ARLINGTON, Texas -- The last time the All-Star Game was here in little 'ol Dallas, Spud Webb won the slam-dunk contest, Isiah Thomas was named MVP, and pro basketball in the United States packed up and went home, returning to its second-rate existence.
|LeBron James helps create an atmosphere the NBA must try to replicate on an annual basis. (Getty Images)|
The sport changed forever once Michael Jordan was finished putting his imprint on it, and the 1992 Dream Team helped Jordan bring the NBA global. Then Jordan retired, and retired again, and the question was, "What now?"
Well, this. This is what.
When Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said All-Star weekend in Dallas would make the Super Bowl look like a bar mitzvah, people scoffed. That was just Cuban talking his big talk again, we thought. But he was right. Boy, was he right.
I predict the NBA will never be the same after what transpired Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium. I submit that we just saw the future, and the future is damn good.
In the grandest of venues, in an atmosphere that defied description, the NBA went all in. Before a record crowd for a basketball game -- 108,713 -- the sport stepped boldly into a stratosphere that even its most loyal proponents couldn't have imagined.
"This whole weekend was historic for all of us," Dwight Howard said after the East beat the West 141-139. "It's something we will never forget as basketball players."
Everything that was good and marketable and world class about the NBA was on display. For one night, all the problems beneath the surface stayed there. This show was too big for distractions, a spectacle that will never again be matched.
Or will it?
"We've got a lot of potential to be anything we want," said Kevin Garnett, the elder statesman, admitting he'll be retired when the league reaches the next plateau. "I look forward to this game being international one day."
|All-Star weekend links|
All-Star Game: East 141, West 139
Thread: Talk All-Star Game!
The stars took cell-phone pics of the immense scoreboard and emerged from beneath a stage during introductions -- their smiles and personalities bigger than life on the giant screen. As LeBron James walked down the steps from the raised court at halftime, he pointed to one of his children standing courtside and smiled so wide it would've made Magic Johnson do a double-take. "I'll see you soon, little man," James said, soaking up the moment. "Daddy's going to the locker room, OK?"
On their way back, there were James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony -- partners in this historic night and teammates from the 2008 Olympics -- singing along with Alicia Keys as they waited to climb back up on the biggest stage basketball had ever seen. The halftime show was Keys and Shakira, and let's just say they blew The Who away.
For years, the NBA and all other sports dutifully bowed to the NFL, ceding the title of biggest sports spectacle to the Super Bowl. After Sunday night, there's reason to believe that someday, that might not be the case. Whether you like the truth or not, the NBA is putting on the best show it ever has -- with the most talented players it has ever had -- and now the spectacle has come along with it.
"What an experience," Steve Nash said. "I felt like I was on Battlestar Galactica or something. It just felt like a huge spaceship in there. ... Some of those fans who were so far away from the floor, it was like they were in the greatest sports bar of all time. They had the best big screen, the beer was cold, you could hear the crowd and the action. I'm sure they had a blast, too."
The best things in sports happen by accident, when people try something and have no idea whether it's going to work. The NBA All-Star Game in a 100,000-seat football stadium? Um, sure. OK.
And it worked. To understand just how well it worked, some perspective:
In 1986, the NBA credentialed 597 media members for the All-Star Game at Dallas' Reunion Arena. On Sunday, 1,826 credentialed media were on hand. Back then, All-Star weekend as a concept was still in its infancy. The dunk contest had started only two years earlier, and '86 marked the first 3-point contest -- over the objections of a young commissioner named David Stern.
Stern wasn't sure an addition to the All-Star Saturday night concept was going to work, but was willing to try. It succeeded spectacularly, with Larry Bird winning his first of three consecutive titles.
Only four years earlier, in 1982 at East Rutherford, N.J., All-Star weekend consisted of an East-West practice, the CBA All-Star Game, and a media game. Some NBA veterans now joke that the media game was better attended than the other satellite events.
In 1983, Marvin Gaye brought the house down with a moving rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner outside Los Angeles, forever cementing the NBA and the music world in lock step.
There were other memorable ones -- Magic Johnson returning to the 1992 All-Star Game after being diagnosed as HIV-positive, the unveiling of the 50 Greatest in Cleveland in '97, Jordan's last All-Star MVP at Madison Square Garden in 1998, and a few more. But there has never been anything as important as this. My question has to do with whether it can ever happen again. I ask because it must.
The 2011 All-Star Game already has been scheduled for Staples Center, and despite the fact that nobody puts on a show like L.A., it will be a letdown by comparison. After this show, anything would be.
"One-of-a-kind experience," the Lakers' Pau Gasol said. "Probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us."
I hope not. If there's any way to do it -- if there are enough domed football palaces out there to support it -- then this must be the new All-Star Game. There's no turning back. Maybe it can never be quite on this scale, but something close. The game is ready, and the talent is ready, and the spectacle is ready to come along for the ride.
As I sat in my seat on the baseline, taking cell-phone pictures of the halftime show, that's when it occurred to me that the All-Star Game had gone Super Bowl on us. And irony of ironies, it happened with a huge assist from the most prominent owner in the NFL.
Could it ever get bigger?
"Don't put it past us," Cuban said.
Now, after this, you have to believe him.
This night didn't solve everything; not even close. All-Star Saturday night, which gave the event its initial pop in the sports consciousness, has been watered down to the point of abject lameness. The flip side of selling more than 100,000 tickets to the main event in a football stadium was that a sparse crowd showed up for the rookie game Friday night at the American Airlines Center.
Those problems can be fixed. So, presumably, can the labor issues that overshadowed the weekend until it was showtime at Cowboys Stadium. No amount of doing-it-up Texas-style can hide the issues that still await the NBA on Monday morning: Teams losing money, the league losing money, players losing their minds in the Washington Wizards' locker room, and a potentially devastating labor impasse that would kill all this momentum.
Those problems can be solved another time by people smarter than me. But the NBA has to trust me on this one. The league stumbled into its future Sunday night, and it must never turn back.