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How High Can They Fly?

Josh Smith dunked his way here to be the new king of flash.
Copyright 2005 NBAE/Nathaniel S. Butler via Getty

In the midst of the hip, the hop and the hype, the NBA All-Stars managed to shoot a little hoop over the weekend. As befits the Mile High City, some would say, most of it was above the rim. From the rookie-sophomore game on Friday night to the slam-dunk contest on Saturday and on into what was alleged to be the main event -- Sunday's showdown between East and West -- the whole extravaganza turned into another in-your-face celebration of the game's signature move.

What have Denver and Dr. J wrought?

The slam dunk, in its increasingly ostentatious, ever more convoluted variations, has become not only the nouveau NBA's flashy hallmark and its obligatory proclamation of manhood, but, critics say, the thing that's killing the game as it grows younger and younger. "Nobody wants to get dunked on," says the Denver Nuggets' guileless teenage star, Carmelo Anthony. "But everybody needs to do it."

Absolutely. Guards want to dunk over forwards. Forwards need to dunk over centers. Centers have to show up God -- otherwise known as Shaquille O'Neal, sometimes as Yao Ming. Who could have imagined, when Julius Erving and his luxurious Afro took flight from the foul line at halftime of the pivotal 1976 ABA All-Star Game, played right here in Denver, soared to the glass and slammed the ABA's gaudy red, white and blue basketball through the rim, that he would set a style that still holds hoopdom in thrall three decades later? Who could have predicted the devolution of Dr. J's pioneering slam -- the way the dunk has reduced what was once a subtle, beautiful game decorated with matchless skills like sharp ball-handling, accurate jump shots and well-oiled teamwork to a relentless display of self-absorbed theatrics?

What's become of Larry Bird's pinpoint passing, Dr. J's dazzling finger roll and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's indefensible sky hook? Along with Mayor John Hickenlooper and Governor Bill Owens, we may never know. Opening the All-Star festivities last Thursday, Mayor Hick announced that "Denver is all about baseball this week"; two nights later, the guv asked a tallish, well-dressed fan if he were not Kevin Garnett.

On Saturday at the Pepsi Center, Philadelphia superstar Allen Iverson worked the room wearing a pair of diamond earrings the size of his thumbs. Bling triumphant. And the stylistic equivalent of the never-seen-before dunk enacted that night by Phoenix Suns forward Amare Stoudemire and his co-star, Steve Nash: Stoudemire bounces ball off backboard; Nash boinks ball, soccer-style, with his head; high-flying Amare intercepts that carom and slams ball through hoop. Little matter that this circus act was only the second most popular stunt of the night with the judges. A few minutes later, Atlanta Hawk Josh Smith, age nineteen, flung himself over the compliant, ball-tossing figure of Nugget Kenyon Martin, seated on a folding chair at the foul line, and completed what is known in the trade as an alley-oop windmill jam.

Game over. The previously obscure young Josh took home the peanuts (a mere twenty-five grand in prize money) and instantly established himself as a new prince of flash. Who needs a fourteen-foot jumper when you've just given a facial to billions of TV viewers in 62 countries? Not Josh Smith. And who knows? The NBA's presumptive Michael Jordan-in-waiting, LeBron James, might have come up with something even more eye-popping, but he was not in the slam-dunk contest. Why not? It was widely reported that King James had demanded a million dollars to show his stuff on Saturday night, an offer that was politely declined. Hey, a hungry teenager's gotta eat. Gotta keep the Hummer and the fleet of Benzes gassed up.

Tracy McGrady, another popular NBA star, blames TV for the cartoonish turn NBA play has taken. "It's ESPN's fault!" he declared, only half laughing. Indeed. Any bleary-eyed hoops fan who tunes in SportsCenter any night of the NBA season will find little more than a seamless montage of slam -- a tightly edited little festival of bravado that Muhammad Ali could scarcely have imagined in his showiest outburst at the weigh-in. It's what the public wants. What the players care about. Basketball reduced to a video game calculated to sell $150 pairs of sneakers.

Is everybody happy? Maybe not. On Friday, one of the most beloved relics of the NBA's old school, George "The Iceman" Gervin, late of the San Antonio Spurs, measured his words not at all when asked what future NBA players should be doing right now. "Stay in the gym," the Iceman cautioned. "Be a gym rat. Work on fundamentals. Shoot the ball 500 times a day from different places on the floor -- every different place on the floor. Work on free throws so you're an 80- to 90-percent free-throw shooter. Become fundamentally sound. Show your love for the game -- the whole game."

Is anybody listening? Not that you'd notice. Of the 24 players named to this year's two All-Star teams, eighteen came into the NBA directly from high school or as college dropouts with fewer credit hours than the janitor at the dorm. At the Pepsi Center, they continued the slamfest unabated. But it was the rookie-sophomore game that really showed which way the NBA wind is blowing: Of the first 32 points, 28 were scored via the slam dunk, a crazy percentage even for an exhibition game where defense is rarer than bib overalls and corncob pipes. After that first flush of flash, the game settled down some; it was nothing like last year's freeway-to-the-hoop atrocity in Los Angeles, which raised the ire even of NBA commissioner David Stern. This time, slams accounted for but 70 percent of the scoring.

In crudest terms, the stylistic debate that rages in the NBA these days can be seen as a battle between old school andŠno school. Like George Gervin, former Denver Rocket Spencer Haywood, now an eminence gris of 55, believes the game is losing its soul in a flurry of slams and an obsession with flaming youth. "These kids can't hit a jumper," he said. "Can't pass. They don't care about fundamentals." Coming from anyone else, this might sound like nostalgia of the they-don't-make-'em-like-they used to variety. But Haywood is not just any old player. He is the man whose U.S. Supreme Court case first cleared the way for early entry into the NBA, way back in 1971. Over the years, Haywood says, the privilege has been abused, and he now supports barring any player under twenty from entering the league.

Haywood had more to say on the subject -- much more -- but the speech he planned to deliver at Sunday's NBA Legends Brunch was abruptly canceled under pressure from Stern's office.

In truth, Stern agrees with Haywood on the teenager question, but the commissioner avoided it in media interviews this weekend because it's likely a key point in the NBA's current labor negotiations. Baseball has steroids. Hockey has lockout. The NBA has major image problems (witness that ugly brawl in Detroit), and it's produced an entire generation of children who don't play well with others, an issue that could prove to be political dynamite when the current player contract expires on July 1.

In the meantime, NBA fans are left with a game they scarcely recognize. For every complete player like Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, well-grounded in all the elements of play, you find three flashy hotshots who insist on spending half the night on the ceiling and the other half yanking on their shirts and acting out about it. But maybe we shouldn't blame teenagers for the decline of the NBA. Or even the boob tube. With a little imagination, we can blame the Mile High City itself. To wit: Denver is reputed to be the birthplace of the cheeseburger and the Denver omelette, and it is most certainly the Cradle of Dunk -- thanks to that memorable stuff by Dr. J back in 1976 and the staging of the first-ever NBA All-Star slam-dunk contest at the old McNichols Arena, in 1984. So if you're looking for a villain, look no further. Denver, thy name is Hoop Ruin.


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