NBA stars fight abrupt choice of All-Star game

Joel Embiid in all-star jersey
Illustration by Alex Barr

When the National Basketball Association (NBA) made plans for the 2020-21 season, they initially announced that the annual All-Star Game weekend would not be taking place, citing safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But in early February, the NBA had a sudden change of heart, deciding to hold the All-Star Game in its usual format on Sunday, March 7, in Atlanta. 

The league faces one critical setback, however: Most of the star players have no interest in participating.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James leads a star-studded lineup of players who are speaking out against the proposal. Notable dissenters include Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard and even Portland’s own Carmelo Anthony of the Trail Blazers, all of whom are speaking out alongside James. 

James noted that players are exhausted after a shortened offseason, and many had plans to visit family or get some well-needed rest in lieu of the All-Star Game.

“I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year,” James said in a postgame conference. “I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game.”

The concerns were echoed by Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, a former NBA MVP.

“[James] says he has zero excitement, zero energy for the All-Star Game, I’m the same way,” Giannis said on a Zoom call with reporters on Feb. 5. “I can’t worry about the All-Star Game, I want to see my family.”

Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard added another layer of depth to the controversy.

“We all know why we’re playing it … just putting money over health right now, pretty much,” Leonard said, calling out the NBA directly in a recent press conference after losing to the Boston Celtics.

Many players find it unfathomable to believe that this decision is not rooted in financial incentives for the league, with all NBA franchises existing within a “bubble” for the entire NBA season to this point. This usually allowed players little to no contact with players from other teams outside of gameday and required further participation in daily COVID-19 mitigation procedures at team facilities. With the All-Star Game taking place in its normal format, players from all teams will meet up for a showdown in Atlanta and all safety protocols go out the window. Things just do not seem to add up for most.

From the perspective of the NBA administration and the player’s union, the All-Star Game is a way to raise money for historically Black colleges and universities and COVID-19 relief while recouping some of the significant losses felt due to the pandemic. While this may sound like an admirable pursuit by the NBA and the player’s union, it is clearly more divisive than it seems. Many players think there are better alternatives for benefitting these causes that do not involve the real possibility of contracting COVID-19 or injury. 

Many look to the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB), which did not hold their normal All-Star Games during the year. Instead, the NFL and MLB found ways to honor their top players that did not involve risk of injury or illness, such as video game tournaments or virtual Q&A sessions. Both leagues also held virtual charity events benefiting social justice, community service and COVID-19 relief funds, all while players got to enjoy much needed rest with their families.

Even players who are not slated to play in the proposed All-Star Game are speaking out. 

“I don’t think it’s right,” Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony said. “I don’t think we need it.” 

The concern was built upon by Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox.

“I think it’s stupid,” Fox said in a postgame interview with Bleacher Report. “If we have to wear masks and do all this for a regular game, what’s the point of bringing the All-Star Game back?”

The NBA has not yet finalized its proposal, meaning that the 2021 All-Star Game could still be postponed or canceled. While the chorus of backlash has the majority of support, several players have spoken in favor of the proposal. Players’ Union President and Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic and Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris have all stated they would attend if voted in. With COVID-19 causing such division, the league is at a crossroads and will have to make an inevitably unpopular final decision in the weeks to come.

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