It’s not every day a league decides to introduce a relatively mysterious character to the world as its new hero. But last week, fans of the NBA were treated to such a spectacle.
A star was born and a desert city glittering with fabrications and folly served as the labor room. A crew of media partners and men who had once gone through a similar birthing process acted as the midwives. And out of the NBA in-season tournament arrived a point guard named Tyrese Haliburton. The NBA’s newest next.
The tournament didn’t end pleasantly for the freshly anointed prince. LeBron James, almost 39 years old and still not ready to cede authority as the face of the league, hoisted the first NBA Cup as his Los Angeles Lakers defeated Haliburton’s Indiana Pacers. The moment belonged to the established legend, but if we were paying close attention, we watched the NBA play the game it knows so well: How to make a star.
It started with a “bang!” That may be the catchphrase that detonates from the mouth of ESPN play-by-play man Mike Breen, but it was apropos for Haliburton’s thundering entrance into the mainstream. Late in the Dec. 7 semifinal game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Haliburton had the ball in his hands, and on cue, the NBA’s broadcasters sensed what was happening.
When Haliburton hit the dagger three that helped propel the Pacers to the IST championship game, suddenly a 23-year-old who has spent the entirety of his career in midsize cities transformed from small-market starter into league darling.
“Bang! Tyrese Haliburton from downtown!” Breen announced.
“We are witnessing a superstar in the making!” former NBA player Reggie Miller crowed.
And no one loves a superstar quite like the NBA.
Major League Baseball has its history and its stats. The National Hockey League possesses the fervor of its loyal base. And if enemy extraterrestrials point a death beam toward Earth, the only survivors would be cockroaches and the National Football League. The NBA, more than the three other major American professional leagues, relies and thrives on the presence of personalities.
If this wasn’t true, then the NBA wouldn’t have turned arena tunnels into fashion shoots. And the name of Kim Kardashian’s underwear line wouldn’t be superimposed on playing surfaces during nationally televised games. We never would have been blessed with those “You The Real MVP” punchlines and the shots of all-stars overcome by laughter during Fergie’s rendition of the national anthem had this league been solely committed to basketball and not the guilty-pleasure entertainment it produces on a nightly basis.
This is a serious sports league, as well as a vineyard abundant with low-hanging fruit. An unscripted reality TV show where dunks matter, sure, but so does the drama. That’s why we, still, love this game.
Lucky for us, the NBA never allows itself to remain stagnant and nourished by yesterday’s clicks. It’s zeal to stay relevant may look thirsty, but no one can never accuse the league of being boring. That’s what sets the NBA apart from its peers. So when the NBA toyed around with traditional concepts in the effort to capture more eyeballs in November and December — a shrewd move by Commissioner Adam Silver in preparation for a new media rights deal in 2025 — it desperately needed its resident megastar, LeBron, to understand the significance of the moment and treat the in-season tournament like it mattered.
LeBron did so, but his reign can only last so long. For years, the league has been bracing for a reality without its “King” by building up his potential successors. Young superstars ready to be The Face of this global game. These efforts have worked, as fans learned how to effortlessly pronounce names like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic. But among the under-30 players born in America, their star-making process keeps hitting a snag.
Beyond Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who has built his résumé in an ideal media market that has a rich NBA history, the room for young American superstars feels empty. Trae Young’s popularity has cooled off. Ja Morant couldn’t stop flashing guns and therefore earned a 25-game suspension. Former No. 1 phenom Zion Williamson seems intent on being a punchline and eating his way into the crosshairs of his most vocal critics. And while the spotlight of superstardom may soon shine on 22-year-old Anthony Edwards, his Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t staples on national television and the hype machine might still be cautious about embracing a kid who thought it was wise to post homophobic comments on social media before the start of last season.
It was in this climate, a particular kind of intersection for the league, that the NBA put on its in-season show. And it discovered the magnetic smile and joyful presence that is Haliburton.
Though there are too many syllables there, his name still rolls off the tongue as a mix between an early 2000s R&B crooner and something you’d expect to see written beneath a medieval coat of arms. His game, too, feels like a gumbo, a helping of jump passes and set shots thrown into the new school pace of today’s game.
During his breakout moments of the knockout round, the young point guard played like a star, producing a combined 53 points, 28 assists and no turnovers against Tatum’s Celtics and then Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. He celebrated like one, pointing to his wrist after his big-time three-pointer as a cheeky way to commandeer Damian Lillard’s “Dame Time” bit. Then he beamed like one in front of every camera the league and its media partners turned his way.
When Tyrese and his father John joined the “NBA on TNT” crew, with Shaquille O’Neal saying it was “a joy watching you today,” and Ernie Johnson skillfully weaving in talking points from Haliburton’s bio, it seemed apparent that his origin story would be the NBA’s next heartwarming narrative. The kid from Oshkosh, Wis. with the funky jump shot and an exuberance to share the ball. His father, an everyman who cheers for his son each game as though he’s watching him for the first time. Overlooked out of Iowa State by 11 NBA teams but somehow, someway he clawed himself out of obscurity.
In reality, however, Haliburton shouldn’t be such of an unknown to the regulars. He was a lottery pick only three years ago and an all-star in 2022. But since he entered the league with the Sacramento Kings and now plays in Indianapolis, the NBA can introduce him to the public as though he magically appeared from the cornfields.
And his arrival continued in full blast as long as the networks had a tournament to promote. Though Miller has a clear bias — of course, the Pacers legend would call a fellow Pacer a “superstar” — he wasn’t the only NBA stakeholder to lend his voice and platform to the promotion of Haliburton.
On two separate occasions during ESPN’s NBA coverage, former Golden State Warriors executive Bob Myers played the role of the general manager who regretted not drafting Haliburton. Also, Stephen A. Smith hammed it up as the New York Knicks fan stricken with grief because his favorite team had passed on Haliburton. Statements like these from trusted personalities make for good television, but also create a national conversation around the latest player chosen to be a face of the league.
So fans didn’t just watch Haliburton’s arrival, they were spoon-fed it by the NBA and the media companies that own a stake in showcasing the league. Whether he’s ready for it or not, Haliburton now has the spotlight, and just in time for the lead up to Indianapolis serving as the host city for the 2024 All-Star Weekend. He’ll be the league’s fresh face for its glamour event. This star-loving league has been searching for its next all-American hero. And once the NBA is done elevating Haliburton to celebrity status, it’ll be time to create a new star once again.