— Like always, you can blame it on a sportswriter.
In this case, his name was Arch Ward. He was the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune years ago, and a rather powerful and influential man in his time. In 1933, he cooked up the idea of a baseball all-star contest, to be played in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair.
Ward intended it to be a one-time event, but the public loved it, so it kept going. The following year, in 1934, Ward helped stage an all-star football game as well.
This weekend, one of the mutant spawns of Ward’s creation will take place in Orlando, when the 2012 NBA All-Star Game is played. The league didn’t hold its inaugural season until 1946, and didn’t create its first all-star event until 1951. But Ward’s fingerprints are still all over this weekend’s festivities. And given the current state of all-star games, he might have been wise to wipe them clean when he had the chance.
It was only a few short weeks ago that Aaron Rodgers blasted some of the participants in the NFL’s Pro Bowl for apathy, which led to a Roger Goodell introspective moment in which he declared that the event would be reassessed, and if it couldn’t be improved, it might become extinct.
Certainly these current incarnations in the major sports leagues have grown into weekend extravaganzas with offshoot attractions that serve as television programming. But does anyone really care?
When you ask that question, you have to start with the players, because all All-Star mojo emanates from them. Clearly, many of the guys who take part in the Pro Bowl would rather be in a hammock than a huddle. Their egos demand they be chosen for it. They just want their involvement to end there.
On a certain level, you can feel the ennui among NBA players as well. They want to be named to the squads. They’d just sooner stay home with their families and friends and enjoy a few days off. I believe that is especially true for older veterans: They become more obsessed with remaining relevant and among the elite as their skills dwindle, so they desperately want to be selected; but they’re more in need of, and desirous of, the respite.
When you have those dynamics present, the game itself can’t help but be a bore.
At the core of the issue is the fact that All-Star Games have no meaning. They’re just dolled-up exhibitions. Major League Baseball has tried to give its Midsummer Classic some juice by bestowing home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league in the All-Star Game. But most aficionados balk at the contrived attempt at thrills. Clubs fight all through a 162-game regular season to amass a great record, yet it means zilch when it comes time to decide home field in the Fall Classic? That’s preposterous.
The NBA All-Star Game has nothing whatsoever at stake. In years past, it has generated some enthusiasm through the flash and competitive nature of its players. Both seem to be in short supply nowadays.
There have been some good games, providing a modicum of entertainment value. Yet you have to focus on the reason why people watch sports at all to accurately evaluate any All-Star contest:
Fans tune in to any sports event because they don’t know what is going to happen. They seek and desire drama. The essence of drama is conflict. But there’s very little conflict in a meaningless exercise, and therefore no resulting drama. There’s even less conflict and drama when you consider that players such as Chris Paul from the West and Dwight Howard from the East are close pals, that many of the players on both squads are friends, that many share the same agents and often work together on outside business opportunities.
It isn’t exactly what you would call cutthroat. More like kiss cheek.
The game also has taken a back seat to the weekend. It’s not just an assembling of the NBA’s premier players, but also a meeting place for hangers-on, agents, would-be entrepreneurs, memorabilia collectors, and, of course, ladies who would like to meet professional athletes. All of that is perfectly fine, but that atmosphere has succeeded in turning the actual game into an afterthought.
There are also the preliminaries, such as the Rising Stars game, the Slam Dunk, the Three-Point Contest, etc. It all works as filler, but again, no detectable trace of drama. Blake Griffin was so thrilled by capturing the crown in last year’s Slam Dunk that he decided not to even participate this year. And the three-point contest peaked when Larry Bird announced to the rest of the contestants that they were all playing for second place, because he was going to win it. That was in the ‘80s.
Like most things in life, you can get to the bottom of this issue by following the money. Professional athletes today make so much of it that they see little incentive in All-Star participation. Aside from the occasional newcomer, most of the All Stars are well-established individuals who have career and business momentum. They don’t need to generate more by playing in a game in which the outcome means nothing.
Certainly they have professional pride. Absolutely they enjoy the camaraderie, and the feeling that they are among the best. But that doesn’t go very far in an All-Star Game, and it doesn’t replace the organic excitement that emerges from a real game with something at stake.
The NBA All-Star Game is worth watching, and so are other All-Star Games. Just remember that if by doing so you’re able to catch up on all that sleep you’ve been missing, you can thank a sportswriter.