NEW YORK -- This should be an All-Star game to remember, a crossroads event with subplot upon subplot in the media capital of the world.
Michael Jordan battling the flu in his "last" All-Star game vs. Kobe Bryant in his first.
The league elders vs. the toddlers.
Grumpy George Karl vs. laid-back Larry Bird.
It even has the David Stern vs. Latrell Sprewell sideshow.
"It's going to be fun. I can't wait. Talk about your emotions and adrenaline!" said Bryant, the 19-year-old Lakers reserve voted by fans into the starting lineup for the Western Conference as the youngest NBA All-Star ever.
Tonight's game (6 p.m., NBC-Channel 26) looks like it might have some of the pizzazz that was missing the past couple of years in humdrum contests in the too-big Alamodome in San Antonio and the silent Gund Arena in Cleveland.
The New York Knicks' Madison Square Garden is known as the mecca of basketball and the game hasn't been in the Big Apple since 1968. Some 1,817 media credentials have been issued, scalpers have been demanding more than $1,000 for the best seats and even the players seem to be looking forward to it instead of secretly dreading the lost vacation time.
"It's going to be very exciting, given all the young players who have made the team," said Jordan, whose status for the game was uncertain because he had the flu. "Most of the old guys and some of the old faces have gone. It's the changing of the times."
The East and West rosters feature players from different generations. There are elders in Jordan, Karl Malone, David Robinson and Reggie Miller; youngsters in Bryant, rookie Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Antoine Walker; and three generations of 'tweeners: the Jason Kidd-Nick Van Exel-Vin Baker types; the slightly older Grant Hill-Penny Hardaway-Shaquille O'Neal set; and the early 30s Shawn Kemp-Glen Rice-Mitch Richmond crew.
Among the "old faces" Jordan was talking about are Patrick Ewing of New York (an 11-time All-Star); Charles Barkley (11), Hakeem Olajuwon (12) and Clyde Drexler (10), all of Houston; John Stockton of Utah (9), and Scottie Pippen (7) of Chicago.
Injuries and diminished vote totals kept all of them from making this year's cut, leaving their formerly automatic roster spots open to some of the league's most exciting newcomers.
Jordan and Utah's Malone are the oldest veterans on the All-Star team, and the seven first-timers are Bryant, Van Exel, Duncan, Walker, Steve Smith, Rik Smits and Jayson Williams.
"Charles is not there, Olajuwon is not there, Ewing's not there -- all the guys who came up with me when we made the transformation from the Larry Birds and the Kevin McHales," Jordan said. "I guess I seem like the oldest one who is still around who made the transition."
The East brings a two-game winning streak into the game. Jordan needs to score 41 points to break Kareem-Abdul Jabbar's career All-Star game scoring record of 251 points. Jordan's average of 21.1 points in 10 All-Star games is the highest in league history.
It may be his last All-Star game. Jordan says he'll retire if Phil Jackson is not rehired as coach of the Chicago Bulls, and general manager Jerry Krause has said Jackson won't be back.
"This is it. I'm done," Jordan said Wednesday night. "It's totally simple. I won't play anywhere else. I won't follow Phil anywhere. I will totally retire. That clears up every question."
If everyone sticks to their positions, it means the NBA will lose the greatest player in its history at a time when the future is unsettled and the league is waging a campaign to keep its image shiny.
From enforcing rules on the length of shorts to handing former All-Star Sprewell the harshest non-drug-related penalty in league history, the NBA has been asserting its authority as labor troubles loom.
The league has the right to reopen the collective bargaining agreement with the players union, and many agents and team personnel expect a lockout to begin July 1 and carry into the fall, threatening the start of next season.
Perhaps not coincidentally, none of the league's troublemakers are around for the weekend's festivities.
Dennis Rodman, on his way to an unprecedented seventh consecutive rebounding title, was not voted in by the fans or the Eastern Conference coaches. He will be partying in Los Angeles and Las Vegas over the break.
Chris Webber and Rod Strickland of Washington, both of whom have been in trouble with the law, weren't voted in. And the All-Cornrow team of Allen Iverson, Rasheed Wallace and Sprewell will be elsewhere, too.
The biggest malcontent may be West coach Karl.
Despite winning an average of more than 60 games over the past four seasons, Karl has been left hanging by Seattle management in his quest to get a contract extension. Relations between Karl and the front office are so bad that the coach grew a shaggy beard and refused to cut his hair in a show of rebelliousness.
Bird backed off his earlier stance that he never wanted to be a part of another All-Star weekend; he didn't want to take anything away from what his Indiana Pacers have accomplished. The team has the best record in the East, earning Bird the coaching spot.
Many of the league's general managers are making the trip to New York. The game is being held only 11 days before the trading deadline, and there could be some movement in stalemated talks that have kept Damon Stoudamire in Toronto, Joe Smith in Golden State and Richmond in Sacramento.
"Any time you get this many general managers together with the trade deadline looming and guys rumored to be on the block, you're going to have a lot of trade conversations," Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld said.
Stern and union director Billy Hunter will have their gag order lifted over the weekend so they can discuss the Sprewell arbitration case, which has dragged on for two weeks and threatened to put a damper on the league's annual party.
"The All-Star game hasn't been in New York for 30 years," Grunfeld said, "and we think it's going to be one of the best ever."
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