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Stars still central to NBA showpiece

Mark Woods in Atlanta

You knew someone was in there. 

Otherwise why would everybody be gathering round, hanging in, arms and ears out-stretched just to catch the odd word or soundbite?

No-one, save a few Indiana beat writers and the odd comedy skitter, wanted to talk to Brad Miller.

Ditto Zydrunas Ilgauskas. While Steve Nash was more concerned with the curiously depressing objects of war and Tottenham Hotspur.

Everyone, though, wanted a word with Yao Ming.

At the scrum that is the NBA All Star Game, the hype cannot even match the reality.

While Kobe, AI and MJ skipped the media session, China's gift to the NBA held court, gamely answering every question - no matter how inane - from the throng of American, Chinese and even the odd British scribe in attendance.

Yao's voice to the masses is still heard through his ever-present translator Colin, the 7'6" giant not yet confident enough with his grasp of English.

"It will take me two years," Yao said (or was it Colin, who will be out of a job when that day arrives?). 

Reaching the All Star level, however, has not taken so long.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Yet even Yao never expected that his arrival into the NBA with the Houston Rockets would lead to a fast track into such elite company.

Here, he has joined the club of giants. The only player, other than Michael Jordan (who granted a thoughtful audience on Saturday) to merit his own press conference in the bowels of the vast Georgia Congress Center, he looks somewhat weary of the constant attention and a punishing schedule which has put him in the faces of America's consumer through a series of television adverts.

The other players watch on, occasionally bemused. Even when Shaquille O'Neal bounded off the practice court to exchange hugs with Yao's parents, you wondered who was the celebrity and who the nippy fan begging for a photo.

All Star Games thrive on hype of course. That's why they exist. 

It's not about the game - until the fourth quarter at least. It's about the sell, about showcasing the NBA's image in soft lighting with skimmy outfits.

Things have changed. My learned colleague, Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune, has done 17 of these things. "They used to be much smaller and more intimate," he laments.

Now All Star Game is a mammoth week-long event, exhibition and celebrity fest rolled into one.

The Jam Session, the NBA's own travelling interactive experience is spread out over an area the size of several football pitches, filled with shooting galleries, video game and test your leap opportunities.

There's celebrity parties, WNBA appearances, skills tests, technology conventions. 

And a flower show. But that's just co-incidence.

Ice Cube, Nelly, Tara Reid. Spotted.

Even Justin Timberlake was trotted out for a game. And sorry, you had to grin with every brick he fired.

Yet in among the mayhem, Yao still sits, patiently accomodating all requests.

With Jordan departing, new stars must come through. Without them, the NBA's weekend of fun would have no meaning at all.

TV: Sky Sports Extra, Monday 1am

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