The NBA All-Star game in Toronto was a farewell celebration for the Black Mamba, but calling it a game might be an overstatement.
Whatever event ensued at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday was only comparable to an 11 p.m. pickup game at the rec center and the exact opposite of everything Kobe Bryant has stood for during his two decades in the NBA. The question isn’t whether or not the game was a respectable display of actual basketball, it wasn’t, but rather, should we be okay with watching a defenseless highlight reel during the actual All-Star game?
The NBA All-Star game has been a glorified pickup game for years, but a 196-173 massacre has people comparing the event to the much maligned Pro-Bowl. Many old-school basketball fans have pointed out that the all-stars used to tighten up their defense in the fourth quarter and raise the intensity. This never really happened on Sunday. While there’s no school like the old school, I think we all need to take a deeper look at the all-star game and evaluate how it can improve moving forward.
We can start by acknowledging that the all-star game always has been strictly for fun. There is nothing on the line like the MLB all-star game and it has survived this way for years. For this reason, the level of play is strictly in the hands of the NBA’s 24 brightest stars, or at least the 24 players with the best social media presence.
In a game full of highlight reel dunks and heat-check threes, the play that garnered the most attention was Bryant backing down LeBron James and setting up for his patented fade away. Kobe didn’t even make the shot, but the fans get fired up to see big name players do the things that made them big names. Players can create more of these special moments by choosing to slow down the game and go at defenders one-on-one. NBA fans just want to see some competitive edge. Nobody in NBA history has displayed a thirst for competition more than Bryant and that’s why he received the loudest cheers last weekend.
Fans that long for the good old days need to come to terms with the fact that the games are going to be higher scoring than they used to be. The athletes are simply more explosive (looking at you Russell Westbrook). On top of that, we have players like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Paul George, who have the capability to drill uncontested threes with rare consistency. Clearly the defense has disappeared from the all-star game, but even the stars of the 80’s and 90’s would not have scored 196 points with the same lackluster defense facing them. All you have to do is watch a Golden State Warriors game to know how quickly elite players can put points on the board nowadays.
The future of the all-star game is undoubtedly in the hands of the players, but the league office can also find creative ways to boost the intensity of the All-Star Game. My favorite idea is to have the two leading vote-getters draft their teams schoolyard style. Want to get a guy to play with an edge? Tell him he’s being passed up by his peers in a draft and watch him get after it. Nobody wants to get hurt, but pride is important for superstar players with egos.
Once the game begins, it’s up to the next generation of stars to set the tone and decide that this game needs respectable defense to bring it back to life. The NBA is ‘Where Amazing Happens.’ It’s also where injuries happen. Once again, we look to the man who has played in more NBA All-Star Games than anyone else on the planet for guidance. Bryant wrapped up his 18th year at the event on Sunday and it hasn’t always been a walk in the park. It was Bryant who broke his nose in the 2012 All-Star Game when he took an elbow from Dwyane Wade.
Believe it or not, Bryant survived. The Mamba actually finished the game and played in subsequent weeks with a protective mask. Bryant didn’t direct blame toward Wade or suggest a change in future competitiveness. George sent a similar message in Toronto, inadvertent or not. The 25-year-old forward broke his leg in gruesome fashion during a meaningless Team USA exhibition in August 2014. He returned to the court for the Pacers only eight months later and then dropped 41 points to lead all scorers in Toronto on Sunday. It was almost as if George was saying, “things happen; this is the worst fluke injury that could happen in a scrimmage and here I am, back on top of the game a year later.” The game would be saved and the odds of a fluke injury only barely increased if everyone on the floor boosted their effort by 50 percent.
With an entire week off for the All-Star break, a rare luxury in professional sports, players have been given the opportunity to play reasonably hard on Sunday and recover for three days afterwards. The future of basketball’s most exciting collection of talent rests in the hands of the league’s young stars. Many of those stars said Bryant was their favorite player growing up. It’s time for them to honor his legacy by always playing hard; the game needs it.
Aaron Esposito is a staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering men’s hockey. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.