The Association and the traveling circus

As NBA All-Star Weekend ends, so too ends the greatest spectacle in the history of February. We must pack away the Darryl Dawkins leopard-print suits, the Mohawk-adorned children who keep losing dolls and hot Sager-on-Bieber action. Back we go to the real world of Tuesday road games, playing defense, and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The all-star spectacle is the climax of the NBA’s vaudevillian spirit. Together for three days, the entirety of the NBA community gathers together under one tent for an old school revival, a non-denominational sermon on the joys of youth, the familiarity of a well-executed chest pass and the transcendent glory of copious dunking (sometimes over mid-market Korean automobiles).

The sheer spectacle of the weekend can leave some basketball fans with a bitter taste in their collective mouths. It’s a bit like watching the last night of the Olympics when the gymnasts gather for a “gala” and perform essentially the same routines they did the night before. But this time it’s with fun light shows and a higher sequin-to-fabric ratio on their leotards.

Removing the element of legitimate competition reduces the event to a question of pride, bragging rights and finding something around which to anchor exclusive parties in expensive clubs. Purists might find themselves turned off by the self-congratulatory affair.

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However, at its root, the NBA is still a traveling carnival; a not-that-throwback-y throwback to the old days of barnstorming teams doing regional circuits and owners trying to squeeze every ounce of spectacle onto the court like it was minor league baseball. The busses may have become Gulfstreams and the salaries may have increased 1,000 percent, but Chinese acrobats still perform at halftime and videos of clowns jumping off of trampolines go viral within minutes. The All-Star Game is simply the reduction left after boiling away the undesirable bits, like competitive spirit and the Toronto Raptors.

Grand Wizard Stern has proven himself an avid hype man, and his embrace of technology has meant that today’s basketball worshippers are able to read the sacred texts they love so dearly anytime they want, divining inspiration from the Book of Blake, worshipping the dark cult of The Black Mamba or washing away sins with the clean fundamental wisdom of the ReverendTim Duncan and his apostles.

The true believers have responded by creating a flow of – cue Dr. Evil – billions of dollars that travels the globe from fan to team to player to Gilbert Arenas’ shark feeder and back around again. The National Basketball Association has evolved into an international conglomerate that sells its brand of transcendent athletics to any lost soul who can find meaning in the offensive rebounding of Kevin Love. Acolytes walk the streets with a quiet confidence, whispering NBA League Pass Broadband login info in back alleys and devising infographics that show the length of Rasheed Wallace’s beard for every technical foul he’s ever incurred.

We love the circus of the whole thing, the traveling exhibition that comes to town, replete with heroes and villains and whatever Chris Bosh is. It’s why we still have t-shirt cannons and dance teams and half-court shots for a million bucks. It’s why athletes and Twitter go so seamlessly together.

Today, the red and blue leotards get packed up and shipped to third-world all-star teams and Rihanna finally puts on a pair of pants. As the season rolls on, things will start to get serious, Kobe will start yelling at people again, LeBron will eventually quit on his team for not trying, and Blake will bring a backboard down. The playoffs will start, millions of dollars will be won and lost, and real cities will feel real emotions.

Meanwhile, fans will sit and marvel, following the tireless guidance of the ringmaster.

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