George Karl, the Wizard of Westdenver, will get a little breather next weekend when the NBA All-Stars come to town. That's because none of the delinquents in his just-founded reform school -- not Carmelo Anthony, not Kenyon Martin, not Marcus Camby -- got enough votes to earn a roster spot in this year's game. Nor did anybody deserve one. So while the warden gives them time to heal, mind and body, the local tall guys (you too, Earl) will sit and watch as their betters dribble and dunk the night away -- at least until the barkeeps start pouring the good stuff at Rise, or until Michael Jordan, who's commandeering an entire floor at the Marriott in Cherry Creek and spending $250,000 on an instant nightclub in LoDo calculated to promote his sneaker brand, has a Nugget or two sit at his well-tailored knee.
As for George II (remember, now, George Irvine once served as a Nuggets assistant), he could probably use a few days away from the limelight. Karl's whirlwind romance with Denver's oft-jilted Nuggets fans (he's got a sparkling 4-1 record since becoming the team's head coach in late January) has blossomed into quickie marriage and full-tilt honeymoon, complete with mutual compliments, well-stocked gift baskets and plenty of rack time for the newlyweds. But like any new husband in the glow of nuptial bliss, George probably won't mind getting out of bed for a minute and sneaking down to the bar, quite alone, for a burger and a beer.
After all, a guy never knows if the whole crazy relationship won't suddenly slip over Niagara Falls.
Meanwhile, the obligatory ruffles and flourishes are soon to begin over at the Pepsi Center. For a league with major image problems, the NBA sure likes to show off, and this year's edition of the All-Star festivities will be nothing if not a tribute to excess. The game itself is scheduled for Sunday, February 20, and it remains available for your personal consumption (through a "ticket broker") at just $750 for a nosebleed seat in a section where the game is a rumor, on up to $4,600 for a butt-rest where you can actually see someone sweat. On the other hand, if you only want to watch Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal practice, you can do that for a rock-bottom $120. With bargains like this on the market, it's no wonder Latrell Sprewell has to scrape along without that multimillion-dollar contract he says he needs to feed his family. Poor guy. Maybe LeBron James and Grant Hill should charge $10 per jumper at the shoot-arounds. Might improve the sorry look of their shoe leather.
When the NBA All-Stars last visited the Mile High City, back in 1984, the league tacked on something called the Slam Dunk Contest. It was won that first year by Larry Nance, who narrowly outpointed the legendary Julius Erving. The player who finished dead last? Our own Michael Cooper, who, after the inevitable dismissal of Jeff Bzdelik last month, head-coached the Nuggets for about thirteen minutes before settling back into his assistant's role under Karl. More is not necessarily better, but this year's slam-dunkers will have plenty of company in the secondary events: NBA rookies will take on the sophomores, three-point shooters (including 2004 winner Voshon Lenard) will square off against jump-shooters, NBA legends will act legendary. In the strangest event, current Nuggets guard Andre Miller will team up with former Nuggets stalwart (and soft-core love poet) Alex English and ex-Colorado State guard Becky Hammon in something called Shooting Stars.
Who knows? If we're lucky, maybe Indiana Pacers bad boy Ron Artest will take on P. Diddy and Ludacris in a celebrity knife fight.
And because pro basketball also has, you know, a conscience, what the league publicity department vaguely terms "members of the NBA family" will do some community feel-good stuff -- visit Children's Hospital, read to elementary-school kids, sponsor a wheelchair basketball clinic and a fitness day for girls and, for all we know, sweep up and haul off the empties at the Paladium nightclub, where Carmelo Anthony will host four straight nights of VIP parties, even though he's still not legal to order a magnum of Dom Perignon.
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All of this is obviously designed to put the best face on a game beset by some ugly recent history. Little matter that some fans are put off by player tattoos the size of Rhode Island and the hip-hop-tinged disdain of the some of the league's young stars: Deal with it. But no matter how many tickets Tim Duncan lays on underprivileged youngsters or how many autographs Shaq signs in the hotel lobby, the celebratory flourish that comes with the All-Star weekend will not erase that hideous brawl between the Pacers and Pistons in Detroit -- or Artest's season-long suspension. The nimble Nuggets mascot Rocky can flip all the cartwheels he likes, but the All-Star Game's fifth-leading vote-getter, Kobe Bryant, still did what he did to that chambermaid up in Eagle, and his lawyers are still demanding her medical records way back to age sixteen.
Yao Ming may be the best thing from China since pot stickers and Zhang Yimou films, but who can forget that ex-NBA star Jayson Williams shot his chauffeur in the chest, or that Vince Carter admitted to dogging it in Toronto, or that our very own Melo complained his way onto the U.S. Olympic team, then quickly found his ass on Larry Brown's bench for insubordination? Let's not even talk about that mysterious stash of pot in number fifteen's carry-on at the airport, or the underground video he appeared in that glorified drug dealers back in his old neighborhood. Hey, Melo's still got the best-selling jersey in the whole NBA. Even the Teflon Don's sullen grandson was wearing one last week on the TV reality show Growing Up Gotti.
When the party's over and the regular season resumes, it's a pretty good bet that the Nuggets' new coach will take an even tougher attitude with his charges -- the same one he famously took with Ray Allen and Tim Thomas in Milwaukee. The objects of his attention on Chopper Circle will almost certainly include the $92 million man, Kenyon Martin, but signs have already emerged that, under Karl's tutelage, K-Mart is turning back into Neiman Marcus. His scoring is up, his defense more hard-nosed than ever. More likely, Karl will revive his once-famous role of Furious George mostly for the benefit of young Carmelo, who's already got a candy bar named after him but whose adolescent attentions tend to wander. Witness that 97-94 loss in Portland last week: The future of the Nuggets franchise shot three-for-fourteen from the field and blew two crucial free throws that would have given Denver a lead late in the game. When it was over, he strolled off the court grinning, as though some generous soul had picked up his lunch check. George Karl (like Doug Moe and Nene) may not have a last name to call his own, but when faced with laziness and indifference on his team, he knows exactly how to address the people at fault. The Nuggets may not return to the playoffs this year, but one thing seems certain: The focus-challenged Mr. Anthony will be forced to grow up, one way or another.
"The chalkboard has been erased," Karl declared upon taking office. Nice image. Just the right balance between hope and menace. Said another way, the honeymoon will be over the minute they take down the All-Star bunting. As soon as Melo finishes cleaning up his room, he'll be expected to get his ass back downstairs pronto for basketball practice.