10 years ago this writer holding a microphone as nervous as if he was about to get his Bill Murray on in ‘Lost In Translation’ and perform karaoke for the first time in Tokyo, but with no Scarlett Johansson, palm sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy…moms spaghetti (and on the surface he does NOT look calm and ready) is taking part in his first press conference…let alone his first NBA one. All for a major magazine for his first writing job, just a mere month after he wrote his first ever article for what we the British call, “a laugh”. No Buzz, no blog. And who was my first question too?
No other but the commissioner…Mr. David Stern.
But as Stern as you could call him, the pre-Silver commish was the most warm and gregarious you could imagine. That’s when I got a little wind under my wings like I was wearing Air Jordan’s for this NBA London postgame Chicago Bulls vs Utah Jazz presser. I had a few questions for then Chi-town coach Vinny Del Negro. I don’t think I had the balls to ask Coach Sloan anything. But apparently I had enough confidence to tell the then Jazz leader Deron Williams that his team could test my Lakers…he didn’t agree (there’s the spirit D-Will). And then in walked the man of the hour. The whole reason this game was here and at the very least taking off on these shores. Sudan born but British raised Luol Deng. He too was kind enough to give me a quote worthy answer to my question. Then as he left past the cameras and tape recorders I reached out my hand and he shook it back.
Thank you for that Luol, and for everything you’ve done for British basketball…and also for being part of my beloved purple and gold Lakers for a season or two (or more as fate would have it). Although most fans who can’t look past that massive contract fail to see that the most underrated superstar of this era was worth every penny when healthy…no Lake Show aficionado talks smack about the Steve Nash cash.
Now as this writer a decade later pens this in a Japanese residence aiming to have his own contract to remain here throughout the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, a week after taking in the cities NBA Japan Games featuring the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors, I look back to that Chicago Bulls London game of 2009 and the 2012 Olympics that came in London a few years later and everything you’ve done for the sport in my homeland and host nation. Knowing that from Brixton to Sudan you truly are a global ambassador like Dikembe Mutombo and like that mountain of a man will be at many a London exhibition for the National Basketball Association post career, no finger wag. No one-apart from former Orlando Magic big John Amaechi who truly changed the game from an equality perspective in the locker room-has done more for this game in the British Isles.
But this article isn’t about the U.K. Or even NBA Africa. Although that, just like your incredible and inspired charity work is worthy of its own book…let alone article. This is about the untouchable city of Chicago, from De Niro to Capone. The Windy City and the changing season you brought in with a gust and the Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson team of the new millennium and hope…that in the legendary United Centre seems as lost as the elevated train town that surrounds it, albeit still so classic. As American as apple pie…or Michael Jordan.
As you walk past his Statue of Liberty to this city iconic statue outside in the unmistakable windy granite look of this area, cemented in the nostalgia of the golden era 90’s like a Pippen bronze bust once you and your pulled tight coat get inside out the cold, you know what it’s about. Post Jordan and Baby Bulls era you were the team to compete, bring it all back. And although Rose was the next 23 in line star to grow from concrete you were the dependable all-star from the start and a ten years of your own. You’ll go down as one of the best Bulls ever. Like the 1 and only Rose, your number nine will be shot up there in the rafters with all the twenty and thirty-three’s and all the banners bar injuries you could have put up there.
Two All-Star selections an All Defensive Second Team selection and the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for starters that’s why. But the Duke grad who also logged some time with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat (after Pat Riley called him one of the most important acquisitions after he came in for the post King era in South Beach) was much more than a number, even if his will end up with the air up there when it is all said and done…which it is. Because after playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves last year after his Hollywood divorce, Deng is calling it a career. But he isn’t retiring Minny with the Wolves oh no. And there won’t be one last dance of a season sadly for those practicing their steps.
But still he is galloping out this association as a Bull. After signing a one-day contract with the team he entered the league with as an all rookie, seventh draft pick, Luol will retire and leave the league with the same team. It’s a grand gesture and nice move from the Bulls (even though it leaves talented player Perrion Callandret cut (bring him back)), as Deng’s 15 year career-with the lion share being with these cubs-comes full circle in Chicago like this town’s Loop subway system.
As Chicago as Common, Deng is back where he belongs if only for a night as the seasons of change and cities weather brings him back to where it all began for a fitting end blowing in the wind.
