The National Basketball Association would have to go back 70 years to relive the last time it held the All-Star Game in March. And just as the inaugural event was significant in its uniqueness, so, too, did this year’s iteration stand out. With the novel coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on normalcy, the latest version of the league’s elaborate Thank You to fans wound up being compressed at best. A weekend’s worth of festivities was cramped in a single night, and the 16,600-seat State Farm Arena served as host to a mere eighth of its capacity, the maximum allowable under local safety regulations.
Still, the NBA strove to hold the annual spectacle anew. Foremost among its objectives was the fulfillment of contractual obligations to TNT, its national broadcast partner, although the forced sidelining of Sixers Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons due to contact tracing protocols underscored the risks involved. In hindsight, the league was fortunate to have the All-Star schedule proceed as planned; wrong timing could well have decommissioned a large number, if not all, if its marquee players.
In truth, the NBA looks at danger in the eye every single time it holds matches. The virus does not fight fair, and even the best-laid plans in the name of health can be derailed by the venom of the unseen enemy. In this context, the All-Star Game and its attendant sidelights — the Skills Challenge, Three Point Shootout, and Slam Dunk Contest — cannot but be viewed as a success. Never mind that the main event was devoid of suspense, and that LeBron James, still its biggest draw despite his advancing age, saw fit to sit out the entire second half.
James didn’t have a particularly good night on the court, but the NBA did, just because everything went according to plan. Some stars shone brighter than others, but the real winner is one Adam Silver. He gambled heavily, and emerged all aces. To be sure, the 2020-21 season is but halfway done, and it’s anybody’s guess as to how the homestretch will unfold. The flipside, of course, is that league honchos have proven to be extremely competent at what they do, so betting on them to see their plans through doesn’t come with long odds.
Nonetheless, more unexpected turns are in the offing. Even with vaccines becoming more and more available by the day, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel remains in the distance. Meanwhile, the NBA is left with no choice but to move forward, with as much trepidation as confidence.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.