After almost all of it was said and done, there was an NBA All-Star game to play on Sunday at Vivint Arena in front of a live crowd, likely only a modest portion of which was made up of basketball fans from around here. Joining them was a much larger television audience tuning in from around the cowhide globe. And, as it turned out, from far-flung places such as Sandy and Taylorsville and Layton and Kearns and Millcreek and Provo and Clearfield and Tremonton and Saint George and corners of every Utah town.
Eyeballs from here, there, everywhere dialed in on the arena that Larry built on a busy block of Salt Lake City. No telling if the savior of Jazz basketball himself was looking in from the great beyond. God only knows, he might have been, sitting on a heavenly perch alongside Jerry Sloan, Bill Russell, David Stern and all the other NBA dearly departeds. None of this would have been happening without LHM and his wife, Gail, and their vision from some 40 years back.
It’s not that Utah was a mere backdrop to the NBA’s celebration of its game, its stars, its status, itself, it’s just that a relative handful of locals could afford to buy tickets to the main event, some of those better seats were going for upwards of $20 grand. Instead, they attended the preliminaries, but then were largely boxed out, watching from their TV dens while a bunch of famous and wealthy interlopers executed early offense, flying in for the parties and flying out afterward.
But not without dropping fistfuls of their abundant cash on hotel rooms, restaurants, stores, assorted businesses of other kinds, as the league and its players generated millions of dollars not only for the NBA, but for the local economy and, most impressively, for significant causes — from environmental to educational to social to technological to mental to charitable.
There were a thousand happenings during the week and the weekend, many of which have been chronicled earlier in this space, but, at last, on Sunday, the primary spectacle was on.
And a spectacle it was. Although it also featured some lousy basketball.
The competition, such as it was, was sandwiched between music, dancing, celebrity appearances, wandering spotlights, hoopla fit for the kings and queens of pop and rap and soul and sports and screens, both small and big. Totaled up, the combined net worth and gross tonnage of jewelry on hand, on wrists and ears and around necks on Sunday likely broke the record for the most precious metal, the most baubles and ornaments, found in one place at one time in Utah — and that includes all the minerals extracted from a hundred mines around here.
Not sure how much anybody in this state cares about what cool people think of their home, but Ryan Smith cares, and it seemed as though most everyone on hand had a fantastic time, in and around the roundball played on the floor. These are the kinds of events that inform the rest of the planet that Utah, despite its outrageously conservative legislature, is not some dusty, forgotten outpost wedged not just between a western desert and the Wasatch Range, but between 2023 and 1950.
Anyway, as John Lennon once encouraged a royal audience to do, the crowd in the back cheered, the crowd in the front rattled their jewelry. Post Malone sang, Charles Barkley talked, Shaq led the crowd in singing happy birthday to Chuck, LeBron James, although he didn’t play much, reminded all of what they already knew — that he’s a wonderfully unique talented athlete. And that the best basketball players in the world are special specimens that soar and score, even more at an elevation of 4,226 feet and when nobody plays a lick of defense.
None of it was pure basketball. James Naismith wouldn’t have recognized any of it, but … who cares? It was fun.
If that was conveyed through the airwaves to those at home, as they reached for a plate of homemade ham sandwiches and a cold drink from the fridge, good. Those in the building certainly could feel and experience it.
The player draft, while interesting to see who would be picked when and where by LeBron and Giannis, directed by TNT’s Ernie Johnson, lasted for what seemed to be a few hours. It wasn’t that long, but … it dragged. Post Malone and 21 Savage put on a mini-concert, a treat the crowd appeared to appreciate. Other stars hanging around, people like Jennifer Hudson, Vin Diesel, 2 Chainz, Chris Tucker and a load more, took in the action.
Once the game commenced, more fun distractions unfolded, like the very nice moment when longtime Jazz P.A. announcer Dan Roberts was honored for nearly 50 years of being on the house microphone.
What happened during the actual play was standard All-Star fare, which is to say, the action alternated between hot doggish, sloppy, stellar, and, by the end, record-breaking. Many of the participants showed bits and pieces of why they are among the most gifted players on God’s green earth.
A will to win, though, was lacking. Nobody was digging in to put a beatdown on the other guys, revealing peer pressure not to make anyone on the floor look bad. There was not a need to studiously distinguish between the two sides, as Team Giannis and Team LeBron both were pretty much indistinguishable. Antetokounmpo played for all of a second or two, due to a wrist injury. James bowed out early, too.
Over one span in the second half, shooters started shooting from Section 119, row 5, just for the kick of it. Down the stretch, the one emerging question was this: Who would score more Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell? The answer was slightly complicated because they played for the same team.
The answer wound up being Tatum, who broke the All-Star game individual scoring record.
He got 55 points, Mitchell had 40.
Tatum’s secret to breaking the record?
“Keep shooting,” he said.
Ultimately, Tatum was named the MVP, getting his record, his trophy, and Team Giannis took the night, 184-175, winning a stack of cash for the worthy organization Raise the Future, which helps kids in foster care. And that, along with the extracurricular fun, the spectacle of the weekend, was the best of a whole lot of good things the NBA could and did bring to Salt Lake City.
When the bright lights and the television cameras finally were turned off and the clean-up crews went to work at Vivint, the curtain came down. There was nothing left in the tank, nothing more to do — except for an after party to attend at a nearby downtown venue for whoever had enough energy and money leftover to participate.