I do not know where to look when I talk to the mascot of the Minnesota Timber-wolves, who is dressed like, well, a wolf.
He has a huge synthetic head and obvious paste-on eyes, so I think he really sees me through his mouth. I address my questions to his mouth. I establish good eye-to-mouth contact.
"How often do you hit that shot?" I ask.
"Twelve percent of the time," I think he says.
The shot in question was the best basketball shot I had seen in this entire basketball day. The wolf stood with his back to the basket at center court in the Phoenix Civic Plaza last Saturday afternoon and, without looking, heaved the ball over his head and drew nothing but net! It might be the best shot I've ever seen, certainly the best by a man dressed as a wolf.
"Was that 12 percent?" I ask.
"Twelve percent," the wolf says, clearer this time.
I have figured him out. His eyes must be in his mouth. His voice comes from his neck. I have to admit that I find nothing strange with that.
I am at the NBA All-Star Weekend. I am in a curious world where all cards have been shuffled and anything is possible. Millionaire college dropouts can advise an arena full of kids to stay in school, and rap stars can shoot basketballs and basketball stars can rap, and five Shaquille O'Neals can play five other Shaquille O'Neals in a single game on a large screen straight in front of my eyes.
All doors are clearly open. Charles Barkley is talking about running for governor of Alabama as a Republican but is worried about "too many skeletons" in his closet.
At times I feel as if I have walked into my television set. I move from quiz shows to dance shows to entertainment to politics to computer games to sports. And sports seems to be the least of it.
Four days. Four days of parties. Four days of promotions. Four days of nonsense. Once upon a time, the NBA All-Star Game was a simple affair, the best NBA players from the East and the West getting together for a basketball game and maybe a banquet. All that changed in 1984 when the NBA staged its first slam-dunk contest and its first legends game between old-time stars the day before the big game. Then a three-point-shooting competition was added, and a rookie game was substituted for the legends game after a string of knee injuries left the legends looking not so legendary. Meanwhile the corporate dollars began to flow, and the game became, you know, "dope." Cool.
"What are you doing here?" I ask a broad-shouldered businessman at one of the NBA events. "Trying to see what influences you've had on the sport?"
"No," says Vince McMahon, head of the World Wrestling Federation. "We just always like to see what [NBA commissioner] David Stern is doing."
"I'm covering this for television in Saudi Arabia," says Alaa Abdelnaby, the Sacramento King forward who was born in Cairo, Egypt, and lived there until he was two years old. "They were looking for someone who spoke Arabic, someone who played basketball and someone who would like to come here. I was their guy. I've spoken more Arabic in the last two days than I have at just about any time in my life. It's a challenge."
"You're broadcasting all of this stuff back to Mecca?" I ask.
"Do you know the saying about the mountain coming to Muhammad?" Abdelnaby says. "We're sending the mountain there through the air. All of it."
More than 1,350 media credentials are issued, a record. There are feeds to 167 countries, another record. There is one television crew that goes through an All-Star news conference asking each player, "If you were a sound, what sound would you be?" The follow-up question is, "If you were an animal, which animal would you be?" There is play-by-play coverage on U.S. radio, for the first time, of the slam-dunk and the three-point competitions.
"How are you going to do that?" I ask Glenn Ordway, an NBA Radio announcer. "Do you just say, 'Whoa, baby!' after each dunk?"
"I have no idea," Ordway says. "I'm just going to have to see what comes out."
A $500-a-ticket, black-tie roast of Barkley, emceed by comedian Billy Crystal, is held at the Pointe Hilton at South Mountain on Thursday night to benefit, among other charities, the scholarship fund that Barkley has established at Auburn University. Barkley enters as a king, with a purple robe that is so long that three children hold the train. A party is held the next night at Rawhide, an Old West theme park in Scottsdale, where Bill Russell stands in the back of a large pavilion and, along with 5,000 other people, listens to Kenny Rogers sing and watches line-dance lessons on a concrete floor. There is an MTV party on Friday, and Boyz II Men open the show. There is another party afterward, at Planet Hollywood. There is a performance by Bill Cosby on Saturday. There is a lecture, for wives of owners, team officials and invited guests, by Jane Goodall, author of Through a Window and In the Shadow of Man.
The NBA Jam Session, the party for the common man, is ongoing for four days at the Civic Plaza. For seven bucks admission, five bucks for children, a visitor can measure his or her hand against the prints of Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon and various other NBA stars. There are basketball booths and activities of all dimensions. One challenge, sponsored by Nickelodeon, entails hanging from a harness high above the ground and trying to dunk a basketball. It has a three-hour wait. There are lines everywhere. The attendance on Saturday alone (51,500) totals more than the attendance for the entire All-Star Jam Session a year ago in Minneapolis.
I watch the most elementary challenge, a continuously running three-on-three tournament on 32 half-courts. A high school kid steps out of bounds, drops the ball to the floor out of frustration and kicks it as far as he can.
The biggest celebrity in the celebrity slam-dunk competition is Cal Ripken Jr., the Baltimore Oriole shortstop. He certainly has the free time but wonders if he is ready to try this. He debates whether or not to enter until the last minute.
"I'm at that age, in basketball, where the legs are taking you down instead of up," he says. "But I've been playing a lot lately. And I can still dunk."
He tries. His basic dunk starts with him bouncing the ball high off the floor, then jumping to grab it and stuffing it through the rim. He misses once. He misses twice. He makes the dunk on the third try. The judges are not impressed. The judges, right to left, are baseball player David Justice, WWF champion Diesel, baseball pitcher Dave Stewart, late-night talk-show host Conan O'Brien and comedienne Judy Tenuta.
