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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

NBA All-Star Weekend loses its pomp and circumstance

A general view of State Farm Arena prior

A general view of State Farm Arena prior to the 2021 NBA All-Star - Taco Bell Skills Challenge during All-Star Sunday Night on March 07, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. Credit: Getty Images/Kevin C. Cox

It was All-Star Sunday, the annual gala of the NBA season, and the game’s greatest player was, well, bored.

Rather than having the usual crowd trailing him around during interviews and appearances, LeBron James was in his Atlanta hotel room alone.

"You get excited about this weekend because you know you’re not only going to play the game if you’re part of the game, but you get to do so many events," James said. "You can do the All-Star Saturday night, events that you have, partnerships, able to do some evening events in the cities, explore the cities. You can have a really good time, have your family in town, have a weekend of extreme fun. We have everyone in town that one weekend, including you guys.

"It’s unfortunate. This is when everyone in basketball, the world comes to one city and we all enjoy it. I guess we all sit back and be like, ‘Wow, this is what this game has built, a beautiful weekend, from all walks, on the floor and off the floor.’ And to be sitting isolated in my room, with no one, my family’s not here, it’s just different, to say the least, compared to previous years, for sure."

At least James would be let out of his room to head to State Farm Arena for the game. Not all were so fortunate.

As the interviews were going on Sunday morning, news broke that 76ers teammates Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons had been exposed to a personal barber in Philadelphia who had tested positive for the coronavirus. The league’s health and safety protocols subjected them to contact tracing, they were sidelined for the game, their interview sessions were called off and their status for the start of the second half of the season was uncertain.

This was the fear of adding an exhibition game to an already risky venture, playing this season outside of the bubble restart to last season. There have been 31 games postponed in the first half of the season. Flying 24 of the league’s best players in for this event may have brought a night that offered an image of normalcy, but there is nothing normal about this season. Even as the NBA was cashing in on a much-needed check from the television partner networks, the risk of an outbreak among the stars was in the back of everyone’s minds.

Attention was paid to the pandemic that continues to rage and the NBA focused on the efforts to aid HBCUs as part of its attention to social justice. But the usual assortment of clinics and parties were gone, at least for the players. The bars in town still were open — just not for the players and NBA staff.

"It’s a really positive thing what they’re doing for HBCUs and COVID relief. Those are very deserving of the NBA’s attention," Portland’s Damian Lillard said. "To be honest, it don’t even feel like All-Star Weekend. I got here yesterday and I haven’t left my room since I arrived. We tested, I came up to the room and I’ve just been in the room, haven’t done anything out. There is no barbers. You can’t go downstairs to a restaurant. Nothing. I’m just happy that we’re doing this at least for a few great causes because it definitely don’t feel like an All-Star Weekend."

At least Embiid and Simmons flew in on private planes separately from each other and did not connect with any of the other players. There was no practice for the game, just a workout Saturday night for the participants in the slam dunk and skills challenges.

But as he sat in his hotel room on the Zoom call Sunday afternoon, James said he is well aware that it could have been anyone. He has been lucky enough not to be shut down by COVID or even by contact tracing.

"I think it’s all luck, man," he said. "I can’t sit here and tell you I’m an expert on this. It’s just luck. You have no idea how you can possibly contract it or how you can get it. I mean, we know the studies, we hear the doctors. I try to follow protocol as much as it’s been laid out to us. I go to the facility and I go home. I go to the arena and go home with my family.

"I’ve got kids, kids that go to schools at times. You don’t know, they could bring something home. It’s all in the faith of the man above. I try to stay clean, get my sleep. I think that helps with any illness, getting optimal rest, keeping your body as fresh as possible, keeping a clear head about it. Just part of it is luck. I can’t sit here and say I’m a ghostbuster when it comes to COVID, ’cause I’m not. I just try to follow the protocol, that’s all."

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