So, we need to talk about the weather because that’s all anyone really talked about this weekend. It was cold you see, really freaking cold. How cold was it, Kobe?
“It’s cold,” Kobe Bryant confirmed on Friday. “It’s really, really cold. Really, really cold.”
And that was before we got to Saturday when leaving one’s hotel felt like a truly courageous act, if not downright lunacy. The funny thing about the cold, the locals all said, was that it had been such a mild winter. And the really funny thing was that it would warm up just when the NBA’s All-Star carnival of marketing delights was set to get up on out of here. What can you do, eh? (No one shrugs about bad weather like Canadians.)
“Nobody believes me,” Raptor guard DeMar DeRozan said. “They think it’s cold like this all the time. But that’s not the truth. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. We’ve got an All-Star Weekend here. Everything’s here. We can’t complain.”
It’s true: no one believed DeRozan, but everyone did complain. The shame of it was that Toronto was a wonderful host city. It’s a gorgeous place, filled with fantastic restaurants and friendly, welcoming people. Everything they say about Toronto was true from the clean sidewalks to the oddly well-organized traffic congestion. No one wanted to be an ungracious guest, so we whined in private, put on Canada Goose jackets and tried to make the best of it. As Adam Silver pointed out, the very point of the game of basketball was to give people something to do when the weather turned brutal.
“Yes, it’s a bit cold here, but I’ve been reading up on James Naismith,” Silver said. “Dr. James Naismith, who, of course, was born in this very province of Ontario. And what I read is when he founded this game 125 years ago, it was because he thought there was an activity needed to keep young boys, young men active on these very cold winter days. And of course, he planned it as an indoor activity. So when I keep hearing about how cold it is, I keep reminding people that’s true, but our events are inside, so no big deal and we’re all enjoying it here.”
Into that frigid atmosphere stepped Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine, who lit up Saturday night with one of the greatest dunking exhibitions any of us have ever seen. Their overtime dunk contest was an instant classic and redefined the possibilities of human flight and creativity.
It came down to a choice between LaVine’s graceful artistry and Gordon’s overwhelming power. Like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins before them, LaVine’s aerial ballet carried the day, but who cares about the winner after such a show? The dunk contest redeemed everything about the weekend, which up to that point had been lacking in anything so visceral as two dudes flying through the air.
It was Kobe who defined this year’s All-Star experience, and while Bryant was trailed everywhere by an ever-eager international media begging him to say something, anything, in their native language, even that seemed a bit ceremonial. His farewell tour has been so well-chronicled at this point that All-Star weekend was just another signpost on this nostalgic journey through the past.
While Kobe held court, it was impossible to look around and notice who wasn’t here this time around. There was no Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki or Paul Pierce. His old nemesis Shaquille O’Neal was a finalist for the Hall of Fame as was Allen Iverson, who was a member of same draft class.
Kobe, fittingly, is the last of his era. He’s the final, most prominent link between the beginning of the NBA’s golden period of Bird, Magic and Jordan when pro basketball transformed itself from a winter activity with a devoted cultish audience into an international spectacle. No American player has carried the NBA’s banner overseas better than Kobe. The modern players referred to Bryant as their Jordan, and in the global vision of the league, he has more than earned that singular title. The stage, for most of the weekend, was his alone.
“This is pretty cool,” Bryant said. “I’m looking around the room and seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game. It’s true. I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all. I mean, I’m really happy and honored to be here and see this.”
The most memorable All-Star weekends are about transitional moments. At their best, they are a time when one generation rises up to assert itself and its place in the game. At the very least they are a signifier of where the league stands at a moment in history. And so, the NBA finds itself in a curious place. Kobe’s farewell marked the end of one of the most enduring passages in league history and the future feels very much uncertain. The incoming crush of television money threatens to rewrite the landscape in ways we haven’t even begun to comprehend.
“The answer is, I’m not sure,” Silver said candidly. “As I’ve said before, a dramatic increase in the cap, as we’re going to see next year, is not something we modeled when we designed this Collective Bargaining Agreement. We’d prefer a system where teams are managing for cap room, and we’d prefer a system in which stars are distributed throughout the league as opposed to congregating in one market. Whether that will happen with all this additional cap room this summer is unclear to me.”