LOS ANGELES — NBA All-Star Weekend is essentially a massive basketball business convention. This is the best way to appreciate it. At its worst, as a televised sporting event, All-Star Weekend can look like a mess of manufactured drama and unfunny jokes, every inch of it branded and sold, to the point where the whole experience kind of deadens your soul a little bit.
That's a valid interpretation. Definitely. But as someone who's come to stupidly love this weekend every year, I think that worrying about its entertainment value or artistic integrity is beside the point. The weekend works best as a window into all the different economies that make basketball weirder and more interesting than any sport on the planet.
So with that in mind, and to commemorate another successful All-Star Weekend, here are a handful of snapshots from the past 96 hours in Los Angeles.
Across the street from Staples Center, the weekend began with the TV partners. The NBA has been in business with TNT for as long as I've been alive, and as the league becomes more popular, it only gets funnier that the most prominent voices in basketball refuse to take any of this too seriously. "Dude, we're on television from 8 o'clock at night to 2 o'clock in the morning," Charles Barkley said on Thursday afternoon. "Nobody want us to be serious. First of all, we have a lot of shitty games. If we're going to be on from 8 to 2, we gotta make sure people have fun."
Barkley and Kenny Smith tend to drive basketball Twitter insane, but I will always be loyal. Together they combine genuine, lifelong love for basketball with the relentless sarcasm and skepticism that actually makes the game fun to follow. So, yes, of course I was down to begin my weekend with Chuck and Kenny and some old man takes.
Sample #1: "The things that guys get away with now," Kenny Smith said of today's guards, "I would have had to fight in the locker room. If I came in and took 22 shots as a point guard, I would've had to fight every single player on my team. ... Different era. Because you can be a specialist now, whereas then, the term 'two-way player' didn't exist. Like, what do you mean? You can't play D? How can you play in the league? Now guys get credit for being two-way guys... It's much better game to watch, I like watching it more, but it's easier to play."
Sample #2: "Listen," Barkley said of the NBA's new emphasis on rest, "if Bill Russell and Dr. J and those guys could play three games in three nights in the worst tennis shoes ever invented, and fly commercial or ride a bus, I think these guys can be inconvenienced a couple days a year to make $30 million and ride a private jet. All of a sudden guys start making money... I wish guys would tell the truth and say, 'I don't want to play back-to-backs so that I can lengthen my career and make more money.' Just tell the truth. When I first came into the NBA we flew commercial. I know what it's fuckin' like to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning, fly three hours and play a basketball game that same night. These guys after the game, they get a nice hot meal, they fly private... So come on, let's make it easier for 'em."
And then, the first of a hundred conversations about LeBron's free agency throughout the weekend. "If LeBron goes to Golden State," Smith said, "I'm gonna start calling soccer." And Barkley: "I hope he stays in Cleveland. I don't know what's going on in his head, but I think it'd be a great way to end his career." But, Smith added, "I don't put anything past Magic. You know, Magic might've been setting this up 20 years ago. He went to see LeBron in high school, he might've been setting this up then. Collusion 20 years ago. Pay that bill."
On Friday morning at the Beverly Hills Hilton, Magic Johnson was one of dozens of executives on hand to participate in the NBA's annual tech summit. Jeannie Buss was on a panel, too, and so was Kobe Bryant. The event draws on leaders in the tech space, culture, and the league itself to create a day full of panels on the future of business as it relates to basketball. It's fairly exclusive. "This has been a tougher ticket than the All-Star Game itself," Adam Silver told us as it concluded.
While the panels aren't necessarily dispensing priceless wisdom if you've been following technology closely over the past few years, the convergence of sponsors, innovators, and obscenely wealthy owners offers a great snapshot of NBA business at the macro level. On a ride over to the hotel, I sat behind two attendees who were comparing the LIBOR interest rate to the 10-year treasury rate—a slight variation on the weekend of LeBron free agency smalltalk.
