As fate would have it, the NBA chose to forge ahead with a drastically scaled back All-Star Game on Sunday night at State Farm Arena in Atlanta just four days short of the one-year anniversary of the league-wide shutdown that occurred on March 11, 2020 when Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The positive test forced a cancellation of that night’s game against the Thunder in Oklahoma City.
Commissioner Adam Silver frankly admitted the All-Star Game is being played for financial reasons at a time when the league is hemorrhaging money, and several players have expressed dismay the event was held at all during a condensed 72-game season. Not surprisingly, 76ers All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both were ruled out of the game because of contact tracing protocols that showed both had been exposed to a barber who tested positive.
"I hate the fact Joel and Ben will not be able to play today because of that," team captain LeBron James said. "Best wishes to them, even though they’re not the ones who tested positive."
Recalling the wild events of the past year, James said his Lakers were "starting to hit our stride as a team" when news came of the Gobert infection and subsequent league pause.
"You didn’t really know what to think," James said. "It was the first time it’s ever happened in any one of our major sports leagues, so to see it happen, you knew at that point that it would trickle down to everyone else. You were wishing for the best, but you kind of knew the inevitable was going to happen.
"We were hoping that it would only be a couple weeks and shut down for a little bit and we could get a handle over this thing. Obviously, that was being way too optimistic. It was very difficult and challenging for all of us because it was something we never experienced before."
The Nets have a franchise-record three All-Stars, but Kevin Durant, who is recovering from a hamstring strain, was not there even though he is a team captain and drafted Team Durant. However, Kyrie Irving started for Team Durant and James Harden was the top reserve.
Harden made it clear he would have preferred to take time off at the break. "In general, this All-Star Game is kind of forced, just thrown upon us," Harden said. "I feel like we basically have a game every other day in the regular season. You finally get an opportunity to have close to a week off and be able to take a deep breath and be with your family.
"Then you just have this one-day event, which is pretty tough. This entire season is tough, it’s difficult, a lot of craziness has happened throughout the course of the year. It’s something that we’ve just got to (handle)."
Asked to describe how he spent his time on what normally is a festive weekend full of social events, Harden deadpanned, "Get to Atlanta, get tested and stay in the room. That’s pretty much it. Stay in the room until it’s time to go out there and play."
Clippers star Kawhi Leonard echoed Harden’s thoughts on the weekend. "There’s no people around," Leonard said. "There’s no entertainment. We’re doing Zoom interviews. There’s no energy, no interaction off the floor. I mean, there are people out [in Atlanta], but it’s dead for us in the league."
Of course, All-Star Weekend is old hat to major stars like James, Harden and Leonard, but first-time Knicks All-Star Julius Randle was thrilled to be in Atlanta despite the circumstances.
"It means a lot for sure as far as an accomplishment in my career, being able to get this done, being able to be on the team, people helping me get this done," Randle said. "It means a lot. I’m really excited just about being here and sharing this time with family.
"It’s amazing, it’s a lot of energy. It’s not a normal All-Star weekend, but you definitely feel special being here for sure."