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Where Have All the Super-All-Stars Gone?

The NBA needs more bona fide celebrities

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“N waiting for autographs from Mr. Gordon Hayward!” That was the rallying cry from a promoter on Canal Street on Thursday evening in New Orleans, which must have been a sad beginning of the weekend for the Jazz’s star forward. He was fulfilling an obligation on the eve of All-Star Weekend, signing autographs at the NBA Store’s pop-up shop. Canal was the central artery of the proceedings — where all the official non-basketball events went down, and all the source-grooming took place at the hotel. Yet even there, the demand to get face time with Hayward was low, and the promoter’s attempt to cajole passersby was unsuccessful. Hayward is bound to be one of the most desired free agents this summer, and NBA internet will happily explain how fun his game is. But he was in New Orleans only because the 30 coaches wanted him there.

Each year, the host city fills during the All-Star break with basketball players and representatives from the attendant industries that have sprouted up around the NBA. At the heart of it is, supposedly, each conference’s 12 best players of the season. Hayward is one of the West’s best, but he is not a star. He made the cut due to the careful calculus that goes into programming NBA All-Star Weekend. The culminating game is played by 10 guys selected largely by fan voting, and 14 selected by coaches — that’s a 2-to-3 ratio of popularity to basketball ability (though there is some overlap). The weekend’s other on-court events — the dunk contest, 3-point shootout, the Rising Stars Challenge, etc. — ostensibly focus on the latter, celebrating both skill and potential. Hayward earned his spot by participating in the skills challenge and getting mic’d up during the actual game (and now we all know that Hayward is a Kemba Walker fan). Everything else that happens over the weekend is about celebrity, which does not apply to Gordo.

He doesn’t help his celebrity case with quotes like this one:

Right, good advice. This one doesn’t do too much either:

He probably doesn’t care. Hayward has already won over the basketball junkies. He doesn’t want the fame that Michael Jordan invented and LeBron James commands. He’s chosen to maintain his personal website with first-person dispatches while many of his upper-echelon peers have opted for the glossier webpages of The Players’ Tribune or the glorified, darkened frame of an “Uninterrupted” confessional video. If Hayward is representative of the next generation of NBA stars, then the entire concept is in trouble. To get to the NBA A-list, cooperating with the marketing machine is a must. Embracing it is even better.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, revels in the attention that is lavished upon him. His preternatural charisma has been on display since he arrived in Milwaukee and began blogging about the shoes Larry Sanders gave him. He attended his first All-Star Weekend in 2014 (also in New Orleans), when he was a last-minute addition to the Rising Stars Challenge. His inner unicorn was already apparent, and he was endearing on Twitter.

Three years later, Antetokounmpo’s weekend was filled with promotional events that actually attracted interest, including a stop at the Mountain Dew Courtside HQ pop-up. The brand took over the New Orleans Board of Trade, creating something that looked like Daft Punk’s version of an igloo, except it was dark inside save for the neon signage conveying the electric green of the beverage. The walls were adorned with paintings of NBA players who endorse Mountain Dew, including Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook. It was weird.

When Giannis came in, his portrait was in progress. He went over to admire it surrounded by a throng of people eager to watch him take it in. The gaggle that trailed him was in turn trailed by a Bucks representative: Mr. Craig Robinson, brother of Michelle Obama. He walked around the perimeter, observing all this geodesic dome had to offer, which was not much other than a T-shirt station and some other wall art. Two of the paintings had JBL headphones (another official partner of the NBA) hanging underneath, and viewers were supposed to put them on and then touch the paintings. Yes, touch the allegedly fine art! Upon contact, record scratches and other DJ-spun sounds played on top of the music piping through the headphones. At least 20 people, Robinson included, opted to watch Giannis experience this.

Next, Antetokounmpo, still followed by a throng of camera-phone-holding people, made his way over to an aux cord. The venue’s MC asked him to play a few songs from his phone that he’d listen to for various occasions, concluding with Giannis’s song to blast when he’s just chilling at home. He selected “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran, a song that came out just over a month ago and to which he knew all the words.

Despite the awkwardness of having a group of strangers follow you around a small space, Giannis bopped along to the music. He broke out a few dance moves, and flashed his irresistible smile. He is a man ready for stardom, which is a relief, because the NBA needs guys like Giannis.

For all of the big names that passed through the Smoothie King Center, there was a definite absence of star power all weekend. Carmelo and LeBron arrived late and were conspicuously absent from both the Saturday night events and Michael Jordan’s 54th birthday party. James’s noisiest moment came when he lent his support to Kyrie Irving’s flat-earth crusade. Before that, it was hard to tell if LeBron was present at all.

At one point on Friday, Aaron Gordon, C.J. McCollum, Paul George, Irving, and Kevin Durant gathered at a promotional event for NBA2K. The video game’s publisher hosted a five-on-five tournament for professional gamers, and the winning team was surprised with the opportunity to play against the NBA fivesome. Because they were in New Orleans, a sleek jazz club was retrofitted for the event. Each participant, NBA player and gamer alike, sat behind a giant computer monitor as an audience watched, their faces barely visible. There was a large screen behind them, but it played only the video game. Of course the NBA players got torched by the gamers, and it was all very boring — except for when Hannibal Buress asked Durant if he’d join the other team if his team lost. Durant didn’t like that, but it was the only interesting observable moment of KD’s weekend (until he delivered an assist to Russell Westbrook on Sunday night). Suggestion: Next time you get five exciting NBA players together, make their facial expressions visible and their shit-talking audible.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With the stars we know opting out of the pageantry, the celebrity air space opened up. This weekend was a coming-out party for the 25-and-unders that will need to carry All-Star Weekend (and the league) in a few years. The Saturday night sideline is where stars go to make it clear that they’re part of the fabric of the league, and Giannis, along with Devin Booker and his baby blue Yves Saint Laurent jacket, seized the opportunity. Booker also seized every diamond possible, as evidenced by his sneakers and his earrings.

We’re used to seeing team Banana Boat in the prime seats. Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union were there, but his star was dimmed without the rest of his squad. But importantly, neither Wade nor Chris Paul was selected by any of the voting blocs (for Paul, it’s in part because he has been injured). The presence of Wade, Melo, LeBron, and CP3 has become shorthand for NBA relevance. Without them, events feel less important.

As they’ve all entered their 30s — ancient for athletes — it’d be a natural time for them to pass the celebrity torch. The young class that wants it isn’t ready, and the Durant-Westbrook-Harden generation is not courting. We’ll just have to wait for Giannis to get a major insurance endorsement, and for the Bucks to make it to the second round of the playoffs. That has been good enough for Chris Paul, after all.