LeBron’s chess moves, Westbrook vs. Embiid: The 8 NBA All-Star storylines to follow Will Quavo be Celebrity Game MVP? Will Ric Flair be courtside?

Professional sports’ premier soap opera is the NBA, and it invades Charlotte, North Carolina, this weekend for its 68th All-Star Game. But narrowing things to just the game is a disservice to the infinite dramatic possibilities of the weekend: Thursday through Sunday is an amalgamation of the NBA and pop culture so thorough that no other major American sports league could ever hope to measure up. What makes the NBA the melodramatic provocateur it is are the dramas. Some are obvious. Some aren’t. Some are, at best, are truly just pipe dreams. The following eight stories could spice up an already very hot weekend.

One: The All-Star method to LeBron’s All-Star madness

For LeBron James, this year’s All-Star draft was a riveting moment in a career filled with them. As fate, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s draft strategy would have it, James’ gang is chock-full of soon-to-be free agents — and Anthony Davis, who, unless you’ve been living under a rock the last two weeks or so, you’ve heard has requested a trade — preferably to Los Angeles. While the Lakers came up short in the Davis sweepstakes, Los Angeles, and in particular James and agent Rich Paul, received backlash for what many, including LaVar Ball, dubbed as destroying whatever chemistry the Lakers had left. An improbable Rajon Rondo game-winner in Boston has temporarily quelled critics, but a 23-point dump trucking in Philly brought L.A. back to earth and staring in the face of what will be a race to eighth after the All Star break — if they hope to make the playoffs. So best believe James is using All-Star Weekend for business far beyond just the next few weeks of this season. One would be safe to bet a lot of general managers around the league are none too happy about James’ public chess moves.

Bonus: Just like Dwyane Wade, we’re all looking forward to that final lob he tosses up to James. A fitting swan song to one of the game’s all-time great friendships.

Two: Westbrook and Embiid: reunited — and it doesn’t feel so good

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By far the funniest moment of the entire All-Star draft was the trade that sent Russell Westbrook to Team Giannis and Ben Simmons to Team LeBron. On the surface, it’s James getting his fellow Klutch brethren in Simmons. But the trade really matters for one reason — and one reason only. Westbrook and Joel Embiid, two of the NBA’s most beloved personalities, are now forced to be teammates.

But, Westbrook and Embiid aren’t fond of each other. At all. The drama began in December 2017 during a triple overtime instant classic between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers. When the Sixers and Thunder squared off, Embiid waved goodbye to Steven Adams and Westbrook — after each fouled out. Oklahoma City ultimately won, leaving Westbrook to return the favor by waving at Embiid. Fast-forward to last month: In another Thunder win, Embiid landed on Westbrook following a blocked shot attempt. Embiid said it wasn’t on purpose. Westbrook believed otherwise. When asked if the two were cool off the court, Westbrook kept it funky. “F— no.” When asked what the issue between the two was, Embiid’s was sarcastic. “I don’t why he was so mad. I have no idea,” the Sixers superstar said. “But he’s always in his feelings, so I have no idea.” Seeing these two on the court at the same time should be absolute comedy. Will they play nice? Or will they freeze each other out? We won’t have to wait long to see them square off again as opponents, though. The Sixers travel to Oklahoma City on Feb. 28, where they hope to get a win versus the Thunder for the first time in 11 years.

Three: Ric Flair, Charlotte’s (Un]official Ambassador

To be the man, you gotta [honor the man at All-Star Weekend]…

OK, so that’s not exactly how the quote goes, but the truth remains the same. Of all the celebrities linked to Charlotte, there is but one who sits at the mountaintop. In a perfect world, Richard Morgan Fliehr, known to the world as Ric Flair, would be front and center at All-Star Weekend festivities. Flair’s wild life has been documented most recently with the critically acclaimed 30 for 30 Nature Boy. There will be many black music stars and fans in town for All-Star, most notably Meek Mill and J. Cole, who are headlining the official halftime show, and hip-hop loves Flair. Think 2012’s “We Ball” with Dom Kennedy and Kendrick Lamar. Think of 2018’s Offset, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s “Ric Flair Drip” the video that actually starred the former world champion. There’s a possibility Offset could be in town — Charlotte’s just a stone’s throw from Atlanta — and a reunion of sorts could take place. Nevertheless, Flair is a prime candidate for unofficial All-Star Weekend ambassador. Hope he’ll rock a “Free 21 Savage” shirt.

