LAS VEGAS—Any expectation of gravitas disintegrated when rapper 2 Chainz, dressed in a poncho fit for a Peruvian street peddler and Adidas Yeezys, led a flock of Phunkee Ducks down a makeshift red carpet in the Rio Hotel and Casino, as roped-off reporters begged and squealed for selfies nearby. At that very moment, it became clear that the first annual, made-for-television Players’ Awards was willing, perhaps even eager, to sacrifice self-seriousness in pursuit of spectacle.
What, exactly, is The Players’ Awards? Together, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and Black Entertainment Television (BET) partnered to produce the award show, which taped in Las Vegas on Sunday and aired Tuesday night. The show was conceived after a number of players suggested that NBA players should be a part of the official voting process for All-Star, All-NBA, and other end-of-season awards because their direct contact with candidates and intense film study made them more qualified than the current voters.
When Kevin Durant memorably declared at All-Star Weekend that reporters “get too much power” and “don’t know a lot about” what they are voting on, SI.com suggested that the NBPA should simply conduct its own awards and announce the results. Five months later, that’s exactly what has happened, with NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and president Chris Paul organizing the awards to align with the union’s annual summer meeting.
Prior to the event, Roberts said that the NBPA offered the NBA’s official media partners the opportunity to air the event, but those networks “weren’t inclined to go for it.”
“BET has been doing award shows for years and I’ve been a fan of BET awards show for years,” Roberts said. “I think they fit well with the players. We don’t think this is a second choice.”
SI.com attended the taping of the Players’ Awards, seated at a floor table with two other media members, union staffers and BET public relations executives. For a launch event conceived by a union that hasn’t exactly been known for its competency over the years, The Players’ Awards did surpass expectations on a number of levels.
The Rio’s Penn & Teller theater worked well as a venue, providing a table area for the players and their guests, two tiers of balcony seats for fans and the typical lighting and sound you would expect from an awards event. Comedian Jay Pharoah of Saturday Night Live fame was enlisted as host, ESPN’s Jalen Rose chipped in commentary throughout the broadcast, DJ Khaled handled the music, and the musical acts (2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Monica, Jason Derulo and others) were on par with what the NBA showcases for its annual All-Star Weekend.
From the floor-level vantage point, the nuts and bolts of the production were on full display: presenters, award-winners and musical guests were efficiently escorted through a door behind the table, wait staff whisked in and out to bring out fresh wine bottles, complete with Players’ Awards labeling, and tables of NBA players sat just a few feet away, dancing during the musical acts and hopping to their feet for multiple standing ovations.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver might be hip enough to recite his favorite Jay-Z lyric, as he did in a recent interview, but the taping of this show would surely have made him blush on multiple occasions. For example, Pharoah joked that Spurs legend Tim Duncan was “so old that he picked the cotton that made his uniform,” a line that somehow made the cut for the broadcast. A number of other off-color quips made as the night progressed—many by comedian Gary Johnson as time-fillers in between acts—just wouldn’t have a home in a NBA-sponsored production. President Obama and the First Lady were repeatedly skewered, while Kawhi Leonard was said to rock "Harriet Tubman braids.” Later, a presenter awkwardly and elaborately copped to the fact that zero white players were nominated for awards.
This push-the-boundaries approach on race issues didn't exactly bring down the house, but the crowd remained mostly engaged throughout the show and the down periods between segments. Some of Pharoah’s impressions—Stephen A. Smith, Drake rapping as Jesus—drew laughter and applause from the players, but a number of the basketball jokes failed to connect. It’s pretty tough to sell the easy material—DeAndre Jordan’s indecision, James Harden’s referee-baiting antics and Rajon Rondo's ugly exit in Dallas—to players that are constantly bombarded by similar barbs or, in some cases, close friends with the punchline subjects. Even Rose’s forceful, calculated pandering for increased player salaries was met mostly with silence rather than the applause you might expect.
The comedy, music and commentary were all periphery elements, of course. The show, as Paul explained, “is about us players,” and that’s where the bigger problems surfaced. The NBPA’s ability to engage and organize its membership has been a long-standing problem, and it continued here despite Paul’s best efforts. Of the 20 players and coaches listed on the front page of an informational packet, only five showed up to the event and only three of those five bothered to walk the red carpet.
Outside of Paul (who was recognized with the Oscar Robertson Visionary Award for his union work), Stephen Curry (who arrived nearly two hours after taping started) and James Harden (who made the briefest of cameos), there wasn’t much current star power in the building. Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and Paul Pierce highlighted the list of active players in attendance; recognizable superstars like Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose were all nowhere to be found.
When Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year honors, Paul had to accept on his behalf. “He’s still locked away,” Paul joked, referencing the Clippers’ much-ballyhooed home invasion to re-sign their starting center. “We’ve got him where we want him until the season starts.” It was a pretty good line, but it would have been better to see and hear from Jordan himself. The presentation of the “Coach you most want to play for” award to Gregg Popovich was similarly underwhelming. Ray McCallum, an offseason trade acquisition, accepted the award on behalf of the legendary Spurs coach, even though the point guard has yet to suit up in San Antonio. The Best Rookie and Global Impact Player awards were not handed out in person nor did they make the telecast.
Without a doubt, the most glaring and perplexing no-show was LeBron James, a newly-appointed NBPA vice president who is close friends with Paul and was listed as the headliner in promotional materials. Cleveland.com reported that James was busy with a “prior commitment,” which is tough to swallow. James attended the ESPYs in Los Angeles last week, he was courtside at Cleveland’s Las Vegas Summer League game on Friday, and he’s expected to attend NBPA meetings this week as the union begins strategizing a possible lockout in 2017. When James was selected as the “Player I Would Secretly Most Like To Play With” on Sunday, Little League World Series star Mo’ne Davis had to first present the trophy and then accept it on James’s behalf.
