by Lang Whitaker

The first year I went to All-Star, in D.C. back in 2001, I wasn’t sure how to cover it. Blogs hadn’t been invented then, and most websites were creaky and updated once a day. So I took notes the entire weekend and when I returned to the office I posted a massive 6,000-word manifesto. Some of it was surely boring, but I also tried to fit a lot of minutae in there; what it’s like to run into Rasheed Wallace in a hotel bar in the middle of the night, stuff like that. The next year, a few weeks before the game, people starting asking when my All-Star report was going to drop. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time and energy covering All-Star, because it really is the NBA’s biggest weekend. And this year will be no different.

With the 2007 All-Star Game in Las Vegas right around the corner, I thought it would be fun to resurrect some of our previous All-Star reports. Each day this week I’m bringing out the archives. (Which I’ve condensed to make things easier for all of us.)

Today, we visit my hometown, the ATL, and Michael Jordan’s final All-Star appearance…

NBA All-Star Weekend 2003
Atlanta

By 6:45 a.m., as I stood around outside my apartment waiting for Russ to roll through and pick me up so we could fly out to Atlanta, the snow was piled in the streets, getting gully in the gutters. We still made it out to LaGuardia pretty quickly. We’d been in line for maybe ten minutes when Shandon Anderson came rolling in, wearing a beige sweatsuit, a plain baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He hustled to the first class line, where he settled in behind Craig Sager and Danny Ainge, who was wearing a colorful McDonald’s Open 1993 leather jacket with a huge Phoenix Suns logo on the back, the orange collar turned up. At least Ainge wasn’t trying to draw any attention to himself.

As we hit the security checkpoint, Ainge, who has no idea who I am, suddenly cut me off.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, but still not stopping to let me back in ahead of him.

“You should’ve said, ‘Tree Rollins wasn’t,'” Russ noted.

I was also hoping that when they passed out the warm towels in first class, a crafty stewardess would recognize Ainge and throw the towel in his face.

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After checking into our hotel in downtown Atlanta, we hustled across the street to the Hyatt Regency, where all the players were staying. There was a staircase up the back of the hotel that led directly to the interview room. Atop the staircase were a guard and a fence. Our passes got us past the guard, as well as a gathered handful of hoochies. The fence, we supposed, was to keep the ho’s out.

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Just behind us, Jason Terry was doing interviews about his participation in the celebrity 3-on-3 game. JT’s team was to include Dominique Wilkins, Sheryl Swoopes and Frankie Muniz, though JT apparently couldn’t remember Muniz’s name and kept referring to him as “Malcolm in the Middle.” JT also reported to us that he’d hit three clubs the previous night and was turned away at all of them because they were too crowded. JT finally squeezed into Club Vision, but he said it was wall-to-wall with people. You know the city is over-crowded when one of the best basketball players from the host city can’t even get into the clubs.

Jay Williams showed up in a throwback Sixers shooting shirt, which we’re pretty sure said “TRADE ME” across the back.

When asked how he and Jason Kidd ended up on separate flights, Richard Jefferson said, “Jason is a very, very rich individual, and that allows him to charter his own flights.” Dajuan Wagner, meanwhile, was about as excited as a rock, throwing one-word answers with no expression whatsoever. In some circles, that’s called keeping it real.

As my main man Drew Gooden left, I caught up with him for a second. I told Drew that the annual pimp convention The Player’s Ball was also supposed to be going down in the ATL, with Snoop Dogg hosting, and Drew begged me to find out the info and let him know when and where it would be. I decided maybe I should just let that one go.

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Right at 3:00 p.m., your NBA All-Stars came rolling in. Iverson and Jordan skipped the event, because they are Iverson and Jordan, and if they’d shown up, they wouldn’t be Iverson and Jordan. Kobe missed it because he supposedly got stuck in New York with the bad weather (although we made it down, and although Shaq, who was also in NYC, made it down; rumor circulated that Kobe would only fly on a private jet, and all private jets were grounded). But everyone else was there.

