Congratulations, KG. In his first appearance as an Eastern Conference All-Star, Kevin Garnett will be a starter, as was announced last night. Well done, sir.
Now, let the complaining about the other nine starters begin.
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Fans have it pretty tough in 21st century professional sports culture.
To say that we are second-class citizens is a vast overstatement of the quality of treatment we receive from the establishment on a regular basis. From prices for tickets, merchandise, parking and any number of other expenses to regional coverage to owners like Donald Sterling and James Dolan to feeling like certain players care less than we do to the often questionable officiating to the unnecessarily late starts for certain games to what many perceive to be the watered-down quality of play, fans have a whole lot to complain about. Justifiably so on most -- not all, perhaps, but most -- accounts.
But the more I think about it, the more confused I become about why we choose to complain about the balloting for the All-Star Game amidst all else.
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When Donald Sterling butchers the Clippers by refusing to sign his young talents to long-term deals, the fans don't get a say.
When Mark Blount gets his contract extension and immediately stops caring, the fans don't get a say in how to deal with him.
When every game of the NBA Finals begins at nine o'clock in the East, thus preventing many young fans from seeing the conclusion of each game, no one gives the fans a vote.
Same goes for when the last two minutes of a game take 45 minutes thanks to the elongated timeouts. Or that traveling and palming are no longer in the rulebook. The list goes on. And on.
If there is any part of NBA basketball that is at least geared in part toward the fans (there are other motives, of course), it is the All-Star Game. When announcers, players and David Stern discuss it, they almost always refer to the weekend as "for the fans." That isn't just lip service. At risk of stating the obvious, the fans do control the game's starters. The fans get to see that wide-open fast-breaking, alley-ooping style that many seem to pine for with some regularity. They get to see the players they want to see doing it.
A year ago, I never could have written this column. At the time, I believed, as many still do, that what goes on with regard to All-Star voting is a travesty. I would have believed that it is ridiculous for a banged-up Dwyane Wade to be playing in the All-Star Game while other Eastern Conference swingmen are performing at higher level. Or that it is absurd for Erick Dampier to be several slots ahead of Chris Kaman in the balloting for the Western Conference's starting center.
Those concerns are very legitimate, but only if one goes so far as to make the dangerous assumption that there is some obligation for those selected for this game to be purely the best basketball players possible.
That is the assumption under which I had always thought about the All-Star Game, and that is why these issues used to be quite an irritant. The assumption, however, is a false one. In his book Basketball On Paper, Dean Oliver perfectly encapsulates the matter with the following commentary:
"MVP and Hall of Fame votes are not nor will they ever be only about quality of play. They shouldn't be. They are votes because they are popularity contests with quality of play as a contextual constraint" (6).
Frankly, I don't agree with Oliver with regard to the two examples he cites, and the MVP in particular, which should be about declaring the most valuable player to his team across the league. By definition, that is a quality of play-based award. It is for and about the players and the teams. However, Oliver's logic applies perfectly to the issue of All-Star voting. Quality of play is one factor among many that goes into the minds of fans when they make their votes, but when all is said and done, they pick the players they want to see.
And there is no reason why they shouldn't do exactly that. Yes, pundits have turned All-Star appearances into one of the many measures used to evaluate players, but that doesn't make it right, and that doesn't change the purpose of the game. The game is a meaningless exhibition for the purpose of making some money, highlighting both some of the best and most popular players in the game and giving the fans what they want.
That last phrase isn't something that is heard a whole lot in the field of professional sports these days.
Perhaps recognizing the situation for what it is and choosing to accept or reject it on those grounds would help make all of us fans more comfortable with what it is, especially those whom consider themselves diehards (self included) and often all into the trap of believing, correctly or not, that our judgment is more worthy than that of the casual fan. Because all fans -- from the uninformed to the bandwagoner to the casual to the diehard -- are paying customers and entitled to a vote.
For my part, just as I have done for the last three or four years, I probably won't watch more than a total of five minutes of the game, five minutes that will be spent hoping against hope that none of the Celtics involved get hurt. Maybe you'll watch it. Maybe you won't.
But hopefully you won't stress yourself about it. It isn't worth it, especially because, just this once each year, we've got the power!