All-Star Game Or All-Star Shame?

Damian Lillard #0 of the Milwaukee Bucks and Eastern Conference All-Stars reacts during the 2024 NBA All-Star Game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on February 18, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images

by John Celestand

I couldn’t let another minute go by before I turned off the game. It was bothering me so much that I figured I would just write about it.  I was going to kill the NBA and the All-Star game for maybe the worst display of basketball I’ve seen in a long time. Then I reconsidered and thought I’d just forget it, erase it from my brain, move on, ignore it, and just wait for the NBA playoffs, when the players usually seem to raise their intensity levels.  

The problem was that the basketball purist inside my soul held me hostage and made sure I would do exactly as I was told. I was going to write this piece for every foolish half-court shot I witnessed, for every half-hearted sorry attempt at defense I watched, for every 50-point quarter that happened in the game, and for every minute that went by with the best basketball players in the world not giving a damn.

Yet the truth is, I was still concerned with being called a hater — which, in my opinion, is one of the most overused words in the last 20 years. I knew there were trollers out there who would say that these are some of the greatest athletes in the world, playing a “meaningless game” not worthy of a twisted ankle, a sprained knee, or something worse that could end their season.  

To watch our peers, our heroes combine for an All-Star game record of 397 points was utterly disgusting

To accept this, though, is to disregard the fans who have made this game as popular as it is today. To accept this would be to disrespect myself, a former NBA player who shot for hours in the summer on the blacktop as a youth. Accepting this would ridicule my own efforts, a young kid who shot outside in the summer mimicking the great players of the 80s and early 90s until the soles of my shoes had holes in them. It’s a slap in the face to those who respect the game, showed up early to practice, or maybe stayed late honing their skills to one day be considered one of the best in the world.   

For all of us ballers who dreamed of playing basketball at the highest level in the world and one day becoming an all-star to compete on the greatest basketball stage in the land, to watch our peers, our heroes combine for an All-Star game record of 397 points was utterly disgusting. 

Reminisce with me for a second and think about how excited Magic Johnson was to compete in the All-Star game in 1992 after being diagnosed with HIV.  Johnson was awarded MVP after going one-on-one down the stretch with all-time greats like Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas. Now, to compare that to what we witnessed during Sunday’s game is downright embarrassing.  

Last night, I went to YouTube and pulled up the 2001 All-Star game just to watch Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Stephon Marbury, and Kevin Garnett play as if they were about to be eliminated from the NBA Finals. I had to watch those highlights just to “Men in Black” zap the memory of that despicable display from my brain. To watch Damian Lillard hoist the MVP Trophy he “earned” with little to no resistance from defenders, to watch him lift a trophy named after the late great Kobe Bryant, who was maybe the most intense, hard-working, no-days-off player of our generation, almost made me want to throw up. 

The Black man in me feels like a sellout for pointing this out.

But this is not a shot at Damian Lillard, who won his first All-Star MVP,  but more so, a shot to each player that participated, or better yet barely participated, in what used to be one of the most anticipated games of an NBA season.  

Yet, what I love about the NBA is how invested the league is in their actual players.  No other professional sports league takes care of its players like the NBA does.  There is no better Players Association that represents and looks out for the players like the NBPA.  There is no other league that is as global and popular worldwide as the National Basketball Association. 

And yet, one must wonder, has this gone to the players’ heads? To be a great NBA player, you must have some sort of ego; you have to have a decent level of arrogance and bravado.  But has the power and ability to demand and veto trades, the exorbitant amount of money the players are being paid, the endorsements, the worldwide popularity, and the load management ultimately hurt the game?  

I can’t help but think what it meant for all of us when we played for more than the money.

The basketball purist in me says yes, but the Black man in me feels like a sellout for pointing this out. Regardless of how much money the players make, or the lack of interest the players show in competing, the NBA is still raking in an enormous amount of revenue off the backs of these same talented athletes, the majority of them Black. A lackluster effort in an All-Star game won’t change any of that.  

Yet I can’t help but think what it meant for all of us when we played for more than the money. When players didn’t think about endorsements, our upcoming contracts, if we may get hurt, or how much we had to lose more than we thought about competing and how badly we wanted to win. Would a player show up to a summer league game at Rucker Park in Harlem, or the Drew League in LA and give 25% effort like they did in the All-Star game? Highly unlikely.  

Today, we love to have debates about eras and which one is better. Folks love debating who the real GOAT is, Lebron or Jordan. Some folks feel that today’s players are more skilled and athletic. Some feel the players in the 90s played better defense, or at least were more physical and beat each other to a bloody pulp.  Others think the players today handle the ball and shoot the three-point shot much better than those from the 80s. In 2044, we may be debating if Lebron James or Kevin Durant were even good players. The blasphemy is that by that time, Michael Jordan may even be called a scrub. 

To me, it’s all white noise from talking heads and barbershop experts. You can’t prove any of it. 

But what one can surmise from Sunday’s lethargic effort in the All-Star game is that NBA players of today may be missing one of the most important attributes that players from the past possessed.   


John Celestand is the program director of the Knight x LMA BloomLab, a $3.2 million initiative that supports the advancement and sustainability of local Black-owned news publications. He is a former freelance sports broadcaster and writer who covered the NBA and college basketball for multiple networks such as ESPN Regional Television, SNY, and Comcast Sportsnet Philadelphia. John was a member of the 2000 Los Angeles Lakers NBA Championship Team, playing alongside the late great Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and son.