by Lang Whitaker

Last week I went to the All Star Game. It was not in New Orleans, Kevin Garnett wasn’t there and it didn’t involve a lot of crazy parties or traffic jams.

Hey, sometimes luck just happens. My sister and our respective better halves had planned to take a trip for New Year’s Eve. We kicked around a few locations, but Sis wanted to go to Paris, where she’d never been (and where I’ve been a few times). I was reticent to go to Europe over the holidays, because I always want to catch a soccer match or at the very least a basketball game, and all the Leagues in France take off between Christmas and New Year’s.

Once we arrived in Paris, I put in a text to my main man Arnaud LeComte, the basketball writer for L’Equipe, the huge daily French sports newspaper. I told him I was going to be around for a few days and would love to catch up. Arnaud called me back moments later.

“Lang,” he said, “you came at the perfect time. You know what is happening on Saturday night, right?”

No, I told him, I didn’t know, other than maybe me trying to stay up as late as I could and then watching the Pats/Giants game online.

“The French basketball league, the LNB, is having their All Star Game on Saturday night.”

Arnaud made a few calls, and suddenly I had a credential for the game. Oui-uh.

I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. Would there be a bunch of subpar basketball players stumbling around on the court? Would this be as slick an event as the NBA All Star Game? Would my former NBA.com Blog Squad nemesis George Eddy be there?After negotiating my way from the Marais using two or three train lines, I exited the Bercy Metro station and found Arnaud waiting for me. Behind him was the arena, and there were thousands of people jammed up against the gates, like they were storming the Bastille. We walked around to a side entrance reserved for the Presse. Even though there’s not a big basketball team in Paris, they’ve been playing the All Star Game there for the last five years to sold-out crowds.

Arnaud assured me that they always put on a good show and that I’d enjoy the game. Mostly, I wanted to see Nicolas Batum play, because Batum is being projected as definite first-rounder in the 2008 NBA Draft, and many outlets have Batum going as high as the lottery. Also, several French journalists there at the game were talking about this American guy named Marc Salyers, who plays for a little team in Roanne and is leading the Euroleague in scoring. Great, I thought, but I’d never heard of him, he turns 29 this year and he just signed a three-year extension with Roanne. I don’t think Bryan Colangelo’s bringing him over anytime soon.

I checked in at the press desk and went into the press room, where I was given a media kit, a t-shirt and directed to a bartender in the back of the huge room serving free champagne and finger sandwiches (take note of that, Brian McIntyre!). I walked out into the huge arena (about the size of any NBA arena) and found a seat in the press section next to my man Théo, who writes for the French basketball magazine Reverse and, more importantly, speaks really good English.

Around 7:00 p.m., the arena lights dimmed and a thin man in a suit walked onto the floor and started speaking in really fast French. I speak enough French to have a conversation with most people, but this dude lost me after about five words. Suddenly a cheer went up from the crowd as I heard two words I’d been dreading all night: George Eddy! That’s right, my former NBA.com Blog Squad nemesis was in the house, and the people of France apparently love him. As Théo said, George is like their Dick Vitale. (I should point out that I don’t really dislike George — he’s a very cool guy, but we were good comedic foils for each other on NBA.com.)

They also introduced another announcer, this one a black guy with a jarring blond goatee. I briefly thought it was French soccer star Djibril Cisse, but Théo said he was a DJ or something. The DJ guy had a DJ table set up behind the scorer’s table, but he had another guy there actually DJing, so the fake Cisse was more of a hype man, I guess. Fake Cisse had a bongo drum by the DJ table, and he’d hold the mic next to it and hammer out simple beats, and the crowd would dutifully clap along, eschewing creativity for uniformity. Further resembling an NBA game were the dreaded thundersticks, which had been passed out at the door.

To further entertain the crowd, they had a cheerleading squad from Barcelona there called Dream Cheers. They were certainly dreamy.

