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NBA All-Star Game fixes secondary to fixing perception of league

Responsibility of improving the league shouldn’t just fall on players, but team governors and fans as well

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards’ angst during media day for the NBA All-Star Weekend captured the discontent surrounding the event. Edwards spoke like one of Michael Jordan’s ideological heirs.

“Just play, man,” Edwards said in a criticism of load management, the practice of teams resting healthy players to preserve them for the balance of an 82-game season and the playoffs. “… These people might have enough money to come to one game, and that might be the game they coming to, and you sitting out.”

As much as sports fans crave competitive balance, it’s competitive imbalance that defines the NBA. Jordan’s “love of the game” isn’t just a mantra, it’s famously known as a contract clause. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, he of the tireless work ethic and competitive drive, would inspire the next generation in the same vein.

The All-Star Game in Utah did not feature this “will to win.” It generated a level of angst that yielded historic lows in viewership and ignited stereotypes about NBA players’ commitment to fans. The criticism of NBA players felt petty – like low-hanging fruit.

The frustrations that have boiled over are less about competitive balance and more about collective bargaining. Ever since LeBron James made his decision to sign with the Miami Heat instead of returning to his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in 2010, the notion of player empowerment has been a defining point of contention for the league.

“Fixing” the All-Star format feels secondary to the importance of fixing how we view the league itself. Should the players shoulder the moral responsibility of the league by themselves, or should team governors and fans also be accountable?

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James departs after the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 19 at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The notion of player empowerment is the notion of Black power, by virtue of how we view celebrity and influence in a predominantly Black labor class. This is why any NBA shortcoming generates gleeful reporting from “conservative” outlets. It is particularly troubling when former players, now league spokespeople, employ a similar ideological thinking at the expense of today’s players.

“You can’t treat these owners and fans like crap,” Inside the NBA analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said during All-Star Weekend, “which these players are starting to do now with load management and then demand to be traded.”

Barkley’s criticism over the past few months included anti-player remarks, a prediction of a labor stoppage and this harsh commentary: “I cannot wait for these owners to put their foot in their asses in this next CBA.”

This rhetoric doesn’t just spit in the face of NBA players – it turns its nose up at league history. When James jump-started the “player empowerment” movement in 2010, the Heat only perpetuated a staple of the NBA – dynasties. The league has never enjoyed competitive balance, as evidenced by the success of franchises such as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. In 75 NBA seasons and counting, three teams account for more than half of the titles, and that statistic gives grace to the Golden State Warriors, whose seven titles are far behind the Lakers’ and Celtics’ 17 crowns apiece.

And yet, player empowerment is still a notion, a perception. Why? Because it is only reserved for players with the power and prestige of a LeBron James or a Kevin Durant, and is still largely limited to the whims of team governors. Durant wanted to be traded last summer, remember?

Those truths don’t fit in the NBA narrative machine. We don’t want to talk about ring culture ruining our appreciation of NBA legends past and present and how it centers Jordan in the basketball universe. Jordan’s on-court magnificence is undeniable, and so is the NBA’s decision to market him globally. Calling Durant and James “ring chasers” is hypocritical when we place titles over all else.

I see the All-Star Game as a source of irony, not discontentment. Everyone wants to fix All-Star Weekend, but the All-Star Game’s legacy is one born out of fixing games. Haskell Cohen, creator of the All-Star Game, wanted to bring attention back to the NBA after the point-shaving scandal that shocked college basketball in the early 1950s. The exhibition grew from there, and one of the hallmarks of All-Star was an ABA innovation – the dunk contest.

Yet for all of the ABA’s contributions to the NBA, the league did not commit to pay pensions to the former league’s players until last year. We talk so much about player empowerment, yet rarely discuss the conscience, or lack thereof, of the individuals and collective bodies in positions of ownership.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (right) dunks against Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (left) in the 2023 NBA All-Star Game between Team Giannis and Team LeBron at Vivint Arena on Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City.

Kyle Terada — Pool/Getty Images

I love Edwards’ approach to the game, his commitment and his conscientiousness as it relates to fans. Respectfully, it is not his burden to shoulder alone, and this is where the “fixes” come in.

The last time the NBA had a lockout, the league and its players eventually completed a 66-game, regular-season schedule. The NBA should go to a 65-game schedule with no back-to-backs. Ring culture has devalued the regular season, and playoffs are the NBA premium. Like the playoffs, the regular season should not have any back-to-back games. There are 30 teams in the league, which is more than enough to create a compelling TV schedule that satisfies the needs of advertisers and fans.

Speaking of the fans, there’s a relatively simple way to accommodate fans’ pockets – lower the ticket prices, which are going up even as attendance goes down. This isn’t just an NBA phenomenon. It’s an issue with many pro sports.

All-Star Weekend? Quick fix. The dunk contest should reserve two spots for all pro dunkers. I’ve seen too many amazing dunks on Instagram via outlets such as Dunkademics and Team Flight Brothers to think that the dunk contest is “dead.” The ABA was a beacon of innovation, which is why the dunk contest made sense. The NBA should incorporate some of that creativity in the present day, and it should add a $5 million winner-take-all prize.

Believe it or not, the All-Star Game itself doesn’t need to change. The game was without a number of its flagship stars. Warriors guard Stephen Curry missed it entirely, and James and Giannis Antetokounmpo played limited minutes.

What does need to change is how we view working-class people, including ourselves. Our inability as a collective to understand the intersection of race and class makes the professional athlete the focus of our contempt. This creates an unfortunate destiny for ourselves and those around us, who are statistically likely to be working class or the working poor. I appreciate labor and collective bargaining in all arenas, whether it’s the railroad worker who wants paid sick leave, or nurses who strike in response to poor healthcare conditions. 

Many professional athletes have worked tirelessly to achieve their dreams since they were elementary school kids, and as it relates to wealth, essentially became their own lottery tickets. This past weekend in the NBA was a reminder of such a collection of talent, whether it was a 71-point outburst by Damian Lillard, or a number of close games between title contenders.

Ultimately, my hope is that players and fans find working-class kinship, and challenge the corporatists in power to not hoard all the riches for themselves.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.