Time to bring the NBA All-Star Game back to Boston

Time to bring the NBA All-Star Game back to Boston
February 14, 2014, 12:45 pm
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Over the next few days, also known as “the weekend”, the city of New Orleans will play host to the 63rd NBA All Star Game. This is the second time in the last six years that NOLA is home to the All Star festivities, and that’s pretty impressive. But it’s got nothing on this —
 
Zero times in 50 years.
 
That’s the streak we’re currently working on in Boston. As of last month, it’s officially been half a century since the NBA’s most celebrated event teamed up with one of the NBA’s most celebrated and historic franchises. And that’s a long time. That’s 50 years! That’s the age difference between Jared Sullinger and Jerry Sloan, between Rajon Rondo and Wilt Chamberlain. That’s the difference between today and 2064. That’s forever. And it’s time for the drought to come to an end.
 
***
 
In January of 1964, former NBA commissioner David Stern was 21 years old, and in his first year of law school at Columbia. Current commissioner Adam Silver lived in New York City, where he’d yet to celebrate his second birthday. Meanwhile, over in Worcester, future Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck was about two and a half. Back in those days, kids on the schoolyard use to call him Slick Wyc. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true, so let’s just move on.
 
Here in Boston, the 1963-64 Celtics were the five-time defending NBA champs and well on their way to an eventual eight-peat. They were coached by 46-year-old Red Auerbach, led by a pair of 29-year-old big men (Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn) and a duo of high-scoring forwards (veteran Sam Jones and 23-year-old John Havlicek). At the All Star Break, the Celtics were 28-9, and proud owners of the best record in the NBA.
 
The 1964 All Star Game was held on January 14 at the Boston Garden, and it was a historic event. First of all, just look at the rosters. Of the 20 players in uniform, 15 went on to the Hall of Fame. That included Russell, Heinsohn and Jones, as well as legends like Wilt, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bob Pettitt and Elgin Baylor.
 
The game was also historic because it almost didn’t happen. Before tip-off, the players (led by Heinsohn) famously told the league that they weren’t going to play unless the owners finally recognized the union. It was high drama and it’s still an amazing story. You can read all about right here, but for now, the CliffsNotes:
 
The owners finally caved and the players’ boycott became a pivotal moment in the eventual creation of a pension plan, as well as many other rights and amenities that players are afforded today.
 
It’s crazy to think how much has changed since then — both in basketball and the world around it. But it’s even crazier to think that over all that time, the All Star Game and the city of Boston haven’t reunited. This isn’t OK. It’s time to bring the event back to the Hub.
 
But before going to deep into that argument, it’s worth asking this question:
 
Why hasn’t it come back yet?
 
***
 
As the story goes, the NBA wanted to bring the game to Boston in the 80s, but had trouble working out a plan around the Bruins schedule and other Garden logistics. By the ’90s, the event had reached another level (and then some) in terms of popularity, and the league was only interested in hosts that played in bigger, more modern arenas than the old Boston Garden.
 
In 1995, the Celtics opened the bigger and more modern TD Garden (as it was eventually known), at which point attention turned to the city’s lack of adequate convention space.
 
In 2004, Boston opened its new, far more accommodating convention center, at which point the league had already turned its focus to warm weather cities.
 
Since 2006, the All Star game has been played in Houston (twice), Las Vegas (never again), Phoenix, Dallas, Los Angeles, Orlando and now for the second time in New Orleans. And over that time, David Stern never hid from the fact that geography played a major role in determining the host city.
 
"I think that our guests seem to come in greater numbers to warm weather,” Stern said in 2009, “and that's something that we're going to have to face up to and deal with as we seek to attract the largest number.”
 
Naturally, this philosophy left Boston out in the cold. Regretfully, that pun was very much intended. But it’s the truth. That said, the blame for Boston’s All-Star drought doesn’t fall entirely on the league. In the past, the Celtics have been interested in hosting, but it’s never been a priority.
 
Back in 1995, the team tried to put a bid together for the 1998 game, but failed to get it done before the deadline. And they didn’t seem all that broken up about missing out. At the time, a team source told Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough: "The All-Star Game is a lousy deal for the home team. The league takes 70 percent of the tickets. They have our people work on the game for a year before it gets here, and we have no control. They take all the good seats. They control the advertising in the building that weekend. What happens is your season ticket-holders and your biggest sponsors get mad because they are shut out.”
 
The pursuit for another All Star game was placed on hold in 2002, when the new Celtics ownership group (led by Grousbeck) took over.
 
But not without reason.
 
For one, the owners had bought into what was widely considered the worst lease in the NBA. A deal with greedy Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs that turned what would be an already complicated All Star production into a near impossibility. Not to mention, Grousbeck had a few more pressing matters to take care of first. You know, saving the Celtics and what-not. The All Star game just wasn’t a priority. It shouldn’t have been. And with Stern’s stance on warm weather cities abundantly clear, there was never a real motivation to change that tune.
 
