Iverson is MVP in a thriller

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

You could see from a block away that something big was happening at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. A police car flashed its lights on the corner. Stretch limousines and SUVs poked their noses into the drop-off area, which was aglow with light. An excited crowd, held in check by yellow plastic tape, strained for a look at disembarking celebrities.

"I saw Mike Tyson; I saw Mike Tyson," squealed Shonda Pender, 29, who, with her 6-year-old son, Shaunbrdrk, had squeezed to the front.

Only marginally impressed with the former heavyweight champ, the boy was watching for a bigger star in his mind - a wrestler.

"I want to see the Rock," he said with a pout.

Much of Washington had the glow of a Hollywood premiere over the weekend as one of America's most star-studded annual spectacles - the NBA All-Star Game - virtually took over the nation's capital for three days.

Look out, Philadelphians. It's coming to your town next year.

"You're going to love it," said Reggie Wood, 31, who lives outside Washington, a concert promoter who has been to seven of the games from coast to coast. "I know you had that Republican convention up there. But this is a whole different atmosphere. This is fun. "

Washington officials estimated that 100,000 people - fewer than 20,000 of whom got to see the actual basketball game last night at the MCI Center - crammed into the city's hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and convention center.

More than 40 parties, at ticket prices from $30 to $300, were open to the public. Rappers, stars of other professional sports, film figures - they were all here. A pamphlet for the Mink & Jewels Ball, hosted by Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson, a rapper in his own right, promised "$1,000 to the hottest jewels" and a similar prize "to the sexiest mink. "

The economic impact for the city - a purported $50 million - was nothing compared with the $345 million in sales that Philadelphia was estimated to have raked in from the summer's Republican National Convention.

But the worldwide media attention for an NBA All-Star Game - this one was broadcast in 209 countries - may be even greater than for a political convention.

Let's face it, the 348 NBA players, who this year will earn a collective $1.6 billion (yes, billion), are all rock stars compared with guys in blue blazers and red ties from Dubuque who were on stage at the GOP parley.

At courtside Saturday, as the all-stars ran through a practice session, a film crew from TBS Channel 6 in Tokyo oohed and ahhed over "Mutombo-san" as 7-foot-2 Dikembe Mutombo, of the Atlanta Hawks, took three strides from the sideline, flew, whirled and dunked.

"The (Republican Convention) was great for the city," said Pat Croce, president of the Sixers, who will host next year's NBA All-Star Game at the First Union Center. "It didn't necessarily put smiles on the faces of the people of Philadelphia. "

Indeed, many went to the Shore if they could. By contrast, thousands of Washingtonians stayed home this weekend, not just to gawk at stars - who included athletes from all professional sports, drawn to the NBA's glamour - but also to participate in the all-star "Jam Session" at the convention center.

Children who could not name the governors of three states knew the entire 12-man NBA rosters of multiple NBA teams.

Chris Prince, 16, power forward on the boys' basketball team at Oxon Hill High School, regretted that he could not get into the MCI Center, either for the All-Star Game or for a series of preliminary events by three dozen NBA players, including a slam-dunk competition.

He especially wanted to see his hero, Rasheed Wallace of the Portland Trail Blazers. But a few blocks away from the arena, at the convention center, Prince was doing a fair imitation of Wallace's windmill dunks on the nine-foot basketball hoops (a foot lower than regulation height) that the league had imported for the jam session, which included interactive games, shows and merchandise booths.

The wait in the line of teenagers waiting for their turn with the basketball at any one of six hoops was 10 minutes. "It's exciting," Prince said of the city's all-star buzz. "I've never been to anything like this. But since it's in my hometown, I wanted to go. "

Wallace says he is excited about the game coming to Philadelphia. After all, he played ball at Simon Gratz High School. Even if he is not on the all-star team next year, he said in an interview, "I'm going anyway. "

"It's going to mean a lot," Wallace said. "It was supposed to be there two, three years ago, but got canceled. We're just getting our chance to show people what we've got. It's going to be hectic. "

The NBA All-Star Game, in fact, was supposed to have been in Philadelphia in 1999. A labor dispute - a lockout of the players by the 29 teams - put the kibosh on that. Next year's game will be a makeup.

The timing could not be better. No longer a struggling team, as they were in 1999, the Sixers appear to be gaining championship potential.

The last time Philadelphia hosted the All-Star Game was in 1976, the era of long hair and short pants, of sky hooks and tighter rules on traveling with the ball. (Dave Bing, of the Washington Bullets, was the MVP as the East all-stars beat the West, 123-109. )

Bill Walton, an NBA Hall of Famer and a player of that era, remembered here this weekend that the game was just a game. The all-stars, he said, played for their own teams Friday night, traveled Saturday, and showed up in time Sunday for a quick pregame practice. "It was nothing like today," he said.

More than 30 members of the Sixers organization were in Washington over the weekend, partly to prep themselves for next year. The First Union Center sent 16 of its staffers here Friday. And officials of the Convention and Visitors Bureau also were on hand, more to see how the shuttle buses flowed than to catch the sports action.

Croce told reporters last night before the game that he dreamed of opening the 15,000-seat Spectrum, adjacent to the 20,000-seat First Union Center, to include more fans in the all-star experience. He said the game could be simulcast there in a partylike atmosphere.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for Philadelphia to show itself again," said Larry Needle, of the Philadelphia Sports Congress.

Miku Hanyu, of the Tokyo broadcast team, said she was coming to Philadelphia this week. She already liked the city, she said. But, frankly, that's not what interests her. She and her three-member crew are going to interview No. 3: Iverson.

"Japanese people," she said, "love NBA basketball. "