"You know a lot about dunking?" I ask Tenuta.
"I can dunk," she says. "I have the shoes."
O'Brien also has shoes. They are rhinestone-studded hightops that feature a caricature of him on one side and a bicycle horn on the other side. He has been showing them to All-Stars and touting their efficiency. "We've had the pump on the inside, and that's kind of passed away," he says. "Let's try the pump on the outside."
The most dramatic moment of the rookie game, played before a sellout crowd of 19,023 on Saturday in the America West Arena, occurs at halftime. A 16-year-old kid from Strongsville, Ohio, named Mike Hoban was selected from six million entries in a Foot Locker contest to have one chance at a three-point shot for $1 million. He learned about his chance two weeks ago and has been practicing ever since, with time out for a trip to New York to appear on the David Letterman show.
"We practiced this morning," Mike's father, Chuck, says. "We were over at the Jam Session. At the finish we went for the best of five. First time around, he hit five of five, and the second time, he hit four of five. Then, again, this one shot is different."
It is, indeed. Everything is wrong. Mike has to wait in a runway for the first half to end, sitting next to Phoenix Sun guard Dan Majerle, his celebrity instructor, surrounded by cameras. A boom mike is held over their heads to pick up conversation. Then there is a delay as the court is cleared, and then he is led between long, purple velvet ropes to even more cameras and a standing ovation. The focus is directly on his head. By the time Mike's introduction is finished, the rookie teams have returned, and they join the circle around him. One shot. A million bucks. He takes his time. He misses everything. Air ball.
I follow him as he is escorted back between the purple ropes, down a hall and through a practice gymnasium to an interview room. His eyes are red. His sister is crying. His mother is crying. His father also has cried. "When I shot the ball, it felt as if my arm fell off," Mike says sadly. "I was just overwhelmed by everything. I had no idea it was going to be that bad out there. All those cameras. I didn't have room to breathe. I practiced—I could have practiced forever—but how can you practice for something like that?"
Mike's mother, Marilyn, tells him he is worth more than a million dollars to her, always has been.
I watch the end of the rookie game. A man points to the scoreboard, which shows an image of Rush Limbaugh sitting next to Sun coach Paul Westphal. The same man pointed during the national anthem to Jesse Jackson standing next to Sun president Jerry Colangelo while a 16-year-old named Brandy hit the high notes. The White team beats the Green 83-79 in overtime. Or does the Green beat the White? Somebody wins.
I see Glen Rice of the Miami Heat edge Reggie Miller 17-16 in the finals of the three-point shoot-out. Harold Miner, also of Miami, wins a dispirited dunk contest as Sinbad, the comedian, shouts into a microphone, "That's what basketball is all about." Huh? I talk with Jo Jo White, 48, winner of the legends three-point shoot-out for the second straight year. He says he still plays basketball five times a week. I see a basketball game played by men on in-line skates, not a pretty sight. I watch the mascots dunk contest. I do not talk into the wolf's neck/mouth again. He is not the winner, anyway.
I watch the Stay in School Celebration. One of the emcees, Greg Lee, calls the crowd of deserving students "my stay-in-school posse." Uh-huh. I do not buy any trading cards. I do not buy any shoes, not even the ones Judy Tenuta wears.
I talk with an 11-year-old kid named Michael Kosak, who has won a contest to write a newspaper sports column during the weekend for the Arizona Republic. I ask what he has learned. He says he has learned that Mutombo's hand is "big enough to cover my whole head" and "these players are like skyscrapers, not so big on the horizon but bigger and bigger the closer you come." I suppose those are good lessons.
The official 1995 NBA All-Star logo is a cactus, sort of leaning toward the right, arms extended to a Southwestern sky. I study the logo. The cactus seems to be cheering. Or maybe it is spinning. Or maybe both. Or maybe it is not a cactus but Gumby, reaching toward the sky, happy to be in a warm-weather site and cheering for some bit of foolishness. Hard to say.
The finale is a news conference featuring Barkley early Sunday night. The West has throttled the East 139-112 in a game that meant far less to anybody concerned than the million-dollar shot meant to Hoban.
Barkley is dressed in a gray Sun sweatshirt and sweatpants rather than that royal robe. There is a definite feeling that this has been his time, his place, his weekend. He has been the mostly perfect host, except for a comment about hating white people, which he says was meant as a joke when he said it to a friend but which could hardly have failed to stir up a Barkleyesque controversy, seeing as it was caught on an open TV mike. Barkley has appeared here and there and everywhere, from the opening roast until the conclusion now, mostly light and easy in everything he has done.
"Would you really have gone off the catapult?" a reporter asks.
"Sure," Barkley says. "That looked fun."
The catapult is a springboard contraption that the Suns' mascot, dressed as a gorilla, used to propel himself into the air for a monster dunk during a timeout in the fourth quarter. Barkley walked out from the West huddle and asked the gorilla if he could try it. The gorilla gave Barkley the ball, and he was heading toward liftoff when Sun coach Paul Westphal, also the West coach, ran onto the floor to stop him from possible injury. Barkley says he would still like to try, but not right now.
"It's over," he says. "This has been a long weekend for the Chuckster. I'm glad everyone came and spent a lot of money, but now you can pack your bags and get out of here. We don't want you here anymore."
I say this is fine. Enough is enough. Take me to the catapult.