NBA All-Star anarchy

If pure spectation is your bag, there's plenty to hold your attention during the N.B.A.'s All-Star weekend. You had the 5'7" Nate Robinson jumping over a dude a foot and a half taller than him (which dude was wearing a cape). You had John Legend, a gospel choir and assorted other softies helping the league pay tribute to its own deep compassion. You had a seven foot tall, 350 pound man wearing a white mask and doing the robot. I could go on: John McCain discussing Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller pontificating on "true greatness," Terrell Owens in ruby-red shades, simmering in his own lonely fame.

At the center of it all, though, is a basketball game, a game which left me thinking to myself, "when does the real season start again?" 

Don't get me wrong, the game itself has its charms. In the first half, things were relatively close and there was a trace of intensity in the air (though not nearly as much as Doug Collins would have had you believe). That environment--just a little defense, but not too much--provided a context for the players to expand the scope of their face-meltingly intense skills. Chris Paul allowed the ball to wander just a bit farther from his body without ever losing his wizardly handle; he high-stepped and magneto-dribbled up and down the court, weaving the ball through the defense, creating passing lanes yet-unseen by anyone but him. As he did in the Olympics, Lebron exploded to the basket before elevating with force and, from seemingly impossible angles gently spinning the ball off the glass and through the net. Kobe, the game's co-MVP, revealed again just how simple and smooth, how effortlessly perfect his midrange game can be.

But then the Big Aristotle, the game's other MVP, dropped his knowledge. The East lacked anyone with the size or will to confront the big bearded man; the game quickly turned into a showcase for everything (besides rapping, dancing, self-nicknaming and telling moderately funny jokes) Shaq brought to the game in his long career. Meaning: lots of standing around, lots of slow, heavy dunks. Despite making Dwight Howard laugh (relatively easy to do, it seems) Diesel sucked the life out of the game. Soon, with the West nursing a 20-point lead, all the vestiges of competitiveness were gone; all there was after that was nine of the best basketball players in the world watching a tenth shoot a wide open layup.

This brings us to the thing that puts the lie to all of those basketball-as-art cliches (basketball is jazz, basketball is ballet/poetry/hip-hop etc). Unlike any actual art, the game's essence depends on competitiveness, on people trying to stop other people from performing their skill. In order for the things that these players do to make any sense, or even to have any real beauty, they require the constraint of competition. It may seem sometimes like the greatest teams or the greatest players are playing at such a level that the opponent is incidental, that they're operating on a level of pure performance; this game, though, was nothing but performance and it was mostly pretty boring. So as much as I like watching Dwight Howard trying to cross Kobe, as much as I like watching Amare Stoudemire dunk, I'm ready for the real thing.