Jesus said, "Ye cannot serve both God and mammon," but that
didn't stop everyone from trying during NBA All-Star week in Los
Angeles, where Magic Johnson took the stage of the Shrine
Auditorium and said earnestly, after a three-hour tribute in his
honor, "First I want to thank God, but also American Express."
It was like that all week in L.A., God and money intersecting,
sometimes literally, as in the gold cross of diamonds that
dangled from the neck of Indiana Pacers forward-center Jermaine
O'Neal. Or the silver cross of diamonds that accessorized the
Kobe Bryant jersey worn by TV's Laverne, actor-director Penny
Marshall, a Lakers and Clippers season-ticket holder who owns
Labradors named Magic and Larry. "Larry Bird the dog," she said,
"is dumb as a post."
But those ancient basketball wars--East versus West, Larry versus
Magic--were mere backdrop for the even older competition of God
versus Mammon. As Congress held hearings on the Super Bowl
halftime show, Hollywood was on its best behavior, even while on
its worst behavior, so that the week became a shotgun wedding of
solemnity and celebrity, piety and Variety.
Praise the Lord and pass the Amaretto. When Behind the Bench--the
official organization of NBA wives--honored Janet Jackson for her
"humanitarian" endeavors at a fund-raiser last Friday at the
Beverly Hills Hotel, there was no chance of seeing a breast on
naked display, unless you ordered the Cobb salad.
This timeless tug-of-war between the angel on one shoulder and
the devil on the other was best expressed on Saturday night,
outside the NBA players' association party. There a cardboard
arrow--bearing the single word hospitality--pointed to the VIP
entrance. As Latrell Sprewell and Carmelo Anthony stood glumly in
line (a line that was one part Gucci, two parts hoochie), someone
tore down most of the sign, so that the arrow pointing the way
inside read simply ... hos.
But then, hospitality and hos--virtue and vice--are two sides of
the same coin. As are admiration and excess. And so a 17-foot,
2,800-pound statue of Magic Johnson was unveiled last week
outside the Staples Center, even though Magic played at the
Forum, with its apt echoes of ancient Rome. On Sunday, Christian
protesters, shouting "Jesus hates sin," picketed at the feet of
the golden idol.
Today's athletes don't resemble those of ancient Rome so much as
they resemble those of ancient Greece. "Songs were written about
them," pointed out Jeff Greenfield, the CNN correspondent. "They
were exempted from taxes. According to some Greek legends, they
were immortal. They were given eternal life, which is a gift
bestowed now only on Larry King."
Still, there were signs last week that we may be moving, however
glacially, toward a New Austerity. There were no pimp chalices at
this year's All-Star week--the bejeweled goblets from which
posses swigged Hennessy last year in Atlanta. The warning no
jerseys or sports apparel appeared on all the players' party
invitations, even though the hottest gig in L.A. was thrown by
throwback-jerseymakers Mitchell & Ness. "I'm going to have to do
damage control," sighed M&N owner Peter Capolino, squiring Allen
Iverson's mother around Skybar on Sunset Boulevard hours after
the All-Star Game. "The fire marshal wouldn't let David Stern in.
Or Derek Jeter. There are three NFL All-Pros on the sidewalk."
Even, alas, Urkel was denied at the door.
At the NBA's annual Technology Summit, Greenfield moderated a
panel discussion--titled "How Fans View Athletes"--in which the
word accountability was mentioned more than once. "Playing in the
NBA is not an entitlement; it's a privilege," said Phoenix Suns
owner Jerry Colangelo. "We had a player, Robert Horry, who threw
a towel in the coach's face, and I called him in off the road and
said, 'If I were 15 years younger, I'd kick your tail. But since
I'm not, I'll trade it.'"
Of course, all of this was said in Beverly Hills, where Chastity
is--first and foremost--the daughter of Sonny and Cher. Sure,
there were many calls for moderation, but those calls were made
(metaphorically speaking) on the diamond-studded cellphone that
Paris Hilton was clutching while coaching in Friday's celebrity
Hilton's co-coach was Sean (P. Diddy) Combs. On Friday morning
the hip-hop impresario strode across the marbled lobby of the
Beverly Wilshire hotel, at the foot of Rodeo Drive, dressed as if
he'd bought one of everything on the block. His diamond earrings
resembled chandeliers for the ear--they were chandel-ears--and a
silk pocket square billowed from his breast pocket like the
detonated air bag of a Bentley.
Diddy, fielding questions at the Technology Summit, was asked if
it will still be possible to make money from music in the age of
Internet file-sharing. "If I had the answer to that," he replied,
"somebody up here would be filthy rich." He shifted in his seat,
allowing light to play off his diamond watch face, which had the
shine and circumference of an Escalade hubcap. Then he added,
"Even more rich than they are now."
The rapper concluded his answer, as so many others did in Los
Angeles, by saying abruptly, "I really leave it up in God's
hands." And with that, the buzzer sounded, and God versus Mammon
was declared a deadlock.
It was Gloria in Excelsis Deo. On Rodeo.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY
All week at the NBA All-Star festivities, God and money intersected, sometimes literally.