MINNEAPOLIS -- What the best sports marketing department in the world conjured up to tip off their game's midseason showcase this year seemed like a great idea. The NBA's brainstormers decided to start their All-Star Weekend by burying what had become a boring ol' old-timers' game and, instead, gather up the best of the newcomers for a half-hour scrap of their own.
It was bye-bye to the "American Bandstand" generation and hello to the MTVers. They called their new product the NBA Rookie All-Star Game.
New blood, of course, is what saved the NBA from collapse at the end of the '70s. The transfusion came from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. A short while later came Michael Jordan. They not only revived the league, but made themselves the brightest of all sports stars. They also turned the NBA All-Star Weekend into the best of the bunch.
There was Bird shooting out the lights in the three-point contest and Jordan, of course, leaping over the competition in the dunk-a-thon.
They are, however, all gone now. Jordan, whose appearance in last season's showcase shockingly became his final, wasn't even spied in the stands Saturday. This All-Star Weekend certainly would need a jump start. The old-timers, the league knew, just didn't have the needed juice.
But after all was said and done Saturday, neither did the rookies. A memorable event theirs wasn't, save for the spectacular missed dunks and errant no-look passes. There was, for instance, the three-on-one fast break that ended when both Jamal Mashburn and Chris Mills tried simultaneously and unsuccessfully to stuff an Anfernee Hardaway alley-oop pass.
The most-exciting play of the game didn't come until the end. Chris Webber lifted off, performed a 360 and whirly bird with the ball cradled in his right arm and then WHAM! slammed the basketball through the rim. Too bad there wasn't more of the same.
"The one thing I shared with the guys more than anything," said old-timer and rookie team coach Doug Collins, "is to fight the urge to make the spectacular play every time. I didn't want the game to get sloppy."
"We were just playing," Mashburn explained. "The most fun part was being out there."
And, being here. There were interview sessions and photo sessions. There were parties Friday night and Saturday night. Some were thrown by television companies. Others were hosted by entertainment megastars like that Minneapolis resident who used to go by the name Prince.
"I went to hear Shaq [rapper and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal] last night," marveled Dallas' other rookie All-Star forward, Popeye Jones. "He can really rap. I'm going to go hear him again tonight [Saturday]."
Lights, cameras and action is really what NBA All-Star Weekend is all about. And for rookies, it can be a little daunting. They can forget for a moment that they are the event's real stars.
As Mashburn said, "It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Nobody was really concerned about winning and losing. It's not a measuring stick for anybody, really."
Therein was the problem.
When the big boys play the real All-Star Game on Sunday, they will try the sensational slams and exhilarating passes, too. And they'll complete a lot more.
But the big difference will be that, in the end, a little pride will get to them. They will care who earns bragging rights.
At least, however, no one got hurt this Saturday night. The legends game had turned into a trainer's nightmare. Broken bones here. Torn knee ligaments there.
"Things were a little faster that the legends' game," observed Jones. "But the thing I was hoping was just that no rookies got hurt, and they didn't."
Injury was quite unlikely in a game played at this pace and with oh-so-much on the line. The winners, an eight-man team called the Phenoms, took home $4,000 each. The losers, named the Sensations, walked away with $3,000 apiece. Maybe the NBA should alter the stakes a little more next year, or better yet have the rookie all-stars play the league's best for 30 minutes. Now, that would be exciting.
Mashburn was sitting on his cushy locker room chair Saturday night answering questions after the game when a league official walked up with his reward.
"Here," the man said, stuffing a long piece of paper in Mashburn's mits.
"What's this? A check?" Mashburn said with surprise. "I got a check for playing."
Well, sort of.