The NBA is holding an All-Star Game, during a pandemic, after a bubble-induced season, with no fans, and without the blessing of all of its superstars.
But when life makes you play a meaningless game, you ask for organizers to do some good while they’re at it.
On Thursday night, two of the game’s biggest stars, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, will pick their squads from a roster of official superstars.
It’s sure to be a breath of much-needed levity as we continue to manage daily life during the covid-19 pandemic.
But there is a lot wrong in even having the All-Star Game in 2021. The athletes are exhausted, emotionally and physically. Mandating that the best this sport has to offer travel to Atlanta rather than rest up for the final push of the season sounds insane. But, as with anything pandemic-related, there is a massive gray area to navigate.
The non-festive festivity will take place on March 7, which is when the league will encourage fans to tune in but stay away. For its beleaguered stars, the mandate is to show up but not hang out.
Let’s be clear, the covid-19 pandemic is clearly getting better but we are hardly at the end of this arduous journey. That means mitigating protocols continue to be needed. It also means that while sports offer a much-needed respite for the nation, doing away with superfluous events is just common sense.
The NBA is going to instead force the matter. But there is a lot of good that will come from it. But, first, let’s dig into the fact that they are having this thing at all.
Being an All-Star in 2021
James isn’t shy with his opinions. The Lakers star is anything but closed off when it comes to things that matter—and even when it comes to anything Taco Tuesday. On matters of this weekend, well, he’s against it.
“I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game,” James said in early February, according to the New York Times. He referred to the notion of playing an extra game amid the pandemic as “a slap in the face” to players who have already played the dénouement of last season in a bubble.
Sacramento Kings star De’Aaron Fox was more pointed with his criticism. Again, via the New York Times. “If I’m going to be brutally honest, I think it’s stupid,” Fox is quoted as saying.
“If we have to wear a mask and all this for a regular game, then what’s the point of bringing the All-Star Game back? But, obviously, money makes the world go ’round, so it is what it is.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo put it succinctly in early February, according to The Athletic, “I really, right now, I don't care about the All-Star Game. I got zero energy, zero excitement.”
Adam Silver explained the reason a game of this little magnitude and with this little support should go on.
"It's a global event for us, and we're making our best efforts to embrace all aspects of our league to the extent we can through this pandemic and this is just one more opportunity,” the NBA commissioner said last month, via ESPN.
Normalcy and the league not missing out on a worldwide event. Nevermind the fact that instead of an entire weekend of fanfare, the event will be one Sunday of forced frivolity.
There are also suggestions that the game itself could draw less than stellar ratings as has other recent sporting events.
The league is also attempting the same grandiose sleight of hand other leagues have over the past year. They are keen to welcome a large event but want to also highlight the safety of it. It’s having your cake, eating it and then explaining that the chocolate isn’t all that bad.
ESPN reports the league is welcoming players to Atlanta, but they will not be allowed to commiserate outside of the game or outside of their own personal bubbles.
This runs counter to what many around social media have pointed out; the Atlanta area is replete with the promise of soirées during All-Star weekend—yet another issue to explain.
But there are reasons to play on. There is the respite this game lends its fans. There are also the initiatives that are being enacted thanks to the players who have come to embrace the potential of their platform.
Amplifying and Supporting
Having a platform might be a foreign concept to people like, say, Zlatan Ibrahimović who recently admonished LeBron for daring to bring politics into the sports world—forgetting all about his hero Muhammad Ali.
The Lakers star, however, understands that politics is something that affects us all. Just as anybody in any profession should be educated and motivated in that sphere, so too should athletes. Their fame affords them an opportunity to affect meaningful change.
“At the end of the day, I will never shut up about things that are wrong. I preach about my people and I preach about equality, social justice, racism, voter suppression, things that go on in our community because I was a part of my community at one point and saw the things that were going on,” the Lakers star said in response to Ibrahimović’s comments.
“There’s no way I would ever just stick to sports, because I understand this platform and how powerful my voice is,” he continued.
A group James helped found will be partnering with the NBA over the all-star weekend to precisely address voting rights.
The New York Times reports More Than a Vote—an organization created by James, Trae Young, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jalen Rose to address voter suppression in underrepresented communities—is using the spotlight of All-Star weekend to protest sweeping changes to voter registration that are being proposed by Georgia’s Republican-led legislature.
According to the Times, “Democrats say the changes would have an outsize impact on Black voters.”
The weekend will also see the NBA pivot the message away from the game and towards something affecting certain communities disproportionately.
The NBA announced in February that the festivities, crammed into one night for 2021, will also be an opportunity to “commit more than $2.5 million in funds and resources toward Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and support and awareness around equity and access to COVID-19 care, relief and vaccines.”
CNN recently discovered that white Americans were getting vaccinated at a higher rate than Black and Latino Americans.
A study of 14 states found that white populations were roughly 2.3 times more likely to be vaccinated than Black populations.
There is an undeniable need for players and leagues to be more vigilant in using their platforms amid great social injustice and a pandemic that continues to evolve.
The NBA All-Star Draft kicks off on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on TNT. It’s a moment of faux normalcy buried under a mountain of aberration.
The league is doing what we all are getting used to doing, highlighting the positives while limiting the dangers. Though, it’s easy to be cynical about the process.
At this point, we’ll take our wins when we can get them. Amplifying causes that need it amid a game that doesn’t need to be played is a small measure of good we can all use. And small measures of kindness is how we get out of this mess.