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Thursday, February 14
When I coached the All-Star game

By Dr. Jack Ramsay
Special to ESPN.com

Each week during the season we ask the doctor -- Dr. Jack Ramsay -- to discuss teams in trouble in Dr. Jack's Prescription. But this week, which is the symbolic mid-season point with All-Star weekend coming up, the Hall of Fame coach discusses All-Star memories.

I like the All-Star festivities. It's a great time to schmooz with former players and coaches, talk to the current stars of the game, and marvel at the increased world interest in NBA basketball. I'm just not crazy about the game itself. For a former coach, the All-Star game is more of an exhibition where players show their extraordinary skills. It's a fun game for them ... more of a one-on-one, "show me your best stuff, I'll show you mine" kind of thing. Team play, the quality that all coaches thrive on, is put on the back burner, and defense is something to be tolerated so that "we can get the ball again." Winning the game is usually not high priority, like it is in the regular season. Before most participants have showered and dressed after the game, they will have put the outcome of the game aside altogether.

It's a game you can't really "coach." There are few strategies -- except for match-ups, and to determine who's going to take the last shot in a period or end of the game. The starting lineups are pre-determined. After that, you put players into the game, and take them out -- giving everybody his chance to play. These are great players and they all want to get their minutes. The coach apportions those minutes as best he can. There is no time to institute a real team offense or defense. This is when the coach pretty much sits back and lets the players go at it.

For the fans, that's not all bad. Those attending this year's game in Philadelphia are sure to see Kobe Bryant drive to the hoop, take off, hang in the air, shift the ball from his right to left hand, and loop in a leaner that seemingly had no chance. Jason Kidd will force fast breaks by pushing the ball and threading on-the-money passes through would-be defenders to streaking teammates for easy scores. And there's no telling what exploits Allen Iverson has in store for his home town faithful. It will be a fun game for the players and the fans, but not one either coach will want a game tape of.

I coached in only one All-Star Game. It was at Atlanta in 1978, the year after my Portland team won the NBA title. I had three of my own players (Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins) on the West squad and they helped us dominate the game through three periods. Then Coach Ramsay made a decision that proved fatal. He substituted several reserve players, instead of keeping the momentum going with the team that finished the period. The East team, coached by old friend Bill Cunningham, pounced on the opportunity and went on a tear. By the time I got my starters back in, our lead had shrunk to a narrow margin, and we were never able to regain the good flow of the game that we had earlier. Billy C's team stayed hot and beat us. The only pleasant note was that Randy Smith, who played for me at Buffalo two years before, had a great game and was chosen MVP.

Later that evening I bumped into Red Auerbach, the legendary Celtics coach, who was a veteran of 11 All-Star coaching stints. He looked at me for a moment, then said with a knowing smile, "You tried to be Mr. Nice Guy, didn't you? You'd never have done that with your own team."

Red was referring to my substitutions at the end of the third period. Only another coach would be aware that that was what happened. I had given some minutes to other players who hadn't had much playing time, instead of focusing first on winning the game ... and it had cost me. I told Red that he was right, but that I'd never do it again. He laughed and said, "Live and learn." Now that I'm no longer coaching, I look at the game from a different perspective. Along with live broadcasts on ESPN Radio of the All-Star Game itself and other competitions, one of the job duties I enjoy most is interviewing the All-Stars, coaches and other NBA notables. We do this over a five- or six-hour period on the Friday before the All-Star Game. Players are not intimidated by radio. There are no lights or cameras. They show up individually or in pairs, some with wives and/or children, wearing their sweats or casual clothes, and we just sit around and rap about basketball for about five minutes. Because it's low-key and they feel comfortable, our guests give us some wonderful insights about themselves, their teams and their personal lives. Then when we're all finished, the technicians back at headquarters in Bristol, Conn., put together a two-hour program that makes nice listening.

Last year's game was uncharacteristic of All-Star games. Winning became very important to an out-manned East squad which, inspired by the all-out play of Allen Iverson, came roaring from behind to win. Iverson simply wouldn't let his team lose.

With the game being played in AI's back yard ... this one could be very interesting.

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