The NBA also was still growing. It was only a few years removed from having its championship series televised on tape delay, and players felt a sense of responsibility to help make the game more popular. They would also benefit in the form of increased salaries, but there was a partnership with the league to try to make the game more popular.
The game is now in good shape. An appearance by James in the Slam Dunk Contest would be enthusiastically received, but in this day and age, the truth is it’s not good business for him.
The Slam Dunk Contest is always the first thing critics slam, but that criticism has become tired and predictable. It grew to such intensity in the 1990s that one year, the NBA closed the night with the Three-Point Shootout and had the Dunk Contest scheduled before it. The arena was dead for the last event and so the order was reversed the following year.
At the 1998 All-Star Week in New York, the league actually canceled the Slam Dunk Contest. The criticism had been so intense the previous year – oddly, even while contest was won by a frisky 19-year-old named Kobe Bryant – that it was not held.
Again, however, the decision proved to be a bad one. The night was so lifeless that league executives said damn the criticism. We’ll take it but we’re going to give the fans what they want. And you can be sure that every fan who has a ticket for an All-Star event is looking forward to the weekend, even if James and other megastars will not compete in Saturday events.
Not so with the media. The league has spent the last 20 years or so filling the week with numerous events, meetings and conferences. The schedule is crazy. Consider All-Star Saturday next week in Houston. Here’s what a small part of the day looks like:
• Noon – East-West practices and player interviews
• 3 p.m. – D-League All-Star Game
• 7 p.m. – Commissioner news conference
• 8:30 p.m. – Shooting Stars, Skills Challenge, Three-Point Shootout, Slam Dunk Contest
If you’re a fan with a hot dog and couple of beers, great. If you are a working journalist, it’s a nightmare. And besides the events, it’s only a few days until the trading deadline and almost every general manager in the league will be in Houston. So doing your job and keeping up with everything is not only difficult but also puts you in a very bad mood.
The league has decided, however, that All-Star Week is like cable TV. Give the public 500 channels and let them choose. If fans don’t want to go to one event, someone else will. And you can be sure most of the events will be sold out.
In fact, one of the most boring events in basketball history took place in 2010. It was held at Cowboys Stadium and was like all All-Star Games. The anticipation of seeing the greatest players on the court together quickly fades when fans realize they have no vested interest in the game. It’s not like you’re rooting for the home team. There are significant stretches of All-Star Games when there is no noise in the arena.
Yet, 108,000 fans came to that game.
The criticism of the weekend is commonplace, and some of it is deserved. The media has never enjoyed the role of WNBA players in the Shooting Stars contest. Yes, we know. Women aren’t as athletic or as gifted as men. But why get all flustered over their participation? If you don’t like to watch, change the channel.
The Skills Challenge is like watching a drill, but that’s missing a point. It’s always fun to see who is the most competitive player. Imagine Jordan in that contest. He would have been maniacal.
The Three-Point Shootout and Slam Dunk Contest are staples and embraced by the public, if not by critics. Personally, I find them more often entertaining than not.
Adam Sandler has proven that pleasing the critics has little to do with financial success. Ridicule if you must, but Sandler and the NBA will embrace those box office receipts and TV money and take them to the bank.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub. For Hubbard’s archive from SheridanHoops.com, click here.