“We all know why we’re playing it,” Leonard said then. “There’s money on the line.”
I, too, thought the risks taken to preserve Turner’s projected windfall of up to $30 million, on top of the untold millions that the N.B.A. and its players avoided losing through an outright cancellation, were ill-advised. Yet I must concede, with hindsight, that it’s a stretch to parrot the line that routinely dismisses the All-Star Game as “just” an exhibition. TNT treats it as the jewel of its annual N.B.A. coverage, bigger than any single playoff game on its air, while Silver said the league was expecting a global television audience of more than 100 million people, along with more than a billion social media views and engagements.
No mere exhibition game generates that sort of hoopla. All-Star games don’t count — except that the N.B.A. can rightfully say they do.
Like everything else in the league (and the world) these days, it’s complicated — and often inherently risky over the past year. Few understand that better than Silver, who is back in New York now for what could be another nervy week as the 400-plus players who were not in Atlanta gradually return to their teams. Coming out of a break is when the N.B.A. has typically had a surge in positive Covid-19 cases.
It likewise figures to be a week filled with somber reflection given Thursday’s looming one-year anniversary of the N.B.A.’s shutdown in response to the coronavirus outbreak. I interviewed Silver recently for a one-year-later project that ran in Monday’s editions of The New York Times, which featured Silver sharing some of his thinking and takeaways from March 11, 2020.
“When I made that decision that night to shut down, I thought of it more as a hiatus, because it was a realization that however long we’re shut down, we need to put in place a whole new set of protocols to deal with this emerging virus,” Silver said in last month’s interview. “It wasn’t so much that, all right, the world has stopped.
“At that moment,” Silver said, “I did not have a sense that we would be having this conversation almost a year later and we still would not be back to business as usual.”
The 70th All-Star Game, however you felt about it, was the latest illustration of exactly that. It became such a divisive issue because business as usual has been replaced by pandemic life for longer than most of us ever imagined.