Yao Ming entered like a rock star, surrounded by a cloud of media; all you could see was a head sticking up above the cameras. He even rocked a Chinese National Team jersey — Yao representing! Once he was at his table, the NBA had set up an elaborate sound system with two speakers, one on each side of Yao. The one on Yao’s right translated Yao’s words into English, the one on the left brought him in Mandarin. (If you were wondering, by the way, when Yao speaks it’s in Mandarin. When the language is written down it’s called Chinese.) Once again, his words came like a cross between Confucious and Yogi Berra. My favorite exchange:

MEDIA PERSON: A lot of people say there’s a lot of pressure on you, so what do you most want to do at the end of this? YAO: I would like to leave this state as soon as possible.

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I took a lap around the interview room. Steve Nash, wearing a “No War” t-shirt, glanced up and flashed me a hand sign that could alternately be interpreted as “Hook ’em Horns” in Texas or “Ozzy Rules!” at OzzFest. As I approached him, someone asked about the shirt.

“In the Constitution it states that war is to be used in the case of self-defense,” said Steve, “and I don’t think that this is self-defense or that it’s necessary.” That’s just great: Steve Nash, who is not even American, is over here quoting the Constitution. Meanwhile, no one can get a coherent answer out of Vince Carter about whether or not he’s going to start in the All-Star Game or let MJ start.

Antoine Walker was again covered in adidas gear, including his now-trademark bucket hat. When a foreign reporter asked him why he shoots so many threes, ‘Toine dropped an instant quote of the year nominee: “Because they don’t have fours.”

A lot of the bigger name guys — Shaq, T-Mac, Vince — were totally engulfed by reporters, so much so that I couldn’t even get close. Conversely, Brad Miller showed up in a lumberjack look, topped off with a wool ski cap, and the media seemed so terrified that they mostly steered clear. When a reporter asked Brad what he’d be doing if he wasn’t at the All-Star Game, he said, “I’d probably be back home, working with my best friend, figuring out how to weld some crap.”

At one point I think I saw Zydrunas Ilgauskas alone, napping with his head on his table. And I must admit that they did a great job filing down the bolts on Big Z’s neck for All-Star Weekend.

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The Tim Duncan Robot surprised everyone by turning up in adidas. We’d heard rumors a few days before that The Tim Duncan Robot was going to switch from Nike, and it apparently went through at the last minute. Russ said it was cool that they let The Tim Duncan Robot out of The Hall of Presidents for the weekend.

I told Russ that he should never, never joke about The Hall of Presidents. And how cool would it be if they opened a Hall of Power Forwards down at Disneyworld, with audioanimatronic versions of Duncan, Kevin McHale, Samaki Walker, Alan Henderson…all the robotic power forwards. The NBA is down with ESPN, which is basically Disney, right? Of course, the NBA also hates good ideas, so I guess this won’t be happening any time soon.

Khalid heard one of the writers ask how Iverson got the nickname “A.I.” No, really. As the hour wound down, Jamal Mashburn, a first time All-Star, was the last guy left in the room, talking about anything anyone wanted to talk about. We figured he would get injured as soon as he stood up. Also, he described T-Mac as “fabulous.”

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We were in the adidas suite, when the godfather of adidas, Mr. Sonny Vacarro, came storming into the room. I’d never met him, but Sonny acted as though we went way back. “SLAM magazine has all the kids in America locked down,” he told Russ and me. “You guys keep it up. You’re doing great.” We just nodded along, thoroughly hypnotized. I managed to ask Sonny if they were going to sign LeBron, and he went into this whole spiel about how they don’t have a chance.

As we left, I asked Russ if maybe we could get Sonny to sign us to endorsement deals. I’d wear adidas every day when I wrote The Links…for a nominal fee, of course.