Well, other than the fact that it had been (and still has been) so embarrassingly and unreasonably long since the All Star game has come to Boston. 50 years! Shouldn’t Adam Silver present the Celtics with some kind of commemorative gold plate this weekend? He could. But a better gift would be to sit down with Grousbeck and finally figure out a way to make this happen. Because it should happen and it needs to happen.
 
***
 
Here in 2014, most of the obstacles that once stood between the Celtics and another All Star Game no longer exist. The size of the arena isn’t an issue, as TD Garden’s capacity tops that of this weekend’s host (the newly and awesomely named Smoothie King Arena). The weather argument is dead, too, seeing how the next two All Star games are slated for New York and Toronto. Same goes for problems with the Celtics lease, which was renegotiated in 2006 with an All Star bid in mind.
 
In the meantime, the city of Boston has proven itself more than capable of handling an event of the All Star Game’s magnitude. Over the last 20 years, Boston’s hosted the MLB All Star game, the NHL All Star Game and the Democratic National Convention. The TD Garden alone has hosted March Madness five times, including two Elite Eights. It’s hosted two Frozen Fours (with a third coming in 2015), the 2006 Women’s Final Four, the Stanley Cup and the NBA Finals. And it’s done so without major issue.
 
On top of that, as the NBA continues to thrive, All Star Weekend has proven to be a great financial boon for the host city. One study found that the 2012 festivities had a $95M economic impact on the city of Orlando, including $56M in direct spending. In 2011, NBA All Star Weekend in Los Angeles contributed an estimated $85M to the local economy. In 2009, it generated $35M for the city of Phoenix.
 
In other words, it’s good for the city. And in a city like Boston, so rich in basketball history and so far removed from the event, it would also be good for the NBA and even better for the fans. The fans deserve this. There’s no doubt they’d represent the city well. And at this point, after all the drama and extenuating circumstances of the last 50 years, it would seem that nothing is standing in the way of it all becoming a reality.
 
But unfortunately, that’s not the case.
 
***
 
Last April, Grousbeck told the Boston Globe that he’d had casual conversations with Jim Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, about filing an application for a future game. We never heard anything else about it, and that’s because the conversation never advanced past casual.
 
“We haven’t talked about it for a while,” Mooney told me over e-mail. “It is difficult for us because the NBA selects cities on a short time frame. For example, two-three years in advance, and our calendar is generally full for the dates they want up to five years in advance.
 
“It would be great if they would allow us to compete for something five-seven years out, so we can hold the dates. But I can’t turn down a convention hoping this will work out.”
 
So, there’s one issue. There’s also the fact that, despite being a financial success for the host city, the game is anything but that for the host team. Many of the same points of contention McDonough’s source had back in 1995 —
 
"The All-Star Game is a lousy deal for the home team. The league takes 70 percent of the tickets. They have our people work on the game for a year before it gets here, and we have no control. They take all the good seats. They control the advertising in the building that weekend. What happens is your season ticket-holders and your biggest sponsors get mad because they are shut out.”
 
— still exist today. The current cost structure doesn’t benefit the team. And the Celtics aren’t alone in their reluctance to submit to the league’s financial demands. The Bulls haven’t hosted an All Star Game since 1988.
 
"They'd have to force me to take the All-Star Game," owner Jerry Reinsdorf said in 2012. "They take over the building, your season-ticket holders have to be in a lottery to see if they get tickets and then they don't get a good ticket. Really, no good can come out of it and all it can do is upset your fans."
 
That’s an extreme take, but it highlights the mentality of many of today’s owners. That’s part of the reason why we’ve seen so many repeat hosts in recent years. For many teams, it’s not even worth applying. But it is for the Celtics. After 50 years, it should be.
 
After 50 years, David Stern has since graduated law school, and is now retired at 71. Adam Silver still lives in NYC, but now he’s 51, the commissioner of the NBA and ready to start leaving his own mark on the league. He has the power to make these tough decisions and, if he wants, to start chipping away at the ungodly layers of greed that defined Stern’s final years.
 
Meanwhile, Wyc Grousbeck is 52 years old, and one of the NBA’s most progressive and influential owners. He’s chair of the league’s Planning Committee. In the 12 years since purchasing the team, he’s achieved so much. He’s helped bring this franchise back from the dead and restore Celtic Pride. He’s been equally and admirably bold and logical in his commitment to seeing the team through this latest rebuild. Make no mistake, Wyc Grousbeck is a great owner. He gets things done.
 
And with a little help from Adam Silver, finding a way to bring the All Star Game back to Boston should be next on his list.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine