NEW YORK – LeBron James and Kevin Durant were named captains for next month’s NBA All-Star Game on Thursday as the league confirmed plans for the showpiece despite an outcry from stars.

The league announced Thursday that the 70th NBA All-Star Game will be played March 7 in Atlanta along with such skills events as the Dunk Contest and 3-Point Shootout.

“NBA All-Star in Atlanta will continue our annual tradition of celebrating the game and the greatest players in the world before a global audience,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.

The game comes during a mid-season break that had been meant to give all players a rest after a shorter than usual off-season gap after COVID-19 delayed the 2019-20 NBA Finals, where James sparked the Los Angeles Lakers to the title.

“We came off a short off-season of 71 days and then coming into season we were told we were not going to have an All Star Game so we would have a nice little break,” James said earlier this month.

“Then they throw an All-Star Game on us like this. It is pretty much a slap in the face.”

Silver told ESPN Thursday that he understands the complaints.

“I certainly hear the other side of this issue,” Silver said. “Ultimately it feels like the right thing to do to go forward.”

Silver told TNT that 130 million people worldwide will watch the game and highlights will attract a billion online views, justifying it as the NBA’s top “fan engagement” event.

“It begins and ends with the fans,” Silver said. “We have a huge global audience that follows All-Star. Doing this as a TV event still reaches 99.9% of our fans.”

James was the top overall vote-getter from fans with 5,922,554 to pace the Western Conference while Brooklyn forward Durant led the Eastern Conference with 5,567,106.

“I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year,” James said two weeks ago. “I am not happy about it. If I am selected I will be there physically but not mentally.”

James and Durant will pick fellow starters from among a record five starters born outside the United States — Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Dallas guard Luka Doncic (Slovenia), Philadelphia forward Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Denver frontliner Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving, an American born in Australia.

Others in the starters pool include Golden State guard Stephen Curry, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard and Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, the NBA scoring leader.

The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association struck a deal for the contest that will see $2.5 million committed to COVID-19 relief organizations and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).


‘Money on the line’

While the deal was struck, losing rest didn’t sit well with players.

“We all know why we’re playing it,” Leonard said earlier this month. “There’s money on the line. It’s an opportunity to make more money.”

NBA coaches will select the pool of All-Star reserve players, set to be named on Tuesday.

The NBA Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest will be staged before the All-Star Game with the Dunk Contest taking place during halftime.

Extra COVID-19 safety precautions atop the NBA’s normal protocols include private travel to and from Atlanta, the creation of a “mini bubble” environment within one hotel for players and coaches and enhanced testing.

“We feel pretty good about our protocols,” Silver told TNT, calling a superspreader event among superstars “not a particular concern”.

Silver, who said Atlanta was chosen to host because the telecaster TNT is based there, said he hasn’t pondered a season shutdown due to COVID-19.

“Nothing has happened so far that has made us seriously consider shutting down,” Silver said.

About 1,500 invited guests from HBCUs and medical staffs will attend but there are no tickets and no parties around the contest and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms wants fans to stay away.

“This isn’t a typical year,” she tweeted. “This is a made-for-TV event only & people shouldn’t travel to Atlanta to party.”

AFP