It's a game that's still worth loving

This article was originally published in the Daily News on February 12, 2001.

I don't know about you, but I still love this game. As a matter of fact, I never stopped loving it.

Sure, the NBA is different than it was. Certainly, the overall quality of play isn't as good as it used to be. And without

question, there have been too many

players lately who have come into the league with enormous raw talent but a lack of refinement.

So, in the days leading up to last night's 50th All-Star Game, all we've heard and read is how the league is heading for the apocalypse and how today's young stars have fumbled the mantle passed to them.

Well, maybe it's not the players. Perhaps it's us; well, not me and perhaps not even you, but those members of an older generation who still are waiting for this new world to conform to them instead of adjusting to this new world.

I looked on the court at the MCI Center yesterday and saw an All-Star Game played, for the most part, by twentysomething kids.

I looked around the media room and saw the game being documented, for the most part, by middle-aged men still

longing for days gone by.

The NBA is evolving.

Except for a few ageless wonders - Utah's Karl Malone and John Stockton, and San Antonio's David Robinson -

the glory days of Magic and Larry, His

Airness and Sir Charles have passed on

to the pages of NBA history, as they

eventually had to.

So maybe it's time, finally, to let go of the past and start embracing the future.

As All-Star Games go, the Eastern Conference's 111-110 victory over the West was good. But those final 31/2 minutes, when every player on the court forgot it was just an exhibition and decided that all they wanted to do was win, was as good as it gets.

"I'm just proud I'm part of this league," said 76ers coach Larry Brown, who directed the East. "I thought the game was really a great game for the league under the circumstances.

"This whole week, I've heard so much negative stuff about the direction of the league and all of these young players. I thought both teams tried to win, tried to play the right way. It was a terrific thing to be a part of.

"I watched some old clips of some All-Star Games with [Bob Pettit] and [Bob Cousy] and

Elgin [Baylor] and Bill Russell, people like that, and I thought those guys were trying to win. That's what I sensed from the beginning of this game, because I felt our players wanted to prove something.

"We've got a lot of great young players that are not only good players, but great guys. "

They are players who are growing up in the greatest era of media scrutiny ever - where every step or stumble they make

instantly is blasted over the airwaves.

They are players who are being asked to carry the torch of legends before

they've first found their own way. We've faulted them for not being grown-ups without giving them a chance to grow.

"It's been a dramatic change," said

Sixers guard Allen Iverson, named Most Valuable Player after scoring a game-high 25. "You have different players now.

"We're never going to be able to replace Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, guys like Larry Bird. You're asking too much to try to replace something like that.

"They brought everything to the game. We're not going to be able to put our feet in their shoes. It's going to take a collective effort from everybody to make sure this stays a great league. "

The NBA is not perfect but, contrary to revisionist history, it wasn't perfect when Magic and Larry and Michael were playing, either.

While criticizing today's young players, we forget that Jordan didn't really become Jordan until after he'd been in the league a few years.

"You look at a guy like Allen Iverson as you do a lot of players," said Sacramento coach Rick Adelman, who guided the West. "As they mature in the league off the floor, they mature on the floor. "

It's all about time.

A league with a collection of players like Iverson and Kobe Bryant and

Shaquille O'Neal and Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson and Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady and Chris Webber and Dirk Nowitzki and Rasheed Wallace and Jason Kidd, and so many others, is one capable of show-

casing tremendous basketball.

"I can honestly say that we are the best players in this world," Marbury said. "We have youngsters, so we're going to make mistakes and sometimes do some stupid things on the basketball court because we are young. That's part of being young. We're not perfect, but nobody is.

"But the guys that played in the All-Star Game tonight, I think we really showed the world that basketball can be played at different levels. I think we showed this game can still be exciting and fun. "

Changing times don't have to mean worst times.