There’s also this: So much of Flair’s DNA is visible in current NBA All-Stars. James’ obsession for the dramatic is as must-see-TV as Flair. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s threat from 3 is as crippling as Flair’s figure-four leg-lock. Westbrook’s fashion sense — need more be said? Also Flair is an undeniable fan favorite on a lifetime victory lap akin to Dwayne Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. Charlotte shouldn’t just want Flair courtside for Sunday’s game. Charlotte needs Flair courtside for Sunday’s game.

Four: Can Quavo go back-to-back into the Celebrity Game record books?

Quavo, reigning Celebrity Game MVP, looks to join Terrell Owens and Kevin Hart as the only players to be named most valuable more than once. Hart, like Young Jeezy and trapping, won it four years in a row. Take away the actual professional basketball players (Ray Allen, A’ja Wilson, Jay Williams), and look at this year’s rosters. Famous Los has already set his sights on the crown, but Quavo will again be the best hooper on the court. Huncho’s silky lefty game is only enhanced by his ability to finish at the rim and get to the free throw line at will — a la James Harden. Also: former Carolina Panthers/future Hall of Fame wide receiver (and one of the all-time great trash talkers in any sport) Steve Smith is on the opposing squad. A Smith-Quavo back-and-forth could be the closest iteration of Harden vs. Draymond Green at All-Star.

Five: Stephen Curry’s Homecoming

The two-time MVP will be a huge part in this weekend’s festivities given his deep and direct ties to the Queen City. His father, Dell, was a sharpshooter for the Charlotte Hornets for 10 seasons. And while Stephen Curry was born in Akron, Ohio (making it one of the most unexpected birthplaces of basketball royalty), Charlotte is where Curry grew up. He attended high school in Charlotte. And because no big-time schools thought much of him, Curry attended Davidson College, about 30 minutes away from downtown Charlotte — and put the school on the basketball map with unparalleled March Madness performances a decade ago. He returns to the city he calls home as the greatest shooter of all time, nearly a surefire lock to obliterate Allen’s all-time 3-point record and future Hall of Famer with three championships (and counting) to his name. Curry and younger brother Seth are both in the 3-point contest, and Curry’s presence in Sunday’s big game has the running narrative of MVP.

Six: Bombs Over Charlotte: A 3-point contest for the ages

There’s reigning champion Devin Booker. There are the aforementioned Curry brothers. Damian Lillard is made for moments like these. Buddy Hield, Joe Harris and Danny Green can all catch fire at a moment’s notice. Khris Middleton, who almost assuredly will have teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo courtside cheering him on. All-Star starter Kemba Walker has home court advantage. And there wouldn’t be an angry person in the world if Nowitzki walked away with the crown. The point being is this: There is no wrong selection here. Just enjoy the light show.

Seven: Happy birthday, Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan turns 56 on Feb. 17, the day of the All-Star Game, and expect the greatest to ever do it to be treated like the royalty he is all weekend long. Jordan’s been waiting for this weekend since 2017, when Charlotte was originally supposed to host the midseason pilgrimage, but due to the discriminatory HB2, known as the “bathroom bill,” Charlotte’s look was postponed. But this year? Here are three Jordan dream scenarios in no particular order:

  1. Similar to James Davis above, I, too, receive an ultra exclusive invite to whatever Saturday night party Jordan is hosting. Bringing my own cigars, Mike and I chop it up about a variety of topics. About how I found the address to his fan club in an old Sports Illustrated Kids. About how I think his “Flu Game” is really his “Hangover Game” — which is no knock on him. It’s actually more impressive.
  2. Someone snaps a picture of Jordan and Bill “I don’t play defense” Murray. While Jordan did most of the work versus the Monstars in Space Jam, let the record show Murray has the most important assist in world history. It’s high time we acknowledge Murray for the hero he is.
  3. Like last year, the game comes down to its final possession. And James, with Jordan courtside, takes the final shot …

Eight: Charlotte ‘Going Bad’ on ’em anyway?

