Lately, the NBA has been like one of those players from the inspired mid-90s video game NBA Jam that featured two-on-two matchups of hoop stars. If one player made two shots in a row the announcer would say, "He's heating up!" Make three in a row, and you'd hear "He's on fire!" and your player would prove virtually impossible of missing the next shot, shooting a flaming ball into the basket from virtually anywhere on the court. Of course, it wouldn't last, the player would cool off and we'd have to start all over again. That's sort of like what has happened to the NBA this week.
First, Kobe Bryant torched the Knicks at the Garden with a visting-player record 61 points. Then LeBron James came to town and dropped a triple-double on the Knicks ("He's heating up!") and then the Lakers and Celtics offered a possible Finals preview with a scintillating overtime thriller in Boston ("He's on fire!")
With the NFL season finally behind us, March Madness still a few weeks away and its own All-Star Game coming up, the NBA has the sports stage all to itself. David Stern could not have orchestrated this any better. The league was captivating again, riding a perfect wave of big-name teams and global stars at the top of their game and needing only to avoid some avoidable PR disaster to take the shine off their most interesting regular season in years.
Then it was revealed that the weekend of the All-Star Game, TNT will air a league-approved version of the traditional game of H-O-R-S-E that instead will punish participants who fail to match their opponents’ creative shot-making with the letters G-E-I-C-O, the most brazenly ridiculous sponsorship deal in recent memory.
UPDATE: To be clear, the event is not officially a part of the NBA’s All-Star weekend. It is a partnership between TNT and Geico and will air on evening as part of an Inside the NBA show on Saturday evening before the official All-Star weekend festivities begin, and the competition is not officially a part of those festivities. However, it will involve NBA players, reportedly an NBA ref, and received the approval of the league.
I can think of one thing to call this idea -- starting with horse -- but this is a family website, so I'll just say that what makes this so palm-to-the-forehead stupid is that it's both ill-timed and unnecessary. The event’s official name is “H-O-R-S-E presented by Geico,” which doesn’t make it any different than plenty of other sponsorship deals related to sports, but taking such a simple, traditional game as H-O-R-S-E and rebranding it with a corporate name is not only in poor taste it reeks of the same overpackaging that for years has undercut the league’s image and overshadowed its status as the home of the world’s best basketball players.
Whether it is officially a part of All-Star Weekend or not is a distinction likely to be lost on the average fan that the event is designed to lure in the first place (otherwise, why stage it in Phoenix, site of the game, and air it right before the official festivities get under way). Considering the (mis)steps of past All-Star Weekends, perhaps this should come as no surprise. This is the same league that was cool enough to popularize the Slam Dunk and 3-point contest, confused enough to get rid of the Slam Dunk contest -- and then bring it back -- and cavalier enough to try force-feeding such atrocities as the celebrity game, the rookie-sophomore game and the Shooting Stars competition featuring a NBA/WNBA duo in a poorly masked marketing attempt to promote a league most fans care little about, if at all.
Adding H-O-R-S-E is the first good, new idea to be associated with All-Star weekend in years (Of course, this idea is about two decades overdue -- how did it not happen after the Larry Bird/Michael Jordan McDonald’s commercial from the early ‘90s? -- but as Sam Seaborn once said to C.J. Cregg, let’s ignore the fact that you’re showing up late to the party and embrace the fact that you showed up at all.), an idea so good it should have been impossible to mess up. But it was.
Horribly botching that first good idea in years: so easy, a backwards-thinking league can do it.