Tonight’s the 40th iteration of the NBA All-Star Saturday Night events since it became a regularly scheduled event. Launched originally as a way to add some teeth to what turned out to be the last-ever ABA All-Star game, when the actual game featured the first place (and homestanding) Denver Nuggets edging a team comprised of representatives from the six other remaining league teams, about as anti-climactic a showcase as ever had been staged. Julius Erving showcased his talents for a national broadcast TV audience as a New York Net, foreshadowing his eventual stardom with the 76ers by winning the first-ever Slam Dunk, and the Nuggets’ David Thompson reminded viewers who had thrilled to his exploits at North Carolina State he was very much ready for prime time.
After a one-year trial the following January, with the second slam-dunk contest won by another now ex-ABA player, Darnell Hillman, and with the three-point basket not yet approved for the league, the event took a seven-year hiatus. Its return in 1984 coincided with the first-ever NBA All-Star game in Denver, and its combination of the unique stunt dunks and the three-point shooting contest against the clock were excitingm unique and added some excitement to what had become an otherwise stale event. A West-East showdown with nondescript uniforms was old school, and the David Stern and Michael Jordan eras were about to begin in full force. It ultimately provided a showcase event for cable partners, and expanded the game to a full weekend with multiple sellouts and coverage.
But in recent years, the All-Star Saturday events have become, IMO, more than a bit stale. Many more recognizable players opt out, leaving the headlines to otherwise obscure personalities. The favorite for this year’s three-point event is none other than Mac McClung, a 76ers backup who has spent a substantial amount of this season with the G-League Delaware Blue Claws. And because of the degree of missing in the original :30 format, the players now get 70 seconds to hurl attempts up, with few having a level of accuracy seen in past years.
And as far as the Slam Dunk competition goes, after so many years of iconic and unique stunt shots, the event continues to resemble the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon SHOW BIZ BUGS, where the Oscar-winning rabbit and Daffy Duck attempt to one-up each other. I’m sure you remember the finale as well as I do, if you’re of a certain vintage:
In a final attempt to impress the audience while Bugs is Juggling, Daffy in a red Devil’s costume performs a deadly stunt (which he refers as “an act that no other performer has dared to execute!”), by drinking a portion of gasoline, some nitroglycerin, a good amount of gunpowder, and some Uranium-238, “shake well”, and swallowing a lit match (“Girls, you better hold onto your boyfriends!”), causing him to explode. The audience applauds the act, an impressed Bugs says they want more, but Daffy (now a transparent ghost) replies that he “can only do it once”.
Over time, my enthusiasm has gone the way of Daffy…up in smoke.
Thankfully, the actual game is beginning to make headway. A revamped scoring structure, meant to combat what otherwise became a defenseless race to 200 points for a team (that, in back-to-back-years, the West came with four and eight points of reaching in 2016 and 2017), now has the teams playing three consecutive 12-minute mini-games with a $100,000 charity award for the winner of each quarter, with the three-quarter cumulative setting a baseline for the amount of points needed to win the game. In an untimed (save for the shot clock) fourth quarter, the winning team needs to score 24 points before its opponent scores 24 plus the deficit at the end of three quarters. For all intents and purposes, it guarantees a “walk-off” basket, and tends to diminish the lackluster play that allowed teams to get out to large leads in the early going.
And this year, the game will also feature the equivalent of playground “choose up sides”, with team captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokoummpo picking their teammates from the combined pool of chosen starters and alternates. The event was heretofore played out as part of a live TNT selection show in the week prior, and proved to be so virally popular that it was determined that the process would be held live on game night.
If it sounds a little bit like the process of how Michael Jordan chose his teammates in Space Jam, you would be somewhat accurate. That game actually featured Bugs and Daffy working together this time, along with a few of their peers, and with the (ahem) help of Jordan and a timely return by Bill Murray, they became heroes and saved themselves, and the NBA’s best player, from a doomsday scenario on Moon Mountain.
So I’m rooting for the game itself to be even more popular than ever, with room for more innovation down the road as well. With hologram and AI technology, who knows if the Looney Tunes and the Nerducks might yet get a halftime show? I’ll be watching tomorrow night’s game, for sure, and anything other than the All-Star Saturday Night events going forward. I feel pretty good about the chances nothing will get blow up in the actual game.