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Correction to This Article
A Feb. 22 Sports column said that five members of the 2005 National Basketball Association all-star team went straight from high school to the NBA. There were actually seven: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James, Jermaine O'Neal and Rashard Lewis.
Mike Wise

NBA's Issues Are Coming of Age

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page D02

DENVER

By the time the NBA's annual exercise in excess ended -- when the backboards stopped shaking and the world's greatest athletes were finished bonding with their friends in the music and entertainment world -- the league was still very much at the crossroads.

Labor woes threaten next season. David Stern is still worried about day-care centers masquerading as locker rooms.


Heat big man Shaquille O'Neal found time for small talk during the NBA All-Star Game. (Lucy Nicholson -- Reuters)

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And, in real-world upheaval, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are still on the outs.

Herewith, then, the most pressing, post all-star questions for the second half of the season:

Will the NBA mirror the NHL and self-destruct over labor strife?

No chance. At worst, training camp will start late. But neither Commissioner Stern nor Billy Hunter, executive director of the players' union, will play chicken with another NBA season. Killing a $3 billion cash cow is not in either party's interest, no matter how much they posture. Look for a new collective bargaining agreement before the playoffs begin in April. "We both realize too much is at stake," Seattle's Ray Allen said. "I can't say what's going on in the negotiations, but I just don't see us going down the same road as before. We've seen where hockey went, and I don't think any of us wants to go there."

Does the acquisition of Alonzo Mourning put Miami over the top in the East?

Ben Wallace thinks so. "For him to come in there and play as well as we know he can play, you got your hands full," said the Pistons' center, adding that the Heat now has to be the favorite. Of course, Big Ben has ulterior motives, painting Detroit as Larry Brown's Little Team That Could. Frankly, if 'Zo can effectively spell O'Neal for 15 minutes and his ego does not get in the way of his health, the Heat will defeat the Pistons in the conference finals. Besides, the NBA does not want Pistons-Spurs. Stylistically, it's a tough sell. Shaq's new team vs. Tim Duncan is a huge ratings grab.

There were no white American-born players in the All-Star Game. Does the league need a few good homegrown, white dudes to thrive?

Maybe in rural, rural, rural America. Ever since Larry Bird last summer said, "I think the NBA lacks white superstars," this has become an issue that says a lot about our race obsession. Who cares if the top white, American-born NBA scorer is Wally Szczerbiak at No. 40? Do they gauge players' race and ethnicity like this in Slovenia? Hunter, who often interjects race into conversation when he feels it's the elephant in the room, was fairly candid about the matter in an interview late last year. He agreed with Bird on some level and said the issue had more to do with economics than race.

"It makes good business sense," Hunter said. "I don't think it's racist for white folk to want to see white ballplayers do well and be exceptional. Just like when I get off by going to a hockey game and seeing some black dude on the ice. I can't believe it, man. I'm like, 'Where did he come from? This cat can skate. He's got all these Rasta braids.' It takes it to another level to see myself reflected in another player."

Was any player or product overexposed during All-Star Weekend?

O'Neal's personally designed, size-22 shoe phone, which the Big Cellular hyped shamelessly for three days. In the first half of the game, Shaq began chatting from the bench -- strictly for marketing purposes. He had an associate place the gargantuan shoe phone in the ear of P. Diddy, Chris Tucker and Nelly (the renowned rapper, not Dallas's haggard soon-to-be ex-coach). This phone job was more brazen than the NBA putting New Orleans' poor Chris Andersen in the dunk contest, where he was hopelessly outclassed.

Will David Stern finally get his long-coveted age restriction?

This is a prickly issue, but the guess here is that the union will eventually buckle. Hunter wants no part of curbing his teenage membership's ability to earn a living. He pointed out that seven of the all-stars were under 25. The problem? Many of Hunter's 400-plus members are privately starting to fear for veterans' jobs as locker rooms become increasingly younger.

Five of the league's 24 all-stars went straight from high school to the NBA. But Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James are clearly the exception. How do you keep a phenom out if he is physically ready to play at that level? It seems downright unconstitutional, given the children making money in tennis and figure skating. But it says here the union will cave on this issue in the last days of bargaining. They will dangle the age restriction like they dangled drug testing six years ago. And after securing some economic concessions -- and understanding the legal challenges from talented teens that lay ahead -- the union will ultimately agree that every NBA draftee will have to be at least 20. But that's just a hunch.

Is the hype surrounding King James another case of too much too soon?

Not when the subject is LeBron James. From Michael Jordan to Bird and Magic Johnson, too many of the game's legends have already said the 20-year-old all-star will be one of the greatest players of all time. To offset some of its young knuckleheads, the NBA needs James to succeed. But let's restrict the conversation to hoops and please hold off on the maturity issue for at least five years. Remember, Kobe was celebrated for his ability to handle it all at a young age, too.

Will Shaq and Kobe ever trade recipes or is their relationship as irretrievably damaged as Brad and Jen's?

Kobe wants to be on the other end of that shoe phone. He needs that shoe phone. But Shaq won't call. He is too stubborn and proud and blames Kobe for his unhappy ending in Los Angeles. The rift eats at Kobe, because Shaq likes and accepts almost everyone in the game. So what does that say about Kobe? Some day, maybe they'll realize how good they were together, that they're both only a size-22 sneaker-phone call apart.


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