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An All Star Story: How the West has won
CHARLOTTE (Steve Goldberg's Wheel World) - When I saw the rosters for the annual NBA/NWBA All Star Wheelchair Classic, which has been part of the Association's big weekend festivities since 1998, the first thing that caught my eye was the Canadian invasion.
On the East squad were Paralympic gold medalists David Eng and Patrick Anderson. The second thing that came to me was this might be the year that the East breaks the lock that the West has held on the final result for the past decade.
Actually, it's been eight years but it might as well be 10. Kids born when the East All Stars last smiled at the end are now second graders in school.
Then I learned that Anderson - if LeBron is King James, then Anderson is certainly St Patrick - missed his flight to New Orleans. I figured it was the winter storm that wracked the east coast but was told that he was ill. East coach Dale Vancourt, of the home town New Orleans Rollin' Pelicans, probably didn't feel too good himself when he found out the world's arguably best player wasn't going to be there.
"Since they play together all the time," NWBA Executive Director Randy Schubert said referring to Anderson and Eng who play for the New York Rollin' Knicks, "that would have been a pretty dynamic duo to put on the court against anybody."
But the duo became an uno and even though Eng, a first time participant, was named MVP for the East after leading his side with 14 points and 7 rebounds, the West still won 49-38.
But the final score doesn't tell the whole story.
"It was a really good game," says Schubert. "It started fast-break city. They were just running each other up and down the court. Then they slowed it down a bit."
The teams were never more than four or five points apart for most of the game. The final margin came as the East pressed to get closer and the West took advantage of the spacing.
Schubert was ecstatic about one play in particular where the West, under pressure, went boom-boom-boom with three perfect chemistry passes that led to a lay-up. He said that the players on both sides were perhaps too unselfish, prioritizing getting others involved when they could have taken over the game on their own, as these games usually play out.
Jeff Griffin of the Utah Wheelin' Jazz led the West with 15 points and 6 boards and was named the MVP for his side. Griffin acted like he'd been there before, and he had. This was his seventh All Star trip.
While Eng talked post-game about the honor of being there as he took it all in, Griffin alluded to another important aspect of the event, the clinic for locals organized by NBA Cares.
"We get to work with some wonderful kids who are in wheelchairs, and it is really great to give back to the community. The NBA throws a great event and we love to kick it off."
Griffin was also the subject of a conversation I had with former Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden who made the team relevant in the early 1980s. The talk was facilitated by Randall Wade, a filmmaker who has made a documentary and audio book called Doin' Hard Work, for which Layden did the voice-over. It's the story of one weekend's road trip for the Wheelin' Jazz.
"When you think of Karl Malone, you get an image of him right away," said the former NBA Coach of the Year. "It's of this guy who's got big muscles and what have you. But what you learn is that Karl Malone is much more than that.
"He's a guy who has great competitive genes; he wants to win, he wants to compete and he's willing to work to do those things. He always obeyed the rules. He played clean. He played hard. He gave you everything he had and when it was over, he had respect for the opponent. And he had fun doing it.
"And I see all those things with Jeff. He competes; he wants to win but when it's over, he's a good sport."
If I'm Jeff Griffin, that's my new resume. Nothing more, just that.
Coach Layden was very gracious with his time as we spoke further about his interaction with the wheelchair game but that's for another day.
Like all All-Star events, it's always more than the game. NBA legends Darryl Dawkins and John Starks and WNBA stars Ruth Riley of the Atlanta Dream and Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever joined the benches as honorary coaches with Vancourt and West leader, Paul Jackson of the Golden State Road Warriors.
The game has become the kick-off to the NBA All-Star Weekend and the first official event of the Association's hoop fest called Jam Session.
Says Schubert: "We also are proud to be the longest standing partner with the NBA at Jam session with our annual NWBA All-Star Game, bringing together some of our best players in the U.S. and Canada."
There's something copacetic about that. Not too many people could tell you that the NWBA is only two years younger than the NBA which was founded in 1946.
Next year, the game returns to New York where it officially started and I, for one, cannot wait. Bright lights, big city, big game.
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