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Thursday, February 10, 2011
All-Star Weekend: Blake and business

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

Blake Griffin
A lot of paperwork had to be finished before Blake Griffin was allowed to dunk over this particular car.

It was after 1 a.m. Monday when I finally got a response to the question that had been on my mind for a full day after Blake Griffin provided the defining image of All-Star Weekend (above): What's going to happen to the car?

The moment Baron Davis popped up through the sunroof to throw an alley-oop pass that Griffin grabbed as he flew over the hood on his way to a two-handed dunk, the signature slam of a revived contest, this instantly became the coolest Kia ever. Let's face it, pulling up to the club's valet line in a Kia wouldn't get any heads turning in your direction under normal circumstances. But pulling up in the Kia Optima that Blake Griffin dunked over? Baller status. I'd leave the Sprite Slam Dunk stickers on the doors, just to let 'em know.

From what I was told, the car will be given to the Clippers, who will then donate it or sell it in a manner they see fit. I suggest they auction it and either give the money to the family of Wilson Holloway, Griffin's high school teammate who died from complications of Hodgkin's lymphoma last week, or use the proceeds to start a scholarship fund in Holloway's name at Tulsa, where Holloway played football.

That won't be the end of the connection between the car and Griffin. You'll be seeing the two together in Kia advertisements, something that had been in the works for weeks after Griffin decided he wanted to do the dunk. He let the NBA know he was going to dunk over a car, and the league made sure that car would belong to a league partner, which Kia has been for four years. Then Griffin's representatives got in touch with Kia, and the negotiations began. The contracts weren't signed until Saturday morning. The realization that the way the dunk would be executed required Davis to agree to the use of his image, as well, generated a flurry of even more paperwork that wasn't finished until shortly before the contest.

There's a business side to everything in the NBA, even on All-Star Weekend. Especially on All-Star Weekend. It was impossible not to wonder whether we'll even have this event next year, given the expiring collective bargaining agreement and the fundamental gap between the owners and the players' union over how to structure the next one. NBA commissioner David Stern all but told the players there will be a lockout when he met with them amid a tense atmosphere Saturday, according to a person who was in the room.

But we shouldn't just think of this as players versus owners at the negotiation table. Player versus owner is a mentality, as well. How many of the guys who wear the jerseys will never get beyond that, will always be defined strictly by what they do with a basketball? How many will aspire to greater things? How many completely own their brand? How many will ever own a share or a majority stake in a team, as Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan went on to do after their playing careers ended?

I put this to various players this weekend and got answers varying from third-year guard Russell Westbrook ("I'm listening and learning") to the wise perspective of Kevin Garnett after 16 years in the NBA.

"You come into the league, you're a bit naive to what's going on because you don't know the ins and outs," Garnett said. "You see what you see on the TV, you see what you see on the court. But what you don't see is the off-court stuff, the relationships and chemistry, the business side of it, negotiations, the true feelings of an owner, a GM, an organization, how they really see you.

"Every player has to go through it. I had to. But it makes you a better person. It teaches you. You look at individuals and personnel different. When you're in negotiations, people really talk and are quite frank about how they feel about you. And vice versa. You've got to have tough skin. Like Jay-Z said, you're not a businessman, you're a business, man."

We've seen the players assert their power through the use or threat of free agency. LeBron James' choice was the dominant NBA storyline of the past two years. This season, it's been about Carmelo Anthony and the possibility he would opt out of the final, $18 million year of his contract and potentially pass up a $65 million extension, causing All-Star Weekend Melo meetings and Twitter-clogging trade talk. All from players trying to play a greater role in determining where they will play.

Carmelo/CP3
Chris Paul might want to share NYC's bright lights with buddy Carmelo Anthony.

"Which you should," Chris Paul said. "I think you definitely should. I have a player option also, you know what I mean? That's why, when you negotiate your contract, you get the opportunity to. When you're in negotiations with the team, it's a team option or a player option. Nobody really complains when the team has the option and they don't pick up the option. I like that guys have the player option so they can control their own destiny."

There's a bigger world than just which uniform you'll wear. Players need to recognize that they acquire more capital and fame by age 25 than most entrepreneurs. All too many of them squander it.

In the midst of the busy weekend, Dwight Howard made a promotional appearance at a Foot Locker on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. He met with the media (and gave thoughtful answers to such questions as, "Would you rather be 1 foot tall or 100 feet tall?"), then signed autographs for hundreds of fans who waited in a line at the outdoor mall.

"We have to figure out what we're going to do for the rest of our lives," Howard said. "You have to build your brand. The way you build your brand is by reaching out to the public and by making yourself available, whether it's through Twitter or social media or doing appearances and events where people see your face. Also sitting down in front of the right people.

"One thing that I've done for myself, I've made sure [I have] a business mind with everything that I do. And it's brought me a long way. So, when I'm finished playing basketball, I think I'll be very successful because I've started to do stuff now so that, when I'm done playing, I'll be ready. I like to act, so I've been doing a lot of work with different actors, voice coaches. I want to do that next. That's what I've been working on besides just playing basketball."

But Ray Allen, ever practical, had an important reminder: "One thing you can't do is put the cart before the horse. One thing that [Jordan] always did was he always competed, he always worked on his game. What I see today, things come before the good stuff. Guys want the endorsements and the social networking, but I think you've got to take care of your job and everything else will fall in place."

My All-Star week started Tuesday at a mixer thrown by Magic Johnson. There was a time when any event thrown by Johnson in conjunction with the All-Star Game would have brought out an array of outfits normally seen in a music video. This small get-together was strictly men and women in professional attire, networking and eating sushi. Johnson grabbed a microphone and started thanking the event sponsors while rattling off all the good work their donations enable his foundation to do. He still orchestrates the show, still makes others feel good by getting them involved, only now he does it with words. At this point, it feels as natural as bringing the ball upcourt and passing to James Worthy.