One other thing I was to stress is that this was, definitively, the most gangsta All-Star Game I’ve ever been to — Jason Whitlock would’ve had a heart attack from the amount of gangsta in the building. The DJ’s played only hip-hop music throughout the night (with the recurring exception of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”), but the weirdest part was that they played the unedited versions of the songs. I thought I heard Fat Joe drop an n-word, then I thought I heard 50 Cent use the f-word that ends with a t, and then all this was confirmed when I heard a Beatnuts song that used pretty much every curse word available. The Hawks tried playing an unedited hip-hop song once, and that didn’t work out so well, but it didn’t bother me or seem to bother anyone at the game. Also, late in the game after Batum hit a free throw, they played a sound effect of gun shots over the P.A. system. And guess what? The crowd wasn’t incited to violence and everyone went on with their lives just fine.

As they set up for the skills challenge, every journalist there seemed to walk by to say hello to Arnaud, who must be like the mayor of Paris, so many people stopped by. And since I was sitting next to him, this led to a lot of people shaking my hand with no idea who I was, and a lot of me smiling and saying, “Bon soir,” and hoping they didn’t try to engage me in conversation.

Finally, it was on. The festivities began with a skills challenge. The participants in the skills challenge were little Frenchman Marc-Antoine Pellin (named for two NBA underachievers in Marc Jackson and Antoine Walker?), U.S.-born Sean Colson (who had a cup of coffee with the Sonics), taller Frenchman Aymeric Jeanneau and Jimmal Ball, whose name sounded French but he turned out to be from Canton, Ohio.

This was almost exactly like the NBA’s skills challenge, except at the end the guys had to shoot a halfcourt shot. (Ball was the only guy to hit from halfcourt.) There was a timer running, and I think there were penalties for missing shots or not completing a pass, but this was never fully explained, at least not in English and certainly not to me. Jimmal Ball ended up winning — score one for the Americans. Of course, forming any part of a complete opinion about a basketball player based on his performance in a skills challenge is like proclaiming The Professor could compete in the NBA after watching five minutes of Streetball on ESPN2. All four of the guys were capable competitors at this event, and I was mostly impressed with Jeanneau, who was the tallest competitor and had a sweet shooting stroke. Jeanneau was supposed to back up Tony Parker for the French National team last summer at the European Championships but had to pull out due to injury. The crowd favorite, however, was Pellin, but more on him later.

After the skills challenge, the arena went pitch black and the crowd reveled in the anticipation by yelling wildly for about 40 seconds, until a spotlight illuminated a man on the corner of the court playing an alto saxophone and dancing. I couldn’t tell what song he was playing, but he seemed completely lost in it, spinning around and making his way toward midcourt. This went on for a while, maybe a few minutes too long, until someone near me snickered and said, “This is corny.” Oui, monsieur. Then from the opposite corner of the floor, a marching band appeared, wearing Miami Heat shirts and playing Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.” I can understand how some fans may not have liked “Celebration,” but it’s up to you, what your pleasure? I was there to celebrate and have a good time. Come on now.

The marching band (I later discovered they were the Miami Heat Street Band, flown in for the event) then shifted into “Party Like A Rockstar” as the coaches and players were introduced, which took about 20 minutes. The two teams were called Francais (France) and Etrangers (which means “Foreigners,” though it was basically U.S. players). One of the few names I recognized on what I called Team USA was Chevon Troutman, who was on one of those really good Pitt teams a few years back. I recalled John Cox, Kobe’s cousin who played at the U. of San Francisco and now plays for Le Havre, and Tony Williams, who played at Louisville. I also saw that former USC forward Sam Clancy was on the roster, but he didn’t play for whatever reason.

The game got going and it quickly became clear to this American what was happening, after the non-French players finished the first quarter with 6 fouls to the French player’s zero. I asked Arnaud if one of the refs was the French version of Dick Bavetta.

After the first quarter they held the three-point shootout, which took about 20 minutes and sapped all the momentum from the game. The three-point contest — sponsored by SEAT, whatever that is — worked exactly like the NBA contest, except they added a halfcourt shot at the end of it, also. The lesson here is that the French love halfcourt shots…and doesn’t everyone? The highly touted Salyers was bounced in the first round of the shootout, and the Finals came down to two French dudes, Cedric Ferchaud and Yohann Sangare. Ferchaud ended up winning the contest, but all I could think of was how if he played in America, everyone would call him Cedric Fo Sho. Oh, and last year’s winner? Tracy Murray.

