TORONTO — Kristaps Porzingis held the phone in front of him as the opening chords of "Roxanne" by the Police strained to be heard over the bouncing basketballs at the New York Knicks’ morning shootaround.
As soon as Sting’s voice came out over the speaker, Porzingis laughed, nodded and said "I’ve heard this one too!"
The 20-year-old Latvian forward had asked to listen to some of Sting’s classic hits on Thursday morning after the 16-time Grammy Award winner was named the headliner of the NBA All-Star Game’s halftime show next month in Toronto. Porzingis had been embarrassed to admit he didn’t know who Sting was, but was pleased that he recognized the songs "Roxanne" and "Fields of Gold."
"Oh, of course I know this song," said Porzingis of "Fields of Gold," which came out two years before he was born. "This song’s on the radio all the time."
Porzingis, who will be playing for the world team in the Rising Stars Game at the NBA all-star weekend, was not alone in his confusion.
"Oh, is he? I didn’t know, I didn’t know that," said Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan when told that Sting was performing. DeRozan hopes to be named to the East’s all-star team as a reserve on Thursday night. "I don’t mind who performs. It could’ve been anybody."
Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony was voted to the Eastern Conference’s all-star team along with Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry on Jan. 22. He also didn’t know that Sting had been named as the halftime headliner, but was excited to see him perform.
"Oh, that’s big. They got Sting? I didn’t know that," said Anthony. "That’s a big-time performance right there."
Anthony, however, couldn’t name a Sting song, let alone his favourite.
"Let me think. I don’t really have a favourite Sting song," said Anthony. "Y’all put me on the spot. I know the songs, I just don’t know the names of the songs."
Sting was trending on Twitter after Thursday’s announcement, and some users — including former Toronto mayor Rob Ford — were expressing outrage.
Some questioned why a local act wasn’t chosen to headline, noting Canadian artists including Drake and Justin Bieber are dominating the Billboard charts. Both are also nominated for Grammys. The awards will be presented the night after the all-star game.
Others said they didn’t feel the "Message in a Bottle" singer-songwriter and former frontman for the Police was the right fit for a blockbuster basketball event.
"Really â†•Toronto2016? Sting? What were your backup options, Cher and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra? How about some TORONTO talent!" said a tweet from Ford’s account.
Ford, who’s now a city councillor, added there were "so many options," including the Weeknd, Rush, Barenaked Ladies, Kardinal Offishall and Deadmau5.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is still holding out hope for Drake, a brand ambassador for the Raptors, to perform at the All-Star Game.
"I’m hoping Drake comes out to do a little something with Sting," said Silver in a brief interview with TMZ.com posted Thursday.
Some defended the choice.
"Sting has been selling out stadiums, exploring world beats, influencing the artists that you love, writing his own songs … getting sampled AND fighting for human rights long before most of the people complaining about him on social media were born," said "Hockey Night in Canada" host George Stroumboulopoulos in a series of tweets.
Stroumboulopoulos added NBA officials "probably know more about their target than those who aren’t in the meetings."
"Why do some people think that the NBA needs a gangster artist? That’s a question they probably don’t want the answer to."
The NBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sting, who kicks off a tour with Peter Gabriel in June, will play the halftime show at the Air Canada Centre on Feb. 14 and Montreal acrobatic troupe Cirque du Soleil will also perform. Sting also performed at the 2003 Super Bowl along with Canadian Shania Twain and rock group No Doubt.
Last year’s halftime artist was Ariana Grande, with a guest appearance from Nicki Minaj. In 2014 the halftime show included Janelle Monae and Earth, Wind, and Fire. The 2013 headliner was Alicia Keys.
Earlier this month, organizers announced Toronto rapper Drake will coach Canada’s team at the NBA all-star celebrity game on Feb. 12 at the Ricoh Coliseum.