For anyone not familiar with All-Star Weekend, it’s a continuous barrage of parties, sponsored events and open bars. There is, of course, a vital need for music at these events. And if there’s one song most likely to become the unofficial anthem of the weekend, it’s Meek Mill and Drake’s “Going Bad” which officially dropped last week. Sitting at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of Feb. 9, don’t be surprised if it jumps a few slots with an expected All-Star push. Meek is of course one of the two headliners for Sunday’s All-Star Game, along with home state titan J. Cole. Meek will also serve as the MC of pregame introductions with his and Drake’s hit likely playing some role in the moment. It’s a nice setup too, for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the nation’s oldest historically black college conference. The organization has held its annual basketball tournament in the Queen City since 2004. Because of its residency in Charlotte (which ends next year and is headed to Baltimore in 2021), the city is an annual mecca for celebrities such as 21 Savage, Cardi B, Odell Beckham Jr., Rick Ross, Bria Myles, Lil Wayne, DC Young Fly and more. Last year’s CIAA tournament netted north of $50 million, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. This year’s tournament kicks off Feb. 26.

CIAA celebrity game brought out celebs with skills, sort of Ayo & Teo, Fantasia and Tank showed up and tried to show out

If you are ever in need of a quick laugh, just go and watch any celebrity basketball game. Usually the game is filled with clumsy celebrities who are trying to prove that they were the best player on their middle school team.

And the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s Celebrity Charity Basketball Game was no different. Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis just threw his big body around on the court like a bowling ball. R&B star Tank was virtually ineffective all game, and Dan Rue, the social media star, showed flashes but ultimately proved he was not built to be a hooper.

But even with all of the turnovers and missed shots, the CIAA celebrity game did what it was supposed to do: promote and entertain.

The game was a fun-loving display that brought together celebrities from around the country at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Recording artists Ayo & Teo, who produced the popular hit song “Rolex,” were even in the stands showing love after they performed during the CIAA Fan Fest at the Charlotte Convention Center.

And R&B superstar Fantasia was in the building watching her fellow celebrities battle it out on the court.

At halftime, the energy in the arena heightened in anticipation of the celebrity dunk contest, and it actually didn’t disappoint. Fans were hyped after one of the celebrity game’s participants, who was obviously an ex-ballplayer at some level, threw down a windmill dunk after jumping over five different people, including Ayo, Teo and Rue.

With the first CIAA tournament celebrity game in the books, there’s now a fun event where fans, celebrities and athletes can watch some of their favorite stars. And in the process, the conference is broadening its reach across the country.

With one of the most distinctive tournaments in the country, the CIAA could significantly increase the recognition of the conference, and the recognition of historically black college and university hoops, through this goofy 60 minutes of basketball.

The higher the profile of the celebrity, the bigger the promotion. So you know what that means! It’s time for Barack Obama, Michael B. Jordan, Migos and other black celebrities to make a trip to Charlotte and lace up their sneakers for the CIAA — and the culture.

Diversity and inclusion issues on the front burner at CIAA town hall Dialogue ‘we’ve never done’ is important in Charlotte as North Carolina struggles with results of House Bill 2

She looked comfortable and confident walking across the stage to tell a small group of people about the most vulnerable and painful time in her life — a time riddled with tears and self-doubt. Her story took her listeners to Baltimore. She was the oldest of three girls, raised in a family that went to church three nights a week. She was 17, having just committed to Fairleigh Dickinson University on a full NCAA Division I basketball scholarship. It was supposed to be the best time of her life — a new chapter full of learning and opportunity.

Few people knew that deep down she felt pain — the pain of confusion. She knew things in her life were changing — faster than she’d realized — and she became consumed with hiding.

“When I was little, I didn’t think gay people existed,” said Nevin Caple, co-founder and managing director for the LGBT SportSafe Inclusion Program, an organization whose mission is to help athletic leadership champion a culture of respect and inclusion. “I could hide my sexual orientation, but I was dealing with this struggle — that being gay was a sin. That’s what I’d heard all my life — from my own family.”

Caple said the black community would ask her: “Why would you want to put yourself back in this oppression?” The athletic community, which was her world, flat-out wouldn’t talk openly — because it wasn’t safe. Friends who identified as LGBT couldn’t understand her connection to the religious community, which was such a big part of her upbringing. “I looked for role models and mentors, but they were all closeted. Generations before them were closeted. It was safe to stay hidden.”

As one of three speakers to present during a Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) tournament town hall about building equity and inclusion, Caple talked openly about looking at herself through the lens of others: How she walked. How she talked. How baggy her shorts were. “I even went as far as to get a boyfriend. He was one of my closest friends. One day we were hanging out – and I saw his mood change. When I looked at him, he welled up. He said, ‘Nevin, you will never truly love me because you don’t love yourself.’ My very existence depended on them believing my lie. As hard as it was, that liberated me — he told me it was OK to be who I was.”