The event is strictly off the record, but I can report that Chadwick Boseman paired with Adam Silver to welcome us to the Summit. Ahmad Rashad was an excellent, self-deprecating MC throughout the day. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Issa Rae, and Steve Ballmer were among the panelists for a discussion on The Future of Storytelling. Magic and Mark Cuban chipped in to help discuss The Connected Game. Jeannie Buss, James Dolan, Steve Stoute, and Kevin Plank teamed for a panel on managing through disruption.
The day's hottest topics included E-Sports, Snapchat, long-form vs. short-form, wearable player-tracking technology, machine learning, artificial intelligence refs, and more. The panels at this event were sometimes funny, sometimes unintentionally funny, and sometimes insightful, but more than anything, they're a testament to an ambition and curiosity that doesn't really exist among management regimes in other sports.
Over in Hollywood, at the London Hotel, the NBA Players Association had set up camp and hosted players for the weekend. When I approached the door on Friday afternoon I was greeted by JaVale McGee, who was in the middle of interviewing Timofey Mozgov for a YouTube show. "It's your boy JaVale McGee," he said, "Here with my Russian brother Timofey Mozgov. He just happens to have a Gucci fanny pack, too. Great minds think alike." Indeed, both seven-footers were coincidentally wearing Gucci fanny packs.
This was for a show that's part of Kevin Durant's burgeoning YouTube channel (as mentioned in the Future of Storytelling panel!), and it was just one of a dozen pieces of content being filmed on the premises. There were other videos filmed on the back porch, print interviews were conducted in a quiet room next to the elevator banks, while Lou Williams held court with a TV station in the lobby. All of this happened at the same hotel because the NBA Players Association wanted to provide a home base for its players.
Just as the owners congregated at the Beverly Hills Hilton, when I visited Saturday afternoon the London was hosting everyone from Chris Paul and his parents, to Karl Towns, to fringe players like Mozgov and McGee. They were all in an environment that was off-limits to the public and hospitable to brands and media looking to promote NBA athletes. Between specially-commissioned art for the weekend (a stack of gilded basketballs was a centerpiece in one room), the luxury of a five-star hotel, and free XBoxes and/or headphones in the hands of at least half the players I saw while I was there, it was a fairly impressive display of random perks and amenities.
What the the NBPA is really doing is looking to establish and maintain is a consistent presence and corporate identity between CBA negotiations. That's a dynamic that has never really emerged under regimes of the past, and it'll take time to build it across various arenas. But in the same way that the Tech Summit is a testament to the grander ambitions in the league office, the players' hotel speaks to broader goals for the NBPA.
Back in Beverly Hills, on the 9th Floor of an office building, there's one business that works with owners and players alike. Jason of Beverly Hills is the jewelry company responsible for crafting the last two Warriors championship rings, and when they're not working with owners on designing title rings—they've also designed championship rings for the Lakers and Chelsea—they also work with an estimated 200 players around the NBA. "The championship rings sort of happened organically," said COO and co-founder Brandt Branand. After launching the business in 2004, Branand and his co-founder Jason Arasheben eventually became the jewelers for various members of the Buss family, including Dr. Buss. "When they won in '09," Branand explained, "Dr. Buss was like, 'Do you guys want to throw your hat in and give it a try?'" That's how the ring business began.
The growth among players has been a different story, but it's no less organic. "The first NBA guy was Anthony Mason," Branand said. "Jason went to him as this young kid, he showed him this design of a bracelet. He had no inventory or anything. But [Mason] was like, 'Cool, I like it.' So Mason gave him a 50% deposit, barely enough for him to scrape by and finish the piece, and he delivered it. Mason again was like, 'Cool, I like it.' And that was it. And then a while later one of his teammates came on. And then DeShawn Stevenson, and Drew Gooden, Carlos Boozer... It was all word of mouth. And then guys get traded, and there are more locker rooms, more people hear about it."
Over 14 years, thanks in part to those early breaks around the NBA, the business has grown to include stores in L.A., Miami, Las Vegas, and Tokyo. But this weekend they hosted players in their executive offices on the ninth floor, a hidden store that's typically reserved for big-spending clients seeking privacy. "Players, celebrities, the Rihannas of the world," the COO said. "People who don't want to be photographed. They come up here so they can hang out, shop, and not have somebody counting how much money they're spending or what they're getting for who." The goal was to provide players with a place to escape for a few minutes as the rest of the weekend got increasingly crowded and hectic.
