Onward and upward for first-time All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Brook Lopez. (Garrett Ellwood/NBA/Getty Images)
HOUSTON — While Sunday's 2013 NBA All-Star Game will be headlined by familiar faces like 15-time fan selections Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and nine-time All-Stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, it will also feature quite an infusion of new blood. Seven players in the annual midseason event are first-time All-Stars — James Harden of the host-city Houston Rockets, New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler, Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George, Philadelphia 76ers point guard Jrue Holiday, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah and Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez.
So what is it like when you learn that, for the rest of your life, you'll have the title "NBA All-Star" next to your name?
"I just started yelling and going crazy," Harden said during Friday afternoon's All-Star media session. "[...] Just to hear my name called, and I saw it on TV as well — it just felt like such a great individual accomplishment."
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Just another in a series of great individual accomplishments for the hirsute shooting guard, who's fifth in the league in scoring at 26.1 points per game, averaging career per-minute highs in assists, steals and free-throw attempts, and acting as the catalyst of a Rockets offense that ranks fifth in the NBA in points scored per 100 possessions and has Houston hoping for its first playoff berth since the spring of 2009. Being chosen to play in his home arena only adds to the experience, Harden said.
"It's great, especially this being my first time," he said. "It makes it that [much] more special. I'm just enjoying it and having fun with it."
For Noah, being selected as a reserve triggered more than just memories of all the people who have contributed to his development. I mean, it did trigger those, and he did tweet about them the night he learned he'd represent the East, but it also called him back to the starting point of his long, winding journey to Houston ... which, as Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard recalled, didn't begin on the court.
"Joakim was the water boy, the towel boy," Howard told reporters. "He really didn’t play that much basketball, but he kept working and all his hard work is paying off."
Noah, smiling after hearing the anecdote recounted, offers some context.
"I was the water boy at the ABCD Camp at Fairleigh Dickinson [University in New Jersey]. Sonny Vaccaro's camp," Noah said. "It's another reason why I feel so lucky to be here right now, because I know that I came from very far when it comes to this basketball. So to be the water boy and to know that some guys remember me as the water boy, and now to be in this position … it's special to me."
Joakim Noah's relishing his first All-Star experience. (Juan Ocampo/NBA/Getty Images)How did a gawky, young, not-ready-for-prime-time Noah work his way into the exclusive, invitation-only camp and high-school talent showcase? "The security guard at the camp was my [high school] basketball coach, so I stayed in his room," Noah said.
"I've been dreaming about this since I was a little boy," the Chicago center said. "So to finally be in this situation, playing against these great players and being able to share this experience with all the best players in the world ... it's very humbling."
Humility isn't something Sixers point guard Holiday needs much help conjuring these days. If he ever needs a refill, he can just look over to the mantel in his own home.
"You know, my fiancée is an Olympian, so I'm just trying to get on her level," said Holiday, who is engaged to Lauren Cheney, a midfielder on the U.S. women's national soccer team. "She has two gold medals, a silver medal and a World Cup, so … [laughs] I don't think this really gets me any closer."
Still, the selection represents a new level of recognition for the 22-year-old point guard, whose 19 points, 8.9 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game in the first half went largely unnoticed by fans who might not have spent much time watching a Philly team that has stumbled to a 22-29 mark without injured big man Andrew Bynum.
Despite leading his team in scoring and assists, and playing tough nightly defense on opposing lead guards, Holiday finished eighth among Eastern Conference guards in All-Star balloting behind the likes of Miami Heat reserve Ray Allen and noted bad-shot-taker Monta Ellis of the Milwaukee Bucks. So when the East's coaches added Holiday to the team as a reserve, it took him by surprise.
"I guess it was kind of shocking," said Holiday. "It was kind of like on a standstill — you don't really know how to react or what to expect. And even still now, I don't know what to expect; I'm just trying to go with the flow."
Like Holiday, the Pacers' George said he didn't really know what do to with himself when he first heard the news.
"It's really indescribable," George said. "That's really … that's a dream. That's a dream come true. You know, being in the NBA is probably the main dream, but then you talk about being an All-Star as a goal that you set out and try to seek. And when you're able to reach it, it makes you want to reach higher and higher goals."
