For as long as one can remember, the NBA All-Star Game was missing something. Through some unexplainable phenomena, a collection of some of the most prominent athletes on the planet coming together to play what essentially should have been the year’s greatest pick-up basketball game was consistently the furthest thing from it.
If anything, the celebrated dunk and 3-point contests were the headlining events of the NBA’s midseason showcase. By the time the actual game rolled around the following night, the wind was already somewhat sucked out of All-Star weekends’ mighty sails. Unfortunately for the NBA, the heavily marketed main event very rarely gained back that lost steam.
The All-Star Game lacked structure, defense, drama. Most importantly, it lacked effort—something that, when the ten-best of anything get together in one confined room where exhibiting their other-worldly talents and one-upping each other is the name of the game, is never out of the equation.
For decades, the NBA All-Star Game rivaled the NFL Pro-Bowl for the most painful-to-watch but frequently mentioned sporting event of the year. Because of the event’s steadily poor TV ratings since the 1999 league lockout, the NBA was tasked with finding some grand innovation to account for the considerable problem on its hands.
Enter: Nick Elam.
As the 2021 NBA All-Star Game approaches, it is time we revisit the history of the game-shaking innovation that made last year’s All-Star Game so legendary.
A University of Dayton graduate, Nick Elam met with friends in a cramped college apartment during his senior year to watch a highly anticipated 2004 Elite Eight matchup between Duke and Xavier. As far as the game was concerned, ‘back-and-forth’ would be its best description. Xavier showed commanding signs of life, only for Duke to hit them with their best haymaker. Then Duke would pull ahead, only for Xavier to scratch, bite and claw to keep the game within reach. It was the textbook definition of a March Madness classic. Palpable energy filled the cluttered college living quarters.
And then the fouling began.
Upon the less-than-exciting conclusion to what was otherwise a great game, Elam and his college buddies noticed one damning thing as it pertained to situational basketball down the stretch: no matter how electrifying the first 95 percent of a game can be, the foul-heavy slog of the final minutes completely sours the once sweet taste of great basketball.
"“We were looking around at each other saying, ‘It’s really weird the way the game just deteriorates at the end…’ It changes so much. We talked about ways to fix it that afternoon, tossing around ideas, but didn’t have any ideas that were viable at that time, so we tabled the discussion.”"
For years, Elam could not help but host a pestering inner dialogue upon each basketball game excruciatingly muddled down by late-game fouling, unnecessary timeouts, and timely clock stoppages. The thought ate at him. “How can I watch basketball again?” Elam (probably) asked himself.
Then, three years following the initial couch conversation with his buddies in Dayton, Ohio, Nick Elam came up with his all-encompassing answer: a target score.
One wouldn’t think that something as simple as playing to a set score would make such a colossal difference. After all, every basketball mini-game played on courts worldwide—21 and 33 being the most notable—ends when a player or team hits the target score of, well, 21 or 33. But Elam’s idea is so much more than how it appears at face value. With Elam’s model—or the “Elam Ending,” as it is now affectionately called—late-game fouling is pleasantly discouraged because of its ‘free points’ nature.
Not only does it eliminate the drag of intentional fouling, though; the Elam Ending encourages players and teams to play as intense and as smart as humanly possible throughout the entire contest, whereas the currently existing format does not punish laziness due to the ease of intentional late-game fouling and subconscious 3-point chucking until the buzzer hits 00:00. With the Elam Ending, the only thing that can string a game on for too long are timeouts, which can make the game even better by leading to intelligently drawn-up plays or strategies on both sides of the ball.
Through Elam’s own logged study of the NBA, he found that the trailing team forced to foul to keep the game close in the final minutes ended up losing the game roughly 98 percent of the time. Within the confines of the collegiate basketball umbrella, that number remained similar, hovering around 96 percent. Elam had the numbers. Now, he needed the backing.
As surprising as this might sound, Nick Elam struggled for years to get his innovation taken seriously by the hoity-toity underground world of sports rulemaking. It wasn’t until a full decade had passed that Elam experienced a breakthrough when The Basketball Tournament (known at TBT) opted to try his new method.
Upon using the format 11 times during their 2017 season, the TBT decided to implement the Elam Ending in all 71 of their games throughout the following season. When Ice Cube’s popularized BIG3 league adopted a similar style of ending in their 2017 debut, the basketball world ran with the real possibility that Nick Elam’s grand idea could stick at hoops’ highest level.
Fast forward from 2017 to last year and the Elam Ending is now prominently known for its transcendent NBA debut in the 2020 All-Star Game. A contest fondly remembered for its level of intensity throughout a grueling, hectic, up-and-down fourth quarter, last year’s All-Star Game will go down in history as the most entertaining midseason showcase many have ever seen across all major American sports. Fortunately for hoops fans far and wide, the NBA is reinstating the target-score ending in this Sunday’s 2021 All-Star showdown between Team LeBron and Team Durant, a game in which bedlam is sure to ensue.
Whether or not the NBA will continue to use this exciting format in future All-Star games remains unknown, but one thing is ultimately certain:
When mentioning humanity’s greatest innovations—the wheel, in-home electricity, air travel, the internet, KFC’s infamous double-down sandwich—one must not forget to mention the Elam Ending and its probably-drunk-at-the-time founder sitting in a dumpy college apartment as he subconsciously planted the seeds for what has become the most enjoyable way to watch basketball yet.