CHICAGO, FEB. 6 -- At some point well into Sunday afternoon, one of the 24 athletes here to play the 38th annual National Basketball Association All-Star Game will hoist a crystal trophy signifying his status as the game's most valuable player. Chances are he'll handle the occasion with a little less brashness than last year's winner, Tom Chambers of the Seattle SuperSonics.
Perhaps it was the rags-to-riches aspect that got to Chambers, who had been added to the team only because of an injury to Ralph Sampson, then responded by scoring 34 points in front of his home fans and exclaiming proudly that for that day, he was "the best basketball player in the world."
In reality, said more than one of the players and coaches on the scene, the award only proved how good Los Angeles Lakers guard Earvin (Magic) Johnson is. Johnson, who went on to win the season MVP award, finished last year's all-star game with 13 assists, many of them to Chambers.
There are any number of strong candidates for the 1988 award. One sure thing, it won't be Chambers. He was not named to the Western Conference team in the fan voting for the starting five or the coaches' selection of substitutes.
There is of course Johnson, who in seven previous games has already set the NBA mark for assists in all-star play.
There's also Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons. The flashy guard was MVP in 1984 and 1986.
For those who believe in fairy tales, Mark Aguirre of Dallas wouldn't be a bad star to which to hitch one's wishes. The Mavericks forward will be playing in his third all-star game just one day after getting married here in his home city.
And, of course, it would be no surprise if Chicago player Michael Jordan took the honor in Chicago as Seattle's Chambers did in Seattle.
Less probable to cop the day's biggest honor are the likes of Denver's Alex English or perhaps even Boston's Larry Bird. Those two, along with Brad Daugherty of Cleveland, James Donaldson of Dallas and Karl Malone of Utah, don't have the type of game that generally merits an MVP award.
"When these guys are on their own teams, everything is geared towards them; they're coming around two or three picks and everything goes their way," said Bird, who did win MVP with a last-second shot in the 1982 game.
"This is a different type of game. It's run and gun with no time to prepare and no time to get to know your teammates. Plus, playing time is so limited."
The things that make Bird and English in particular so effective in the regular season are negated to a large degree in these games. When the Celtics forward makes an entry pass to Kevin McHale in the low post, he knows to float out to the three-point line for a possible return pass. After so many years of playing together, he and Robert Parish could negotiate a pick-and-roll play blindfolded.
That won't happen Sunday, when the first pass made could be the only pass made. Bird, who has averaged 24 points per game with 50 percent shooting in both the regular season and the playoffs over his eight NBA seasons, has averaged just 15 points and 44 percent from the field in all-star games.
The dropoff in his play doesn't bother Bird, who pocketed his third consecutive check for winning today's three-point shootout.
"I don't mind it. I enjoy being here, but it's not my type of game," he said. "I never look to have one of my best games here."
There seldom is a set play run in all-star games, and in that sense it resembles the helter-skelter offense of the Denver Nuggets. In his team's passing, cut-and-move game, English has excelled for more than seven seasons, never scoring less than 24 points a game over a complete season with the Nuggets. In six all-star games, though, English has a total of 47 points.
"Last year I don't think I played enough to get into the flow of things," said English, who played only 13 minutes, missed all six shots he took and was the only player who failed to score in the Western Conference's 154-149 overtime victory. "When you're coaching an all-star team, I think you have a tendency to forget how long someone has been out of the game."
English will be a starter in this season's game, a factor he hopes will lead to increased playing time from West Coach Pat Riley. He added that he thinks his play will derive a boost from the fact that Nuggets teammate Lafayette Lever is also on the starting all-star team.
That could be true, but only if Lever is willing to pass to him. Critics -- or perhaps merely jealous onlookers -- have said the only reason Thomas has won two awards is that he wouldn't give up the ball during the closing minutes of games, setting himself up as the hero.
"That's the thing," said Boston forward McHale. "Some of those guards act like they've got blinders on."
Bird added that in that sense, all-star play is a lot like playing for the Celtics, a not-so-subtle jab at long-shooting teammate Danny Ainge, who will be making his first all-star appearance. Other first-time all-stars are Daugherty, Lever, Donaldson, Xavier McDaniel of Seattle and Glenn (Doc) Rivers of Atlanta.
Former Georgetown star Patrick Ewing made the East team in his rookie season with the New York Knicks three years ago but sat out with a knee injury, so this will be his first time playing.
The Eastern Conference team will be coached by Atlanta's Mike Fratello. The Hawks' coaching staff earned the honor by finishing the first half of the season with the East's best record, just ahead of the Celtics. It will be the first time in the last five seasons that Boston's K.C. Jones has not led the Eastern team.