Despite being obsessed with basketball, I have little interest in the televised pickup game that closes the NBA's All-Star Weekend.
I do understand the league's belief in its importance and why only a few players generate sufficient energy to make this event slightly compelling before the fourth quarter. One of those players is Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. Make that injured Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.
In case you hadn't noticed, Kobe has added a bum left ankle to his finger issues and has missed the past three Lakers dates. It should be noted the Lakers (with center Andrew Bynum also missing all but 10 minutes of those games) won those three challenges against teams currently holding playoff tickets in the Western Conference. But the Lakers' ability to move the ball and play impassioned defense without Bryant has little impact on the outcome of All-Star Weekend.
What we're here to ponder is Kobe's decision to use the weekend for some R&R. Bryant's skipping an NBA work shift to allow his wheel to heal is the league's biggest dilemma leading into a game whose participant list has been in a state of injury flux. At the moment, the Eastern Conference cast includes gimpy Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce (foot), C's power forward Kevin Garnett (still a bit iffy on that knee) and Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose (awaiting an MRI on his hip).
The Western Conference will be without Bryant, New Orleans point guard Chris Paul (knee) and Portland's Brandon Roy (hamstring), with two Denver Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups) not exactly up to par.
The absence of Bryant looms as the biggest downer for a weekend party that has been blitzed by NBA marketing and referred to by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as capable of making "the Super Bowl look like a bar mitzvah."
With so much importance placed in providing fan access -- through live participation or simply viewing on TV -- to its stars, the NBA is pretty strict on requiring uniformed employees to participate. And while Commissioner David Stern is quick to remind eager critics that truly injured players will not be forced to play, they are vigorously encouraged to attend and make several public appearances.
With 82 games followed by the playoff marathon on the work schedules of most of these players, is it wise to make the stars spend their entire winter break in the public eye? OK, my first inclination is to fight the power and demand any player with a hangnail be allowed to jet home, sip a couple of beverages on the sofa and prepare for the home stretch of a grueling season.
Unfortunately, the bigger picture always beckons. For one thing, any time-demand issues seem like less of a crisis when we're reminded that many of these players will spend much of the weekend socializing on their own time. Sure, the potential for players to aggravate injuries in Sunday's meaningless exhibition can severely compromise the league's competitive balance and damage the product the NBA is selling to a global market. The risk of further injury should be minimized for the sake of what's really important to the league and any fan with a clue ... real competition.
I understand players are subject to injury any time they trot up and down the floor. I also realize Stern is not strolling into locker rooms and demanding injured players suit up and take one for the league. However, in an attempt to balance visibility, marketing and the health of its employees, it shouldn't be difficult for East coach Stan Van Gundy or West coach George Karl to set up KG, Pierce and Billups with small-risk cameo roles.
That wouldn't have been as easy with Kobe. Thanks to competitive zeal and a fully flexed ego, Bryant may have had a difficult time stepping onto the floor inside that palace Jerry Jones built in Texas without going for the throat of the Eastern Conference. Kobe, who has been named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Games three times, seems incapable of moving half-speed through any limelight.
With Kobe passing up another All-Star turn, the one saving grace for Lakers fans turned out to be his still-fluid perception of his own legacy. Simply put, Bryant puts a premium on collecting O'Brien trophies; the notion of rolling the ankle again, missing more games and losing the nice cushion the Lakers have placed between themselves and a Game 7-venue race with Denver reduced Kobe's participation in Dallas to that of out-of-uniform ambassador.
Sitting out Sunday's game seems like a wise move for Bryant. Even though Kobe is a giant in jersey and sneaker sales, I believe the NBA won't have to wave bye-bye to its global partners because he's not playing in one game and the West is forced to receive its some fourth-quarter punch from Chris Kaman. Are a lot of people disappointed? Yeah, but that's what happens to a league that markets individuals ahead of teams.
And that's why there's so much teeth gnashing when a superstar comes up lame before what qualifies as its showcase. I believe the playoffs should be the league's showcase, but I also believe in rotations on defense and ball movement on offense. You may care a lot more about a full All-Star Game roster and were more than disturbed when the NFL's new Pro Bowl format eliminated the participation of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
Do I root for an end to All-Star Weekend? Heavens no. With a season that begins (with training camp) in October and ends in June, it's nice to have a few days to break up the calendar. And some of the events are sort of interesting.
I can't wait until the NBA finally decides to roll out a Trash-Talk Competition. My pick for the final round would be KG against the puppet that portrays Kobe in Nike's ad campaign. That one would be up for grabs.