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Today’s NBA stars aren’t found on playgrounds anymore

Not only has the game changed, but so has how we choose our basketball heroes

On Feb. 7, some stars of the NBA will be lined up against a playground fence and picked over on national television, at least that is how some envision it.

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks will do the picking. The fans, current NBA payers and the media have voted the two superstars captains for the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 17. Other starters have been voted in, too, including Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.

Last week, the bench players were announced on TV, including Ben Simmons of the 76ers and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’d been chosen by the coaches. On Thursday, James and Antetokounmpo will choose which of those bench players will be on each team.

Of course, the composition of the teams could be determined before the nationally televised selection show and released in alphabetical order beforehand, sparing the stars the drama of being chosen on national TV. But what would be the fun in that?

To hear some of the sports pundits tell it, the televised selection of the all-star roster will take the players back to the big-city playground. But the playground is far from an incubator or a proving ground for NBA talent it once was. With guaranteed contracts bolstered by sneaker deals, you’re more likely to find today’s young NBA stars by the pool instead of appearing on the playground.

What the run-up to the all-star events show is the success the NBA has had in selling each step leading up to the game. Last month, the fans selected the captains. Last week, the bench players were announced. On Thursday, the team lineups will be set. Next week is the Rising Stars Challenge game, which pits those grown and developed abroad, including Cedi Osman of the Cleveland Cavaliers, against players nurtured domestically, including Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks. Plus, entertainers J. Cole and Meek Mill will be among the All-Star Game performers.

By the time All-Star Game is played, pundits will have talked about each juncture of the selection process and whether the fans, captains and conference coaches have gotten their selections right. But beneath the conversation is the erosion, if not the collapse, of the big-city playground as a proving ground of NBA players. “Who got next?” is a question for another time and other playgrounds.

And too few care about the answer.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.