NBA All-Star - Day 1: Rising Stars and Falling Snow
Day one of NBA All-Star weekend started so cold there were tendrils of steam rising from the Chicago River, the limestone of downtown’s towering Gothic Revival buildings shifting to coral in the sun slowly climbing over Lake Michigan. On the heels of a day that saw intermittent snowfall and flights canceled due to wind and visibility, rerouting incoming media and players alike, Friday morning started clear and with the sense that it was time to get things started.
The court of the Wintrust Arena, located in the South Side of Chicago, had eight blue podiums sprouting from the hardwood. The netting from the hoops on either end brushing the All-Star backdrops that went up behind every player set to play in the Rising Star game that night. Players for the World and USA teams entered the court in staggered rounds and sat for what were individual press conferences and felt a little like speed dating. The media clustered in front of them lifting cameras and phones, recorders up over shoulders of the person in front of them, all straining to catch what the 21 players were going to say.
“The weather, like, it’s just another day to me,” was the first thing Canadian guard for the New Orleans Pelicans, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, said about the brittle Chicago temperatures. Because weather is forever the icebreaker for every conversation, even the ones happening between one guy and 30 expectant writers.
Some other highlights from the Rising Star media day included: RJ Barrett being asked who was the most sneaky 1-on-1 player he could think of, and him conjuring up his answer by quietly repeating, “Sneaky, sneaky,” before answering, “Jrue Holiday’s really nice”, because Barrett, a Canadian, is also pretty nice. Rui Hachimura admitting he used to stay home from school in Japan to watch basketball. Luka Dončić being asked if he had a Valentine (he does). Josh Okogie imparting some wisdom, “My coach always said, they never check your paycheck and they never check your birth certificate when you’re on the court.” Trae Young admitting he’d steal Zion’s “hops” if he could. The 20-deep row of media trying to get as close to Zion Williamson as humanly possible.
Practice for the Rising Star players continued in another arena at Wintrust after media ended and all the camera tripods were packed up, but one thing, even if you are warned about, is that at All-Star there are likely to be several dozen things going on at any given moment, in as many places as there are room to hold them. Knowing that Pascal Siakam’s Basketball Without Borders camp was about to start across town, I hustled out into the cold and made my way there.
Siakam, along with Davis Bertans, Lauri Markkanen, Tacko Fall and Critiano Felicio, are the coaches leading the sixth annual global camp for Basketball Without Borders, of which Siakam and Markkanen are camper alumni. The camp spans over the entire All-Star weekend and will host 64 high school-aged girls and boys from 34 countries and regions around the world.
Siakam, who will be having a career first starting in Sunday’s All-Star Game, talked about how much it meant to be able to coach and give back to BWB, an organization that helped facilitate his start not just in the NBA, but in basketball.
“From someone that’s been there and done it, it was a long time ago but… I know what it feels like to be in their shoes. The global camp is a little different than the one that I did, but it’s still the same concept. Being able to play with players from different countries, and have the be able to be here with a lot of eyes watching, it’s a great opportunity.”
Markkanen echoed Siakam’s sentiments, noting how important it was to him to come back and contribute, “If I can help one player, that’s good.”
The pace of the games were fast, with players flying up and down three separate courts stacked the length of an arena and nothing between them to mark where one stopped and another started save for some folding chairs and the braver, permanently made diligent people choosing to sit in them over the gymnasium bleachers. A ball would go loose, a player would have too much speed coming in for a dunk, miss a pass, and games blended into one another by virtue of competition lines being blurred. Every player, while rife with energy, shared a talent and skill that they were there to have polished. Their coaches weren’t shy about encouragement or telling them what needed to be changed. But the response was largely positive, with Siakam clapping and shouting encouragement that boomed around the gymnasium.
Other news of Day 1 came in flurries of NBA communication, emails and tweets, all of it having happened real-time, at some time, in a day that made it feel like there was basketball stretched like a blanket across the city. Finalists were announced for the Basketball Hall of Fame and included Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, coaches Eddie Sutton and Rudy Tomjanovich, as well as Women’s Committee Finalists, Tamika Catchings and coaches Kim Mulkey and Barbara Stevens.
I wasn’t there, but I also heard about Adam Silver using the Chicago Bulls entertainment crew to disrupt a conference where Silver revealed new tech that had the capability to make games viewable in complete 360-degree viewing, from anywhere. He also had Bill Murray come and hand out Chicago-style hot dogs. Another legendary figure who is a fan of the Chicago-style dog, Barack Obama, showed up to surprise students and Luka Doncic, who were busy filling 500 backpacks with school supplies in the 13th NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service.
But what every All-Star day is inevitably gearing up to, is the marquee event of any given night. Friday night in Chicago it was the Rising Stars Game.
At times, the Rising Stars game is like a combined no pressure Dunk Contest and every part of the Skills Challenge but performed as if in a lucid dream. The whole thing moves fast and flashy, until about the dovetail of the 2nd quarter, when things slow, guys finally getting tired from running up and down the court without the little breathers that defensive plays can bring. It’s not that the game is uncompetitive, but that competition has to build in real-time with a lot of the players on the court not necessarily accustomed to calling the shots, leading a squad, or looking around to find their friends and league-contemporaries around them on all sides.
Toward the end of the 3rd quarter, players really started to jangle. Dunks got flashier, there were some sharp and fast passes to guys, like Zion Williamson, waiting like a shark under the net to snatch an incoming lob from mid-air before delivering it into the basket with force enough the bend the entire rim down. Either they had played out their nerves or remembered that All-Star weekend is essentially a beautiful amalgamation of chaos, if not a three-day-long slumber party.
Postgame, in another room cheerily set up like a speed dating event, players were once again available to media but this time, fresh from the court, the guys were a lot more loose, comfortably candid.
Gilgeous-Alexander was asked what it was like to play alongside Nickeil Alexander-Walker, “I left him a drop-off in transition, and he didn’t shoot it,” he shook his head in mock severity, “so I’m going to have to talk to him about that.”
When he was asked if he felt tempted at all to dunk in a game where everyone else on the court was throwing down, Gilgeous-Alexander responded with a smiling but matter-of-fact, “Absolutely not.”
It was a record high four Canadians in one game for Rising Stars—Gilgeous-Alexander, RJ Barrett and Brandon Clarke—and each of them seemed excited by what it stood to show about basketball in Canada.
“It’s crazy, to know where we started and where we’re at now. It’s motivation.” Gilgeous-Alexander said. And Alexander-Walker took it one hopeful step further, “Might even turn into Canada [versus] U.S. soon.”
The energy of the game came in handy a little later when, queuing up for media busses back to our respective hotels, one of the parking lot attendants mournfully told a handful of us waiting that the busses had already left. We ran. Right out into the kind of cold that comes at you with teeth, but being in a group of people from Toronto we at least knew to keep our heads down going into it. The busses in question were lumbering out of the lot a couple lots over, and we ran them down. The driver seemed surprised, but happy to see us, and took us trundling out into the night, over bridges crossing the quiet and dark water of the river, under glass towers muted so close to midnight, closing out Day 1.