The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association appear poised to announce a scaled-down All-Star Weekend amid the coronavirus pandemic, but LeBron James has made it clear that he isn’t entirely on board with the plans.
“I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year,” James said. “I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game.”
James, 36, was announced Thursday as the Western Conference’s leading all-star vote-getter with more than 2.28 million, ranking second overall to Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant. James, who is seeking his 17th straight selection, led the Lakers to the 2020 championship and had less than three months off between the end of the Finals on Oct. 11 and the opening night of the 2020-21 season Dec. 22. James, who has emerged as an early MVP favorite, has yet to sit out a game this season.
The NBA announced in November that Indianapolis’s turn to host All-Star Weekend, initially scheduled for Feb. 12-14 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, would be postponed until 2024, citing “public health conditions.” When the NBA released the first half of this season’s schedule, the league indicated there would be a midseason break from March 5 to 10. In recent weeks, the NBA and NBPA opened talks to salvage an all-star event during the break that would feature a tie-in with historically Black colleges and universities and include financial donations to coronavirus-related causes.
“[It was a] short offseason for myself and my teammates, with 71 days,” James said, citing the period between the end of the Finals and opening night. “Then, coming into this season, we were told we were not having an All-Star Game, so we had a nice little break: five days from [March] 5-10 [to have] an opportunity for me to recalibrate for the second half of the season, my teammates as well, some of the guys in the league. Then they throw an All-Star Game on us like this and it breaks that all the way up. It pretty much is kind of a slap in the face.”
The pandemic has caused problems for the NBA this season, with positive tests by players and absences amid contact tracing leading to more than 20 postponed games. Yet the league’s health situation has gradually improved with tightened protocols, which were instituted last month and restricted players’ off-court contacts. Over the past two weeks, only one player has tested positive. Nationally, the rate of new cases has dropped from peak levels in early January.
Even so, the all-star plans pose significant health and logistical challenges, requiring that a minimum of 24 high-profile players fly to Atlanta shortly after the completion of the first half of the season. In addition to living with the tightened health protocols, players have had to play in more back-to-backs this season because the delayed start to the season led to a condensed 72-game schedule.
Atlanta’s selection as the host site was influenced by the fact that TNT, which broadcasts All-Star Weekend, is based there. On Jan. 26, the Hawks announced plans to host roughly 1,300 fans per game at State Farm Arena, representing 8 percent of the building’s capacity. NBPA President Chris Paul, who is longtime friends with James, has reportedly been a leading voice in the all-star plans.
“We’re also still dealing with a pandemic and we’re still dealing with everything that’s going on, and we’re going to bring the whole league into one city that’s open,” James said. “Obviously the pandemic has absolutely nothing to do with it at this point when it comes to that weekend. I’m not very happy about it, but it’s out of my hands. I’ll be there if I’m selected, but I’ll be there physically but not mentally.”
James’s support of the bubble was viewed as critical to the restart’s success, with Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley famously tweeting that, “If [James] said he hooping, we all hooping.” Now, James is the second prominent player to oppose the All-Star Game, which will primarily be a made-for-television exhibition.
“If I’m going to be brutally honest, I think it’s stupid,” Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox said Wednesday. “If we have to wear masks and do all this for a regular game, then what’s the point of bringing the All-Star Game back? But obviously, money makes the world go around.”
The All-Star Game is traditionally one of the most important dates on the NBA calendar from a television perspective. The 2020 event averaged 7.3 million viewers on TNT and TBS. By comparison, a 2019 Christmas showcase between the Lakers and Clippers averaged 8.8 million viewers on ABC and ESPN, while a 2020 Christmas game between the Lakers and Dallas Mavericks averaged 7 million. The 2020 Finals, which were held in October and had to compete with the NFL, MLB and college football, averaged 7.5 million viewers.
The NBA has held an All-Star Game every year since 1951, with the exception of the 1999 lockout-shortened season. Last year, the NBA held All-Star Weekend in Chicago a few weeks before the season was suspended March 11.