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At the Jam Session, we got over to the basketball court, where Kenny Smith’s celebrity team was playing Charles Barkley’s celebrity team. Somehow we snuck through a gate and onto the edge of the court, and were immediately confronted with a horrible, horrible sight: Manute Bol playing basketball. Nutey always looked kind of awkward, but the years have not been kind to Manute: The widest part of his legs these days are his knees, making him look a lot like the giraffe on “Man vs. Beast.”

Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues were also running around out there, but with my eyes glassed over from watching Manute, I couldn’t see much. We must, however, give Manute this: He blocked the game winning shot attempt.

It was now about 10:00 p.m., and hunger was starting to set in. There were a couple of food courts set up, but I couldn’t figure out how it worked, as people just seemed to be coming and going without any money changing hands. So I secretly followed Hawks television announcer Bob Rathbun, who walked in and served himself up a plate of chips and salsa and walked out. Then it hit me: The whole thing was free!

Russ and I went in and served up a few plates of steak, potatoes and salad. We were standing there eating when we heard a commotion behind us at a paella stand — banging pots and pans and people yelling. A fire had broken out near the stove, and flames were shooting high into the air. No one really seemed sure what to do. One cook ran over with a small glass of liquid that he threw on the fire, sending the flames a few feet higher into the air. (What was in that glass, kerosene?)

Russ and I calmly kept eating and watching. Two other chefs decided to try and douse it with a tablecloth, which they yanked off a table devoted to bread, sending hundreds of biscuits, rolls and baguettes soaring into the air.

“That was dope,” Russ said.

The tablecloth didn’t work, and the fire continued growing. I got some more roasted potatoes and settled back in to see what would happen. While all the chefs kept sprinting over to battle the blaze, someone knocked the tremendous paella frying pan onto the plastic-covered floor, and the awful smell of burning plastic began filling the air. Finally someone managed to put the thing out, and everyone broke into applause. It was more entertaining than the Charles and Kenny game, I know that much.

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A couple of the people we bumped into were talking about hitting Kenny Smith’s party. We didn’t talk about it because Kenny didn’t invite us. So, don’t be surprised when Kenny’s next column drops full of misspelled words and without any pictures.

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We headed out and went back to the hotel to hook up with SLAM associate editor Khalid Salaam, who’d gotten in town the day before and had been visiting his peoples in the ATL. We briefly caught up and then headed back out to the Jordan Brand party, where Ludacris was finishing up his set with “Move, B****.” We’d missed The Roots, Eve and Jurassic 5, among other bands, but we were luckily just in time to catch Ja Rule. Holla.

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Saturday began at 11:00 a.m., as we rallied around the hotel and headed back out to the Jam Session to see our peoples at the EA Sports court, where my man Drew Gooden was supposed to play NBA Street Vol. 2 against Dominique Wilkins. Nique never did show up, not surprisingly, but Drew did. Drew had to run off to get ready for Rookie/Sophomore practice, and once he left Russ and I sat down to play.

We’d been playing for maybe two minutes when one of the EA big whigs ran over and yanked the controllers out of our hands, blurting an apology and resetting the game. We got up from the couch and turned around to find Dr. J — Julius Errrrr-ving — walking onto the court. He walked right up to us and shook our hands, introducing himself (yeah, like we didn’t know who he was) and then he sat down to play the game. Not surprisingly, the Doc wasn’t much of a video gamer, but he gave it a shot and did pretty well for himself.

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After the Rookie/Sophomore game, Drew left the locker room, then returned moments later and started rifling through the mess of dirty socks and used tape in front of his locker. From the gross mélange he extracted a huge diamond earring, which he stuck in his ear. “That’s why we have insurance,” he announced.

