Fear and Clothing in Atlanta The conspicuous consumption in Atlanta was so over-the-top that it would've made Caligula do a spit-take.

February 17, 2003

As America was put on Orange Alert last Friday, Atlanta appeared
well-fortified against a terrorist attack, filled as it was with
armored stretch Hummers and blocklong bulletproof Escalades. In
the lobby of the Hyatt Regency, where NBA All-Stars stayed in
advance of their game on Sunday, men sipped Hennessy from golden
goblets, wore mink top hats and terry-cloth tracksuits--in
robin's-egg blue and traffic-cone orange--and proved, among many
other things, that discretion is not the better part of velour.

Even Wolf Blitzer, an hour after announcing the terrorist alert
on CNN, looked unruffled at the Ritz-Carlton, where he was
lamenting, to a conference room full of athletes and executives,
the 4 a.m. tipoff times for NBA games televised in Qatar. Which
is to say that the only gravity on evidence in Atlanta was actual
gravity. "Before I entered politics, I was 6'7"," said Bill
Clinton, the 6'2" former president, in a private reception room
at Philips Arena on Saturday night. "I had a chance to play pro
ball." Then he was off to the National Basketball Players
Association party, across the street, where it was said he'd be
sitting in on saxophone with the Gap Band, whose biggest hit
was--unfortunate, given the timing--You Dropped a Bomb on Me.

Perhaps it's to the country's credit that while standing at the
brink of war, we'll still party like it's 1999. Or, rather, 1969:
With all the 5XL throwback baseball jerseys in Atlanta, it was
difficult to tell if this was the 2003 NBA All-Star Game or the
1973 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Jermaine O'Neal of the
Indiana Pacers wore braids and a blaze-orange '84 Denver Broncos
shirt around town. With their plumage and primary-colored suits,
players are increasingly indistinguishable from mascots. All
they're missing is the furry tongue.

Even those were easy to acquire in Atlanta, at parties like the
Chris Webber--hosted Evening of Luxury, an invitation-only affair
at which a 2003 SUV was to be given away to an already-rich
reveler. Why not? Shaquille O'Neal on Friday wore a hooded
sweatshirt whose leather sleeves could have been hewn from Louis
Vuitton luggage. His knit watch cap bore the Yankees' NY logo
done up in diamonds. Said Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times:
"Why not go the final step and just start wearing a toga?"

Is this opulent decadence, this decadent opulence, what the world
envies, or disdains, about the U.S.? On Sunday, with the terror
alert in the headlines, war was on many minds. Steve Nash wore a
khaki Tshirt that read NO WAR: SHOOT FOR PEACE. "In the
Constitution it states that war is to be used in the case of
self-defense," said the Dallas Mavericks guard, a South
African--born Canadian, "and I don't think that this"--war with
Iraq--"is self-defense." Jermaine O'Neal, Tracy McGrady and
Antoine Walker each hosted the family of a serviceman stationed
overseas.

And yet, televised talk of a "wartime economy" was rendered
ridiculous by displays of conspicuous consumption so over-the-top
that they'd have made Caligula do a spit-take: stretch Volkswagen
Beetles, bowler hats made from Gucci handbags, men swaddled in so
many chains that Atlanta looked like a city of Houdinis. Or Henry
the VIIIs: Grown men really did carry, through the Hyatt lobby at
2 a.m., their own jewel-encrusted chalices.

At the NBA's Jam Session fan festival, children could buy a
miniature model of an Escalade. A collectibles booth sold, for
$100 apiece, framed photographs of Al Pacino in Scarface and
Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, each of which included two real
bullets--and a Cohiba cigar--pressed under the glass. Meanwhile,
Ian Naismith, grandson of the game's inventor, sat nearby in his
own booth, dedicated to the history of basketball, and found
himself largely bereft of visitors.

"My grandfather would detest all the money grabbing in the game,"
Naismith said, as LeBron James was scoring 52 points on cable TV.
"He never took a dime from the game he invented. I'm concerned
now with all the negative role-modeling we see." Indeed, the
rapper on everyone's sound system last week was 50 Cent, whose
debut album is called Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

On Sunday morning I ascended in an elevator with a young man
wearing, on a chain around his neck, a three-dimensional
diamond-and-platinum baseball player that looked as if it had
just fallen off the world's most expensive Little League trophy.
And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I may merely
be on the far side of a growing generational gulf. When
20-year-old Tyson Chandler of the Chicago Bulls said that he
"grew up watching Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan," I nearly coughed
out my dentures.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning Atlanta looked like Atlantis,
an ancient empire preserved in amber. At the players' union party
Lennox Lewis entered behind a chevron of bodyguards that served
as a human cowcatcher, cleaving the crowds in front of him. I
expected an attendant to scatter rose petals before him. But none
did, which was--it must be said--vaguely disappointing.

"This party," said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, on his way out,
"is a lot tamer than last year's." So maybe we're belt-tightening
after all.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

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