- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2001

Before a star-studded crowd and basking in a wave of flashbulbs and adulation, basketball's biggest names took center stage last night in the NBA's 50th annual All-Star Game at a sold-out MCI Center.

The Eastern Conference rallied past the Western Conference 111-110 in a game that served as a climax to four days of activities, events and parties. Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson scored 25 points for the East to earn the Most Valuable Player award.

The NBA's All-Star Weekend has become an event, rivaling the NFL's Super Bowl in terms of hype, hoopla and celebratory vibe.

"It's huge and crazy," said Coleen Murray, an Alexandria, Va., resident. "Thursday through Sunday, I've been to all the parties. I haven't done this since high school. At Republic Gardens, I opened my first bottle of $500 Cristal champagne for [rap star] Jay-Z."

From players to movie stars to autograph seekers camping in the lobby of the downtown Grand Hyatt, the weekend festivities drew an estimated 100,000 people to the District, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the local economy and prompting Mayor Anthony A. Williams to call the game the biggest event to hit the city during his tenure.

More than 2,000 local residents volunteered to help with the proceedings, and judging from the atmosphere of the past three nights the multiple bashes at Club 2K9, the booked-solid hotels, the downtown gridlock it was difficult to dispute Mr. Williams' assessment.

"I'm enjoying myself," said Phil Williams, 30, who came down from Philadelphia with a friend Friday night. "We went to the [NBA Players Association] party, and it was nice. The parties are more exciting than the game."

Broadcast in 45 languages to 210 nations, the game itself was a typically fast-paced, high-scoring affair, light on grit and heavy on showing off. When Philadelphia guard Allen Iverson turned in a spectacular first-half play tossing a pass to himself, then catching the ball and scoring a basket in one fluid motion the crowd gasped in approval.

"That was awesome," said Dylan Conn, 14, of Potomac, Md., who during half-time was trying to capture the attention of hoop legends Magic Johnson and Bill Russell. "And it's really fun getting everyone's autograph. I've already gotten Dr. J and Tiny Archibald."

Fittingly clad in a throwback New Orleans Jazz jersey, singer Harry Connick Jr. led a jazz ensemble in a rollicking, up-tempo half-time rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown," best known as the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters. Mr. Connick then introduced a lineup of past NBA All-Star Game MVPs, including Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Bob Cousy and Washington Wizards president of basketball operations Michael Jordan.

The grouping of roundball greats managed to overshadow but just barely a group of on-hand celebrities that included Evander Holyfield, Boyz II Men and Britney Spears clone Jessica Simpson, who belted an overwrought pregame version of the national anthem.

"This is my first [All-Star Game], and I've never seen so many celebrities in my life," said Washington Wizards center Jahidi White, who was roaming the concourse during half-time.

"I'm having a great time."

When it came to star struck, though, it was hard to top Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, who met briefly with President Bush in the Oval Office on Friday.

"I don't think I'm going to wash this hand," Malone said after exchanging a handshake with the president.

Alonzo Mourning, a Georgetown graduate sidelined for the season because of a kidney ailment, drew loud cheers during the pregame player introductions, as did former Hoyas Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo. Reston High School graduate Grant Hill, also out for the rest of the year, and former Washington Wizards forwards Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace also were welcomed warmly.

"It hurts since we didn't give [Webber and Wallace] a chance to blossom," said Rose Robbins, a Wizards season ticket holder from Alexandria. "Since we're the home team, [Wizards forward] Juwan Howard should be here."

Despite the upbeat atmosphere, not all was perfect. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant hinted he would skip the game earlier in the week and was fined $10,000 by the league for missing a mandatory Friday media session. Mourning, Hill and Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal all three voted starters by fans were unable to participate because of injuries.

In addition, the NBA continues to grapple with the flat attendance, sagging TV ratings and image problems particularly with its younger cadre of players that have plagued the league since the retirement of Jordan and a disastrous lockout in 1998.

"The vast majority of our players are extraordinary hard workers, great members of their community," NBA commissioner David Stern said during his annual state-of-the-league address Saturday. "I'm getting a little short on the subject of having to apologize for them because I don't think they need apologies… . They are among the most extraordinary group of athletes that are playing sports today."

With the league's best and brightest on display, few fans in attendance last night were inclined to disagree.

"I'm not a big sports fan, but I am this weekend," Mrs. Murray said. "I know most of the players from my husband's fantasy basketball team. And this has been a fantasy."

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