The meaning of the NBA All-Star game

This game is bigger than basketball.

There is more to basketball than winning. There are the relationships built along the way, the fans who adore their favourite players, the teammates who spend more time together than can be counted. There are community projects, like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s C.H.A.P charter school being built in his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania in the Fall of 2020.  There are the moments of emotional transcendence, like winning a championship, that force cities of millions to act, for a short time, like small communities.

The Toronto Raptors embody those moments and relationships that are bigger than basketball.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Raptors are the best-run franchise in the NBA. The defending champions currently have the third-best record in the league, but their success runs far deeper. The team enjoys success at every level, from the management genius of Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster, to the players on the floor, to the coaching staff that is pioneering a defensive revolution. It’s for that reason that the Raptors will have more representatives at the 2020 All-Star game than any other team in the league.

Pascal Siakam will be an All-Star starter in his first ever trip to the game. His kinetic intelligence is off the charts. He can seemingly watch something done once, say ‘oh, of course, like thiiiiis,’ and immediately have mastered the skill. He’s the living embodiment of a game hacker app, able to dial his stats to 99 with minimal effort. Put him around players like Trae Young or Giannis Antetokounmpo in a practice environment, and perhaps he learns their signature moves within a day. The All-Star game is always for on-court learning and off-court connections, and Siakam could leave Chicago with even more tools in his growing arsenal.

Siakam will be joined by Kyle Lowry. Lowry is an old hand at the All-Star game, and this appearance will be his sixth consecutive. He enjoys it, but Lowry has multiple times said that he’s happier for the newly minted All-Star Siakam than he is for himself. Lowry’s place in the history books is set. He’s becoming more and more of a surefire future Hall of Famer, and this All-Star game is just one more victory lap for a Lowry who finally found a basketball home in Toronto.

For Siakam himself, it means everything that Lowry will be there as well.

Everything man,” Siakam agreed. “Coming in, he’s always been the kind of guy to talk to you and reach out and have dinners. He takes you in and it’s great to have vets like that to look at. I’m definitely fortunate to have had a guy like that in my rookie year to connect like we did. Just having him as a big brother you can go to for information. No matter what it is, I know I can send him a text and he’ll have something for me, like advice.”

The two teammates will be joined by Nick Nurse and his coaching staff in Chicago. For Nurse and his long-time assistant Nate Bjorkgren, it’s a dream come true. The two go way back. Bjorkgren played for Nurse when he was an assistant in South Dakota. When Nurse when to the G League’s Iowa Energy, Bjorkgren was a high school coach in Phoenix, Arizona, and Bjorkgren saw Nurse’s Head Coaching position as an opportunity to break into the pros. He called Nurse incessantly and eventually was offered an unpaid assistant coaching position with Iowa. The two have been together, off and on, ever since. They’ve been dreaming about coaching in the NBA All-Star game for years, when they were together at Iowa, and even when they were on separate staffs, Nurse in Rio Grande and Bjorkgren in Bakersfield.

There are other storylines, other elements of the game that have meaning beyond basketball. For one, Siakam and Joel Embiid are both Cameroonians, and their success while sharing the same homeland is important to both of them.

“Two Cameroonians starting the All-Star game, being on the same team, that’s history right there. For people to come after us, to see that moment, it would be something special,” said Siakam. “And things that we didn’t get to see. Joel didn’t get to see that. That’s something that never happened before. For us to be part of that moment.”

Every individual at an All-Star game — an effusive public validation of their life’s work — has his or her own story. Each of the Raptors in Chicago is thus an abider by the rule, not an exception. But it’s significant that their stories are so meaningful. Siakam is the first-time All-Star, the young prodigy who will continue to improve for a long time. He is forcing his mother to attend Chicago to watch him play. Lowry is the heady vet, the old hand, happier to celebrate the success of those around him than his own triumphs. Nurse is a long-shot, who travelled through a variety of leagues and countries, from Birmingham to Iowa to Toronto, to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

The basketball on display at the All-Star game will surely be a letdown. There is no defense played, which is probably the greatest strength of each of Toronto’s representatives. But the stories beyond the court, the personal anecdotes, the individual histories that led to this moment, those are bigger than basketball. And those are the reasons we watch the game.

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