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The bizarre dichotomy of the NBA All-Star Game

Feb 26, 2012, 12:48 PM EDT

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Sunday night, 24 players will amble into the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Many of them will be hungover, sleep-deprived, or both from a night of partying at all the hot spots during the biggest nightlife year for the NBA universe. They will casually go through the media requirements, slowly get dressed, do some casual shooting, talk with a lot of friends and acquaintances.

They will play a game, of sorts. There will be no defense. There will be very little effort. There will be some ooh and ahh moments, a few dunks, some neat passes, and a general giggly sort of feel to the day. It will be presented with lots of flash and pageantry and have no effect on anything, nor should it. It shouldn’t decide homecourt advantage in the Finals, it shouldn’t impact playoff seedings, it’s an exhibition and should mean absolutely nothing.

Those players were elected to play in the game either by fan vote, the same fan vote which routinely ignores any and all evidence to who has been good or not good throughout the season and is primarily decided based on either the presence of an overwhelming voting block (in the case of Yao Ming), or the player’s station as a member of one of the big three teams (Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls), or by coaches’ decision, which is often done using impact from assistants or video editors and which can often be attributed to recognition of a lifetime event or influence from what they “should do.”

To sum up, today’s NBA All-Star Game is a completely meaningless exhibition in which you will barely remember anything outside of who wins MVP and who was on roster, and was constructed using completely meaningless, bogus, and largely flawed methods of election. Saying the All-Star game is stupid isn’t really a stretch, even if it’s a bit much for something that’s just supposed to be fun for fans. Fun things can be meaningless, like cartoons for your four-year-old or appletinis (say hey, LBJ).  There’s no harm in that. This is not advocacy for eliminating the All-Star Game. The Game is a tradition, a nice PR tool for the league, and a fun experience, if exhausting and boring for players after about their third time.

No, what this is is a study in contrasts. Because while this game is constructed nearly without meaning, entirely arbitrarily, its relevance expands beyond this day, this season, this year and into a much greater context. That’s the real dichotomy of the All-Star Game. It’s both meaningless and crucial.

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When evaluating the resumes of players listed for the Hall of Fame, the criteria is complex, but it’s like any other resume. When you list your resume to an employer, are you able to encapsulate on a 1-2 page document why that job you were at less than six months didn’t work out? Can you describe the thriving success you experienced at the position you were at for four years without a promotion? Can you give context to why one award granted meant a lot and was well-earned while the other was simply the result of your relationship with the awarding board? No. You just fill in the lines. I can do X, I have done X,  I want to do X. That’s it.

The All-Star resumes are no different. Stats, a specific anecdote, perhaps, championships most importantly, and then there’s that which is most often the first thing listed.

X-Time NBA All-Star.

That line holds relevance in history. When we debate the relative merits of a player for inclusion in the Hall (and don’t get me wrong, we can say a lot of the same things about the Hall of Fame that we say about the All-Star Game; in fact, the Hall is probably a bigger disaster than a game which is voted for online), that measure is used to distinguish. Being a six-time NBA All-Star? That’s more than a half-decade of being one of the elite players in the NBA!

Some six-time All-Stars in the Hall of Fame: Tiny Archibald, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, Artis Gilmore, Tommy Heinsohn, Jack Twyman.

Pretty impressive, right? Some active six-time All-Stars: Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Joe Johnson.

Joe Johnson is a six-time All-Star.

(Note: I’m one of the few people left on the planet who doesn’t punish Johnson for his contract relative to his performance. The Hawks have made the playoffs each year since 2008, haven’t been an abject embarrassment in them outside of the Bucks series which they won, and gave Atlanta a run. Johnson, for all his moderate efficiency, is a huge part of that and is constantly underrated for his defensive work. My point is more about how we look at things now versus how we will look at things later.)

When we look back at Johnson’s career, the contextual stuff about the disgust over his selection or the mockery of his production relative to his contract will get lost. Someone’s going to be perusing Basketball-Reference in ten year who has never seen Joe Johnson play a second of basketball, look at his per-game stats during his peak, look at that six-time All-Star streak, find the YouTube of his work in the Boston series 2008, and think of him as a pretty great player, when currently, he may be the most derided All-Star selected, and Chris Bosh is on the team for crying out loud (again, I don’t have an issue with Bosh, he’s actually been great this year, but for the most part people hate him).

My point is, this stuff matters.

Going to the All-Star game means nothing, but it means more than the All-NBA teams, which receive so much less scrutiny and criticism. Being an All-Star means something to your career. It puts you into that level. When people in non-NBA contexts introduce you, they introduce you as “NBA All-Star.” It’s a designation that represents being something greater, not just currently, but within the massive flow of players that ebb in and out of the league. Stars rise and die in weeks in this league (take heed, Jeremy Lin), and these players selected are above. Paul Pierce is a nine-time All-Star. Nine. He’s probably going to wind up with a decade of All-Star appearances.

Jermaine O’Neal is a footnote in the NBA, and he’s pretty much only mentioned in reference to how slow he is or his injury issues.

The guy is a six-time All-Star!

And there are certainly debates about the quality of stars in the league relative to these eras. But they’re only mentioned in relatively recent context. We ignore how many fewer teams there were in 1980 and before, when some of the biggest legends exist. And no, no one’s going to be talking about Joe Johnson or Jermaine O’Neal as all-time greats, but there is a fondness that develops as a man’s career passes, a remembrance of when he was best that comes to overshadow the fading years of age. The same will happen with Jason Kidd, with Kevin Garnett, the same has already happened with Gary Payton.

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So today is a day for lazy skip passes, a few off-the-backboard alley-oops. Kobe will shoot a lot and if he’s feeling it will score a lot and make everyone shake their head, grin and go “Oh, Kobe.” LeBron may have one of those days… you know what, no, James has never taken this event seriously, probably never will. Blake Griffin will do some stuff. But none of it means anything, and the process of their respective assemblies is obviously flawed, subjective, invalid and largely a joke. But the fact that they are there (or in Joe Johnson’s case, there in spirit) does resonate. It does reflect something about their position in the context of this game, of sports, of culture.

Having been an All-Star means something, even if being one doesn’t.

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