Starting a new tradition isn't easy, but that's exactly what Nike is trying to do with the first annual World Basketball Festival, which culminated last night with a Team USA scrimmage at Radio City Music Hall. (Ed.: We mentioned the hiding of LeBron this morning.) The timing of the event's inaugural year is meant to promote the FIBA World Championship in Turkey starting August 28, and Nike spared no expense to make sure that the Festival is something that is embedded deeply within the culture of New York in a way that only Nike really could. Plus, there was Jay-Z.
Release limited-edition models of shoes and apparel to hype the countries you sponsor? Check.
Leverage iconic New York urban landmarks like the Garden, the Rucker basketball courts, and the Apollo Theatre to demonstrate how authentic the World Basketball Festival is? Check.
Release another set of limited-edition sneakers: one model for each borough? Check.
After weeks of these awareness campaigns, the pièce de résistance was last night's Radio City event, where the scrimmage was capped off by a closing performance by another New York urban landmark: Jay-Z.
There was a good energy on the floor before the show even started. The tickets closest to the stage were distributed to kids in youth organizations, charities, and basketball leagues throughout the city. Nike had installed a full-size basketball court on the Radio City stage, an imitation "courtside" section, and benches for the players who were in the game. Kids in various matching T-shirts sat patiently waiting for everything to get under way. You really can't go wrong with excited kids in matching T-shirts.
The festivities began with a drumline that came out playing Jamie Foxx's "Winner," one of the official songs of the NBA this past playoff season. This was followed by a couple of elaborate dance numbers by various urban youth, some spoken word/slam poetry, a hype man who told the crowd "jokes" (that they "didn't laugh at") more kids — this time of a smaller and cuter variety — dancing, and a dribbling exhibition that reminded me of an old Nike commercial from a few years back. This was all impressively packed into a well-choreographed 30-minute pre-show, culminating in a finale that brought everyone (including a random group of flag bearers) back out onstage to break it down in one big coordinated dance number that was very High School Musical (if you're older than 23, feel free to change High School Musical to Grease).
Up until this point, the whole experience was feel-good and sincere; the crowd seem psyched to be there, and so did the entertainers. It felt as if a local dance troupe had won a bracketed tournament for the chance to perform at the World Basketball Festival Tip-Off Show. I haven't seen Step Up 3-D, but I think there's a good chance I just described the plot. If Nike were really smart, they would have bought that sponsorship.
The whole scene was reminiscent of the old Saturday-afternoon NBA All-Star Weekend kickoff shows of the nineties. These shows were simulcast, inexplicably, on both network and cable channels, particularly those owned by Ted Turner. Ahmad Rashad always hosted, along with whoever it was that was co-hosting Inside Stuff with him back then. Those shows used to be great.
(Not to be all "Oh, their new stuff is fine, but their first album was much better" about the whole thing, but recent All-Star Weekends feel sterile and insincere. It's really a confluence of things that have led to the event's degradation: The dunk contest now is basically miserable and devoid of any real star power; WNBA players get forcefully integrated into a weird half-court shooting contest; and even the point guard skills competition, which in theory should be great, is full of bored players trying not even close to their hardest to dribble around cones and get bounce passes into hoops. In comparison to way back before, when you had the players actually caring, and it was more of an event. The All-Star Weekend now is a different beast, one that is tamer and better-sponsored and features athletes who clearly aren't interested in being involved in the process.)
When the lineups for the scrimmaging teams were announced, the loudest cheers, surprisingly, weren't for Kevin Durant, far and away the most talented guy on the court ... but for Lamar Odom. How did all of these teens even know that he grew up in New York? Is this somehow common knowledge to the sub-16-year-old youth of the greater New York area? Perplexing.
The scrimmage itself had an intensity level similar to that of the NBA All-Star Game, meaning there were lots of alley-oops and very little defense. The game was tied going into the last half-minute, but it was clear that even the most competitive players didn't really care. The game's end put its seriousness — or lack thereof — in clear perspective: With the score tied as time ran out, the game's organizers decided, seemingly on the fly, that overtime would be sudden death. Thirty seconds and a Tyson Chandler alley-oop later, it was all over.
Other notable happenings:
• When Anthony Anderson was introduced as the emcee, the first line was "You know him from Entourage ... " Which is technically true, I guess, because I do remember that particular performance: He played himself in a 30-second cameo that involved him asking Vince when they were going to do a project together. I have written significantly more words in this paragraph than he had lines on the show, yet he was announced as if he were Turtle. I really did not get this.
• During one of the timeouts they thought it would be a good idea to have a dance competition with some kids. Why not — fun, right? The first teen was this boy Justin, who looked like a nice enough kid who did some sort of breakdancing. Next was Denzel, a bigger guy who looked like a very young Biggie Smalls, very jolly and large. Now we're talking! This should be fun and not uncomfortable at all! But then, they included a teenage girl, possibly tweenage girl, named Jolene, who, when she hit the stage, you could tell that the older people in the crowd were hoping that her dance would be sort of silly or goofy. But as the beat of the Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow" came over the loud speakers, she turned around and made all of the adults in the room feel awkward and embarrassed, not necessarily for her but the person who thought that this dance contest would be a good idea.
• Finally, one of the bigger draws of the evening was the appearance of the 2008 Redeem Team members, brought together to sit at the awkwardly constructed "courtside" onstage during the game. There had been some excitement the night before when LeBron James tweeted, "New York New York got a treat for yall 2morrow. Stay Tuned." As it turns out, all that meant was that LeBron was going to sit courtside — the only basketball player wearing sunglasses onstage — smiling and nodding but not obliging the crowd of kids who chanted, "We want LeBron! We want LeBron!" after Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony had all given interviews. Don't you get it? His treat was his attendance at the event! New Yorkers are so ungrateful. I'd like to apologize on behalf of New Yorkers. Sorry, LeBron!
All in all, everyone involved had as much fun as one would expect them to have while attending a lavish presentation and expensive event put together by one of the largest brands in the world. The night was capped off by a 25-minute set by Jay-Z (for which Jay-Z was rumored to have been paid as much as $2 million, so he clearly had a good time), with the finale number being "Empire State of Mind."
Whether that was at the behest of Nike or not, the night was clearly about the World Basketball Festival's arrival in New York. Happy kids, happy Nike, and happy Jay-Z. Hard to argue with that. See you next year, World Basketball Festival!