William Gibson, seated in the eighth row to Caple’s left, waited his turn to tell his story — of acceptance. Her message resonated with his own life story. “I’m a proud son of a teenage pregnancy,” he said. “I’m a product of a third-world country, Liberia.”

It took years for Gibson to speak with such eloquence and confidence. Growing up in an African culture to a teenage mother out of wedlock was frowned upon, he said. He was ashamed of who he was, of who he might become.

“My grandparents made [my mom] understand that she had to keep the child, and on Feb. 24, 1997, I was born during the civil war. My mother’s water broke — in the middle of gunfire. I was born and the war was still going on. War shaped me — I say this: It made me realize I was destined for greatness.”

Gibson is well on his way. A freshman at Winston-Salem University — and the president of his class — he came to America in 2003 having experienced a childhood that often saw lifeless bodies on the sidewalk, crime, rape and cannibalistic rituals.

Things didn’t get much easier for Gibson, who arrived in America having just recovered from malaria. “You’re looked at different. They called me names. They made me feel unimportant. Made me want to hide my identity. It took years to understand and learn that it’s OK to be the black sheep in the room. We’re meant to be different. I realized that — and I took it back to Liberia when I visited in 2012. I reconnected and regained love that I had lost for myself,” continued Gibson, who aspires to attend law school at Howard University.

Undefeated Editor-in-Chief Kevin Merida chokes up every time he talks about his father — a man bold enough to dream of being something he’d never seen before. “My dad … ” an emotional Merida explained, “was growing up liking minerals and rocks. He was bold enough to think he wanted to be geologist. This is 1959. His family dissuaded him. There was none before him. But he decided to pursue it – despite admonitions. He graduated from Wichita State University, sent dozens of applications, and for two years, he got no offers.”

Merida continued on, telling the audience what his father endured — sweeping floors and doing janitorial work along the way — until he got the opportunity at the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C. “When we started The Undefeated, I couldn’t help but think how my dad was Undefeated,” Merida said, alluding to the Maya Angelou quote that serves as the inspiration behind the site.

“Opportunity can lead to greatness but you have to first have the opportunity,” Merida said in his closing remarks. “We have to talk about bravery. If you’re in a position of influence, risk something. So many people risked things for us. Fought. Bled. We have to remember that – risk something. Inclusion and empowerment can’t be a leisure activity. Invest in people on potential – everybody won’t be fully formed like William and Nevin. We need to invest in potential.”

The conversation and storytelling are an intentional effort by the CIAA — led by its commissioner, Jacqie McWilliams — to be bold, even as thousands of tourists flock into uptown for the conference’s signature basketball tournament, one of Charlotte’s few remaining major sporting events that hasn’t relocated from Queen City over opposition to N.C. House Bill 2 (HB2).

As legislators in Raleigh, North Carolina, have yet to reach consensus on an HB2 repeal compromise, the CIAA beat goes on, with an open invitation to all.

“A lot of us sit here with great intention,” said Caple during the question-and-answer session. “Part of the challenge is the silence in our community. That silence is looked at as rejection.”

Candis Cox, a North Carolina resident and transgender advocate, expressed her feelings of being excluded. “Exclusion is difficult. I walk in with the trifecta: black, transgender and I’m a woman,” she said. “And, I’m tall,” she added.

“I walk into a room and I’m asking: Are people staring at me because I’m black? Because I’m college-educated? Because my skin is different? Because I’m a woman in a male-dominated world? Can I be just as empowering as the men? That is something I deal with day to day. Every day I wake up, I have to account for my blackness, femininity-ness and my transgender-ness.”

And, perhaps it’s exactly why this conversation is being had with only a handful of people in the room — in North Carolina. “The CIAA is saying, we want to have a transgender woman come and speak to us. We want people — all people — to know, regardless of HB2, you’re welcome here. We know as black people what that’s like. We know we’re one lifetime from a time when we were excluded because of legislation. But it wasn’t legislation that hurt us — it’s people. It’s business owners. That’s really what we’re talking about — about how we can make a change. We can do that — together.”

Added McWilliams: “There’s only two black female commissioners in the country. We need more people of color being a part of this great work that we do every day. I wish we could be natural and authentic. HB2 — as terrible as it looks — it’s opened up dialogue in ways we’ve never done.”