by Lang Whitaker

Monday night, way after midnight. I’m back in NYC on my couch, catching up on “Eastbound and Down” and recovering from another fun All-Star Weekend. I’ve got a ton to catch up on at the office this week, and I have to write a cover story for the next issue of SLAM, like, today. I’ve also got a few people lined up for a podcast later this week to follow up last week’s blockbuster podcast debut. So, I thought I should put some finishing touches on my All-Star thoughts as soon as possible.

After the Finals last year I did a Best and Worst of the Finals column, and I thought I’d wrap up my All-Star experience with another Best and Worst column. Thanks for hanging with us online all weekend everyone and helping us set a commenting record with our liveblog of the game. As fun as it was to be out there covering the events, it was even more fun checking in and reading all your responses and getting to share the weekend with you guys.

And now, without further ado…

WORST CITY LAYOUT
Phoenix, as it turns out, is actually a bunch of smaller cities (North Phoenix, Glendale, Scottsdale, Tempe) which are wildly spread out. I spent over $100 in taxi fares within a three hour period on Saturday afternoon just going between the arena, the LRG suite in Scottsdale and our hotel in Tempe. It was like having the All-Star Game in New York, putting the media in Jersey and having all the parties in Brooklyn. I have a feeling we won’t be returning for an All-Star in Phoenix for a while.

BEST EXAMPLE OF HOW SPREAD OUT PHOENIX IS
On Saturday afternoon in Scottsdale, we were talking to a guy we’d bumped into the night before out in Scottsdale at the T-Mobile party. He said something like, “Man, where was that T-Mobile party last night?” Ben said, “It was in Scottsdale — you were there!” And he said, “Yeah, but I don’t know what city it was in.”

BEST WEATHER
Phoenix. If Phoenix wasn’t more spread out than Europe, I would vote for having All-Star there every year if only because the weather was amazing — in the low 70s every day, sunny, clear…just gorgeous.

BEST HOTEL NAME
The NBA had all the media staying in Tempe at a place called the Marriott Buttes, which was great because we got to call it the Marriott Butts all weekend.

WORST ANIMAL SIGHTING
It was twilight on Saturday night, and Ben and I were leaving the hotel to go to All-Star Saturday Night. As the sun crashed into the desert behind us, I made my way to the media shuttle bus, where I came across a group of three or four NBA volunteers in identical white polyester jackets pointing furiously at the top of a butte rising high behind the media shuttle bus. I hustled outside, curious to see what was going on. Was it a UFO? A pot of gold?

“Look!” said one of the women, urgently. “It’s a black-tipped mountain sheep!”

I took a look and, sure enough, there was some sort of fluffy white animal atop the hill, sitting in the shade on a rock outcropping. There appeared to be some sort of upper body movement going on as well, but I couldn’t clearly discern what was happening.

The three older women in the volunteer jackets were totally engrossed. I asked if there were a lot of mountain sheep around the area.

“No, not really,” the ringleader volunteer said. “It must have escaped from the zoo.” She said this like it was her final answer. This was apparently not open for discussion.

“And the zoo, that’s about two or three miles away,” said one of the other volunteers. “It’s amazing it made it this far.”

Indeed, I thought, it’s amazing that a sheep escaped from the zoo and made it two or three miles and NOBODY SAW A SHEEP RUNNING AWAY FROM THE ZOO!

I still couldn’t get a good view of this alleged sheep, which was about 40 yards away from us high up on this hill. I started thinking about it — isn’t it goats and rams that can live in mountains? Sheep need grass and stuff, right?

“Do you have a camera?” The lead volunteer was desperate to document this. I lied and told her I didn’t have a camera and climbed onto the bus.

The bus driver was a man in his 40s with gray skin, wearing an ill-fitting NBA baseball hat. As I walked past him he said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Hey buddy, you know that’s not a sheep, right?”

“I can’t even see it,” I said. “What is it then?”

“It’s a cat,” he said, disgust ringing in his voice.

I laughed and asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” he responded, smiling. “Sheep don’t lick themselves.”

So that’s what that sheep was doing! And from then on, we referred to the animal as The Sheep/Cat.

BEST CONSPIRACY THEORY
So why did Dwight Howard let Nate Robinson dunk on him? Good question. The explanation I came up with immediately was simple and, I think, plausible: They both have the same agent. And it wouldn’t hurt Dwight or their agent to make Nate more marketable, would it?

WORST MOVIE
Soon after our flight took off this morning from Phoenix to Houston, a bunch of small screens dropped from the ceiling and a movie began showing. Which movie? “Flash of Genius,” starring Greg Kinnear as the man who invented windshield wipers. I swear. Someone in Hollywood decided this was a movie people would clamor to see in theaters. I lasted literally 10 seconds.

Then in Houston we changed planes and got on a 3 hour flight to New York City. And the movie on the second flight? “Flash of Genius.”

BEST SONG
I am not judging this song by any means, but the song I heard about 200 times over the weekend — at parties, on the radio, coming from other cars — was Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” Ne-Yo made a late run with “Closer,” but this was Lady Gaga’s weekend.

