- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

Jam Session, the NBA's annual oasis of good feelings, was barely an hour old yesterday before ailing Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning spiced up the event at Washington Convention Center.

"The East is definitely going to win [Sunday's All-Star Game at MCI Center]," said Mourning, appearing at the first day of Jam Session as a spokesman for American Express. "We're way quicker than them, particularly in the backcourt."

The good-natured trash talk sent ripples through the crowd gathered to see Mourning, because Western Conference starting guards Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant are not exactly slow. It also exemplified how critical Jam Session has become to the NBA and All-Star Weekend.

Part interactive basketball theme park for children, part shopping mall and part glorification of the NBA's corporate sponsors, Jam Session has become in just eight years the antithesis of the the rest of the NBA season. Instead of half-empty arenas, dour corporate crowds and pro sports' highest average ticket price, Jam Session boasts boisterous throngs of fans young and old debating player talents instead of rap sheets and happily consuming all things basketball.

The appearance of former Georgetown star Mourning, who is out for the season because of a kidney ailment, highlighted the first day of Jam Session. More than 90,000 are expected to attend over the weekend to get player autographs, shoot hoops, load up on souvenirs or just hang out.

"This is great, really how it should be all the time," said Larry Wilson of Silver Spring, Md., attending with his 10-year-old son, Darnell. "The kids are enjoying themselves, it's right here downtown and it's not too crowded yet."

District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams also got caught up in the NBA's alternate version of reality yesterday. He called the All-Star Game the biggest event to hit the city on his watch, topping even last month's presidential inauguration and the 50th anniversary summit for NATO in 1999. In Williams' mind, the more than 2,000 local residents volunteering to help the NBA this weekend pushed the game to the top of his list.

"This one gives me the greatest pride because it involves our city so much," Williams said.

Yesterday's opening of All-Star Weekend, the third hosted by Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, followed more than 14 months of preparation. Since Pollin landed the event in December 1999, dozens of NBA staffers have worked solely on this event reserving hotel and convention space, planning player appearances, booking entertainment acts and organizing other events.

"All-Star Weekend is a major, major juggling act and Jam Session, because so much goes on right there, represents much of that," said Ski Austin, the NBA's senior vice president for events and attractions.

"Probably the hardest thing is having to deal with so many different itineraries. You have individual player itineraries, sponsor itineraries, TV itineraries, league itineraries. And just when you think that you have a firm handle on everything, you realize again that almost everything this weekend happens live," Austin said.

But just as Mourning sparked debate over the talents of Allen Iverson vs. Jason Kidd, he also typified one of the lingering problems of this year's All-Star Weekend: tomorrow's slam dunk contest featuring six little-known rookies and second-year players (reigning champion Vince Carter is not defending). Asked who will win this year's event, Mourning replied, "Who's in it?"

Such confusion mattered little to merchants selling NBA merchandise at Jam Session. Still recovering from a bitter owners' lockout two years ago and the retirement of Michael Jordan, retailers are all too happy to see NBA fans opening their wallets again.

"It's been a long road back we're very excited about this weekend," said Peter Lindenbaum, senior vice president for the Modell's sporting goods chain, which is operating a large retail shop within Jam Session. "We've made a major investment in All-Star merchandise and obviously think it's warranted."

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