CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan recalls the National Basketball Association All-Star Game's bad old days -- when players flew in the morning of the game and Nate Archibald won a most valuable player award in 1981 because he looked like the only one trying.
"Ryan would remember that -- he's much older than I am," NBA Commissioner David Stern said, laughing this week, "but I don't dispute that."
Stern knows the all-star game, coming to Charlotte today, once lacked its current credibility. With doses of both the carrot and the stick, the league has for the most part solved that problem in the players' minds. As Atlanta Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins says, most players look forward to the all-star weekend as both an honor and a mini-vacation.
Those who don't want to come, like Philadelphia 76ers forward Charles Barkley, aren't allowed to back out.
"I think our players over the years have considered the all-star game as recognition that they're best of the best. Our players aren't looking for an excuse to duck," said Stern. "But there are times when you have an issue -- maybe a player didn't make it [as a starter] on the fans' ballot or the coach wants him to rest -- and we have to step in."
RTC Stern says there's a simple rule -- if you're healthy enough to play in regular-season games, then you're healthy enough to play in the all-star game. But he also said that rule is enforced on a case-by-case basis, which eventually meant Barkley will play here today but Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird will not.
Stern said he didn't want a player re-aggravating a genuine nagging injury. The difference between Bird and Barkley in that respect seemed clear enough. Due to a bad back, Bird played in only one game in the past 15 -- a home victory over the Charlotte Hornets -- and did not travel to New York for Thursday's game against the Knicks. Barkley, who has a bad ankle, has played effectively both at home and on the road over the past four games, so NBA vice president Rod Thorn told him he's playing.
"When there are players actually injured the most important thing is the health of the individual," Stern said. "[But] when they're well enough to play in regular-season games, we're sending out the wrong sort of message if they don't play in the all-star game."
Most don't have to be coaxed or prodded. Sure, Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller said he'd rather have the weekend off than be the 12th man for the Eastern Conference. And Bird says all-star games are more show than competition, and don't really fit his style.
But Wilkins relishes both being selected and playing.
"Everyone loves being an all-star. That's because the league makes it such an event -- like the way Miami did [last season]," Wilkins said. "It's like a vacation running around with the players you compete against all season. You bring your family along, and it's a great time."
The NBA makes sure players know it considers all-star weekend important.
It isn't an afterthought, like the NFL's Pro Bowl, and participating players are pampered plenty.
That means a party full of fine food and fine wine, playing golf at the best courses yesterday afternoon, watching the slam-dunk and three-point contests yesterday, then playing with their peers today.
Part of the attraction, according to Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen, involves the nature of basketball.
Pippen thinks football's all-star game fails by comparison because pro football can't be played in a loose, school-yard style with all the collisions, it has to be taken with almost grim seriousness.
"Our all-star game allows for a great combination of improvisation and creativity," said Stern.
EASTERN CONFERENCE Starters
Charles Barkley, f, Philadelphia; x-Larry Bird, f, Boston; Patrick Ewing, c, New York; Michael Jordan, g, Chicago; x-Isiah Thomas, g, Detroit.
Brad Daugherty, c, Cleveland; Joe Dumars, g, Detroit; y-Hersey Hawkins, g, Philadelphia; Kevin McHale, f, Boston; Robert Parish, c, Boston; Bernard King, f, Washington; Ricky Pierce, g, Milwaukee; Alvin Robertson, g, Milwaukee; Dominique Wilkins, f, Atlanta.
WESTERN CONFERENCE Starters
Karl Malone, f, Utah; Chris Mullin, f, Golden State; David Robinson, c, San Antonio; Magic Johnson, g, Los Angeles Lakers; Kevin Johnson, g, Phoenix.
Tom Chambers, f, Phoenix; Clyde Drexler, g, Portland; Kevin Duckworth, c, Portland; Tim Hardaway, g, Golden State; Terry Porter, g, Portland; John Stockton, g, Utah; James Worthy, f, Los Angeles Lakers.
x-injured, will not play. y-injury replacement.