They gave the NBA All-Star Game's most valuable player award to Charles Barkley late Sunday afternoon, but David Stern, the league commissioner who handed over the trophy, probably should have kept it for himself for masterfully marketing a mostly meaningless basketball game.
Almost every time I hit the remote this weekend, an NBA-related program popped into view, starting with an early morning Friday appearance by Stern and Clyde Drexler on "Today" promoting the league's "Stay in School Jam" on Saturday afternoon, broadcast simultaneously by NBC, TNT and Nickelodeon. Host Bryant Gumbel struck one of the few negative chords of the NBA's showcase weekend by properly pointing out the irony of a "don't drop out" message from a league that thrives on the performance of many players who left college early. Still, Stern ducked that issue nicely and never lost his poise, or his Cheshire grin.
And why shouldn't he smile? Later Friday night, there was a live, one-hour All-Star Game special on TNT. On Saturday, NBC shamelessly promoted the game through most of its afternoon sports programming. Click. Same afternoon, there was Michael Jordan being interviewed from Charlotte on CNN, in between Gulf War updates and military briefings from Saudi Arabia. Click. There's Walt Frazier playing host on a show about future NBA legends. Click. There's Spud Webb soaring to the hoop and dunking . . . a box of Mini Chips Ahoy (honest). Click. Back to three hours on TNT Saturday night for an old-timer's game, the slam-dunk and three-point shot contests. Click. If you missed those thrilling competitions there was tape at 11:30 p.m. on ESPN, not to mention every local affiliate in America.
The game was almost an anticlimax, what with an hour pregame show that included Pat Riley -- moussed to the max -- and breathless Bob Costas, who also filled in with his usual style and substance on play-by-play for Marv Albert, whose mother had died earlier in the week.
The NBA is on NBC after a long run at CBS, and judging from the network's performance Sunday, several improvements -- including fixing technical glitches that blanked out my screen several times -- ought to be made before the real season, the playoffs, begins in late April.
Riley, the former Lakers coach, is still a sartorial splendor to behold, but he's also too stiff. At one point in the pregame show he made a lame joke about scalping his game tickets. In most states, including North Carolina, that's against the law, and no laughing matter. Maybe you had to be there.
Color man Mike Fratello is the latest product from the Vanity of the Bonfires School of Broadcasting, a deese and dose New Yawk or Joisey kinda guy like Al McGuire and the two Vs, Dick Vitale and Jim Valvano. (Riley's a New Yorker too. Schenectady. Enough said.) Unlike that spirited group, however, Fratello's performance Sunday was rather flat and, in one sense, a bit disingenuous. He kept raving about the improved play this season of Atlanta Hawks all-star Dominique Wilkins under first-year coach Bob Weiss, but he never did explain why the previous coach -- Mike Fratello -- was unable to elicit that kind of performance.
NBC also would be wise to either ditch the concept of the man in the stands or at least ditch the men themselves -- in this case Steve Jones and Ahmad Rashad, neither of whom asked a particularly penetrating question or made a cogent comment in the 4 1/2 hours I tuned in. And just when you needed someone, anyone, to ask Karl Malone about his boneheaded offensive interference of Kevin Johnson's potential game-winning shot, poof, they disappeared.
Peter Vecsey, the formerly acerbic New York Post columnist now somewhat sanitized at USA Today, is one of NBC's "Insiders" along with former Washington Bullets general manager Bob Ferry. Their lukewarm news flashes Sunday included Chuck Daly being considered the leading candidate to coach the U.S. Olympic team and Ricky Pierce of the Milwaukee Bucks unhappy with his contract, both old stories. Vecsey (yet another New Yorker) tends to dominate these sessions and Ferry should assert himself more often. Better material might help too.
The game had a fabulous finish, despite 47 minutes of mostly sloppy play that included Michael Jordan's 10 turnovers, more air balls than you'd see in a week of lunchtime hoops at the downtown Y, and an embarrassing miss of a one-on-none Dominique Dunk. Said Fratello, "Maybe those legs are getting a little older."
Which is as nice a segue as you could possibly imagine for the other big story on television this weekend, the end of the line for Sugar Ray Leonard Saturday night on Showtime against Terry Norris. It was the Sugar Man's first appearance on the cable network and in Madison Square Garden, something we heard a jillion times during the fight from bland blow-by-blow announcer Bruce Beck, who does a lot of work for the Garden and who was filling in for another Albert brother, Steve.
Analyst Ferdie Pacheco, "the fight doctor," boldly diagnosed what ailed Leonard and never let up. In Round 8, he said it all: "What you're looking at is an old fighter with no legs and no reflexes."
Even Leonard had an inkling of what was to come. Showtime allowed him to interview himself in the prefight puffery with a bit of technical hocus-pocus that elicited the following Sugar Ray answer to the Sugar Ray question of whether "this fight will be a gauge for you."
"If I can't do what I want to do," Leonard said to himself, "it'll be an indication . . . it will be time to move in another avenue. . . . If I can't dominate him, then I will consider other careers."