Chicago, All-Star 2020 blows in the Windy City for Kobe
Like Eliot Ness, that’s what Common’s city of Chicago is when it comes to this court. All greatest of all-time thanks to the statue outside the United Center that they have to bring in from the cold when ice gets in it’s cracks like the veins of new Minnesota Timberwolves cold front player, D’Angelo Russell (he should be here. These lost Lakers are just glad Brandon Ingram is). Forming a duo with Karl-Anthony Towns as dynamic as that one of Star Marbury and the uncut gem of Chi-towns own Kevin Garnett heading for the Hall.
And just like the Big Ticket, the Rose that grew from concrete and the way of Wade who was moved to tears, the rapper slash actor, author and Microsoft poet Common (who fittingly won MVP of the Celebrity Game in his city. Even after Kenny ‘The Jet’ Smith said “c’mon Common you can’t even dunk donuts in coffee” after giving Dwight Howard’s athletically graceful, camera flash freeze, cheese smile, spin dunk an 8 (Kobe?)) put on for his city like Barack Obama and of course the statue of the G.O.A.T. M.J. with a poetic rap that waxed lyrical on hoops history and it’s nuanced nostalgia.
Shouting out the real King MLK and Kobe before Magic made a moving speech, all players behind him dressed in warm-up white and Jennifer Huston brought the not a dry eye in the arena, house down with her tribute that beat the hardwood like the commercial Dr. Dre one for this California love in Chicago, like the National Anthem of treasure Chaka Khan in a 23 jersey.
Common also had rhymes for each player introduction for all those who would take to the floor dribbling across the Chicago skyline, as he rocked the mic like fellow Chicagoland legend Chance The Rapper halftime and injured All-Star Dame Lillard, who still got to play this weekend as Dame D.O.L.L.A. The first player to perform on this stage of Basketball’s Grammy’s, bringing out ‘Tha Carter’ himself Lil’ Wayne and a Mamba Forever leather that we all want to cop for this year’s Winter jacket.
From saying “Sixteen-time all-star, three-time NBA champion/ We continue to witness his reign / One of the greatest to play the game/ From the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James”, to “A four-time all-star / He handles the rock like Gibraltar / From the Boston Celtics / Give it up for Kemba Walker”.
But hey, I’ve got one for you all, “like the Beard and the Brow he runs the show/so where the f### is Alex Caruso”.
But to the beat of his own raps and his milk carton brother Kanye, even if every event was set off by the “GO” vocal of guitar hero John Mayer on his Common collaboration with ‘Jesus Is King’ walking God, Mr. West (from the bam, bam Bam Adebayo BAM Skills Challenge bucket win. To the Buddy Hield buzzer beating on the last ball of the last rack, Devin booking, beating and winning the Three-Point Shootout (still one of the best and most underrated events of the weekend)), this night of all the All-Stars was all about the one who should have been in the crowd cheering with his daughter courtside.
From Superman, Dwight Howard returning and bringing back the red cape out of the phone booth, with 24 on the chest, to Man Of Steel and former Lex Luthor like enemy Shaq filming on that old camcorder again. In one of the best but most controversial dunk contests that saw an all 50 and 7-foot-5 Tacko leaping Aaron Gordon robbed again like when he cleared the mascot (seriously I don’t mean to leap to conclusions, but these guys need to get over jumping over things…literally. Only Leonardo DiCaprio gets over this many people).
This time by the South Beach, bringing the Heat in the Windy City, tornado storm of Derrick Jones Jr. Air Gordon won’t be back (thanks for that judges. Dwayne Wade said in the Skills Challenge his mind can be changed…ain’t that the truth), but let’s hope the backboard ball touching, Woody Harrelson Venice Beach wear honoring Pat Connaughton will be. Because white men can jump too in an epic exciting weekend of Chicago, 2020 that in the Olympic year of Tokyo, 2020 showed all the world’s a Basketball stage like the Rising Stars game (Konichiwa Hachimura).
For the main event of the biggest weekend on the schedule itself Team LeBron all wore number 2 on their blue jerseys for GiGi and Team Giannis 24 forever for Kobe (a bald Khris Middleton even sometimes from the nose bleeds making it look like Mamba was there…which spiritually he was like his mentality), to another LeBron like Kobe dunk running the floor like Bean and the 24 second shot clock that decided the fourth quarter of an entertaining All-Star Game that was more than the legendary lay-up line and was actually a competitive affair.
