of Houston was abuzz with the celebrity-fueled spectacle known to some as NBA All-Star Weekend and to others as the Black Super Bowl.

Amid the hoops-related festivities, there were plenty of VIP barbecues, swollen rap concerts, and over-priced parties to entertain the masses. One club even advertised an evening with R. Kelly and Mike Tyson, which was much too pricey and weird for my tastes. This season, the All-Star extravaganza makes its debut in Las Vegas, the first city without an NBA franchise to host the event. For a league that values image above all, the decision to hold their signature event in the gambling capital of America seems like, well, a gamble.

NBA Commissioner David Stern addressed the issue last season in Houston. “We certainly thought that `the 2007 All-Star Game` was a way to demonstrate that our current position vis-a-vis Las Vegas is in no way rooted in that ancient notion that somehow gambling is bad,” Stern told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “Our position on basketball gambling is for the most part, NBA fans don’t get glued to their sets to watch a bunch of games that they put a bet down on.”

Stern may be correct in his assertion that gambling is not bad, but anytime you mix wagering and professional athletes, things get ugly. Icons Pete Rose and Wayne Gretzky have gone through messy ordeals because of gambling and the NBA only averted a full-blown Michael Jordan betting scandal in the ’90s because everyone, including the media, was in love with Mike.

Jordan, now divorced, will no doubt be in attendance at the Vegas All-Star Weekend, as he was last year in Houston, and paired with old chum Charles Barkley will probably lose more money in three days than most will see in a lifetime. The open manner in which Barkley, the TV personality, has recently discussed his gambling, including the outrageous amounts he has lost and plans to lose, without getting checked by most of his peers, is positively surreal.

For the second year in a row, Spurs captain Tony Parker will join Tim Duncan in the league’s mid-season classic, and deservedly so. Parker will also represent San Antonio on All-Star Saturday Night in the NBA Shooting Stars competition where again he will be paired with broadcaster Steve Kerr and Kendra Wecker of the Silver Stars. The trio took first-place honors last year on a nice half-court shot by Parker. Anyone who remembers the surgical precision of Kerr’s three-point bombs in the 2003 playoffs might wonder if Parker can convince Kerr to come back for one more post-season run against the Mavs.

Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki is slated to defend his Three-Point Shootout title; Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash will star in the Skills Challenge; and five-foot-nine New York Knicks guard Nate Robinson will battle big men Gerald Green, Dwight Howard, and Tyrus Thomas in the Slam Dunk Competition.

The dunk contest, once the crown jewel of the All-Star Weekend, is in need of a serious overhaul. Thomas, a rookie for the Bulls and the franchise’s first player to participate since Scottie Pippen in 1990, was recently fined $10,000 by his own team for stating his honest opinion on participating in Vegas, which Chicago brass felt belittled the event.

“I’m just going to go out there, get my check and call it a day,” Thomas admitted to the Chicago Tribune. “I’m just into the free money. That’s it. I’ll just do whatever when I get out there.”

Although Thomas later recanted his statements, his attitude reflects the low level of prestige that accompanies an event once known for the high-stakes, gravity-defying exploits of Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. If the league is serious about turning this dunk competition around, they need to pull LeBron, Kobe, and Wade out of the Skills Challenge and insert them into the fold. Does anyone really want to see these guys executing crisp bounce passes when they could be soaring over the paint?

Given the level of negative elements often associated with Sin City, the Slam Dunk Competition is one of the last things the NBA is concerned about. There is already a general resentment from casual NBA fans directed at the league’s young millionaires and their after-hours activities.

Next year’s game is scheduled to take place in New Orleans and there are currently thoughts of returning the game to Vegas in the immediate future. Staging the overtly urban-themed festivities in the city of vices may ultimately prove detrimental to everyone involved. This is, after all, the city that killed Tupac.