WORST RULE
What was the deal in the dunk contest when Rudy Fernandez tried and missed that dunk for 2 minutes…and then they announced, “OK, now he has two more tries!”

BEST USE OF NEW MEDIA
During the 40 minutes all the All-Stars were doing media availability, I was sprinting around trying to find guys momentarily alone enough for me to get in for a few seconds with my video camera for this video.

While I was talking to Tony Parker, I felt my Sidekick start vibrating. I glanced down and saw that Ben was calling me. I knew Ben was on the court somewhere and couldn’t figure out why he was calling me, because he knew I was on deadline trying to get as much video as possible. I excused myself from Tony and answered the phone.

“AI cut off his hair,” Ben said. I looked around and saw Iverson just walking out onto the floor, so I ran over and followed him as he looked for a place to sit and talk to the media. As he found a seat and mentioned that he was sending his hair to his Mom, I used my Sidekick to throw up a post on my twitter page:

ai cut his braids off this morning. said he’s sending them to his mom.

After the media session ended, Ben googled “Allen Iverson braids” to see what was going on and saw that AOL had me breaking the news via twitter.

When Al Gore invented the internets, I’m pretty sure he never thought they’d be used like this.

WORST JUDGE OF AGE
The first leg of our ill-fated trip out to Phoenix was supposed to be a quick flight from New York City to Washington D.C. From D.C. we were going to connect on a flight out to Phoenix. The plane from NYC to DC was a small plane, one of those with about 40 seats. Ryne and I were assigned seats next to each other, but once they closed the door and we realized the plane was less than half-full, I moved up to an empty exit row seat so I could stretch out. I immediately fell asleep, as I often do on airplanes, and takeoff was delayed a little over 2 hours. We finally took off and landed, and I de-planed and waited for Ryne. A few minutes later, Ryne exited, chatting to a rather lovely young lady. I didn’t want to interrupt anything, until I heard the girl mention she was in high school. Whoa!

BEST CELEBRITY SIGHTING
Flying out of the All-Star Game city is almost always a hassle, so Ryne and I got up early and got the Phoenix airport at 8:30 a.m. for our 11:20 a.m. flight. Of course, there was nobody in the airport and by about 8:32 a.m. we were through security with nothing to do. After we killed an hour with Hawks VP Arthur Triche at a café, we all headed off to our gates. I dropped my bags and went off to find a bathroom. A few minutes later I was walking back, and I noticed a really tall guy with only a backpack and a PlayStation 3 in a box just ahead of me. He turned and looked at me and I heard a dull roar. I looked up and it was Dikembe Mutombo.

He was on our flight to Houston and stuck in coach, which he wasn’t happy about. I was happy about it, however, because I got to hear Dikembe complain for about 15 minutes. Even better, I got Arthur to come over so I could say, in front of Dikembe, “Hey Triche, you still work for Hawk?”

BEST CELEBRITY INTERACTION
Around 2 a.m. at the T-Mobile party, my man Arash Markazi from SI.com said, “Hey, it’s Matt Kemp from the Dodgers.” As one of the world’s biggest Dodgers fans, Ben nearly dropped his beer and immediately announced he was going to go and talk to him because he wanted to get Kemp in SLAM (he was a big-time basketball player in high school and played with Shelden Williams). I knew Ben was a little twisted by this point and tried to talk him out of it, or at least to let me go over talk to him, but Ben insisted. It all worked out well in the end, but Ben later said one of Kemp’s first lines was, “Are you OK?”

WORST FORCED INVOLVEMENT
The Harlem Globetrotters. At All-Star media availability, when we all have a short amount of time to get as many interviews as possible, five players from the Harlem Globetrotters showed up in uniform and spent the entire time forcing their way into interacting with the real All-Stars. Why in the world were the Harlem Globetrotters around? Because they’re based in Phoenix, apparently. Of course. So now the economy’s so bad the Globetrotters were outsourced to Phoenix?

BEST OVERHEARD LINE AT A PARTY
Late one night at one of the parties, I needed to hit the bathroom. I walked down a hallway and noticed the women’s restroom was closed off so the custodial staff could clean it. I turned the corner to the men’s room and saw two ladies entering the restroom. The men’s restroom. Hmm.

I wasn’t sure how to react. Should I wait patiently? Should I barge in and perhaps catch these two ladies in the midst of something?

Being a Southern gentleman at heart, I waited. So I stood there in the hall, alone, patiently wondering what in the world was happening, when two other guys came walking up.

“Is there a line?” one of them asked me.

“I guess,” I said. “Actually, two girls just went in there and, well, I thought I’d at least give them a few minutes before barging in.”

“F that,” one of these fine young men responded. He pushed open the door slightly and all three of us stuck our heads in the door. One of the girls was standing just inside the door, I guess on guard duty. The other girl was in the toilet stall, on her knees, facing the toilet.

“Hurry up,” yelled the girl on guard, noticing us. “Just go ahead and throw up. My house is only 15 minutes away. Throw up now and then we’ll be at my place in no time.”

One of my classier male counterparts then blurted out, “Just stick your finger down your throat.”

And from inside the toilet stall we heard, “I know how to throw up — I was bulimic for four years, b*tch!”