CHICAGO -- From a fan's perspective there's nothing in professional sports that's quite as much fun, as accessible or as perfectly aimed at the true core of fandom as the NBA's All-Star Weekend. Forgetting for the moment the game itself -- the best of the professional all-star games -- the NBA also throws in an old-timers exhibition, a long-range shooting contest and a slam-dunk competition. A basketball fan gets the whole vicarious package, all the things he identifies with: nostalgia, learned skill, improvisational theatrics.
Baseball, football and hockey should get with the program. Baseball's all-star game is a haughty show now. It moves so fitfully, as if everyone's posing for portraits. They could liven it up with home run derbies and king of the hill fastball contests. Football is obviously disdainful of its fans; the Pro Bowl is a stiff game played a zillion time zones away. What the NFL ought to do is set up a tire on a swing and see which quarterback really is the most accurate, and throw in sprints for wide receivers and defensive backs to name the league's fastest man. Hockey could satisfy its fans with a penalty-shot competition and a steel-cage free for all, eh?
Right now the NBA has them all beat. It's "The Superstars" without the bowling and rowing. On Saturday, every exhibition worked. The NBA Legends game went into OT -- the word "old-timers" is used advisedly since seven of the players in the game were younger than 40-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who's still playing in the main game. Rick Barry, Doug Collins and Dave Bing demonstrated they can still shoot. Clifford Ray showed he can still dunk. And with his tipin to win it Dave Cowens reminded folks that while Moses Malone may have perfected offensive rebounding, he didn't invent it. (Not everyone, however, looked mah-velous. Oscar Robertson appeared to have spent the last 20 years chained to a refrigerator, and whatever Oscar didn't eat, it seems Gail Goodrich did.)
Next came the Suburban Garage Hoop Stop 'n Pop Shoot Around, won again by the incomparable Larry Bird, who didn't even bother woofing at his competition this year as he had in the past. "I didn't have to," Bird explained. "They knew who was going to win." Each contestant gets 60 seconds to shoot 25 shots from five stations around the perimeter of the three-point line. This one rewards the most elemental act of basketball, shooting. And unlike the more esoteric dunk contest where the judging is subjective, and victory may depend on how much Martina Navratilova or Gale Sayers appreciates the intricacies of a 360 Switch-Hands Gangster Jam, the shooting competition is objective: you hit, you win.
Among the early exits were Trent Tucker, Mark Price, Craig Hodges and Bird's Boston teammate, Danny Ainge, the league's top three-point scorer. Bird had predicted Ainge wouldn't beat him with cash on the line. "If Danny'd won this thing, he wouldn't have stopped talking about it for years, but I knew he'd choke," teased Bird. "I feel sort of sorry for him, considering he's been practicing for three months."
Talk about psyching out your opponents, Bird was so confident of victory he shot with his warmup jersey on. In the semis he machine-gunned Detlef Schrempf, but in the finals against Dale Ellis, Bird made only five of his first 15 shots, and needed eight of his last 10 to win -- 80 percent from 25 feet. On his final shot from the left base line Bird raised his index finger high into the air before the ball even started coming down. "Nobody ever beats Larry for money," Magic Johnson observed in admiration. And indeed, when someone asked Bird to explain his motivation, he picked up the winner's check for $12,500 and said, "Right here."
The NBA saved the most creative, imaginative and improvisational event for last, the Send My Regards To Jimmy The Greek Big Thighs Funk-a-Dunk-a-Doo. Everyone in Chicago was waiting for a Michael Jordan-Dominique Wilkins showdown, and they got it. Both Nique and The Air Man scored 50 on their initial fly-by. In the second pass, Nique threw down a tomahawk so hard you could hear the rim vibrate in Ecuador for 50 more. Home boy Jordan came back with a Nique move: legs spread, scissors-kick, high-low ball action, tongue-wagging reverse. But it only drew 47, putting Nique in position to close out the contest.
Not to worry. This is Chicago, where the election returns aren't final until the ballots in the cemetery are counted. Oh sure, dead men vote here. Some are probably still voting for Mayor Daley. Nique came back with a power dunk, much like his others, though from a different side. Nique's style is like Andrew Lloyd Webber's: It's a great song, so I'll keep giving it to them. This one only drew 45. Nique was outraged. "Give me a break!" he pleaded. But Jordan now had a hook to hang on. He stepped deliberately to the foul line, measuring its distance from the hoop. Everyone knew what this meant and chirped up a frenzy. The Air Man was going to do a Runway Dunk, start at the opposite end line, dribble to the foul line and rise, like the sainted Doctor J used to do in the ABA. "I needed to do something spectacular," Jordan admitted.
Bad news: He missed, clanging it off the back rim.
Good news: You're allowed one do-over per round.
"I was nervous," Jordan said. "I didn't know what to do. I was searching the crowd to find something. Then I spotted the man who got it all started, The Doc, and he told me to go back to the foul line and do it again."
Seated about five rows up at midcourt, Julius Erving did indeed advise Jordan. "He needed some coaching," the Doc confirmed. "I told him to go back there, and this time to make it."
Grinning madly, his tongue, as usual, dangling out the side of his mouth, Jordan did it again, this time with crushing perfection. Taking off from outside the foul line, flying like a bullet to the basket, Jordan kept his left hand tucked behind his back and held the ball in his right hand like a cantaloupe, punching it cleanly through the hoop: 50. If Jordan had taken off from any farther out, he'd have needed landing lights.
Say goodnight, Nique.
See you all again on Sunday.