All-Star Notebook: Wrapping Up a Frantic Friday

by Wheat Hotchkiss Writer/Editor

NEW ORLEANS – The NBA’s All-Star Weekend is a frenzied affair, as the game’s brightest stars – past and present – all descend on the same city for a jam-packed weekend. No day is more chaotic than Friday, when the relentless schedule of events hits media members harder than a couple of “Hand Grenades” on Bourbon Street.

Friday in New Orleans began with media availability with the weekend’s stars – all the players and coaches from the Eastern and Western Conference All-Star teams, as well as the participants in All-Star Saturday night. A swarm of press from all across the globe blitzed the players with questions ranging from the serious (breaking down defensive schemes) to the absurd (ideal smoothie ingredients).

After media availability, the players split up across the city to take part in the NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service (Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and the Pacers' coaching staff helped renovate homes). Meanwhile, the Naismith Hall of Fame unveiled a list of electees and finalists to be inducted in the summer (to the delight of Pacers fans everywhere, legendary coach Bob “Slick” Leonard was elected this year, a long-overdue honor).

Friday’s nightcap was a doubleheader of two star-studded games. This year’s Celebrity Game saw Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings team up with Snoop Dogg and Kevin Hart, while the Rising Stars Challenge featured Pacers associate head coach Nate McMillan guiding some of the NBA’s best first and second-year pros to victory.

As you can tell, there’s way too much going on for any one person to capture it all. But hopefully this notebook can at least share some of the best Pacers-centric storylines from a very hectic day.

“He Did That In a Game?”

This year’s Slam Dunk Contest has a new format, with three dunkers from each conference teaming up to take on three more high-flyers from the opposite coast. George is part of the East’s contingent, along with Wizards All-Star guard John Wall and Raptors forward Terrence Ross.

George and Ross both said that the trio already had a strategy session on Thursday night to come up with the best show-stopping routine.

“All of us (have) got dunks that have never been done in the Dunk Contest, so we plan on stealing the show,” George said, adding later that the players planned to be involved in each other’s dunks.

But the most interesting slam dunk sound bite came when Ross, the defending dunk contest champion, was asked for his thoughts on Paul George’s 360-degree windmill that he unleashed in the Pacers’ win over the Clippers last month.

“That’s something I wouldn’t try in warmups because I’ve only made that dunk maybe once or twice in my life,” Ross said. “So to try that in a game, in an actual NBA game, that takes a lot of courage.”

Ross threw down one of the best in-game jams of the year himself when he dunked on the Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried, but the Raptors’ second-year swingman said he thought George’s 360-windmill was better.

"I read about (George’s dunk) and I was like, okay, did he do it in warmups?” Ross said. “Did he do it in practice? No, he did this in a game, with the clock still running…it was really impressive.”

Temporary Truce for Pacers, Rivals

As other contenders racked up injuries and limped out to slow starts, this year’s race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference quickly turned into a two-team battle between last year’s conference finalists, the Pacers and the Miami Heat.

After a hard-fought seven-game series, it will be jarring for Pacers fans to see Roy Hibbert setting a screen for LeBron James or Frank Vogel drawing up a play for Dwyane Wade, but the Pacers’ All-Star contingent insisted Friday that they’re okay with putting the Pacers-Heat rivalry on hold for a couple of days.

“We’re so (busy) being competitive throughout the whole year, you can take a couple days to kind of tone it down and pat them on the back,” George said. “But when it comes down to when we need to be aggressive and go against those guys and be competitive, we’ll do so.”

It’s become a popular joke with the media to suggest that Vogel should play James, Wade, and Chris Bosh 40-plus minutes Sunday night in hopes of wearing them out before the second half of the season, but Vogel said the real reason he’d consider implementing that strategy was “only if I want to win.”

Hibbert, meanwhile, said he has no ill will towards Miami off the court, but he did say that he’s tried to use this weekend to mend some fences with another Eastern Conference teammate.

Hibbert and Bulls center Joakim Noah have been going up against each other since their days in college, and they haven’t exactly been on the best of terms. But the Pacers center said the two are trying to patch things up.

“I talked to Joakim a little bit, and we agreed to keep it civil this weekend,” Hibbert said. “He’s a real nice guy…we just kind of bump heads.”

George Part of Emerging Fraternity

NBA All-Stars are the best basketball players in the world, and it’s not exactly shocking that most of the game’s elite were recognized as such long before they cashed their first professional check. All-Star rosters are typically littered with players who were ranked near the top of their high school class and either went on to a marquee college program or skipped college altogether.

That’s still the case with many of this year’s All-Stars, but some of the game’s emerging faces took a much less conventional path to stardom.

Paul George wasn’t a top-100 recruit in his high school class, and chose to attend Fresno State instead of Pepperdine and Santa Clara. But just a few short years later, the 23-year-old is an All-Star starter, receiving the most fan votes of any one not named LeBron or Durant.

Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard are similar success stories, going from lower-level colleges (Davidson for Curry, Weber State for Lillard) to NBA stardom (like George, Curry was voted a starter, while Lillard was invited to participate in a record five events over the course of the weekend).

“I think what you’re getting is guys playing at (the mid-major level) that dominate that level and they have the confidence to play in this league,” Lillard said when asked about their collective success.

Having taken the proverbial road less traveled to New Orleans, each of these players shares a mutual respect for each other’s journey. In his media session, George offered individual praise for both Lillard and Curry’s drives to be successful. Both Curry and Lillard echoed George’s sentiments.

“You have that bond, because you know that you have similar experiences and you know how hard it is to do,” Curry said.

Curry noted that he was inspired by players like Kevin Martin, who came out of Western Carolina (a Southern Conference school, like Davidson) and established himself as one of the NBA’s top scorers. Now, the success of players like Curry, Lillard, and George can perhaps pave the way for more overlooked talents to work their way into the NBA’s elite.

“I’m just happy that guys like Steph and Paul and myself, we might be helping a guy five years from now that goes to a smaller school,” Lillard said. “Five years back, he probably wouldn’t have had a chance (to make it in the NBA). Now, we’re probably giving him a better chance.”

Curry Discusses Admiration for Reggie

Speaking of Stephen Curry, the Warriors sharpshooter also talked at length on Friday about his admiration for Pacers legend Reggie Miller. When asked which player – past or present – he’d most like to go up against one-on-one, Curry went with the Pacers’ all-time leading scorer.

“I loved watching Reggie Miller," Curry said. "…I watched him, I tried to take bits and pieces of (his game with) how I played – a lot in college, but some in the league now – playing off the ball.

“It seemed like his motor was always on full blast, trying to make plays.”

Miller, a 2012 inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame, ranks second all-time in 3-point field goals made. Curry is no slouch in that department, with 815 made threes in just 308 career games.

Curry said he’s gotten the opportunity to speak with Miller, though he’s mainly just expressed admiration rather than sought out Miller’s advice. Playing in Golden State for Mark Jackson, the Pacers’ starting point guard for much of Miller’s prime, Curry has gotten to learn a lot more about the player he idolized:

“Having one of his old teammates as a coach, there’s lots of good stories.”

Basketball Legends “Elated” for Slick

You can’t mention Reggie Miller without talking about Slick Leonard. Slick’s signature radio call, “Boom Baby,” provided the perfect punctuation to so many of Reggie’s iconic shots.

Slick joined Reggie in basketball’s most elite club on Friday, when it was announced that he was elected for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Leonard served as head coach of the Pacers from 1968-80, guiding the organization to three ABA titles – to date the only league championships in franchise history – before winning over another generation of Pacers fans with his work in the broadcast booth.

Leonard wasn’t in New Orleans for the announcement (the Pacers held a press conference for Slick back in Indianapolis), but plenty of basketball’s biggest names were there to share their thoughts on Slick’s election.

“I played probably hundreds of games against his team, and Slick just knows how to win,” former ABA star and Hall of Famer George Gervin said.

“…Slick knew how to build a team. He knew how to relate to the players. If you talk to any of them players, all them players loved Slick. And that’s a part of building a championship, the respect that you have for your coach.”

Artis Gilmore, another ABA legend and Hall of Famer, said he was “elated” for Leonard: “He was a winner. That’s the bottom line with any coaches. You’re measured by your success.”

Jerry Colangelo, director of USA Basketball and one of the sport’s sharpest minds, praised Leonard’s overall “contribution to the game,” from his playing days at Indiana University all the way through his prolific broadcasting career.

“He was a lifer,” Colangelo said. “He had a passion for the game, he’s been around the game all these years. To be able to get this final recognition, ultimately the best type of reward – and that’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame – is great.”

Finally, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel offered his admiration for his predecessor:

“I hear the stories all the time from Pacers fans about the championships that they were winning… We’re hoping to add an NBA championship to all those ABA championships.”

Quotes and Notes

Pelicans All-Star forward Anthony Davis said he hoped to talk to Roy Hibbert about his defensive strategy contesting shots: "He does a great job of being vertical. Even if he can’t block a shot, he definitely alters it."

In case you were wondering, if Roy Hibbert or Paul George could participate in any Winter Olympic sport, they'd both choose curling. Hibbert's go-to romantic comedy is "Love Actually," while George prefers "Love and Basketball."

Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings on the Pacers' impressive first half of the season: "Last year, our coaching staff...was the coaching staff for the team (at the WNBA All-Star Game), and of course (Shavonte) Zellous and I were on the All-Star team. So now, you kind of reverse it, you’ve got PG and Roy on the team and then you’ve got (the Pacers) coaching staff. I’m really excited about how well the Pacers are doing. They’re having a great season so far."

Pacers associate head coach Nate McMillan guided Team Hill to a 142-136 win over Team Webber in the Rising Stars Challenge. MVP Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons led the way with 30 points and 25 rebounds.