For example? "I think we have the chance to win a championship," said George of his 32-21 Pacers, who headed into the All-Star break 1 1/2 games ahead of Noah's Bulls for the top spot in the Central Division. "That's the next goal."
Tyson Chandler's putting all of this in his scrapbook. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBA/Getty Images)A first step toward accomplishing that goal would be overtaking the Knicks, who now sit 1 1/2 games ahead of Indiana for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. To do that, George will have to contend with Chandler, the elder statesman of the first-timer's club at 30 years old and in his 12th season ... and, as a result, perhaps the most grateful for the recognition of his integral, if not always flashy, contributions on both ends of the floor.
"It means the world to me," Chandler told Newsday's Al Iannazzone. "[...] The path I've taken, I'm really appreciative to be here. A lot of guys at this point in their career, this is pretty much over for them. They wipe the All-Star dream out of their window. I feel like I'm just getting started."
Of all the first-time All-Stars, the Nets' Lopez was the latest addition, named by NBA Commissioner David Stern as an injury replacement for Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. (It's perhaps fitting, then, that during the Eastern Conference squad's practice on Saturday morning, East coach Erik Spoelstra of the Heat had Lopez, at least once, call a set and trigger the East's offense from the top of the key, which seems like a bit of a stretch of that "positionless" philosophy they have in Miami.) When he found out, Lopez was thrilled to learn the commish had rectified what many — including our Kelly Dwyer and Eric Freeman — viewed as an oversight by the East's coaches.
"I was honored, probably, I'd say," Lopez said. "I got called by Billy King, our GM — I was driving to the game, I had just pulled into the arena, and he called me and let me know. I was very honored, very humbled and very excited, all at the same time.
"It's crazy — I just keep saying I'm just happy to be here, and it's very surreal for me," he added.
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"Surreal" was a popular descriptor among the first-time All-Stars, including the Cavaliers' Irving. That kind of surprised me — after all, Kyrie finished fourth in balloting among East guards and, although he missed 11 games prior to the All-Star break, has clearly established himself as one of the game's premier scorers, late-game options and most electrifying talents. Still, the sophomore point guard didn't think he was a sure thing; if he did make it, though, he didn't want to find out from anybody but EJ, Charles and Kenny.
"I told my dad, I told the general manager [Chris Grant] and I told my agent, 'Don't call me. Don't tell me if I was [selected],'" Irving said. "Because guys find out before, you know? I told them, 'Don't tell me.' So I waited until it came on TNT, when everybody found out, and I waited ... I was the last person called. So I sat on my couch and waited for my name to be called.
"And then I jumped around. All around the house."
James Harden 'started yelling and going crazy' when he heard the news. (Bill Baptist/NBA/Getty Images)Irving's jumping and Harden's screaming aside, though, perhaps the best "surreal" experience story belonged to George.
"I think it hit me going on the flight coming here — I mean, we flew on a private jet," he said with a big laugh. "That was crazy for me. That was the first experience of being an All-Star, I guess."
Even if he never makes another All-Star team, though, it won't be the last; from here on out, everything these players experience will be, on some level, different. Bigger.
Brooklyn's Lopez said earning an All-Star berth doesn't really alter the way he views himself or his job — "You know, every time I go out on the floor, I want to play my best basketball, bottom line, so I don't think it's changed in that regard" — but some other first-timers took a slightly different tack, acknowledging the increased pressure that comes with All-Star status.
"I feel like I don't have any days off now," Holiday said. "I feel like definitely being an All-Star, you have to keep up that status, so every time you get on the court and play, you have to prove why you're an All-Star."
"Well, I mean, I know now that I can't really have an off night. You know what I mean?" George said with a laugh. "So it adds a little pressure to how I have to perform now. But I mean ... I feel like I was made up for this. You know, this is who I wanted to be. That's the stage and that's the level I have to be on now. I'm ready to take the jump."
"It's a goal that was accomplished, but I look at it like my job is just beginning now," Irving said. "Now that I'm an All-Star, I feel like this is my responsibility, to be an All-Star every year. And now that it's become a part of my yearly goals when I'm in the NBA now, now that it's just a part of something, now I've got to think of something else to get better at. I'm looking forward to it and putting that work in."
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