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We settled back into our seats in time for All-Star Saturday night, which was introduced by Atlanta resident Isaac Hayes. To start things off he introduced Gloria Gaynor, who is not, to my knowledge, an Atlanta resident, or related to Atlanta at all. She sang “I Will Survive,” which she apparently does by singing that song over and over and over again. And by the way, the fact that every person in the city was wearing retro jerseys does not mean that people care about Gloria Gaynor or, even worse, Meatloaf. (Yes, he later sang, too.) As one NBA staffer told us, “There is a serious disconnect between the NBA and it’s players. It’s very clear that the players do not like the League.”

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Gary Payton was good for some entertainment. He showed much love for our recent issue (with featured Gary himself on the cover), asking for a new box of issues because “people keep asking me for him.” And though GP is generally a fly dresser (which Sunday’s pin-striped leather suit would prove), our man lost some points Saturday night for wearing a throwback Phillies jersey, which is not bad in and of itself. The problem was that it wasn’t a Mitchell and Ness — it was a budget Majestic replica joint.

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There had been no celebs at the rookie game (Bill Walton was courtside), but a few people started showing up for the Saturday night stuff. Ice Cube, for instance, was in the second row, sipping a beer, sitting just behind Nelly and his tremendous bodyguard and just in front of Johnny Cochran, rocking a cobalt blue suit. Also spotted was Mark Eaton, a.k.a. The Abominable Snowman; Tara Reid, a walking anti-bulimia ad, with a bodyguard and someone that looked like her mother; one side of the court had Bill Russell, with Dave DeBusschere right behind him and Buck Williams right behind him — a cool, multi-era row of frontcourt greats; Warren Moon, looking like he could still throw some TDs.

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At one point during the evening, Khalid stopped in the restroom, when Nelly came walking in. Khalid reported that he was washing his hands and Nelly was at the sink next to him. Some guy (not a kid but a grown man) stood behind Nelly but didn’t speak for about three or four seconds and then asked him to sign his basketball. Nelly said, in his St. Louis drawl, “Man, damn. Can I just wash my damn hands first? Damn.”

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The dunk contest judges coming onto the court may have been the highlight of my weekend: Doctor J, Dee Brown, Spud Webb (looking good and healthy, replete with the old school part on top of his head), Nique and Michael Jordan (who wore a beret all day, for some reason). The usual dunk contest spectators gathered on the front row, including Dikembe Mutombo, who accessorized his suit by bringing along a small child. And of course, Damon “Basketball” Jones, who always somehow manages to be courtside. A new addition to the front row this year was Michael Redd, who figures to be back for years to come.

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Inside the locker room of the 2Ball contestants, Ashton Kutcher dressed quietly while Danny Masterson, his co-star on “That ’70s Show,” sat nearby.

“Dude,” I said to Kutcher, “you should have been posting up Malcolm in the Middle all day.” Kircher easily had a foot on Muniz.
“I felt bad,” Kutcher muttered. “I couldn’t do that to him.”

“I would have,” Masterson interjected. “All day, man, all day.”

Magic Johnson emerged with his shirt off, not really a pleasant sight, and sat down in a corner of the room. Camera crews swarmed him, and he immediately announced, “I am not doing any interviews. No interviews. Turn the cameras off.” But within five minutes, he was doing interviews. Dude can’t help it, I guess.

And as Turner Sports analyst Magic Johnson noted: “Wesley Person made Slacovic play his best…”

Yes he did, Magic. Yes, he did.
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We navigated the sea of SUVs on foot and made it back to the hotel pretty quickly, by around 11:30 p.m. We were supposed to go to the Reebok launch party for the new S.Carter (that’s Jay-Z to you) shoe, but we knew there was no way to make it on the street, thanks to the standstill traffic. Instead, we rode the subway (officially called MARTA, though we named it Mar-tuh in honor of Ja Rule.)

We stepped outside the Midtown Mar-tuh station and tried to figure out which direction Club Velvet was, but were quickly tipped off when we heard a marching band playing “Big Pimpin'” from our right. We walked up the street and came across the marching band from Khalid’s alma mater, Clark Atlanta University. While we tried to get in, the band also played through “Bonnie and Clyde,” “H to the Izzo” and “Hard Knock Life.” We were not mad.

