The worldwide leader, a.k.a. the mother-ship (according to former CNN & ESPN sports anchor, current radio head Dan Patrick) has decided this will be the weekend of Michael Jordan's 50th anniversary of his arrival in a nursery ward. The NBA, NBA TV and Turner Sports -- the owners of the 2013 NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston, Texas are programming otherwise, touting anniversary specials, yes, with MJ, but also with his longtime rival and sidekick Charles Barkley, he of TNT Sports. They'll also do a special salute to the only living player to ever walk a court who is better and was more impactful than Sir Rare Air, that being the great Bill Russell.
Well, the Digital Sports Desk thinks otherwise. Our programming will be different with all due respect to Russell, Jordan and Sir Chuck, my favorite player of all-time.
The 2013 NBA All-Star Weekend is a rather quick return to the land of the Johnson Space Center after performances in 1989 at the ancient but once modern-day wonder AstroDome and a 2006 soiree at the downtown Houston building block known as the Toyota Center. But for some reason, we're back in the land of "we have a problem" with a storyline that most NBA fans no longer appreciate. The fact of the matter is that this weekend is NBA Commissioner David Stern's last NBA All-Star Game where he will sit in the driver's seat in the same manner that astronaut Neil Armstrong sat in the commander's seat of Apollo 11. It is Stern who will say, "Let the games begin," and he will push the Blast-off button and the curtain will go up on an NBA extravaganza that has no equal.
When Stern took over the NBA during the 1984 NBA All-Star Weekend in Denver, the very first seeds for "event greatness" were in place. Much because of the legacy of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game and its iconic Slam-Dunk Contest which featured the likes of Artis Gilmore and Darnell Hillman but is long remembered because of the Rocky Mountain High duel between Julius "Dr. J" Erving and David Thompson, the powers that were in place with the Denver Nuggets' front office, namely Carl Scheer, pushed the NBA league office hard to stage "another" Slam Dunk. Stern and his fledgling NBA were beginning to spread some wings in terms of national sponsorship sales and the chess pieces were played. Miller High Life held some marketing rights, Schick (razors) took on the "Old-Timer's Game" and American Airlines signed up while ESPN only agreed to televise the ancillary event after a hard arm-twist, albeit on tape delay. CBS Sports took a complete pass in favor of another Boom Boom Mancini Saturday afternoon bout on CBS Sports Saturday/Sunday but after the fact, the George Washington of courtside reporters, Pat O'Brien and his "At the Half" crew took to the edit rooms to bring the highlights to a nation thirsty for rim-rocking.
The Stern legacy began at McNichols Arena where former Celtics great and Miller LITE hawker Tommy Heisohn tugged at the "tight" short of the late Johnny Red Kerr and the term old-timer became "Legend" right in front of a nation that had long forgotten Joe DiMaggio and preferred their roundball dunked rather than spit upon. Dr. J took it from there but the script writers tore up their work. There were new sheriffs in town and their names were Orlando Woolridge, Darnell Griffith, Edgar Jones and Larry Nance, the latter the lone wolf who went eye-to-eye with the rim and defeated the great Dr. J much to the delight of an audience standing on its feet, witnessing pro basketball history.
I was lucky, as I had a front row seat and was pretty much the notary public to the new will and testament being inked on NBA courts nationwide.
The '84 NBA draft had delivered Hall of Famers like Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and the booming age of NCAA basketball was delivering a host of supporting actors, like Alvin Robertson, Otis Thorpe, Sam Bowie, Kevin Willis, Michael Cage and Sam Perkins, much to the wonderment of NBA coaches everywhere. The talent level was rising and then along came the 1985 NBA Draft and with it, superstars for every port.
Patrick Ewing went to New York and the Knickerbockers were instantly revived but the second-coming continued and Chris Mullin was dispatched to SF/Oakland to rejuvenate the Warriors, Karl Malone fit in with Stockton and the Utah Jazz would be a contender for a decade to come, Joe Dumars joined up with Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons were blessed. The depth chart in Chicago grew deeper as the Bulls maneuvered to land Charles Oakley and the NBA chess pieces were in place from coast-to-coast.
All the while, Stern was working his magic with cable TV deals far before anyone saw their value, with satellite tv delivery for international broadcasters far-and-wide, with a slew of sponsorship sales and their partnership business models that made TV industry execs stand-up and take notice. The NBA had placed its league on a solid foundation, born of a "new fangled" salary cap style collective bargaining agreement and back-up with the very first comprehensive anti-drug agreement in modern-day work-force history. NBA players, like the player's association president Bob Lanier, were saying "test us" and may the younger generation get the message that "if you're going to be an NBA player, you better say "No" to drugs. The league's two-person "entertainment" division went into overdrive and the Public Service Announcements of "Don't Foul Out" became as powerful as the highlight spots claiming, "NBA Action ... It's Fan-tastic!"
The juggernaut lifted off.
Stern was at the helm and along came a world of basketball fanatics, many of them media members who just "loved the game" and helped bring a legion of baby-boomers along with a "hip, cool, you want (and are very welcome) to be a part of this" attitude that was our mantra. And that aspect of Stern's leadership was the secret sauce that the Teaneck-born, Chelsea-bred Commish learned to whip-up at his father's deli in New York City.
(Part Two of this series will tell the story of the ultimate "behind the scenes" man in basketball, Stern's cohort Russ Granik).