Basking in the circus of the NBA’s All-Star Weekend

Kobe Bryant says it's a no brainer who he'd put his money on for 3-pointer contest.

TORONTO — Under the steadily-scanning eyes of black-blazered security personnel, you walk single-file through the metal detectors, bag checks and bomb-sniffing dog sweeps into NBA All-Star media day. You enter a massive, bright, beige-carpeted ballroom repurposed into a holding pen with tall black curtains surrounding the perimeter, clearly outlining where you are and are not allowed to go. It’s a full hour before a basketball player will even set foot in this room. And already, there’s a crowd of dozens hovering around a two-foot podium with a plain, armless chair on it where, at some point, Kobe Bryant will sit.

You can’t blame them. You’ve got to get a good spot. This NBA all-star weekend—the first of its kind to be held outside the United States—and this media event specifically, is attracting scores of people from all over the world to bask in and document the elaborate ostentation this exhibition game annually produces. In other words, there’s no shortage of those who enjoy attention.

For starters, there is a not-insignificant amount of people wearing media credentials over NBA team branded shirts or under We The North hats; there are several others walking around the ballroom filming themselves talking into cell phones the size of their face; there are endless streams of men in suits and women in dresses carrying long batons with microphones attached to the end of them, whisper-shouting at cameramen to adjust position or pick up their step stools and scurry to the next scrum.

So if you aren’t at the podium early, you aren’t asking a question. And even if you do acquire prime real estate, you must be loud and assertive, as the scrums for the biggest stars to enter the room, like Bryant and LeBron James, are more akin to a South Park town hall meeting than an actual interview. Immediately after every answer there is a loud, long rumbling of dozens of people all attempting to ask a question, before simple attrition begins to drop the less resolute question-askers one by one until there is just one voice left, repeating his or her question since the first half of it was inevitably lost in the white noise.

So, you don’t actually get any real work done at a congested event like this one. There’s too many people; too many cameras; too many reasons for the athletes to say as little as possible. But you can observe some things, and that’s what we did.

We’ll start with Steph Curry, because for as dispiriting an experience as media day can be, it’s very, very, hard to be cynical about the best player in the league.

Curry grew up here, while his father Del played out his workmanlike career for the Raptors. And when he talks about the experience he had in this city, and how it helped formed him, it sounds about as genuine as it gets.

“It’s amazing to be back. I spent three good years here,” Curry said. “I remember living right down on Lakeshore Boulevard and going to school at Queensway Christian College, this little small school. I have a lot of good memories.

“Every time I come back to the Air Canada Centre to play, I see all the ushers and people who worked in the back who used to see me and my brother running around, these little rug rats with a basketball just dribbling like crazy,” he continued. “They were the hot stuff when Vinsanity and all that was going on back then. And now they’re a playoff team every single year, second in the east right now. People know about the Raptors and what they’re doing. And the support here, you watch it during the playoffs, everybody showing up to Jurassic Park, that’s great for the league and great for Toronto. It’s fun to watch.”

Another basketball player who spent formative years in this city before ultimately leaving is Chris Bosh. That is, perhaps, a polite way of putting it. Anyone who was around at the time remembers the pain and betrayal Raptors fans felt when Bosh chose, after seven years as Raptor, to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami where they’d go on to win two championships.

The resentment towards Bosh has cooled a bit in recent years as the Raptors have blossomed into one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference without him. But it still wouldn’t be surprising to hear Bosh booed when he checks into Sunday’s game. For his part, the 31-year-old, 11-time all-star is feeling contemplative about it.

“It’s kind of weird being back, in a sense that I’m a totally different person. Just going by the old spots and reflecting and thinking about different things,” Bosh said. “I have children now, and I try to tell them the little stories about Toronto and things like that. It’s just a trip. But it’s kind of poetic a little bit for me to be here to see the all-star game here for the first time.”

Looking more highbrow artist than basketball player in purposefully torn jeans, a white t-shirt, grey scarf and long, beige jacket, Bosh took a few moments to think about what he might hear from the crowd on Sunday when asked to comment.

“I don’t know, man,” Bosh said. “I really don’t know.”

Of course, Bosh has been long replaced in the hearts and minds of Raptors fans by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the pair of all-stars who make up one of the best backcourts in basketball. This year’s all-star game transpiring in the building they play in has forced the duo to answer questions about it for weeks. But if that experience was the symphony, media day was the crescendo, as both men sat patiently at their podiums, fielding request after request for comment on the significance of things.

DeRozan remained accommodating as ever, and was the first player to arrive for the Eastern Conference portion of media day and one of the last to leave. You could have fit three Russell Westbrook sessions into the time DeRozan took for his, cheerfully obliging every bizarre request from a stranger with a video camera, such as saying hello to Italy, wishing everyone a belated Chinese New Year, and shouting out Chef Craig at Patois.

Lowry can be prickly with the media at times, but he was similarly at his best on Friday, wading without complaint through a never-ending stream of questions about his friendship with DeRozan.