That’s just what happens when you win the game on a free throw (157-155, King over Freak) as Laker and hometown Chicago hero Anthony Davis did the honors after filling the stat sheet with the game on the line. But, the All-Star MVP now beautifully renamed the Kobe Bryant award went to another Los Angeles King in Clipper Kawhi and his 30 points. Who dedicated his award to the late legend it’s named after, as fans had their fill of their favourite weekend of the mid-season they love like the hearts of a mid-Feb Valentine.
Just don’t ask him what he had for dinner.
For Team LeBron. For Kobe. For GiGi.
Canadian’s rise to the occasion at 2020 NBA Rising Stars game
Without a doubt, one of the brightest spots of the NBA All-Star Weekend, is the Rising Stars game.
Since it’s inclusion in the 1994 All-Star game in Minneapolis, it has seen multiple formats and renditions — becoming a fertile playground for “phenoms” and “sensations” to showcase their gifted basketball talents to a global audience.
Orlando Magic point guard Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway won MVP of the inaugural edition of the rookie challenge game which at the time featured a true all-rookie affair with the likes of Chris Webber, Sam Cassell, Isaiah Rider taking on Jamal Mashburn and Nick Van Exel.
Toni Kukoc + Dino Rađa first International Players
The original 8-player team rosters comprised of only two international players – both Croatian/ Yugoslavian greats Toni Kukoc and Dino Rađa made the phenom cut.
In addition to Kukoc and Rada, and up until 2000, when the NBA made it’s first format change, from a all-rookie game to a rookie versus sophomores soiree — the game had only featured a grand total of nine (9) non-American players. Arvydas Sabonis (Lithuania/1996), George Zidek (Czechoslovakia/1996), Vitaly Potapenko (Ukraine/1997), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Lithuania/1998), Michael Olowokandi (UK/Nigeria/2000) and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany/2000) helped provide a blueprint for international expansion.
Steve Nash first Canadian selected in 1997
Steve Nash broke the Canadian trend and became the country’s first representation at the event, playing alongside Lakers’ great Kobe Bryant in the 1997 rendition. Winnipeg, Manitoba’s own Todd MacCulloch added his name to the list in first year of the new millennium, and twelve (12) years later Tristan Thompson (2012-2013) started what is now an eight-year streak of Canadians in the NBA’s Rising Stars’ Game.
Andrew Wiggins opened the flood-gates winning the MVP trophy in 2015 with an electric 22-point performance. Jamal Murray topped his scoring efforts with one of the best games in the events’ history with a 36-point, 11 assist MVP outburst in 2017.
History of Canadian’s NBA Rising Stars Game
Back then it was hard to imagine the impact that the NBA would have internationally, and across Canada. Despite multiple formats and various renditions, there’s little to no doubt that the idea of what has now become the World versus USA game has been a large contributing factor to the multiplier effect.
Record four Canadians in 2020 World vs. USA game
Now in its 26th year and in the sixth edition of the it’s latest format, the 2020 game showcased a record four (4) Canadian’s. Rookies RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks, Brandon Clarke (Memphis Grizzlies), Nickeil Alexander-Walker joined sophomore Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the NBA’s Tupac themed “me against the world” game.
Barrett poured in a game-high 27 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Clarke, arguably the steal of the 2019 NBA Draft was equally impressive with 22 points and game-high 8 rebounds on 11-of-15 shot attempts. Gilgeous-Alexander razzled and dazzled his way to 16 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists while his cousin Alexander-Walker added 6 points, 4 assists and 2 steals.
The Canadian’s contributions helped Team World race out to a 39-30 first-quarter lead over Team USA. A big second-half surge saw the all-American squad turn a 81-71, 10-point half-time deficit into 151-131, 20-point victory.
Outcome aside, the game featured a bevy of highlights including an impromptu dunk contest in the last minute that included some big time dunks by Brandon Clarke and RJ Barrett.
With such an impact internationally and responsible for giving many rising Canadian basketball players their first true taste of NBA All-Star weekend — it will only be a matter of time before one or two of them makes the leap from Saturday to Sunday like Nash did, becoming an official NBA All-star — five years after his appearance in the Rookie Challenge.