Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta was the "Retro All-Star Game," and that was as perfect as it was pointless, because Sunday was a day of yesterday, today and tomorrow getting all mixed up with each other. There were torches being passed, there were elders being respected and, most important, there was that riff from Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" being played 6,742 consecutive times during player introductions.
Michael Jordan, who has become yesterday personified, was the star of the show. He was patronized and eulogized, and just when it looked like his career should have been euthanized, he came alive and damn near won the game by hitting a tough shot in overtime.
But he didn't win it. His East All-Stars lost, beaten by one of the stars of today, Kevin Garnett.
The fans, who elect the starters, were more interested in tomorrow than today, voting for Yao Ming, spectacular and appealing, but still not in Shaquille O'Neal's league, to start over Shaq at center for the West. But they were more interested in today than yesterday, voting for Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson over Jordan.
The Jordan question was the big brouhaha of the weekend. First Iverson and then McGrady had offered to have Jordan start in their place for the Eastern Conference, but Jordan kept declining, very publicly, saying to anyone who'd listen that he'd had his chance 13 times, he was just happy to be there one last time, and now it was time for the stars of today to do their thing. I'll just be over here by the fire with my pipe and newspaper if you need me, Jordan was saying. And why not listen to him? The fans, whom this whole deal is supposed to be all about, had made their feelings clear. They didn't need to see Jordan start.
But was there any doubt, ever, that Jordan was going to start?
The oft-injured Vince Carter has played all of 15 games this year but he was voted in. After saying he wouldn't do so, Carter gave up his starting spot, and Michael "if nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve" Jordan took his place. Carter had said he owed it to the fans who voted for him to start. Maybe someone came to him in the locker room and said, "Kid, it's not your night," because the announcement that he would give up his spot came during the third hour of Kool & the Gang's "Celebration." Interviewed at the end of the first half, Carter rambled incoherently for a minute or so about how he'd stuck with his decision to start, but Jordan was just so great. Or something.
Vince Carter's got a real nice family. It's nice to know nothing's going to happen to them.
The first quarter was one of the strangest in All-Star memory. Jordan's presence seemed to lend an intensity to the proceedings that's usually absent. Rather than the usual wild playground ball, the All-Stars played hard, they played defense, they made the extra pass.
It was a little dull.
Jordan missed a jumper over Yao. He missed badly on a 3-pointer. He missed an easy 15-footer off a feed from Iverson. He knifed through the lane, took a pass from Ben Wallace and missed a layup, then got the rebound and missed the follow. The next time down the floor, with the crowd rising to its feet, urging him on, he clanked a wide-open 15-footer. 0-for-6.
After being called for a reach-in foul, Jordan missed an easy 10-footer from the right baseline, then he finally scored, in the ninth minute, finishing a fast break after taking a feed from Jason Kidd. But it was Kidd's dribble move at the free-throw line that made the crowd gasp. Hey, these younger fellas can play a little, you know?
Jordan sat with 1:15 to go in the quarter, having scored four points on 2-for-10 shooting. The quarter ended with the East leading 23-18, which sounds like a score from a midseason Cleveland-Toronto tilt. With Jordan out of there everybody relaxed, and most of the rest of regulation time, even when Jordan returned, was the loosey-goosey, no-defense, flying-dunk, crazy-pass funhouse the All-Star Game ought to be. The intensity returned late in the fourth quarter, when the game turned into a hard-fought thriller.
And it may have been more thrilling than it needed to be. The East's repeated attempts to get Jordan the game-winning shot, and Jordan's repeated attempts to take it, probably cost them the game in regulation.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the East up by one and the players playing hard again, Jordan went one-on-one against the entire West team, which collapsed on him as he drove the lane. Some simple math would tell you that somebody in an East uniform -- in fact, everyone in an East uniform -- was open. But Jordan, looking for that legend-enhancing game-winner, took the shot, which was blocked by the not-quite-legendary Shawn Marion. The West tied the game with 10 seconds remaining when Kobe Bryant hit one of two free throws after being fouled by Jordan. The TNT announcers wondered whose number East coach Isiah Thomas would call for the final play. Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy summed it up: "If you're sentimental you go to Jordan. If you want to win it, go to McGrady."
Yesterday or today? The ball went to Jordan. He went one-on-one with Marion, who forced him into a tough fadeaway, which he missed. If Jordan had played even passable basketball in the last 20 seconds, the East would have won.
But his teammates continued to look to him in overtime, and it almost paid off. In the waning seconds, with the score tied, Jordan went one-on-one with Marion again. He elevated. Marion leaped with him. Jordan released a twisting, fadeaway jumper from the right baseline. Good! The crowd erupted. The East led by two with three seconds left. Jordan had a magic moment left in him after all.
But at the other end Jermaine O'Neal fouled Bryant on a 3-point shot, giving Kobe three free throws. Bryant, a great foul shooter, missed one of the three. The East now had the ball with one second left and the score tied. If you're sentimental, you go to Jordan. The East went to Jordan. He shot. Blocked by Marion.
If you want to win, bet on today.
The game went to a second overtime, the first in All-Star history. Jordan, who had played 36 minutes, scoring 20 points, sat out. The West, led by MVP Garnett, who scored 37, pulled away for a 155-145 win that was about as entertaining as an All-Star Game can be.
Even though Jordan almost provided one of those for-the-ages moments, to be replayed ad nauseam in slow motion, with bombastic music in the background, the spotlight would have been better shined elsewhere this weekend. As great as Jordan was in his long prime -- and no one was greater -- the game belongs to today's players, to Shaq and Kobe, Iverson and McGrady, Kidd and Wallace, Steve Francis, Dirk Nowitzki, Garnett and a host of others.
The NBA has been worrying out loud since Jordan's second retirement how it would replace him. It's incredible that the obvious answer -- you replace him with the next generation, same as any other superstar -- hasn't sunk in yet, and Jordan is still the center of attention, still the king. Even though Jordan's still playing, the NBA is living in the past by continuing to fawn over him. Yesterday's fine, but today's where it's at.
Having said that, I have to admit that the "retro" approach has some advantages. Television is never more annoying than when it's trying to be "hip," and going for the retro angle nips that in the bud. Also, calling your event "retro" means you can save on the entertainment. Kool & the Gang play for sandwiches and drink tickets these days, I hear.
The NBA used those savings at halftime, bringing in heavy hitter Mariah Carey to do her whispery thrush thing and hit her dog-whistle high notes in the service of ersatz emotion, everyone's favorite kind. In a moving tribute to Jordan, Carey sang, movingly, "Uhhhh-aah-uhh-uh-uh, ooo-ooooh-ooowooo oh yeah, baby. Need you boy, wha, ooh, ma-mamina, boy, wooo, oh, wooo-woo, sheemashee baby, oh, yeah boy, woo-woo-oo-OOOOOOOO!"
And that pretty much summed it up for me too.