Mike Looks Back: 2003 NBA All-Star Rookie Challenge

I made it into Dallas and am looking forward to my first event of All-Star 2010: tonight’s Rookie Challenge. It will be interesting to see how the Freshmen and Sophomores wind up approaching the game. Having an extra year of pro ball under their belts arguably puts the Sophomore team at an advantage. And having won eight of the last ten Challenges, they are often favored in this competition.

But I believe the teams’ attitudes will ultimately determine tonight’s outcome. Are the players more concerned about putting on a show or winning? A team that is focused on entertaining the audience with lob dunks is not going to come out on top. Of course the guys should enjoy themselves out there and soak up the All-Star experience, but they shouldn’t disrespect the game. They should come out and play it the way it’s supposed to be played.

The 2003 Sophomore Team and coaches (back row l to r) Head coach Mike Fratello Gilbert Arenas #0, Troy Murphy #1, Tyson Chandler #3, Andrei Kirilenko #47, Richard Jefferson #24, assistant coach Bob Pettit, Jason Richardson #23 (front row l to r) Tony Parker #9, Pau Gasol #16 and Jamaal Tinsley #11

That’s exactly what I told my team when I coached the Sophomores in the 2003 Rookie Challenge down in Atlanta. NBA legend Bob Pettit was the assistant coach and Marv Albert was with me on the bench as my statistician. When you’re coaching this type of game one concern is that you want to make sure to give every player his minutes. Down the stretch you may go with the group of guys who are playing best together to try and win the game. However you also want to be fair to each player and give everyone a chance to perform and contribute.

We faced some tough Rookies in Carlos Boozer, Caron Butler and Amar’e Stoudemire. However there was no shortage of talent on our Sophomore squad: we had Pau Gasol (whom I would coach in Memphis the following year), Gilbert Arenas, Tony Parker and Troy Murphy to name some of the notables. But for some reason we came out playing terrible ball in the first half – it was a three-ring circus. We were doing stupid things: taking silly shots, making dumb plays. By halftime we were getting killed. We were clearly not focused on winning.

Even though the event is supposed to be fun, I was angry and I came down hard on the guys in the locker room. I said something along the lines of, “This is a disgrace. You should be ashamed of yourselves. We’ve got all these Hall-of-Famers here watching; you’ve got Bob Pettit on the sidelines – it’s got to be killing them to watch you play. This is not fun for me. None of you have ever played for me, but the way you’re playing now none of you ever could. “

Well, the team returned to the court on a mission. They wound up playing an incredible second half and winning the game 132–112. The fans got a great show, Arenas made out with the MVP trophy and we were all able to walk out of the arena with our heads held high.

You can catch the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge & Youth Jam tonight on TNT at 9 p.m. ET. Afterwards I’ll join Matt Winer, Brent Barry and Eric Snow in the NBA TV studio at 11pm ET.

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