Win Butler is brutalizing O’Shea Jackson Jr. in the low post. The Arcade Fire frontman — and eventual MVP — is putting the Straight Outta Compton star on his left hip, pushing him back, and laying down a series of convincing fakes and savvy footwork. Drake, Kevin Hart, and Spike Lee are watching from one sideline; Guy Fieri and a coterie of NBA All-Stars are watching from the other. When Butler scores, Jackson Jr. slams the ball into the floor and mouths, “Fuck!” This is the unique pleasure of the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game: you can watch indie rock frontmen drive nascent movie stars to profanity and earn taps on the ass from the world’s most popular entertainers for their trouble.
The NBA hosted its first celebrity game in Atlanta in 2003, and every game since has relied on the same roster model: expect former NBA stars, current WNBA players, athletes from other sports, and celebrities scattered between the A- and the D-lists. That game in Atlanta was headlined by Justin Timberlake and Nelly, who was just a year removed from “Hot in Herre” and “Dilemma”; it also featured Mark McGrath and Jonathan Lipnicki.
This year’s game struck the same balance, but it also introduced a few key tweaks. Instead of arbitrary "east" and "west" designations, the teams represented Canada and the US, though the assignment of players to each team had less to do with nationality than loose affiliation. (That’s why Americans like Win Butler and Tracy McGrady donned the maple leaf for the night.) Enlisting Drake and veteran Kevin Hart as head coaches meant the game’s biggest stars were prowling the sidelines. And when it came to the court, the list of participants was more eclectic and impressive than any other celebrity game. Can you think of another event that could justify the involvement of a hedge fund billionaire, two young Canadian tennis stars, a Saturday Night Live hall-of-famer, and HGTV princes the Property Brothers? Take another step: can you imagine all of those people running, jumping, yelling, and engaging in a surprisingly heated competition?
It’s an absurd, delightful concept, and yet the celebrity game remains the redheaded stepchild of the NBA’s flagship weekend. The bulk of All-Star Weekend’s televised events took place within the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Raptors and the city’s other major sports teams; the celebrity game was punted to Ricoh Coliseum, the stomping grounds of a minor-league hockey team. The presence of one of the world’s most popular musicians, its most popular comedian, and two dozen other celebrities merited a pregame red carpet maybe 10 feet long, and the postgame press conference was held in a cavernous, curtained space over glorified school tables. There may have been stars, but there wasn’t much glamor.
The combination of carpet length and camera crew density meant I was relegated to a spot on the margins of the press area, holding my phone in the air and sweating through a down jacket. (The transition from the frigid Canadian outdoors to the sweltering undercarriage of the arena was unkind, to say the least.) More than a few celebrities used the carpet’s end to justify an early trip to the locker room, and securing their attention necessitated some improvisation and teamwork among journalists. I had a quick conversation with Hart, in which he told me side bets on the game’s outcome and any attempts at player-coaching were "G-15 classified. That information is in the think tank, brother, I can’t give that stuff up." As soon as we’d wrapped up, my newfound acquaintance from Black Enterprise slipped under the rope and passed me her iPhone to film her own conversation with Hart. Of course, the minute I spent taping Hart was the same minute Drake chose to glide behind the assembled media like a dapper ghost, skipping the carpet entirely. I passed the phone back, looked over my shoulder, and watched a dozen photographers scurry down a nearby corridor in hot pursuit.
That fleeting appearance set the tone for the remainder of the evening. Drake spent the weekend playing MC, host, and civic ambassador, and he cast a huge shadow over the celebrity game. He received the key to the city from Toronto mayor John Tory in a pre-game ceremony, after which he palled around with Tory and Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri. The ovation he received during pre-game introductions was an order of magnitude louder than anyone else’s, save the young Chinese-Canadian heartthrob Kris Wu. The legendary Atlanta organist Sir Foster played versions of his hit songs throughout the game, meaning you could watch him banter with referees and make substitutions while "Back to Back" played. He came up in every pre-game interview. Chauncey Billups liked his music but really liked Kendrick Lamar; Rick Fox already "knew Drizzy, being a Toronto kid," and was excited to see him again; McGrady was looking forward to meeting him for the first time.
He also made a capable foil for Hart, who’s spent the last half-decade giving the celebrity game something every other All-Star Weekend event lacks: a story. He relished playing the villain, refusing to shake Drake’s hand before tipoff and repeatedly crowing about his four consecutive celebrity game MVP awards. When he left the bench in the second half and returned in uniform to lead a US charge, the energy in the arena was palpable, and it persisted even as Hart struggled to make a shot or affect the game in a meaningful way. It’s hard to believe, but there’s real history to the celebrity game: there are legends and repeat performers, running plotlines, and real competitiveness. It’s a glorified sideshow, but that doesn’t make taking a loss from the Property Brothers sting any less, and you can feel that urgency.
As much as I enjoyed working the tiny red carpet and watching Butler can jump hooks with abandon, it took a collection of unguarded postgame moments for me to appreciate the celebrity game’s essential strangeness. While looking for the official media area, I wandered into the warehouse-like space where we’d conducted our pregame interviews. The carpet was now empty, and there weren’t any other reporters in sight. The area was full of NBA crew starting to clean up, and it was studded with the game’s famous participants and attendees.
The 6 God took a half-dozen selfies and vanished
Raptors stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (an assistant coach on Drake’s staff) hung around, their young children hoisted on their shoulders. Olivia Wilde chatted with an acquaintance about the realities of life in Brooklyn until Sudeikis emerged, showered and changed. (They slipped past a curtain and into the night, but remained a presence at the rest of the weekend’s events.) A burst of noise came from one side of the room: the 6 God had emerged again, taking a half-dozen selfies with young fans before slipping away behind a phalanx of what appeared to be bodyguards. For a few minutes, a sizable chunk of the entertainment world was humming in the bowels of a second-rate Canadian arena, brought together by basketball. That’s the celebrity game’s magic.