NBA All-Star - Day 2: The All-Stars Came Out and a Dunk Contest to Break Your Heart
We can cut right to the chase—the most exciting night of All-Star Weekend is All-Star Saturday Night. All players have arrived, the controlled chaos of All-Star Media Day (we’ll get to that) is out of the way, guys get to button-down and just show up to the game as fans and supporters of friends, and the air is electric.
But first, All-Star Media Day. In Day 1’s recap I painted an almost tranquil picture of what the podium set up looked like for the Rising Stars Media Day. Things, then, were manageable. Add to that mental image about 500 more media, all crammed into the same exact space. Booths for players very quickly got ten and twenty rows deep of reporters all shouting their questions at the same time for players who tried as best the could to catch them. On top of that, fans are able to buy tickets and come for the spectacle. There are game ops, giveaways, kids ingeniously tying string to sneakers and affixing markers to them with velcro, lowering the contraptions into the player tunnels to dangle like bait in hopes someone will grab and sign a shoe. And it is loud. With music, live interviews being intermittently broadcast on the jumbotron hanging above the court, fans screaming for players, players shouting greetings to their friends as they pass in front and behind on the way to one media spot after another.
Plans are important. But All-Star Media Day quickly shows how crucial it can also be to throw the whole entire plan out the window and just run, as fast as you can, with things.
Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam were seated side-by-side in their respective podiums, scrums starting almost at the exact same time. Lowry was able to shout encouragement and questions to Siakam, and Siakam kept hit vet in his sights. Lowry’s advice to Siakam on the weekend was simple, “Run around and have fun.” He then added with the million-dollar Lowry grin, “Learn what not to do during All-Star.”
When asked what everyone should expect from Lowry this weekend he replied, “Some laughs, some fun, some jokes, some enjoyment.” And right on cue somebody broke their boom mic in two on Lowry’s shoulder. He barely flinched, eyeing the pieces as they ricocheted off his shoulder, out of the podium and onto the floor, “Somebody just broke their mic on my shoulder because I’m so strong.”
Some other key notes from a cloudy day in Chicago included the announcement that the All-Star Game MVP Award was being renamed the NBA All-Star Game Kobe Bryant MVP Award in tribute to the late Kobe Bryant. Basketball Africa also announced that 12 teams were set to compete in the inaugural season of the Basketball Africa League, starting March 13, 2020 at the at the Dakar Arena in Dakar, Senegal.
But when the sun sunk behind the city’s towers once again, anticipation rose. The tunnels underneath the United Center were packed. Media and camera crews staking out spots, arena entertainment crews stretching in hallways where they could find enough space to lay down or extend their legs. NBA legends brushing shoulders with NBA mascots, with DJ Khalid and Queen Latifah, with me when I accidentally rounded a corner too quickly.
All-Star Saturday night continues to be the greatest sleepover in the history of the planet. Everywhere you look there is something carefree happening, everyone just happy to be there. Shaq is sticking his tongue in Kevin Garnett’s ear on national television, Rumble the Bison won’t stop doing air guitar, Fat Joe is courtside enjoying himself, hundreds of kids are on the court doing Tik Tok dances. What is anything? It’s everything.
Siakam made his Skills Challenge debut, fitting for his noted favoured nickname, P Skills. He came out confident, nudging out Patrick Beverly by putting his and the Raptors penchant for passing to the test. Unfortunately, Siakam was knocked out of the semifinal round by Bam Adebayo. Bam took it with a three-point shot that rattled around the rim before revolving slowly into the basket, like my heart taking rotating before it went down the toilet. But Adebayo went on to win, and it doesn’t hurt so much knowing you’ve fallen to the best, or that the best in this case planned to hand the trophy over to his mom.
Asked who he wanted to dedicate the win to, Adebayo said, “My mom, and it’s because all she’s been though and all the struggles and what the living conditions I had to go through. How she strived to make me happy, make our house feel home, and I can’t do nothing but give her that and keep giving her every other accolade I get.”
The Three-Point contest came next, and there were a few new rules folded in for good measure and additional confusion. Namely, a new all-green ball that players could put up from something called the Dew Zone, a slightly deeper shot. Mixed reviews on the Dew Zone from media and fans alike, but in a way if the contest is drawn out a little then we’re all winners.
The real winner, of course, was Buddy Hield. Hield, after going neck and neck with Devin Booker and silent sniper Davis Bertans, won on his final shot. Hield dedicated the trophy to people in his home country of the Bahamas, recovering from Hurricane Dorian in late summer 2019.
To open up the Dunk Contest, Damian Lillard performed alongside Lil Wayne and Dwight Howard, Pat Connaughton, Derrick Jones Jr. and Aaron Gordon took the stage. There is a kind of curtain made out of LED lights, wiring, and the framing that holds it all together that was slowly lowered from the ceiling of the United Center when stage performances happened. Media seats were behind the backdrop, with a sliver of a sightline to the stage, but it was raised when the Dunk Contest participants arrived, making the reveal even more dramatic.
There are three key elements to any successful, memorable, Dunk Contest dunk—confidence, energy, and a kind of singular vision that a player will see it through. Props are highly debated but I don’t think they hurt if they are handled with care.
On these notes, Pat Connaughton was immediately robbed. And I am the most dubious of any Milwaukee Buck. But the White Men Can’t Jump Dunk that had him hanging off the rim in costume, and the knocking the ball against the glass as he jumped over Giannis is, frankly, toying with the constructs of gravity.
Dwight Howard, though here for a good time and also a long time, by Dunk Contest standards, couldn’t quit manage to pull one out with the same finesse and energy with this showing. But it was nice to see him put the Superman cape back on in tribute.
Derrick Jones Jr. is a high flying dream. It was his birthday, a slab cake was rolled out, the arena sang him happy birthday, and unfortunately he missed his first attempt. He would go on to make up for missing that first dunk attempt in nailing a tricky 360 and mid-twist, slicing the ball between his legs, then jumping over two people to dunk, and then somehow caught a lob off the backboard, jumped over a guy, and went between the legs to nail it on the first attempt.
While this was happening, Aaron Gordon was also having himself a Dunk Contest. Dunking over Chance The Rapper multiple times was amazing, but, how does Stuff the Magic Dragon feel about getting yanked? Til Tok dunk—no, every single other Gordon dunk—YES. You have to feel like Gordon has a homemade encyclopedia full of dunk ideas that he writes in every day, like his version of journaling.
When it seemed like things couldn’t really improve, or that a tie would be called, the greatest words in All-Star vocabulary were spoken after a chanting Shaq demanded, “We want more!”: there was going to be a dunk-off between Jones Jr. and Gordon. Both pulled out incredible feats on the fly, one-upping the other until finally Gordon went and pulled Tacko Fall from the players hanging out courtside. Fall is 7-foot-5.
Did he do it? Yes. Did he get the points he deserved? No. There was concern, or rumour, or questioning, right after that the final scoring was the result of calculations gone awry, the judges brains maybe too steeped in physical feats, that it was supposed to be a tie. Whatever it was, Derrick Jones Jr. won by a single point, and the mood in the arena, while celebratory, felt jilted. Gordan in his post-contest presser admitted that was to be his last contest, as he wasn’t sure what else he had to do to win. It was a first for me, feeling the thrill of the contest, that Jones Jr. was deserving of the win, but still feeling in the lurch about the outcome. When people are so good at things, like Gordon and Jones Jr. are with dunking and basketball, you just want everyone to win.