Lee, Robinson Have An All-Star Weekend To Remember
By John J. Buro
The setting for the 56th NBA All-Star Game was Las Vegas, which - in itself- had raised a few eyebrows. Commissioner David Stern, always mindful of imminent danger, was initially concerned about placing his players in a gambling environment.
Only after he and Oscar Goldman, Sin City's esteemed mayor, agreed upon a resolution that effectively shut out the casino sports books, could the league transform The Strip into a desert playground.
And, so, on Friday evening, David Lee, the New York Knicks' super-sophomore, was able to turn the Rookie Challenge into a personal highlight reel at the Thomas & Mack Center, as the league's second-year players buried the newbies, 155-114, before 15,694 visitors. This was the highest-scoring game since the format premiered in 2000.
Lee, who has opened just 12 of the Knicks first 53 games, was inserted into the starting line-up by acting coach Marc Iavaroni, who is an assistant with the Phoenix Suns. The 6'9" forward, who had only cracked 20 points on two occasions this season, led all scorers with 30. The game's Most Valuable Player converted all 14 of his shots [nine ducks, five lay-ups], and was also perfect from the charity stripe. The day after, at the Mandalay Bay, a handful of the NBA's elite offered their congratulations. "I'm a big David Lee fan," the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan told the New York Post.
Lee's point total was a substantial bonus; his determination and grit beneath the boards was already a given. As a result, it didn't surprise anyone that he also led with 11 rebounds; with two double-doubles on the recent Western swing, Lee now has 27 such games, which is far and away the most on the Knicks. The New Orleans Hornets' Chris Paul, a teammate for the evening, provided the only other 'double' on either side with 17 assists and 16 points.
Lee, the 30th pick of the 2005 Draft, did not participate as a rookie. Golden State's Monta Ellis, who ripped out the Knicks' hearts with 23 points on Valentine's Day, was the only sophomore picked after Lee [No. 40 overall].
Had this particular event been hosted in New York, the building would have quaked.
It is one thing to root for a home player. It is quite another to root for one the fans have shown the most love for. It is no secret, among regular followers, that Lee receives the loudest ovation upon entering a game. It is also no secret that a white man who is making his place in a sport dominated by African-Americans will get noticed a little more. "Last season," Lee told the Daily News earlier this week, "people would roll their eyes and say, 'Go right at him.' I know it was partly because I was a rookie, partly because I wasn't well-known, and partly because I'm white.
"This year, there is a difference in the level of respect." And, not just with other players, either.
Lee, who had won the Slam Dunk contest in the McDonald's All-American Game as a senior at Charminade Prep [St. Louis], had essentially flown under the radar during his days with the Florida Gators.
Small wonder, then, that the diehard fans who gathered into The Theatre at Madison Square Garden in June 2005, promptly booed Isiah Thomas for making such an obscure selection.
Those boos, suffice to say, are now just a distant memory.
"David represented the organization very well," said Thomas. "He seems to be thriving in the role he is in, and recognized for the way he has played."
The following evening, 5'7½" Nate Robinson prepared to defend his Slam Dunk crown at the Toyota Center. Robinson, who gained notoriety two months earlier for his role in the Denver Nuggets' brawl, had spurred enough controversy during last season's exhibition to warrant a modification of the rules. The NBA, seemingly embarrassed by a champion who missed an astonishing 13 consecutive attempts, created a 'Nate Rule,' which would disqualify any player who repeats that performance.
Many observers believed that, although Robinson has the heart of a giant - if not the size- the Philadelphia 76ers' Andre Iguodala was unfairly squeezed out of the title. Thus, any participant who failed on ten straight tries would be eliminated.
Kobe Bryant, one of five previous winners to judge this competition - and, himself, no stranger to controversy, was thrilled to see Robinson in this spectacle. "I think Nate is spectacular," the Laker star drooled, "because he not only gets high off the floor, he's explosive."
"There's a difference between his dunks and Spud Webb's dunks [Webb, the Atlanta Hawks' 5'6" lightning rod, captured the title in 1986]. Spud had a lot of elevation, but he wasn't explosive coming off the floor.
"Nate, man, is a stick of dynamite."
Who nearly imploded in the finals against the Boston Celtics' Gerald Green. After nine failed attempts to complete a 180-degree maneuver, Robinson finally rated a 41 of 50 on his last try. Earlier in this competition, Paul Pierce- Green's teammate- was talking smack as he displayed a cardboard cutout of Robinson. He had just set it down, in position for Green to jump over, when Robinson emerged to stand in its place. "You may as well dunk over the real deal," he told his rival. Robinson won last year's event when he enlisted Webb as a prop.
The 6'8"Green - who later scored a 50 when he jumped over a table and finished with a righthanded windmill- was not deterred. He built enough momentum to lift off and, despite grazing Robinson's shoulder with a sneaker, finished powerfully. As Vince Carter and Dominique Wilkins flashed 10s and Bryant, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan offered 9s, the slam was worth a 47.
The experience, however, was worth far more than that.