From A to C: Inside the All-Star Game

Cavaliers legends Austin Carr and Campy Russell team up to talk what All-Star hoops is all about
The All-Star Game is a time for showmanship and style, where the gameís best come together for 48 minutes - and more. Through the years, the Gameís evolved into something of a corporate beast, tailored with the trimmings to thrill the fans. But it wasnít always this way. In an in-depth interview with Cavaliers legends Campy Russell and Austin Carr - both All-Stars - they discuss their own experiences with the Game, how itís changed, and what it represents to players from any generation.

Where did you play your respective All-Star Games?

Campy Russell: It was in Pontiac, Michigan and was played in the Silverdome in 1979. Youíre sitting there now probably scratching your head wondering where the Silverdome is. The Pistons played there before going to The Palace at Auburn Hills.

It was great because my whole family was there. I went to Pontiac Central High School in Pontiac, went to Michigan, and then returned home to play in the All-Star game in only my fourth year in the league. The only negative is that I didnít play as much as I wanted to play, but a lot of that centered around which positions were on the team. They had two centers, seven forwards, and three guards, so I got caught in a numbers game. But it gave me the identity from the standpoint that I was one of the top 24 guys in the world.

Austin Carr: I played in the All-Star game in Seattle in the 1974 game. No family came, but some friends were there.

Does every player make it a goal to be on the All-Star Team? Did you make it a goal?

AC: To me, one of the main goals outside of winning a championship is to be an All-Star or to play at that level. Youíd like to be recognized by your peers by the work you do. Back then, fans had nothing to do with the voting. It was all your peers. Now, it can be skewed by popularity and fans stuffing the ballots. The example I think of is Yao Ming and Shaquille OíNeal last year. To me, Yao wasnít undeserving of the award, but Shaq was and is the most dominant center in the league and should have started the game. But all the fans in China gave Yao more votes.

But I definitely strived to achieve that every year. And I felt proud to make the team that year.

CR: I also think that players strive for a high-level of play. But, for the most part, not everyone thinks that they are going to be All-Stars. A lot of guys know where stand from an ability standpoint. The starting five for a team may have those aspirations to play in an All-Star game because of the minutes they are in the game. But the players will, in turn, question how they are contributing first to the teamís success, and then to an All-Star birth.

Does an All-Star appearance mean more when the team is winning?

CR: Definitely. Thatís maybe not like it was years ago. Today, All-Stars come from teams that are winning, just look at the situation with LeBron last year [James was likely denied an All-Star bid because of the Cavaliersí sub-.500 record]. Back then, just about one guy from every team was selected. You may have had three All-Stars on a team, but only one is selected.

AC: Very much. If youíre an All-Star on a losing team, itís an accomplishment, but itís tainted somewhat. You want to be on a winning team. Chances are on a winning team there is more than one player whoís deserving to be on the All-Star team. It takes more than one guy to make a winning team. On a losing team, if thereís one star, he could be putting up crazy numbers, but the team is out of a playoff spot very early in the season.

What feelings did you have going into the game? Were you nervous? Excited? Tired?

AC: There was a lot excitement being around all these great players from the league, being showcased in front of so many fans. I was playing on a Cleveland team that was up-and-coming. There was also some nervousness playing in my first game. There were some guys there, like Jo Jo White and John Havlicek, who I saw playing when I was younger, who were there too. I grew up idolizing those guys, so to be playing with them on an All-Star team not only made me a bit nervous, but it was quite an honor.

CR: I wasnít tired or anxious at all. Like Austin, I was excited not only to be in the game, especially so early in my career, but to be in front of my hometown fans in Michigan.

AC: Yeah, guys werenít tired from the playing so much, as they were from all the festivities surrounding the game. The excitementís too much for you to be tired, even if youíre a guy who plays a lot of minutes during the regular season.

Tell me about All-Star Weekend.

AC: There are meetings with the players association and different partnership events. You didnít have Jam Fest, the Rookie-Sophomore game, the skills competition. None of that. They had some social events before the game and when we got in. So because we didnít have some of the basketball activities and parties that they have today, the Weekend was shorter as a result. I think I got in on a Friday and took a red-eye back from Seattle after the game on Sunday.

CR: I found the weekend more of an opportunity to interface with some guys, who I didnít have time to normally see, during the receptions, for dinner, or what have you. In my All-Star Weekend, I really treasured my time with Pete Maravich. You heard so many negative things about him as a player as being selfish. But being around him for three days, riding on the bus to-and-from events, I developed a respect for him. I got a different feel for him because I felt what his heart was like. Then playing against him and also talking to him strengthened my belief that he was one of the best players in the league.

They also had a big banquet on Saturday after walking through the practice. There were media there, but not the spectacle that it is today. But like Austin said, they had none of the extra events that are in the Weekend today.

Do you think the All-Star game is more for the fans or players?

AC: At that time, the players. When we played, the losers got a certain amount for playing and the winners got a certain amount, too. It was another source of revenue for a lot of guys. It had more incentive for guys to win the game and perform well. Now, itís a more a source of entertainment.

Today, entertainment is a major part of the game. Itís sport-entertainment, not just sport. If you compare the intensity of the way the All-Star game was played 20 years ago with the way the game is played today, you would think they were two different games. Guys are not going out for blood-and-guts anymore. Theyíre going out to have fun and put on a show -- and not get hurt.

CR: At that time, the players got a certain amount -- although nowhere it is today -- something like $2500 if they won. Since salaries werenít as high, I think players played hard in the game to earn that bonus.

Today, itís more for the fans because they get to see the best players all in one venue. And with the entertainment factor, I would say that itís tailored more for the fans than it was in the past.

How do teams and players prepare for the game itself?

AC: Itís not that complicated. Basically, we had two or three basic plays -- pick-n-roll, low post play, and a play for the guards. Other than that, thereís not much you can do. The practice before the game was a media frenzy. That was different than normal preparation you go through.

When you played against players, it was like you were going against them with your team anyway. You knew a guyís strengths and weaknesses and you try to make him beat you.

CR: Nothing too much, really. We ran through a few set plays and that was pretty much it.

What did you do to relax or have fun?

CR: Well, we got in on Friday and had a reception when we all were in. But mostly, I just caught up with guys, like Pete Maravich, over drinks or dinner or whatever.

AC: Since the weekend was so short, I had time to have dinner with a few guys, maybe grab some drinks in the downtime. Actually, I tried to rest. When I got in, I just went to my hotel room and slept.

Youíve both touched on some of ways the All-Star Game has transformed itself over the years. In what other ways do you think it has changed?

AC: The weekends are longer and itís a show. The entertainment aspect has to be the biggest part. Oh, and the fan voting, which ties back into the entertainment part of it. Fans want to see their favorite players playing. If I were playing today, Iíd want to be matched up against the players that are picked by the coaches. Coaches know which players are having a good year, so that aspect is less of a popularity contest.

CR: I think todayís gameís a spectacle. All the activities and all the hoopla surrounding the game itself make it such an event. The sponsors pay more for commercial representation in the Game. Thereís all kinds of functions for kids. So, itís just a big fan/kid thing and big money-making operation as well.