|2013 NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston is pulling out all the stops. (Getty Images)|
HOUSTON -- Getting to the All-Star Weekend is extremely tough. It takes a lot of hard work, skill, determination and a sacrifice of things that you might want to do in order to become the person you need to be. I'm sure it's also really hard for basketball players to become so talented and focused as athletes to eventually be named or voted onto the All-Star teams, too.
Finding my way to All-Star Weekend here was not easy. I was supposed to take a flight from Minneapolis into Chicago on Thursday afternoon and then make a connecting flight three hours later to end up in Houston just in time to catch the majority of the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder battling it out on national television. The first part of that trip was a breeze. The second part had me wondering if O'Hare Airport in Chicago was quickly morphing itself into a Stephen King novel of some sort.
After waiting my three hours, the plane that we were supposed to take to Houston still wasn't at the gate. It was in a hangar, and the crew was waiting for it to be taxied to our gate. After about 25 minutes of when we were supposed to be boarding the plane, it was finally brought to where it was supposed to be. Then they announced the plane was too hot. It had a fever or an internal temperature of 85 degrees and needed to be cooled manually. One problem with that: the manual system of cooling the plane revealed a mechanical problem, and that had to be fixed.
Three hours passed, and we had no idea if we were going to get stranded in Chicago or if we'd make our destination. It wasn't looking good at all. Finally, they fixed it. We all boarded the plane and were happy to finally be on our way to Houston. Everybody was going to Houston, presumably for the same reason. I was looking to soak in my first All-Star Weekend experience. The passengers on this flight were looking to do the same thing; half of them were parts of entourages of some player or family member who was putting them up for the weekend. Some guys talked about the parties that they were going to get into; some talked about the website work that they do for a specific player.
Next problem: after the door to the plane was closed, the crew found another mechanical problem and the pilot informed us the flight was "illegal" and we wouldn't be leaving Chicago that night. I didn't even know a flight could be "illegal" unless it involved Wesley Snipes doing some hand-to-hand combat with federal inmates.
Instead of arriving in Houston between the hours of 8-11 p.m. CT, I was going to have to get up at 3 a.m., head over to the airport and make a 6 a.m. flight to Houston. Friday morning, the flight happened without a problem and our travels were totally legal. When I got to Houston, I had a cab driver from the Philippines who couldn't be more excited about the NBA being there for All-Star Weekend. We had an incredibly fun conversation about players that he was learning about and autographs that he'd had signed.
"I have all of the great players from the NBA's autograph," the cab driver exclaimed as he made more eye contact with me through the rear-view mirror than he did the road. "Michael Jordan, Ne-Yo, Rondo ... I have them all."
He then told me that he was becoming a U.S. citizen in December and could legally change his name when he does. He is such a fan of the NBA, he was deciding between Michael Jordan and Lew Alcindor for his new name. The incredible thing is none of this was hyperbole. He had also considered Pete Maravich. I talked him into Lew Alcindor, and he said to come back to Houston in January. He'll give me a ride from the airport and will show me his identification with his new name.
Once I got to the All-Star festivities, it was a zoo. At one of the hotels, they had player stations set up for availability. They first they trotted out the All-Star Saturday night participants. Terrence Ross told us this was his first dunk contest ever. Stephen Curry gave tips on how to shoot, smartly saying it all starts with the feet. You need balance. Steve Novak couldn't come up with a reason why he wouldn't win the contest.
They had the Shooting Stars legends there, too. Sam Cassell excitedly talked about having confidence as a player, pushing yourself in practice to make you better so you're ready when your name is called, and how the Minnesota Timberwolves would have won the championship in 2004 if he hadn't had to play so many minutes and end up injuring his hip. He actually said if Troy Hudson was healthy that year, Cassell would have played fewer minutes and the wear and tear wouldn't have been so severe.
Wolves fans always knew Troy Hudson cost them a title; we just didn't know how.
Muggsy Bogues told Dominique Wilkins that he hadn't shot a basketball in years.
