I’m not watching the NFC-AFC Pro Bowl — after all, Atlantic Coast Conference Sunday night basketball is on — but I think the NFL has the right idea in staging pro football’s All-Star game before the Super Bowl, while interest in pro football is at its highest.
Historically, it’s been an afterthought, coming the week after the biggest game of the season. Seems to me there are more stories before the Pro Bowl about who made the rosters — or who was snubbed — than about the game itself.
And does anyone remember perhaps the most irrelevant of post-season events in pro sports, the Playoff Bowl (1959-1969), matching the second place teams in the Eastern and Western conferences in the NFL in the pre-merger days? It was played the week after the Pro Bowl, which followed the league championship game. Think the Jets and the Vikings playing a game two weeks after being eliminated from the playoffs, and then stifle a yawn.
Anyway, it just seems like the placement of the All-Star game in the middle of the season is perfect for hockey, basketball and baseball — where each single game has less significance than the 16 big events that make up an NFL season. And I’ve always thought that the baseball and basketball All-Star games worked and hockey, not so much.
I haven’t watched the NBA’s All-Star game in a while, but growing up I made it a point to tune in because I thought it was the best of these All-Star affairs. The playground pickup game has always been an integral part of basketball culture. And any game that put Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Earl Monroe on the court at the same time was the best shirts-vs.-skins contest ever. The players seemed to enjoy playing it and it was fun watching them improvise.
Baseball, well, fans watch because it’s baseball and you’re an American, as the old ESPN ad campaign said. I’ve covered one, in Pittsburgh in 1994, complete with a gala featuring singing legend Tony Bennett. It was a big-time atmosphere and a good game, National League winning 8-7 in 10 innings. And also memorable as the last game of that strike-shortened season.
And about that NHL All-Star game. There won’t be one this season because of the Winter Olympics and it’s just as well. I’ve only seen one, and that was the one I covered as an NHL beat writer, back in 1993 at the old Forum in Montreal. On the plus side, it was fun just to be at the most famous arena in hockey, to get my picture taken on a Zamboni, and to shake hands with NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Hull at one of the pre-game parties. And I very nearly got to see another hockey legend, Maurice Richard, 71 years old at the time, trip on the ice and break the Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately, I also had to sit through the game, a 16-6 affair — I forget which side won — that didn’t look much like regular-season hockey, or any other kind, some of my colleagues wrote.
There was precious little checking and only one 2-minute minor penalty on both teams combined. “Nobody wants to be the guy who ends somebody’s career with a hit in the All-Star Game,” I remember a colleague saying to me.
In short, these games are a great place to see future Hall of Famers all together in the same place, And usually they’ll show why they’re the best in the world at what they do. But they’re not always going to deliver a fantastic finish.