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Someone did a Rodney White impression later that evening on the hotel rug. I’m not sure which is worse: No one being able to recall who did it, or the person who did not being able to recall doing it in the first place.
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Sunday night, and the All-Stars were alleged to be available in their locker rooms. Rumor was circulating that all the Nike guys would be wearing Air Jordans in tribute to MJ, but the brilliant national media was saying that EVERYONE would be wearing Air Jordans. Right, like all the shoe companies would just be fine with their guys wearing Nikes in arguably the biggest showcase of the season.

When the West locker room opened, Steph was sitting in his stall with his Dell laptop (with faux wood grain) open in front of him, listening to 50 Cent’s new album. Everyone was asking him how he and KG were getting along, but Steph down-played it. “It’s not like we hang out or go to movies together.” Really?

Nash laced up his kicks with “Fin 4” scrawled on them, and Dirk tried to figure out how to avoid the media. Finally a League official told him to sit down and answer a few questions, and then someone would come rescue him moments later.

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Paul Pierce was asked about his boy Antoine finishing dead last in the three point contest.

“Whoa,” P-Double answered. “All I know is Antoine Walker can never say nothing to me about my 3-point display from last year’s All-Star. He can’t say nothing to me. I know I was bad, but he got me though. He knows he got me.”

While everyone else tried to get Vince to say something, anything at all intelligible about why he refused to give up his All-Star spot for Mike, I had an idea: Why don’t they let the fans vote on the Dunk Contest competitors for next year. Then Vince would have to do it, right? Can’t let the fans down, can we Vince?

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We got back out on the court and settled in for the festivities. We all started celeb watching, and here’s our compiled list, in no particular order: Adam Sandler, Kevin Nealon, Oscar-nominee Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Usher and Chili, Beyonce and Jay-Z, P. Diddy in a gator/fur jacket, Magic Johnson, Bob Lanier, Mike Dunleavy Sr., Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Russell Simmons, Nelly, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Justin Timberlake, Jeff Gordon, Jamal Anderson, Anthony Anderson, Funkmaster Flex, former Earth, Wind and Fire lead singer Phillip Bailey, Gabrielle Union, Lisa Leslie (dressed just like J-Lo), Kelly Rowland and the third girl from Destiny’s Child, Donnie Wahlberg, Taye Diggs, Matthew Lillard, an oddly demure Janet Jackson sitting with Jermaine Dupri, Juicy Iverson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Ricky Williams, among thousands of others.

(By the way, isn’t Evander Holyfield’s ear the most gangsta thing of all time? Not many people are missing a part of their ear, but I bet even fewer are able to tell other people, “Yeah, well Mike Tyson bit my ear off.”)

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After the game, the West players were more relieved that the game was over than anything else, I think.

“What time is it?” Steve Francis asked, as he got out of the shower. Told it was midnight, Steve dropped his head. The clubbing may have been curtailed.

KG came in for a second to grab his gear, and Amare Stoudemire followed him in with a video camera, narrating his own footage as he shot around the room. Spotting KG, he put the camera on him and softly said, “There he is. The man. KG. MVP. Straight outta’ high school, representin’.”

I was waiting outside Steve Francis’ circle of media when Shaq showed up, one arm around a young kid and a digital camera in his other hand. The Daddy walked right up behind the pile of media, grabbed the nearest reporter from behind and yanked him out of the way, literally pulling the guy six feet to the side. Shaq forced the kid through the opening and mumbled, “This is my nephew.”

He lifted up the camera and snapped a picture of the kid and Steve, then extracted the kid.

“I’ll see you soon, man,” Shaq said.

“Next week, right?” asked Steve.

“Yeah,” said Shaq.

He then turned to the media and announced, “Yao-Shaq II, coming soon!”