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All-Star Format Change: Pit U.S. vs. the World

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008; Page E01

We're five days from the NBA All-Star Game and I'm not feeling the love. I'm not sensing that people, even real pro basketball fans, are dying to see it. Oh, they're down for the All-Star Weekend parties, for hanging out in the French Quarter, for craziness up and down Bourbon Street, for supper at Emeril's. But the game itself? It's, shall we say, a little stale. As a matter of fact the least exciting thing about All-Star Weekend is the All-Star Game.

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So, free of consultation charge, I'm about to fix All-Star Sunday.

Actually, I'll offer up a choice. First, scrapping the East vs. West format is a must. It's tired and unimaginative and doesn't promote any real competition. The whole thing has been reduced to how fancy a pass can you throw to that guy, and how many degrees can he turn before dunking. Been there, seen it for 20 years. Nobody's going to do it better than Jordan, 'Nique and Kobe have done it, so why keep at it?

What I want to see is the best players in the world go at each other, to play not for show but for pride.

U.S. vs. the World. That's the ticket. As recently as 10 years ago this wouldn't have fascinated anybody because there were just a handful of international players and the game would have been a U.S. walkover.

But not now. Just like the basketball world championship and the Summer Olympics, the outcome would be in doubt. Just use this season as an example. Team USA would have Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Chris Paul and Baron Davis in the back court. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, David West, Antawn Jamison, Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Caron Butler and Amare Stoudemire would play forward. Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard (in the absence of the injured Kevin Garnett) would be the centers.

That sounds pretty formidable, right?

Well, check out the World team, which would start a front line of 7-foot-6 Yao Ming of China, 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki of Germany and 7-foot Pau Gasol of Spain. The starting back court would be Canada's Steve Nash, still the best playmaker in the world, and Argentina's Manu Ginobili, who has already beaten the rest of the world to win an Olympic gold medal.

That means Frenchman Tony Parker and his three NBA championship rings would have to come off the bench and share time with the league's top sixth man, Brazil's Leandro Barbosa. You wouldn't want to see Iverson vs. Barbosa in the international speed-demon matchup of all time?

The reserve forwards on the international team would be Serbia's Peja Stojakovic, Turkey's Hedo Turkoglu, Argentina's Andres Nocioni, France's Boris Diaw and Russia's Andrei Kirilenko. The Raptors have a number of international players who would qualify, including Spain's Jos¿ Calder¿n and Italy's Andrea Bargnani. Lithuania's Zydrunas Ilgauskas would back up Yao. There might not even be room on the World team for accomplished players such as Sudan's Luol Deng and Brazil's Nen¿ (who are both sidelined), Australia's Andrew Bogut, France's Ronny Turiaf, Latvia's Andris Biedrins, Argentina's Luis Scola, Turkey's Mehmet Okur and one of the trailblazing internationals, Congo's Dikembe Mutombo.

Best of all, it would be a game . . . a real, live, seriously contested, pride-on-the-line basketball game, with defense, elbows and trash talk . . . for real. I dare anybody to tell me there wouldn't be. If the NBA was about to stage this game, there would have been talk about it constantly for the last two weeks. We see teams admit they've grown stale and spice it up, as the Lakers and Suns just did; why not the league?

I realize not everybody wants to dismantle the traditional East vs. West format. As excited as I get just thinking about U.S. vs. the World, the three people I talk to most about pro basketball -- Kornheiser (who despite this "Monday Night Football" stuff still knows and cares more about hoops than he'll ever know and care about football), my dear friend Neville and my brother Don -- all tell me they love the free flow and improvisation of the all-star game the way it's always been, that there's something familiar and comfortable about seeing it played in its traditional format, the way it was played when Wilt faced Russell, when Magic faced Bird.

While my position is that that's the kind of sentiment that has continually eroded interest (specifically viewership) in the all-star game, I know it's a sentiment probably shared throughout the halls of the NBA offices in New York. And there's also probably a fear that the U.S. vs. the World format would step on FIBA's toes and take something away from the already staged international competitions.

Not to worry, I have a Plan B. The fans would vote for a total of 30 all-stars, and the two biggest vote-getters would pick their own teams. Garnett, the No. 1 vote-getter, would get the first pick.

James, the No. 2 vote-getter, would get the second pick . . . And back and forth they'd go, like on the playground. So if KG picked a guy to get him the ball, say Nash, Kobe might pick a big man, say Howard.

Think about the buzz that would create, about the alliance and what we'd find out about what players really think about the other all-stars and who they really valued? Once again, it would be two weeks of buzz preceding the game. Players would get to do something all of them want to do: act as general managers. Again, once you pick a team, pride would be at stake . . . not like the international matchup, but more than there is now when it's just an exhibition that looks like a pregame shoot-around more than it does a game.

What the NBA did when it put All-Star Weekend into place was breathe life into the festivities, giving fans more than just the game. If neither the international game nor the stars picking their own teams don't work, simply go back to East vs. West. So what if you had U.S. vs. the World six times and got tired of it. It's an exhibition, not the NBA Finals. The bet here is that the traditional game, the one we'll see Sunday night in New Orleans, might be put on the shelf for quite a long time.


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