An Event Stretches While Many Yawn

We're in the belly of the beast now.

It's not like the commercial in which those surfers get swallowed by a whale and paddle around in the dark. This is more of a neon-lit, Las Vegas-strip treatment, in which you're locked in a basketball theme park for three days with 20,000 party-seeking tourists in $250 retro jerseys.

Not that it's good manners to object to people who get off planes waving money. Of course, the benefit to Los Angeles might not match the benefit to Beverly Hills, with the All-Stars, whose average income is around $10 million, and their families and entourages in the Century Plaza, where stretch limos can pick them up and deliver them by the dozen to Rodeo Drive in five minutes.

Whatever this is, it's getting bigger. I have seen the future and it lasts two weeks, like the Olympics.

This was once a charming one-day event, in which everyone stayed in the same hotel and schmoozed. The league held a banquet Friday night for all attendees, even the media, and there was a night off Saturday for people to go out to dinner.

My first was in 1970 in Philadelphia, or Lower Merion Township, as the Bulletin's George Kiseda kept datelining his stories, to highlight his complaint that the league couldn't find a hotel it liked that was actually in the city.

Yes, long before the prosperity hit, the NBA was getting the irreverent treatment.

I have two enduring memories: Eddie Gottlieb, the old Philadelphia Warrior owner, who had carried the ball when it really was a YMCA league with players making $2,500 and holding off-season jobs, sitting in the Marriott lobby, with people coming up to greet him as if he were a don or their grandfather.

The other is the story of Laker announcer Chick Hearn, who was told at the front desk they were out of rooms and asked if he'd mind sharing one with another All-Star attendee.

"Hearn doesn't share a room!" Chick announced, and went across the street to the Holiday Inn.

I don't remember much from any of the games, except those in which the veterans ganged up on some young player they thought was getting too much attention, such as Shaquille O'Neal or Michael Jordan.

In today's crowded sports schedule, all-star games are becoming passe as mass-audience events and going to cable, one after another. For all the discussion about the NBA's doing it last season, the NFL followed suit last week.

But as festivals, they're spilling all over the landscape. The NBA game became a Weekend, expanding to two days, which became two nights, according to the preferences of the TV partners.

It just flowed over into a third night -- so much for dinner with your friends, ever again -- with the rookie game, or got milk? Rookie Challenge, in its own marquee spot Friday night, leading off the festival.

This might be why the league didn't fix things for its wunderkind, LeBron James. The NBA doesn't cheat the way the conspiracy theorists, who still want to know how the New York Knicks got Patrick Ewing in the first lottery, believe, but in any case, the league seemed very happy at the prospect of James and Carmelo Anthony hyping the TV audience for the new Friday night lead-in.

For his part, James, who has traveled the longest, most-hyped road any rookie ever saw, looked as if he was out on his feet in the Cavaliers' last few games, prompting Coach Paul Silas to note LeBron needed "to get his mind off this game and get some rest" over the All-Star break.

Good luck.

"I don't think I'll be able to get no rest here," said James, at yet another news conference before the rookie game. "There's so much going on, but I'm going to get as much as I can. Tell Paul I'll be ready for the last 29 games of the season."

Happily, for you, the fan, life goes on as before. You can still go to dinner with friends.

The league says forthrightly that this is its only entertainment opportunity for its "relationships" (sponsors), because its postseason games belong to the fans. This is a reminder that it only ropes off the All-Star game, while the NFL reserves most of the Super Bowl house for its "relationships."

Meanwhile, there's the Jam Session, which could also be known as the People's All-Star Game, with more than 50,000 circulating through over four days.

The NBA still steadfastly guards your right to vote, or your kids' right, even if they're still making Vince Carter a starter after he retires.

As for the game, itself, the league has saved you a seat. It's called ... your couch!

Only 1,100 tickets went to each local team, who distributed them via lottery, they said. My hunch is, it'll be amazing how many movie stars and their agents got lucky.

This is still a league with a heart, so it was nice to see Paris Hilton coach in the celebrity game. After the Janet Jackson experience and Nicole Richie's interview at a Laker game in which she said she wanted to sleep with Kobe Bryant, there could have been a celebrity witch hunt (did I just come up with an idea for a reality show?), so that no one from "The Simple Life" ever got on camera at an NBA event again.

I know it's all part of a Great NBA Tomorrow. My own small ambition is to survive until Monday.

Faces and Figures

The plum (?) went off the trade market when Atlanta landed Portland's Rasheed Wallace, whose expiring contract made him attractive, even if it was for $17 million and comes with an attitude as big as all outdoors. "Whether Rasheed stays with us or moves on, he will want to play well," Hawk Coach Terry Stotts said, hopefully. "We're open to having him back. We haven't made the trade thinking, 'No way,' or thinking, 'We definitely want him back.' " ... The deal went down at 1:45 a.m., at which time Hawk publicist Arthur Triche issued a release that began: "As Rasheed would say, thank you, God bless and good night." ... Keep that sense of humor handy, you may need it.... Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers got Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff, with the hope of becoming a playoff team again. With Wallace and Bonzi Wells gone within months, new team President Steve Patterson called it "a watershed." ... Even the gods were relieved: The Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers noted that the day after the trade, the clouds parted and the sun came out in Portland, literally.

Oops: The deal threw a kink into the many plans of new Knick boss Isiah Thomas, who targeted Wallace but seems to be out of the game unless the Hawks want Keith Van Horn or Allan Houston. Speculation in New York then began to center on ... Vin Baker? Yes, the same Vin Baker who was waived by Boston. The Celtics say Baker's failure to satisfy agreed-to after-care requirements as he tried to recover from alcoholism breached his contract. The union says otherwise. If they can't work out a settlement for the $35 million due him on his contract, as Commissioner David Stern said Saturday, "That's what arbitrators are for."

Philadelphia's Glenn Robinson was drafted No. 1 in 1994, ahead of Grant Hill and Jason Kidd, but his teams underachieved in Milwaukee and Atlanta. Said Robinson, as fingers pointed to him again with his current team flailing: "They knew what they were getting when they acquired Glenn Robinson. I'm a scorer. My strength is to score the basketball. When I first came here, the first press conference, I said I know I'm not the best defensive player out on the court. That's not my strength. That's like Shaquille [O'Neal] trying to shoot threes. I do what I do."

Revenge of the Nerds: The Nets' Lawrence Frank, now 9-0, not only is the only NBA coach who didn't play college ball, he didn't make the Teaneck, N.J. High team. Actually, at 5 feet 8, 142 pounds, it's remarkable he went out in the first place.... Frank, asked how he stayed in shape: "Stay awake long hours, drink coffee after midnight and just hope you have a quick metabolism.".... Stern, before union director Billy Hunter arrived at Saturday's news conference: "This gives us time to put a seven-second delay on his microphone."

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