What does it take to be an NBA all-star? Surely it involves something a bit more complex than the method used by Bill Laimbeer of Detroit.
For the last two seasons, the Pistons' center has been a last-minute addition to the game, substituting in Denver a year ago for an injured Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Sunday, before 38,000 here at the Hoosier Dome, Laimbeer will replace the Washington Bullets' Jeff Ruland (sore shoulder) on the Eastern Conference roster. The East hopes to win its sixth consecutive game in this, the 35th year of the midseason game (1:30 p.m., WDVM-TV-9).
Of course, it wasn't just dumb luck that put Laimbeer in a position to replace Malone and Ruland. Last season, he scored 13 points and got five rebounds to help the East to a 154-145 overtime victory. Two years ago in Los Angeles, Laimbeer even came to the game through the front door, selected to the team by the conference coaches.
It seems relatively easy for a coach to plug in a Laimbeer for a Ruland; or a Buck Williams, who isn't here, for a Terry Cummings, who is. Yet, being one of the finest players in the entire world isn't sufficient to make you one of the select 24 or even 50 athletes worthy of playing in this game.
What separates these stars from the rest in a 276-player league isn't something that's easily determined.
"There's a bit of luck involved," says Boston's Dennis Johnson. "You not only have to be with the right team but in the right position within that group."
"It's a lot of little things," adds Larry Nance of the Phoenix Suns. "Bunches of guys score the same amount of points, but a blocked shot or a slam dunk can make a coach remember you when it's time to pick the team."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers and Bernard King of the New York Knicks felt that the main consideration was being on a winning team because of the increased attention and recognition that comes from being in the spotlight. Although that may help to account for the inexplicable absence of forward Purvis Short of the Golden State Warriors, it does little to justify the inclusion of players like Norm Nixon of the L.A. Clippers (20-30) or Adrian Dantley of the Utah Jazz (23-37).
Or of King for that matter. Averaging 30.9 points a game, the forward's individual brillance has shown through the muck that has characterized the 18-33 New Yorkers. That King is present here despite his team's flaws strikes closer to the true makeup of an all-star.
As Dallas guard Rolando Blackman, making his first appearance in the game, puts it, "Reggie Jackson talked about being the straw that stirred the drink. All these guys are the mix masters."
"It's really not that different from the dynamics that go on among each individual team," says King. "Why is one guy starting and another the 12th man? He's generally more talented, more versatile and has more specific skills than the others on the team."
According to Laimbeer, the main attribute of an all-star is consistency. "There are guys who will score 30 points one night and two in the game after that; they're all-pros and then nonexistent," he said. "The guys here do it every night, night in and night out, and when they're expected to."
When that happens, your place as an all-star is almost assumed, no matter what the circumstances. King, for example, has missed 16 of New York's games this year. Ruland was selected during a stretch when he was absent for 12 of 13 games. What mattered in both cases was that when they were on the court, there never was any question of what each would provide for his team.
Ruland, in just his fourth year in the league, attained that all-star status quickly. Players like Dominique Wilkins of Atlanta and Orlando Woolridge of Chicago hope to attain that level soon. Both men had merited playing in Sunday's game rather than just participating in Saturday afternoon's Slam-Dunk Contest, but in the eyes of the NBA coaches and especially in those of the voting public, they haven't been good enough long enough to be a selection.
Julius Erving and George Gervin are automatic choices. Erving, 35, is enjoying a fine season but is increasingly being used as a role player by Coach Billy Cunningham. Gervin, 34, also is slowing down, to the point where it took a recent scoring binge to bring his average comfortably over the 20-point mark and convince skeptics that his skills hadn't eroded entirely.
Says Nance, "The fans will always have their favorites for whatever reasons. Dr. J could be having a sorry year 10 years from now and he'd still be starting."
Some would say, So what? Perhaps they're right, given what it took for an Erving or a Gervin to reach their present positions. Dave Wohl, an assistant with the Lakers, is of that persuasion.
"It's not just talent," he said. "These guys have, over the course of season after season, displayed the mental tenacity and been able to maintain it -- that places them above the other players in the league."
"It's almost a vicious cycle. Once you show that you can do it, attain and maintain excellence, it's always on your shoulders. You can't have an offnight, coaches expect you to be great, fans expect you to be great, it never stops.
"What the true all-star player does is learn to do what it takes to stay at that level, to minimize mistakes and the like. Then he's an all-star instead of one of those players who seems to always be labeled as 'potentially great.' "