It was telling that, when local sportscaster Jim Hill introduced Johnson at the statue unveiling for Jerry West at Staples Center on Thursday, Hill spent more time talking about Johnson's business accomplishments than his Hall of Fame playing career.

What an array of NBA royalty came out for West. The Logo was joined on the dais by Johnson, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Stern and Jerry Buss. And yet, for purposes of this weekend, the most important man up there was someone who'll never be considered for the Basketball Hall of Fame. That would be Tim Leiweke, the president and CEO of AEG, who has emerged as one of the most important forces in Los Angeles. He was the point man for getting Staples Center built in the 1990s, then oversaw the development of the L.A. Live hotel/restaurant/entertainment complex across the street.

In most cases throughout the weekend, the less recognizable person was the true big baller. Riley and Micky Arison attended Alonzo Mourning and Magic Johnson's annual pool tournament. People stopped Riley and posed for pictures with him, while no one came up to Arison, the Carnival Cruise chairman and wealthiest man in Florida with a net worth of $4.1 billion, according to Forbes.

What I learned this weekend is that the people you really want to talk to are the ones others ignore. The places no one is talking about are where you want to be. There was very little buzz about the Jordan Brand event Friday night, which was held at a private mansion in Beverly Hills. It turned out to be the best event I attended, with R. Kelly performing and Michael Jordan, old buddy Charles Oakley and current Jordan endorsers Anthony, Paul, Allen and Dwyane Wade attending. Good vibe, tasty food, no hassles or drama.

Leiweke didn't generate much buzz, either, even though he's the man who made this week a go. He's not powerful enough to stop the rain, but the rain wasn't enough to ruin the weekend. The weather was an inconvenience, not a disaster, and the skies cleared in time for some scenic shots for the broadcast of Sunday's game.

This weekend couldn't have succeeded without L.A. Live, built on what was a pair of parking lots the last time Staples Center hosted the All-Star Game in 2004. Players could stay at the hotels across the street and not worry about getting stuck in traffic on the way to events. Fans could park in one spot and go to, say, the Jam Session, All-Star Saturday Night, a restaurant and the players' association party at the JW Marriott without having to drive again. Taking the car out of the mix is practically unheard of in Los Angeles, but this time it happened.

Tim Leiweke
The case could be made that Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of AEG, was the weekend's MVP.

Leiweke said it was the most successful big event Staples Center has hosted. And the whole time he was thinking of an even grander prize: the Super Bowl. Leiweke is the man pushing for an NFL stadium to be built adjacent to Staples Center, with eyes on landing a team in time to host the Super Bowl in 2016.

I told him he successfully passed a big test by handling the Black Super Bowl. That's my nickname for All-Star Weekend (as I wrote before the 2004 game), based on the simple observation that it's similar to the hype and nonstop events of the Super Bowl, only with more black people. That's observation, not commentary, but somehow a CNN.com column by Turner Sports' David Aldridge about "Black Thanksgiving" (as he and Michael Wilbon call it) caused a stir, with people claiming he played up racial stereotypes. That's pure nonsense created by people who have never been to a town that has hosted the event.

As evidence of the unique, African-American nature of All-Star Weekend, might I suggest the constant lines outside Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, something I heard about Friday, witnessed for myself when I drove by on my way to Staples Center on Saturday and saw captured in this picture on Sunday.

It can be fun to hang out on the periphery of the weekend without having official access to a single event. There's enough spillover that simply walking through the lobby of the JW Marriott or the plaza of L.A. Live provided entertainment.

But this weekend, it felt as if there was too much business to be done. And one thing on the agenda was the ascent of Blake Griffin. You want to talk ownership? He has a chance to make this city belong to him the way it belongs to Kobe Bryant right now.

At the media availability Friday, it seemed as if every other player was asked about Griffin. In the rookie-sophomore game that night, Griffin played limited minutes as a concession to his full schedule for the weekend. But the crowd, predominantly children, started chanting "We want Blake" in the final minutes.

This seriously ranks as one of the most important moments of the weekend. Griffin is already resonating with the young fans, the ones who could be following his career for the next decade and a half. Sure, they still love Bryant, and, when his image appeared on the scoreboard screen, they squealed as if Justin Bieber had just entered the arena. But Griffin is next.

The impatient crowd at the All-Star Game on Sunday started another "We want Blake" chant to get West coach Gregg Popovich to send the rookie into the game. And Bryant acknowledged that Griffin's presence caused him to take to the air in a way we haven't seen the past few years.

"You want to know the influence of Blake, look at all of the dunks I had tonight," Bryant said.

Bryant showed that he still reigns for now. The crowd offered its blessing for his MVP award, unlike the harsh Philly fans who booed him when he won it near his high school stomping grounds in 2001.

Even though the NBA takes over arenas and doles out tickets to sponsors and celebrities (if you're wondering why it makes a difference whether Stevie Wonder sits courtside, I'm told he likes to put his feet on the floor and feel the rhythm of the players moving and the ball bouncing), there still was a distinctive L.A. feel to the crowd. It roared for the locals and booed the Boston Celtics players, especially Paul Pierce.

Yet the fans offered a standing ovation for Bill Russell when he took the court during a timeout wearing his newly received Medal of Freedom. Russell, the Celtic most responsible for breaking Lakers hearts and crushing Lakers championship dreams, always gets love from Los Angeles, and I wondered aloud why that is.

"He's a winner, man," my friend said. "And this town loves winners."