As for any uptick in business for the NBA's most notable jewelers on a weekend when half the league comes to L.A., there's less of a boom than you might think, in part because everyone is so busy. "Normally, when it's in a different city," Branand explains, "We're at the players hotel, dealing with stylists and assistants, helping get guys dressed. There's some transactions, and we've had big All-Star Weekends some years. But really it's just like the agent world—you have a few big, important transactions, and in the middle you spend time maintaining the relationship." Later Friday evening, that meant hosting a low-key private party at the office with one of this year's All-Stars. Afterward, they all went to dinner with that player and his family, maintaining another relationship.
On Friday night, after the Team World defeated Team USA, 155-124, Joel Embiid was in a good mood. "Well, it's world domination," he said, "We coming. Basketball is growing all over the place and it's great to see. When we come to this type of stuff we represent the whole world. And you want to grow the game, man. People outside of the States, when they see this, they're going to want to be here."
A few miles away, in El Segundo at the Lakers practice facility, the NBA spent the weekend building on that theme. As part of its annual Basketball Without Borders summit at All-Star Weekend, the league welcomed 67 standout teenage basketball players from 36 countries around the world to train for three days in front of NBA scouts and work with visiting NBA players. "Some kids haven't worked this hard," Domantas Sabonis said on Sunday, "until they come to this camp, and they're like, 'Oh I need to get to another level.'"
This is an extension of the NBA's investment in global development. Last year's camp featured superstar Canadian guard R.J. Barrett—headed to Duke next year—while this year's biggest names were Luka Samanic of Croatia and MVP Charles Bassey of Nigeria. All of it is a reminder that the game is growing abroad, and as the NBA continues to double down around the world, the growth isn't an accident.
On Saturday morning I was lost. Adidas rented out multiple buildings and several blocks worth of downtown real estate, where the brand hosted nightly concerts (N.E.R.D, Kid Cudi, and many more artists performed). The set-up included a full size basketball court, design laboratories, retail space, and just enough room for me to spend almost 45 minutes wandering around looking like an idiot. The sneaker wars have been well-documented by many—including the FBI!—but it bears mentioning that the most absurd battleground of all comes every year at All-Star Weekend. Adidas basically built its own self-sustaining community this weekend, fueled by rap music and color-coded wristbands and teenagers desperate for the Bape Dames.
For its part, Nike introduced something called Hydro-dipping for custom-made shoe designs. The Nike HQ hosted an interview in which Jalen Rose and Kobe Bryant discussing the 81-point game, while Kendrick Lamar played a show for them on Friday. The space itself had a full-length court hosting games all weekend, grayscale portraits of every Nike All-Star, plus at least one Kobe poem/bible scripture (sample: "Just as much artist as athlete ... A maker in every sense of the word.").
Alas, this weekend in L.A. did not belong to Kobe.
All weekend long, LeBron dominated. Outside Staples Center Sunday afternoon in L.A., fans were selling "LeBron to L.A." bootleg t-shirts. Inside Staples, LeBron played his best All-Star Game in a decade, and by actually playing hard, he helped set the tone for the entire game. Earlier in the weekend he'd been attacked by a Fox News host in a dog whistling play for attention, and by Saturday LeBron had responded with an effortless, pitch perfect blend of disgust and indifference.
LeBron has been more than a basketball player for a long time, and he really doesn't need to explain himself to anyone who's too lazy to appreciate what he's accomplished. He's helped financed several successful businesses, he's been the beneficiary of wildly lucrative endorsements and long-term investments, and in turn, he's been the benefactor for more than 1,200 kids who have been helped by his "I Promise" foundation. He's taken natural talent and worked to master his craft, empower friends, broaden his horizons, and improve the lives of kids in his hometown. That news host lamented the idea that there were kids out there following LeBron's example, but her lazy pandering aside, it's objectively difficult to imagine many more compelling examples of success anywhere in public life.