The NBA All-Star Game and just desserts

Feb 14, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, and LeBron James pose for a picture after the NBA All Star Game at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 14, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, and LeBron James pose for a picture after the NBA All Star Game at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /

The ramp up to the All-Star Game is my favorite time of year because I write about sports to think about the world and the All-Star Game offers a fantastic example of a very human problem. In short, many people deserve to be honored in the way the All-Star Game is meant to honor players, and some people deserve to be in the All-Star Game. The problem is that these are two different things.

Do a little experiment for yourself and listen to see how many times a pundit of some sort — announcer, blogger, tweeter — says Player X deserves to be in the All-Star Game over the next few months. If you added them all together, how many All-Stars do you think you’d end up with? I’m betting it’s 40 or 50 rather than 30.  Barring your Tommy Heinsohn’s, there’s usually some truth to the idea that Player X deserves to be recognized as exemplary compared to his peers, and that’s probably all these comments really mean. Yet, the fact that most of these commentators will not realize or consider how precious a commodity an actual All-Star slot is, while naming their picks, tells you a lot about people.

To be an All-Star — let’s say to deserve to be an All-Star, eliminating fan favorites who don’t really deserve the favoritism — you don’t, in fact, have to be really good. Or, you do, but it’s not enough. What you have to be, actually, is better than anyone else who might make the All-Star team ahead of you. That’s a totally different bar, not least because it moves: if you’re a point guard in the West, right now, with Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook ahead of you (and Chris Paul, and Damian Lillard), it doesn’t really matter that you’re a better all-around player than, say, LaMarcus Aldridge. But also because it’s just a lot higher, as a bar, than the one in people’s heads.

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Ultimately, if you’re a pundit, you shouldn’t really be able to say Player X deserves to be an All-Star. You should have to say Player X deserves to be an All-Star more than Player Y. I’m not saying people shouldn’t cover twitter with stumping for their team’s own players, which is part of the fun. And this is about fun. I’m saying that, in our pundit positions as something more objective than fans, we need to have a vision of the whole playing field. We have a very scarce resource and we need to get serious — I mean, not NEED, obviously — about who should really get it, if we want to do it right. It shouldn’t be a designation which means “deserving to be honored for good play,” but “better than even other people, who we can name, who are deserving to be honored for good play.”

The All-Star Game is fundamentally unimportant. But this kind of thinking is, because the concept that there is in some nebulous way enough of everything to be portioned out to the deserving lies behind a large number of societal ills. In the endless war over whether it’s better to have a social safety net or to remove it because of the fantasy notion that all that’s lacking for security and happiness is a willingness to work for it, for example, the foundation point is that the world is fundamentally set up to deliver what is necessary to those who try. Even though it isn’t.

In the question of how dangerous things like lack of access to health care actually are, or whether it’s okay to close almost every Planned Parenthood or food bank or homeless shelter if you don’t actually close all of them, the notion of an insufficiency somehow being sufficient nevertheless crosses the Ts and dots the Is for those who these issues beneath consideration. Indeed, the belief that an insufficiency will magically become sufficient for all those deserving and willing to work hard enough, rather than unmagically remain below the necessary levels, therefore requiring human intervention, is one of the greatest drivers of injustice in the nation.

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In short, in a world in which everything would be okay if we just gave people sufficient motivation to go out and earn stuff, the kindest thing to do would be to stop keeping them from feeling the need to do so. That’s what people who believe in slashing the social safety net believe. In a world — the actual world — in which there is not nearly enough stuff to be earned to create a decent life for everyone, or where there is enough but society and the economy are structured to insure that they remain unavailable to lots of people, the notion that we don’t have an obligation to restructure to make sure there is at least enough for all is a bad one.

The All-Star Game, basically, has nothing to do with this. Because it doesn’t matter. And, nothing bad will happen to anyone, even Harrison Barnes, if you insist Harrison Barnes is an All-Star when he isn’t. Perhaps especially Harrison Barnes. But I’m fascinated by the human mind on sports because it’s an area where the mind can be seen plainly and nobody gets hurt. The imaginary in which there are endless All-Star spots for the deserving is the same which denies a basic standard of living to people working minimum wage jobs. One matters, one doesn’t, but it’s worth thinking about in both.