I missed the entire second quarter of the game because I was in the press room being interviewed for an article in L’Equipe about dunks in France. I didn’t know this, but at the NBL All-Star game you don’t have to actually play in the NBL to be in the dunk contest. In fact, in the contest on this night, one guy (Max Kougere, which was amusingly pronounced Max Cougar) was the only dude in the contest who actually plays pro basketball. The rest are professional dunkers who compete in contests and perform with teams like Slam Nation. The other cool thing is that there isn’t any panel of judges, it’s all decided on cheers from the crowd.

The two best dunkers in the contest were Kougere and a guy from Slam Nation named Guy Dupuy, who was the defending champ. Dupuy started off by tossing the ball to himself, catching it and then windmilling over 8 people. Kougere had a few nice dunks, including one tribute to Andre Iguodala, and it came down to Kougere making dunks and Dupuy missing a few, and so Kougere, the one actual basketball player in the dunk contest, won the trophy. (And I was quoted the next day in L’Equipe saying all kind of stuff about dunks in France, though I couldn’t really translate all of it.)

To see some of the dunks, go to the 2 minute mark of this clip…

The game finally continued uninterrupted, and I don’t want to go through it play by play because this thing’s long enough already, but the French team pulled ahead in the fourth and got the W, 94-82.

And look, I fully understand that I only saw these guys play for an hour or so out of years of their lives, but sometimes I feel like that’s all you need. I saw Ricky Rubio last year and came away totally impressed (and he’s having a killer season this year in Spain, by the way). Even though Ricky didn’t have amazing stats that day, he was always in the right place and involved in everything. And in that same game, I saw Rudy Fernandez play and came away completely underwhelmed. He didn’t put up amazing stats that day, but he was always in the wrong place and just didn’t have that same je ne sais quoi that Ricky had. Since then, I’ve seen Fernandez raved about by Blazers fans on the ‘net time and again, which is fine and all, but I wonder how many of them have seen him play anything more than 4 minute highlight bursts on YouTube? Or maybe I should watch him play more than one full game? I don’t know. Anyway, a few notes on some of the players…

• Nicolas Batum — Remember when Darko Milicic was coming out of Serbia a few years ago, and ESPN.com’s Chad Ford kept telling us over and over how amazing Darko’s body was and how he almost certainly would have a mental toughness and mean streak Euro guys hadn’t had before, but Chad would always throw in a disclaimer like, “so the scouts hope.” Well, that disclaimer better come in capital letters with Batum. I was emailing back-and-forth with SLAM editor-in-chief Ben Osborne after the game and he asked about Batum, and I said the best way I could describe him was as Boris Diaw in Rudy Gay’s body. Because he’s tall (6-8), long, can jump out of the gym and his talent is being recognized by everyone (he was starting his first All Star Game). But he was passive, so passive that I’m not sure I saw him ever try to impose his will or really make any moves that I didn’t see coming. Then again, it was an All Star game, so maybe he was just trying to fit in? He’s a great finisher, though, and he’s definitely got the body and athleticism to be a high-level NBA player. Unfortunately, that’s about all he’s got right now. In a perfect world he’d end up on a good team, where they could teach him how to play the game, but he’ll probably get drafted high, be forced to play and spend a few years being fed to the wolves. Perhaps by the T-Wolves.

• Marc-Antoine Pellin — The hyphenated little fella is exactly that: tiny. He was listed at 5-7, but I think that was exaggerated a bit. He plays for Roanne, on the same team as Salyers, and they apparently play like the Suns, flying up and down the court. Pellin reminded me a lot of Muggsy Bogues, because of the size, obviously, but also because of his ability to penetrate and dish and his lack of an outside shot, at least on this evening.

• My favorite player in the game was this guy named Nando De Colo, who’s a year older than Batum but a world more aggressive. De Colo finished with 13 points and 9 assists, including a sweet pass around Salyers’ back. De Colo won the MVP, and he played with moxie and maturity throughout. He’s about 6-5 and I can totally see him playing in the NBA one day.

Au revoir…