While the NBA all-stars get some time to rest, the D-League grabs their moment to shine.
NBA All-Star Weekend features many events, but most of the attention centres on the Saturday night contests (the three-point shooting competition, the dunk contest, the skills challenge, and the sometimes inexplicable musical guest), and the actual game on Sunday. The league has gone to great lengths to hype every element of All-Star Weekend (up to and including essentially turning the Celebrity Game into an annual celebration of all things Kevin Hart), but into every weekend some chill must flow, and Saturday afternoon – home of the All-Star practice and the D-League events—is the natural rest point.
This is not to say that the practice wasn’t hyped. It was, after all, Kobe Bryant’s Last All-Star Practice, and the attending fans were less likely to forget this than the NBA itself. Fans called out for Kobe during the Eastern Conference team’s practice (which came first). Kobe Nation shouted “Kobe” during an interview where Jimmy Butler revealed he liked country music and while LeBron James successfully guessed every NBA commemorative emoji’s matching player. Guy Fieri was both present and then interviewed for some reason we cannot easily explain, but the Lakers guard known as Black Mamba was the constant force. Just a nonstop steady background drone of Kobe-yelling, until he finally showed up with the Western Conference team….
…that is until Steph Curry was introduced, anyway, and this is when one realizes that fandom is generational. The cheers for Steph, the Best Player in the World right now, were almost as loud as Kobe’s and distinctly higher-pitched. The kids know who they like, and to the kids, Kobe Bryant is their dad’s favorite player (or, alternately, the player their dad hates most, because nobody is neutral when it comes to Kobe). Each conference team had a half-court shooting contest to end their practice, because people love watching players shoot longballs that have next to no chance to go in. Bryant missed all of them, and that’s not a knock on him because shooting from halfway down a basketball court is nearly impossible. Steph Curry, on the other hand, made two out of three halfcourt shots.
After the Western Conference Team left, so did most of the media and fans, which is a shame because up next was the NBA D-League All-Star Game and events. The D-League events are always good fun because, unlike the All-Stars, these are professional basketball players who have not yet made it to the promised land, and plug away on relatively piddling salaries trying to get noticed. These events actually matter to the players involved, because D-League all-star events are just one more chance for them to impress. Andre Ingram won the D-League three-point shooting contest for the second year in a row; he’s actually shooting three-pointers at a higher rate than Steph Curry is this year, but Curry plays against NBA defenders and Ingram doesn’t, so it’s not quite comparable. Still, Ingram was doing his best to make the case for the NBA team to give him a ten-day contract and let him show what he can do. So, too, did D-League Dunk Contest winner—and Raptors 905 player—John Jordan, whose insane dunks were easily the best of the competition (with the possible exception of one ridiculous no-run-up dunk from Canton Charge player DJ Stephens). And so did Jimmer Fredette, a remarkable college ball shooter who played for three NBA teams before going down to the D-League (because he doesn’t play defense at an NBA level and has trouble executing his shot against quality NBA defenders). He came in second in the three-point shooting competition and won the D-League All-Star Game MVP.
Watching Jimmer’s face as he accepted the MVP trophy was amazing, because it exemplified what the D-League is all about. The players in the D-League are legitimately some of the best basketball players in the world—every D-Leaguer is one of the top 1,000 or so men in the world when it comes to playing basketball, and to watch them play is a reminder that very few people ever excel at this level at anything. Yet, at the same time, every one of them is dissatisfied, because they have not yet proven that they can hang with the best of the best of the best, the 450 players on active NBA rosters. The D-League All-Star Game is, for them, a consolation prize, and the mix of happiness and humility that every player exhibited is hard to forget. They’re all still climbing the mountain.