“We’re kind of the same in our backgrounds—our understanding of friends and family and how hard you’ve got to work to be special. I just think that’s one of the things that keeps our relationship great,” Lowry said. “My son, his daughter, my baby—they all love each other. They really care about each other. They’re genuine friends. It’s just a good atmosphere. I think it’s very unique. It’s a different bond.”

Oftentimes it seems Lowry loves nothing more than tormenting the younger DeRozan, interjecting commentary into his post-game interviews and razzing him whenever there’s a camera or microphone near. And while media day kept the affable pair about 20 feet apart, which you’d think would eliminate any chance of hijinks, Lowry had a microphone.

“Hey, D-Ro! What’s up, dawg? You alright?” Lowry amplified across the room at one point, drawing a skeptical glance from DeRozan, who didn’t have a microphone of his own to respond with. “Hey, everybody, that’s DeMar DeRozan over there—the official host of the 2016 All-Star Game. You guys should go talk to him. And shout me out, dawg! Shout me out! What? Why not?!?”

There has been much made of how Lowry and DeRozan are the presumed ambassadors, tour guides and party hosts of this weekend, dual canons of Toronto knowledge and advice for their out-of-town peers. Of course, that narrative ignores the fact that NBA players have been coming here for years, both in season and out, to indulge in what the city—or perhaps just King West—has to offer.

But that didn’t stop the sound bite hungry from throwing the “unofficial hosts” line at every player behind a podium Friday, looking for some sort of usable response. Most players shrugged, but Russell Westbook, who was in relatively good spirits considering his profound and partly justified distaste for the mass media, raised a prudent point when asked if Lowry and DeRozan would be busy this weekend showing their colleagues around town.

“Nah, not really,” Westbrook said. “I mean, it’s actually good for them. They get to go home, back to a nice house, be with their families—and not have to be around all this madness.”

A staple of any major American sporting event taking place in Canada will forever be the inferiority-complex addled testing of athlete knowledge regarding our fine country. We’ll ask them about our food; we’ll ask them about our celebrities; we’ll ask them about Drake. It’s not particularly chill, but it’s part of it.

In this vein, a full section of Bryant’s availability was committed to a Canadian familiarity quiz. “Can you name three famous Canadians not named Drake?” asked one keen man with a microphone.

Kobe bought time, making him repeat the question, before knocking out two gimmies: “Gretzky, Nash.” He thought for a moment about a third, which is when other keen microphone-holders began actually shouting out answers, completely defeating the purpose of the exercise. Alas, Bryant took Andrew Wiggins as his third, adding, “and I’ll throw Rachel McAdams in there, how about that?”

Not far away, 20-year-old California native and slam dunk contest participant Aaron Gordon was being given the same treatment, as a heavily-breathing man dressed in all black muscled his way to the front of the pile to ask the Orlando Magic forward what his favourite Canadian food is.

Gordon paused for a beat then looked sideways at the question-asker and offered, “how exactly is it different from American food?” Precisely.

For those who find the shamelessly fanatical and cow-herding nature of mass media days such as this one survival-testing at worst and demoralizing at best, there is at least Pop.

Wearing a white, long-sleeved polo tucked into track pants, as if he’d just wandered into the room from a busy morning spent yelling at his players about proper screen setting, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich slouched into the chair at his podium, looked out at the masses before him, and sighed.

One unfortunate soul stationed in the front row of the gathering, dead centre, elbows on the podium, asked the coach if he thought the winner of the all-star game should decide which conference receives home court advantage in the NBA Finals. Popovich blinked a few times, sizing up the man in front of him. “You have to be kidding,” he finally replied. “You stayed up all night to think of that?”

It went on like this for a good while, as Popovich took turns thoughtfully answering the well-phrased questions that interested him, while swatting away the inane and sometimes absurd queries that flew in from all directions, like King Kong batting at planes from the side of the Empire State Building.

At one point, a wide young man holding a video camera in one hand and a long, black microphone in the other trying to get his voice heard through the static. “Pop, can you talk about…” he’d begin before another question-asker vocally over-powered him. “Pop, talk about…” he tried again, losing another auditory battle for the coach’s attention. You wanted to warn him; you wanted tell him his repeated failures to get the question heard were a sign. But, eventually, on his fifth attempt, he learned his fate.

“Coach, talk about Kawhi, and what this mean to….” Before he could even finished, Popovich interjected. “Just talk about him? Like, just say whatever? I mean, he’s a nice guy.”

And that’s more or less what happened. Media day is, as athletes would say, what it is. But we’ll give the last word to Lowry, because while media day is appropriately titled considering it’s often more about the attention-seekers among the press than anything else, in the end it should always be about the players. And this weekend specifically it should be about him and DeRozan.

“We put our blood, sweat and tears into this organization and what we do,” Lowry said at one point, reflecting on getting to play in Toronto’s first NBA all-star game. “It’s home. It’s our home city. It’s where we play every single night. It’ll be a cool thing to be able to represent the team, the city, the country, just like we do every single night when we step on the floor.”