When they ushered in the Western Conference All-Stars, journalists from all over the globe swarmed the players, like those super-beetle things in the Mummy movie franchise. Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, et al. battled them off like Brendan Fraser would to survive.
|Russell Westbrook, three-time All-Star. (Getty Images)|
Russell Westbrook talked about wanting to win, how Katy Perry would be the soundtrack to a Love and Basketball remake starring himself and he picked The Mighty Ducks over Cool Runnings. Or maybe he picked Cool Runnings; I might have been more shocked at the question. Gregg Popovich talked glowingly about Erik Spoelstra becoming a head coach and becoming one of the better coaches in the league through hard work. When asked how he thinks his team could defeat Miami if they meet in The Finals, he promptly responded with, "I'm just focused on Sacramento on Tuesday."
As the Western stars were led out of the conference room, James Harden was finishing up questions. Kevin Durant walked by his table, exclaimed, "Hurry up, cupcake!" and Harden quickly followed him out of the room.
Next the Eastern stars came into the room. Kevin Garnett smiled quite a bit. Seriously. Chris Bosh spoke thoughtfully about his own experience and evolution in All-Star Game experiences for him (more on that later Saturday) over the years. And LeBron James had a very serious tone to his Q&A session, replicating the intense focus that he has shown us over the past year.
James ardently defended Derrick Rose's comments on wanting to be patient with his comeback from ACL surgery. LeBron also defended his own legacy and mission as a basketball player, even with Michael Jordan picking Kobe Bryant right now. He also spoke about shooting competitions with Ray Allen and how you don't want to miss shots because you know Ray won't. It forces him to become a better shooter just out of sheer competition.
LeBron even swatted away a question from a Greek reporter about the 2006 Greek basketball team that helped convince USA Basketball that it had to take the Olympic venture a lot more seriously. James claimed he couldn't remember that far back.
At All-Star Weekend, you're essentially being shuttled from one place to the next. Head to the convention center for Rising Stars practice. Find your way to the hotel for media availability. Get to the Toyota Center for the Rising Stars game. It's a whirlwind of head-spinning bouts of short travel.
After being denied access to the Celebrity Game (you apparently need even better credentials than a media pass that gets you everywhere if you want to see Kevin Hart be on a basketball court), I headed over to the Toyota Center for the Rising Stars game.
|Two hours before the game. Only a few more people found their way in for the Rising Stars game. (Getty Images)|
The feeling of that game is odd. The arena was maybe 40 percent filled, and that could be me being really generous by counting the mascots as attendees. The game starts, and you're quickly reminded it's not a game at all. It's a light practice on national television, which can lead to cool dunks, a lot of 3-point attempts that your coach would be furious at you for doing and listless defense that makes Andray Blatche look like Dennis Rodman.
The game itself was pretty boring for most of it. You had Damian Lillard and Isaiah Thomas making shots, Ricky Rubio throwing ridiculous passes through a wide-open defense and a bunch of alley-oops. It was basically like any Sacramento Kings road game.
It finally picked up when Kyrie Irving decided he was going to try to end Brandon Knight's career. Twice, he put Knight on the ground with a move and some physicality. Knight attempted to respond multiple times and managed to cross Irving up with a lightning quick handle. However, Knight wasn't able to finish the play at the rim, needing Rising Stars MVP Kenneth Faried to clean up the plays.
But Irving's handle electrified the people who were in the arena. If you were wondering where the And 1 Mixtape Tour had gone, I think they tried to disband before they ever had to think about dealing with Kyrie. You know that embarrassing dream where you go to school and find yourself naked in front of the class? That's what happens when you have to defend Irving in one of these competitions and he decides it's your turn for embarrassment. He undresses you with his handle.
The finish to the game made up for the lack of luster in the opening moments. And, with that, the 2013 All-Star Weekend is officially upon us. It should be a fun weekend here, with the Saturday festivities preparing us for a hopefully spirited Sunday exhibition.
It was hard for many of us to get here, but we got here.