LOS ANGELES — LeBron James was the MVP of Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game, but credit an assist to Fox News and political commentator Laura Ingraham.
She helped accomplish the impossible, injecting passion into the NBA All-Star Game.
How else to explain the fire in James, and the unexpected intensity of the game?
In recent years, the All-Star Game has devolved into the Goofball Gala — an unwatchable parody of basketball, an embarrassment to the NBA and a ripoff of its fans.
What happened Sunday?
First of all, do not give credit to the format change, the league ditching its traditional East-West game in favor of a playground-style, choose-sides game. You think that was the difference Sunday? Sorry, there’s a reason you seldom see 20,000 people pay thousands for tickets to watch a playground game.
The new format will be hailed by many as the savior of the dying All-Star Game, but there were at least two other larger factors at play.
One, I don’t know about the United States government, but the NBA apparently does have a deep state, a secret network behind the facade leadership group. Commissioner Adam Silver doesn’t seem like a sneaky guy, but is it possible that the league quietly made it known to this year’s All-Stars that their midseason showcase had become an embarrassment and that they’d better start playing basketball, or else?
We know the league can issue secret directives, like the ones that instruct the refs not to call traveling or flopping. So why not a pointed message to the All-Stars? If Silver didn’t do that, he should have. A couple more Goofball Galas and the cash-cow All-Star Game was going to wither and die.
On Sunday, both teams came out playing hard, then harder. They played defense, blocked shots. Team LeBron even slipped into a trapping zone defense near the end of the first half, which was as shocking as seeing a dinosaur at a dog show.
There was time for some showmanship, too. Stephen Curry theatrically dug into a box of popcorn on the bench, possibly in homage to the late Quintin Dailey, who decades ago famously snacked on the bench during a regular-season game. But most of the showmanship Sunday was in the quest for points, as in James’ bounce alley-oop pass to Anthony Davis for a dunk. I’ve never seen that anywhere.
If not a secret warning from the NBA’s deep state, what caused a basketball game to break out Sunday?
Don’t discount the influence of Fox and Ingraham. Last week, in response to comments by James and Kevin Durant that were critical of President Trump, Ingraham chastised the two, singling out James for what she sees as his disdain for education, and for making his comments “barely intelligible, not to mention ungrammatical.” “Shut up and dribble,” she tweeted.
Ingraham clearly stated her point: Leave political commentary and criticism to people who are educated and who speak proper English.
It was an odd criticism, considering that Ingraham is a strong supporter of Trump, who considers his election to be a widespread repudiation of country’s well-educated elite.
When Ingraham subsequently defended herself against charges of racism, her defense omitted the “barely intelligible” comment and the shot at James’ educational level.
Now back to basketball: In the newfound intensity displayed Sunday, the format played a much smaller role than did the new payoff program, and politics. The winning team was given $350,000 to donate to a charity chosen by the team captain. Team LeBron’s designated charity was the After-School All-Stars of Los Angeles, an educational program for the disadvantaged.
The Cavaliers’ forward is a generous contributor to other childhood-education causes. King James, who has given $41 million to send 1,100 youths to college, had to be stung by Ingraham’s comments about his alleged disdain for education.
Had Team LeBron lost, the team’s charity would have received $150,000. The difference is chump change to James, but symbolic.
That political theme hung over the weekend, in a good way. Silver, at his news conference Saturday, said he was “incredibly proud of our players for using the platform they have … in the NBA and on social media to speak out on issues that are important to them. And I was proud of LeBron and Kevin’s response to the comments that were made about them.”
Don’t be fooled by Silver’s low-key, non-slick demeanor. Those were powerful words. The super-corporate Roger Goodell is clearly uncomfortable with NFL players staging protests or waxing political, for gear they will chase away advertisers or cash-bearing fans.
Silver, in stark contrast, has his players’ backs. So if he did urge them to put a little mustard into Sunday’s game, the fact that he went to bat for them had to add to their desire to honor his request that they play a real game.
And so it was. You want to play ball, world? The NBA is up for a game.