As the face of the NBA and its players, James’s mere presence has the ability to grant legitimacy; here, his absence, excused or otherwise, undercut the event like a defender sliding beneath a jump shooter.
The LeBron-less show went on, though, and it definitely had its moments. Ray Allen received a standing ovation after he was named "Man of the Year" for his charitable work with the “Ray of Hope” foundation, and the hero of the 2013 Finals delivered a passionate speech about the importance of being a “great example” to children. Obama saluted Allen in a taped message, chiding the future Hall of Famer for turning 40 before joking, “it’s good to see you’ve still got game… on the golf course.”
Allen Iverson stole the show, as he tends to do, when he accepted the "Game-Changer" award for career achievement. Introduced as a “basketball supernova” who “ripped the envelope apart” by Paul and Lil Wayne, Iverson produced the loudest reaction and longest ovation of the night from the players. When the famous highlight of his crossover against Michael Jordan played, loud gasps rang out from all corners of the theater.
His speech, much like his 2013 retirement press conference, was both uplifting and a bit melancholy.
“I’ve got to pay homage to the man who gave me the vision: Michael Jordan,” Iverson said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have the vision to be a basketball player. ... This is one of the most special awards I’ve received. Because it comes from y’all. Y’all were the guys who made sure I never took a night off.”
Iverson, dressed in a black hat, black shirt, black ankle-length pants and black shoes, then drifted a bit, envisioning the afterlife. He called his career a “great ride” and told the crowd that he “can’t wait to do it again in my next lifetime,” adding that he hopes to come back as “A.I. again” with a little Jordan and James mixed in with Curry’s jump shot and Paul’s toughness. Numerous reports have suggested that Iverson has had problems with alcohol and gambling over the years, and he summed up his day-to-day life philosophy to close his remarks.
“Same fight, different round,” he explained. “The rounds are days. … The only thing that matters is getting back up and fighting again.”
It was easily the most human moment during a heavily scripted night, even if Iverson has opened himself up like this before.
If Iverson was the most popular personality among his fellow players, Curry was the clear fan favorite. The reigning NBA MVP took home the "Clutch Performer" and "Hardest to Guard" awards, while also helping to accept the "Best Home Court Advantage" award on behalf of Oracle Arena. Loud shrieks poured down from the upper decks every time he was called to the stage.
“I pride myself on being ready for those moments,” Curry said while receiving the Clutch award. “It means a lot to be recognized by my colleagues.”
In an unexpected twist to cap the evening, Curry’s colleagues recognized Harden as the league’s MVP. Throughout the spring, Curry and Harden were engaged in a neck-and-neck campaign for the official award, with Curry finally pulling away on the strength of Golden State’s 67-win season.
The Warriors went on to beat Harden’s Rockets in five games in the Western Conference finals and claim their first championship in 40 years, providing some measure of validation for Curry’s first career MVP award, but some still felt that Harden deserved the award because he had significantly less help. Apparently, the players felt the same way, as they selected the league’s second-leading scorer over Curry, James and Westbrook. Harden emerged from the ether to accept the award, offering only a bland series of gratitude to his family, the NBPA and BET.
“To my peers, I appreciate this vote,” he said flatly, echoing Curry’s earlier sentiment. “It means a lot.”
Exactly how much these awards mean to anyone besides the recipients remains to be seen. Word spread Sunday that BET and the NBPA reached a multi-year agreement to continue the show. Paul was bullish on the event’s future, saying that he “definitely thinks it has a chance to become a staple” and adding that, “next year we’ll have a chance to make it even better.” At the same time, the NBA has touted the possibility of launching its own end-of-year awards show when its new media rights deals kick in for the 2016-17 season.
Will The Players’ Awards succeed in drawing a meaningful television audience? Will they soon have to compete against a more “official” show aired on one of the league’s partner networks? Will they eventually be established enough to make James’s busy docket? And, importantly, will fans and media members ever get on board and cite them as evidence of a player’s worth or skill?
The first annual show didn’t provide definitive answers to those questions. The event didn’t provide testimonials from players explaining why the award-winners were selected, most of the acceptance speeches were bland and cookie-cutter, and way too many of the nominees and winners weren’t even in attendance. But for the basketball diehard, the long evening was hardly a waste of time: Iverson and Allen more than compensated for the Phunkee Ducks and shticky wisecracks, and the most important votes (MVP and DPOY) wound up departing from the media’s selections, thereby providing some validation for the show’s premise.
As Monica, the platinum-selling R&B singer, looked to beat the rush to the exits, her husband, former Slam Dunk Contest competitor Shannon Brown, asked her to slow down. The presenter was in the midst of unveiling the MVP award, and The Strip would still be there if they waited another minute or two. In Brown’s hesitation, the Players’ Awards passed the relevancy test with one of its own, even if the head they turned belonged to a journeyman that logged just 89 minutes last season.
It was Allen who co-opted the urban clothing line’s name to tag this event as a “For us, by us” affair. The “For” part went pretty well: the award-winners were all reasonable selections, the players who did show up had a good time, and everyone from Iverson on down seemed at least somewhat honored by their selections. The “By” part worked too, as Paul and the union’s other members succeeded in building a genre-busting awards show from scratch. But the NBPA, who needs to bring together the superstars and the scrubs before the next labor negotiations, still needs a little work on the “Us.”