THIRD MAN IN: The NBA Cares?

Behind the Bench/Sports by

There are a number of words and phrases that we can use to describe the embarrassment that was the NBA Dunk Contest on Saturday night: worst of all time; forgettable; pathetic; mind-bogglingly bad. With a lineup featuring zero legitimate stars, and two players averaging less than 22 minutes per game, the event that many suspected was on wobbly legs finally came crashing down. While the dunking itself was painful to watch – as was the obvious disinterest painted on a number of the contestants’ faces – what infuriates me more is the NBA’s failure to follow through on a smart and simple idea from one of its most respected statesmen.

A little less than a month ago, Shaquille O’Neal had a plan in place to rejuvenate All-Star Weekend while dishing out an assist to arguably the neediest place in the world: bring the League’s biggest superstars into the dunk contest, build up a substantial pot of prize money, and donate at least half of the winnings to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Shaq specifically called out Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter to join LeBron James in providing fans with a dunk contest that would be truly unforgettable, and undoubtedly generate a large amount of money to aid in Haitian relief efforts. If Shaq’s proposal sounded brilliant, it’s because it was. But trust the stereotypes of the self-centred athlete and greedy corporate owner to once again push themselves to the fore, and swiftly extinguish any hope of making All-Star Weekend about something far greater than basketball.

What troubles me nearly as much as the fact that O’Neal’s proposal never came to fruition is the response it elicited from some of the would-be contestants. In a video interview after a Lakers’ practice, a reporter asks Kobe if he would consider dunking for Shaq’s initiative. His response? A burst of laughter and a stone-faced “no.” Similarly, Carter protested that “[nobody] should feel obligated to do anything they don’t want to do.” No, Vince, but you certainly should feel obligated to use your status as a world-renowned professional athlete to provide help to those suffering in the wake of catastrophe.

NBA Commissioner David Stern never commented on the dunk-contest idea, likely because he has spent most of his working life in professional sports, and could already predict the massive effort it would take to make Shaq’s proposal a reality. Regardless of any imagined difficulties, though, the NBA’s refusal to take the initiative on this project was and is very disturbing. At a time when NBA owners and officials are constantly bemoaning the plummeting economy and lack of money available to the League, this weekend’s All-Star blowout in Dallas was a gross display of extravagance and wealth. The amount of effort – both human and financial – needed to stage a star-spangled dunk-contest to benefit Haiti would be negligible in comparison to any of the productions that took place over the weekend.

It is morally reprehensible that the players and administration of the NBA either laughed off or ignored Shaq’s idea. When a professional sports organization has the opportunity to save lives and build futures, it needs to jump at the chance, no matter how old, tired, or cynical its legs are. We should applaud O’Neal for attempting to carve a space for humanitarian action in a profession dominated by apathy and avarice. It’s highly unfortunate that the League could not see All-Star Weekend as a chance to do anything more than fill seats and promote its brand. Great job, NBA, you really dropped the ball on this one.