Ernie Johnson is often the voice of reason on a lovable, sometimes off-kilter TNT show with two of the biggest personalities (and three-piece suits) the league will ever see. The NBA’s All-Star Saturday, which is filled with dunks, gimmicks for dunks, and commentary about dunks, doesn’t usually need such a voice. We hear Reggie Miller comment about shooting and outfits and whatever else he decides to fixate on that day; we see C.J. McCollum practice his chops at sideline reporting. There was trivial commentary when the underdog sixth man won the 3-point contest, and there were similar reactions from a self-proclaimed underdog winning the dunk contest. Like the All-Star Game itself, this weekend’s narration is loose and fun — a break. So when Johnson stood somberly with the mic in the middle of the court, the tone changed; it was time to listen.
Eric Gordon, minutes fresh from his victory in the 3-point contest, stood alongside Johnson with his runners-up, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving; whatever good-natured competitiveness was shared minutes ago was replaced with matching solemn expressions.
When Ernie spoke, the late Craig Sager was on his mind. In the first All-Star festivities since Sager’s passing to cancer in December, Johnson said it was “especially satisfying” that the Curt Gowdy Award for electronic journalism was presented to the late reporter earlier that day. “We’re going to add to that thing tonight,” Johnson said, speaking both of his memory and of the Sager Strong Foundation. Only instead of a memorial, it was another shooting contest. For a guy who always said he lived his life “full of love and full of fun,” a serious-natured donation wouldn’t have fit. A competition with the perfect mix of incredible and subpar basketball talent, questionable accuracy and flair? That would do.
The rules: With a minute on the clock, each contestant (Gordon, Kemba, and Irving) would have the chance to shoot as many 3s as he could; for each basket, $10,000 would be donated to the Sager Strong Foundation. Ernie was still explaining the rules when Miller, still in a suit and tie, interrupted.
“Hey, hey,” he said, emerging from the crowd. “I like that.” He took off his jacket, the universal sign for “Game on,” and then Miller, who was called the “Man Who Never Met a Shot He Didn’t Like” in his day’s 3-point contest, joined the competitors at midcourt.
“Anything for Sages,” Miller said — and whether his appearance was impromptu or planned didn’t really matter at all. A staged act of love is still an act of love, especially when everyone bought in the way they did Saturday night. “Can I recruit some guys?” Miller asked, calling out “the Bearded One” from the crowd just as James Harden was walking on the court, joined by DeMar DeRozan. Candace Parker, heels and all, was next (it’s about time All-Star Weekend shows what she can do on national television). And before long, the line was like a game of fifth-grade gym class knockout: DJ Khaled, Anthony Anderson, and Michael B. Jordan. Jackets were taken off, everyone dapped up and hugged at midcourt.
“One minute for Sager Foundation!”
Kemba sank the first: $10,000. Kyrie, $20,000. Harden, $30,000. DeMar, $40,000. Kyrie, $50,000. DJ Khaled (noted), $60,000. Candace, $70,000. Kemba, $80,000. Harden, $90,000 (at that point, Harden cut the line for the greater good). Time was running out, and so was any respect for organization. Everyone was now shooting at once, to the point where Ernie couldn’t keep track of the shots going in or those responsible. Smoothie King was going wild, Twitter fans hashtagged their way into a trending topic, and people at home, myself included, did what was natural. We teared up.
The money was up to $130,000 when Ernie called for someone else in the crowd. “Is there a reigning two-time MVP in the house?” And because Steph Curry has the rare advantage of being Steph Curry, they pushed him back to the half-court line for the chance to make it an even half-a-million dollars.
OK. This might have been the best part, since both parties likely knew that the donation was going to end up at $500,000 whether Curry made these half-court shots or not. They asked how many attempts he needed, and Curry said three. Range from deep is something no one can deny the Warriors guard, but a half-court shot is hard to make! If you think otherwise, please note Curry’s first attempt. And his second. And his fifth. And his ninth, which is where Ernie cut him off. To be fair, all hit the rim; to not be fair, Steph Curry ruined All-Star Weekend.
Only kidding, two-time MVP. They were getting to $500,000 anyway, and did it with a more personal touch: Shaq hoisted up Sager’s son, who put the ball in. It was touching, it was fun, it was spontaneous. It was a tribute appropriate for the man whose style, both in outfits and courtside conversation, was often all three.
“One minute for Sager Foundation!” Ernie said, and one league for Craig Sager.