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Did the NBA All-Star Game Just Get Blocked by James?

It’s one thing when fans voice concern about staging All-Star Weekend amid a pandemic, it’s another when those doubts are coming from the face of the league

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For weeks, as reports continued to trickle out that the NBA and its players were considering holding a makeshift All-Star Game after all, many pundits and fans wondered: Why? If concerns over the health and safety ramifications of All-Star Weekend were significant enough to call off the midseason festivities back in November, and if the pandemic is still raging to the tune of more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases and thousands of deaths per day, then why the sudden push to bring the league’s brightest stars together in a way that—given the sheer number of people involved—seems even riskier than the normal games taking place during an already abbreviated and fraught regular season? What’s this for?

The volume of those questions got cranked up to 11 on Thursday night, because the voice asking them belonged not to a columnist or a TV talking head. It belonged to 16-time All-Star LeBron James.

“I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year,” James told reporters after the Lakers’ 114-93 win over the Nuggets. “I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game.”

James’s comments came hours after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the NBA had sent a memo to teams informing them that the league would “have a finalized agreement with the NBPA” to hold an All-Star Game in Atlanta “by next week.” According to Wojnarowski, the plan detailed a one-night event held at State Farm Arena, home of the Hawks, on March 7 that would combine the customary skills competitions typically held on the Saturday night of All-Star Weekend with the main event itself.

Hosting that one-night event, however, requires ironing out a gargantuan number of details. Chief among them: How to safely bring players, coaches, and staff from all over the league—who have been operating for weeks under tightened health and safety protocols specifically aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 to prevent another suspension of play—together at one time, in one place. Wojnarowski reports that the league and players’ union continue to discuss those details, which are expected to include “players arriving on Saturday and leaving on Sunday night under tight quarantines.”

The new plan also has guidelines for players who aren’t selected as All-Stars. Under normal circumstances, those players often use the All-Star break as an opportunity for a quick vacation; now, though, they’ll be barred from international travel (though domestic options do still include some tropical destinations), tested daily, and required to be back in their team’s market two days before their team’s first game of the second half.

That second-half schedule still isn’t finalized, of course, because the league has had to postpone more than 20 games from the first-half slate due to positive COVID-19 tests and associated contact tracing. Part of the argument for leaving the second-half schedule unwritten and building in the five-day All-Star break without an actual All-Star Game was to give the league extra time to reschedule those makeup dates without putting players in position to have to play an even more compressed schedule.

On Thursday, James—who hasn’t slow-played the start of the season despite the Lakers being the last team standing in last season’s bubble, playing in all 23 games and performing at an MVP level—expressed his frustration at the league’s stakeholders reversing course on that point.

“And then coming into this season, you know, we were told that we were not having an All-Star Game, so we’d have a nice little break,” James told reporters. “Five days from [March] 5th through the 10th, an opportunity for me to kind of recalibrate for the second half of the season. My teammates as well. Some of the guys in the league. And then they throw an All-Star Game on us like this and just breaks that all the way up. So, pretty much kind of a slap in the face.”

The fact that the league’s planning to hold the affair in Atlanta adds another wrinkle here, too. From a logistical standpoint, Atlanta is the home of Turner Sports, a league partner that could televise the game without needing to shift an entire broadcast apparatus across the country. It’s also, however, one of 10 NBA cities where fans are currently allowed to attend games—and one where, recently and very famously, some fans seated courtside were ejected after engaging in some spirited—and maskless—trash-talk with James during a Lakers-Hawks game.

“And we’re also still dealing with a pandemic,” James said. “We’re still dealing with everything that’s been going on, and we’re going to bring the whole league into one city that’s open.”

LeBron’s not the only player raising such concerns. Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox—who’s off to a strong start and getting All-Star buzz himself after averaging 22.3 points and 6.6 assists per game for a team in playoff contention—didn’t mince words when asked earlier this week for his thoughts on the All-Star proposal.

“If I’m going to be brutally honest, I think it’s stupid,” Fox told reporters. “If we have to wear a mask and do all of this for a regular game, then what’s the point of bringing the All-Star Game back? Obviously, money makes the world go round, so it is what it is.”

Fox faces stiff competition to snare an All-Star spot in a stacked Western Conference. If he does make it, he said he’d participate ... though perhaps not with the sort of boundless enthusiasm you’d typically expect from a young player earning his first appearance.

“You know you get fined if you’re supposed to be in it and you’re not hurt and decide not to play?” he said. “That’s a hefty fine, so hell yeah, I would play in it. I hope I don’t get fined for saying that.”

James—who led all Western Conference players in the first returns of fan balloting and would be a shoo-in to start in his 17th All-Star appearance, third on the all-time list—struck a similar Marshawn Lynch-esque note: “I’ll be there physically, but not mentally.”

This, to put it mildly, is probably not the vibe the NBA would prefer its signature star and most influential public figure communicating to the masses about the midseason showcase it’s trying to get off the ground. The (multi-)million-dollar question is whether LeBron—no stranger to speaking up and wielding his power on league matters—raising concerns about the game is enough to do anything about it.

The argument for the league reversing course here would seem to be about stoking fan engagement and capturing the eyeballs of a still-sort-of-captive audience to deliver big ratings to the broadcast partners shelling out billions of dollars to keep the league’s lights on. An argument from the players’ side to stage it might center, as Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times put it, on the “pockets of prominent players”—those who might have incentive clauses or escalators in their contracts that boost their bottom lines if they play in an actual All-Star Game. As much as everybody complains about the trappings of All-Star Weekend, it’s a reliable means of featuring the best talent in the world to an audience that might not be regularly tuning in to watch the Jazz, Nuggets, and Pacers. The stars are the product; the best way to promote the product is to show them to as many people as possible.

The league and players’ union, if they chose, could at least offer some nature of public case as to why this is all OK. They could note that the fine print on the NBA’s November announcement said only that the plan to hold the game in Indiana had been postponed—because “public health conditions prevented the Pacers, the NBA All-Star Host Committee, and the NBA from appropriately planning and executing fan-focused All-Star activities in Indianapolis” as envisioned—and say that they believe the conditions now, if not in Georgia in general (where the positivity rate hovers above 14 percent) then in the NBA in particular (where the league’s positivity rate has declined to 0 percent over the past four rounds of testing), appear different enough to make a different determination.

They could make clear that while All-Star selection will remain a badge of honor, actual participation in the game will be optional without punishment rather than mandatory for players, like James, who have expressed concerns. They could emphasize the opportunity of this one-night event to serve as a megaphone for the importance of vaccination—an amplification of the league-produced PSAs showing legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Gregg Popovich getting the COVID-19 vaccine on camera—and the need for continued personal vigilance until the country has reached a mass-vaccination tipping point.

So far, though, the league and union have remained mum, leaving the word on this to trickle out from plugged-in reporters and the void to be filled by quizzical grumbles. But the rumble’s a roar now, because whether or not this is empirically a terrible idea, the face of the NBA thinks it is, and he’s saying so. LeBron’s the only person in the league with the stroke to feasibly make this a real problem for the NBA, and on Thursday night, he made it one. What remains now is to see how far down that road he—and any other players who might now feel emboldened by the four-time MVP’s words—might be willing to go, and how Adam Silver and the powers that be respond to the most important voice in the sport ringing out.