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'The Big Sleep' desperately needs wakeup call

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA - Yawn.

As you read this over your Sunday breakfast, one group of nondescript NBA players will have left the floor at Philips Arena after last night's "who cares" collection of All-Star Weekend events, and another collection of uninterested players will be preparing to take the court for tonight's mail-it-in performance at the All-Star Game.

Once upon a time, the NBA All-Star Game and its related weekend full of events was an incredible midwinter showcase of the league's best players, displaying their talents in ways guaranteed to make your jaw drop.

Now, the weekend has disintegrated into a snoozefest so dull that your jaw and the rest of your head are in danger of dropping to a table in utter boredom.

The only interesting moments in last year's game in Philadelphia were Tracy McGrady's incredible, throw-it-off-the-glass-in-traffic-and-slam-it-home dunk during the game and Kobe Bryant getting booed by the hometown fans.

Things have gotten so matter-of-fact that ABC, the NBA's new network television carrier, is passing up tonight's game for Inspector Gadget. That's right, Michael Jordan's final chance to rise to greatness gets the boot for a really bad kids' movie.

There are a few ways to get the spark that accompanies all those All-Star parties into the weekend itself.

Alter the dunk contest.

This used to be the centerpiece of the weekend, even bigger than the game itself, with the biggest stars (Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter) doing the mind-boggling.

It's been at least three years since any star of notice deigned to participate in the contest and, as a result, nobody is interested. The best way to get the big names back in the game is to make it worth their while. Raise the prize money from $25,000 to $250,000 and make the contest winner-take-all.

Oh, and they ought to allow props. If people can see Joe the welder jump over a car at a Hoop-It-Up, the NBA should let its players at least jump over a chair.

Expand the rosters.

NBA teams are allowed to carry 15 players, including three on an injured list. So, why can't the conference All-Star teams add three players so that more deserving players can join the fun?

Lose the celebrity stuff, as well as the WNBA tie-ins.

It's nice that Justin Timberlake has played some pick-up here and there, and the notion that the guy who plays "Ed" on TV can shoot a little is a quaint one. But neither of them is an NBA player, and they shouldn't be on the court with the genuine articles.

Likewise, the WNBA's appeal is to those fans who like the game slower and below the rim, two things the NBA doesn't sell. Besides, the WNBA season doesn't start until late May, so it isn't as if there's going to be a lot of immediate crossover between the leagues.

Quiz

Since 1990-91, which team had the best post-All-Star Game record? Here's a hint: This team did not go on to win a title.

More costly comments

It looks like Miami Heat coach Pat Riley is going to have to dig out his checkbook again after he fired off another ill-tempered blast at an officiating crew.

Riley, who was fined $50,000 in December for accusing the NBA's referees of having it in for the Heat after a blown call in a loss to the New York Knicks, heaped more scorn on them after Wednesday's 101-87 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

"It was an absolute officiating tragedy," Riley said. "I thought I was at the comedy store watching some kind of comedian out there laughing with the Blazers, and talking to them, and smiling with them. It was so unprofessional."

The most galling part of the proceedings for Riley was that his team went to the free-throw line only seven times, while the Blazers attempted 32 foul shots.

"You cannot overcome 32-7," Riley said. "The residual of that is that you go for the home run."

Riley's sanction could be lessened in view of a retort from referee Derrick Stafford, who got into an argument with the coach after giving Miami assistant Stan Van Gundy a technical foul late in the fourth quarter. Stafford yelled at Riley, "It's not about you. Go on TV crying."

And so he did.

Smart thinks positively

Maybe it's his youth that keeps new Cleveland Cavaliers coach Keith Smart from approaching his new job with all the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner awaiting a cigarette and his last meal.

But Smart, 36, the second-youngest coach in the NBA behind the Golden State Warriors' Eric Musselman, is wise enough to forget where the Cavaliers have been and try to focus them on where they should be.

"I've always gone about things from the approach that I have to be the best today and then I move to tomorrow," Smart said. "So I do everything that I can today to prepare for tomorrow, and everything else will take care of itself. We're preaching that this is a brand-new season. Whatever happened in the old season, meaning before the change, we leave it there and we start from right now."

Smart, who hit the jumper that powered Indiana past Syracuse for the 1987 national championship, replaced John Lucas last month. He has the challenge of keeping the Cavaliers, who haven't been to the playoffs in five years, from oblivion.

"He's got a tough job ahead of him, with a franchise that hasn't done anything in a few years and has gone through so many changes through the years," said reserve guard Bimbo Coles, one of the few veterans on the squad.

"People see it as a bad team, but the good thing about it is that Keith is energetic and very confident in himself. It's not going to be easy, but I think Keith can get it done."

The Cavaliers got a big home win over the Houston Rockets just before the break, so things could be looking up.

"This is the plan we have before us," Smart said. "This is what management and ownership has laid out. This is what we want to see done. Now, let's see if those things are coming to fruition. We understand that you've been thrown into a tough situation, so don't get caught up in that. Let's make sure that our team is moving in the right direction."

Quiz answer

The 1996-97 Utah Jazz posted a 31-4 mark after the All-Star break. Oddly enough, the 1997-98 Jazz went 31-5, the fourth-best record after the midwinter classic. Neither team won the championship, each losing to the Chicago Bulls.

Quote

"It reminded me of my girl's YMCA games. Everybody misses all their shots and the tallest girl gets all the rebounds. Tonight, Tim was the tallest girl." - San Antonio Spurs guard Steve Kerr about teammate Tim Duncan's 17 points and career-high 25 rebounds against Miami.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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