By Frank Hughes
February 15, 2010

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Perhaps Sunday's NBA All-Star game was an audition for this summer's free agency bonanza.

With virtually every league decision-maker gathered in the ostentatious surroundings of Cowboys Stadium, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh led the East All-Stars to an exciting 141-139 victory over the West before the largest crowd ever to witness a basketball game.

With 108,713 fans looking on, the league's most compelling class of free agents had to have made the owners and general managers on hand drool at the possibilities of one of them playing for their team next season. Better yet, two of them.

Miami's Wade was named the game's Most Valuable Player on the strength of his 28 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and five steals. But Wade had plenty of help from Cleveland's James, who had 25 points, six assists and five rebounds, and Toronto's Bosh, who contributed 21 points, 10 rebounds and what turned out to be the game-winning free throws with five seconds left.

"You see the connection we both have," Wade said of James. "I've played with him for a lot of years ... and he makes it easy on his teammates. I get the opportunity to be his teammate for one day and I'm going to enjoy it."

Afterward, Wade was asked about the possibility of playing alongside James next season, a hypothetical that is not likely -- and becomes more and more unlikely the closer the Cavaliers get to trading for Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire -- but technically possible. All three players are free agents this summer and free to sign and play with whomever they choose.

"We can dream, can't we?" Wade said. "I dream."

It is precisely that type of free-agency gamesmanship, never giving a direct answer but always leaving open options -- that makes the uncertainty both intriguing and maddening. Will he stay or will he go? And that extends to Wade, James and Bosh.

Though he did not come right out and give his reasons, Wade admitted he was more aggressive in this All-Star game than any other in which he had played. James and Bosh were not far behind. Coincidence? Probably not. Though that also may have had to do with the fact that the game was played before the largest crowd to ever witness a basketball game.

The overarching shadow of a 2011 lockout that consumed Friday and Saturday melted away in the glitz and glamour of this festive occasion, where senses were numbed by the well-designed combination of star power and marketing prowess.

All-Star Weekend is usually an exercise in excess, but Sunday's event in Dallas may have been the most galactic spectacle of them all. From the mass crowds to the awe-inspiring $1.2 billion stadium built by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the NBA staged an event that dazed even the usually unfazed participants.

"It felt like you were on stage," Wade said. "When we went out to warm up, it was amazing. We were like kids -- giddy."

The floor, which sat in the middle of the football playing field, was elevated about three feet, with the bench players sitting in plush chairs on the ground so that the court was virtually at eye level. At times it sounded like a bowling alley as the players thundered up and down the hardwood, but it added a unique element that is seen in only a few college arenas across the country.

Beyond that, it turned out to be a downright good game. West coach George Karl said a few weeks ago that if the players would take the game seriously and not get caught up into theatrical dunks, it would be an extremely entertaining and competitive game.

It didn't look that way when the East took a 16-point lead.

But when the East's starters were removed in the second half, the West staged a comeback that was led by Chauncey Billups, who was added to the roster because of an injury to Chris Paul. Billups had five 3-pointers and his Denver teammate Carmelo Anthony had 27 points, helping the West tie the game at 137 when Billups hit a 19-foot jumper.

Utah's Deron Williams tried to help the West take the lead, but he was stripped by Wade and then fouled him, sending Wade to the free throw line for a 139-137 East lead.

Dirk Nowitzki made two foul shots to tie the game with 7.7 seconds remaining. On the ensuing play, Bosh inbounded the ball, got it back and was fouled by Billups as he drove to his left to get to the baseline. Bosh made both free throws for a 141-139 lead. Anthony had a chance for a game-winning 3, but, guarded by James, it came up short, letting the East come away with the victory.

"If I made it, I'm the hero. If I don't, we lose," Anthony said. "It was a little short. But overall it was a great game for both teams."

With the trade deadline on Thursday, the next four days could go a long way toward reshaping the dynamics of the league. The Cavaliers are making decisions not only to give them the opportunity to win a championship this season but to allow them to keep James, the reigning MVP, for the foreseeable future.

The Raptors must decide if they want to gamble by not trading Bosh now and risk letting him slip away for nothing in free agency.

And Wade? He says mostly the right things about wanting to stay in Miami, but also tickles the nervous system with occasional mysterious quips.

Sunday's game did nothing to quell the speculation.

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