Tennis great Andre Agassi faced a dilemma in 1990: he was balding.
Known for his tremendous playing ability, Agassi also cultivated a loud off-court persona, complete with luscious long hair, crazy headbands and otherwise colorful clothes. Yet during the 1990 French Open, Agassi was so eager to cover up his secret that he wore a wig, which wound up falling apart prior to a match. It took some 20 pins to reconnect the wig to its normal state.
In that same year, Agassi came out with one of the most iconic commercials that connected sports and retail: the infamous "Image is Everything" Canon campaign, linking his rebel personality with the Canon Rebel camera. While Agassi surely told himself on a consistent basis that image was indeed everything, there were certain times, like that crumbling wig to help him keep up appearances, when that slogan became acutely apparent in his everyday life.
The NBA -- a league with no helmets and masks -- has sworn by the same "Image is Everything" mantra for decades. Outgoing NBA commissioner David Stern required players to wear suits to games rather than street clothes, and he cracked down on on-court altercations after a brawl poured into to the stands, to name two examples.
The Portland Trail Blazers aren't exempt from this ideal, either. Just this season, talks about changing the entire look of the team's jerseys to offering different, more local food options at the Moda Center weren't just about improving the quality of product the franchise offered. Instead, it was also about altering the image of a team under new management.
It goes without saying that the NBA's annual midseason showcase -- All-Star Weekend -- fits squarely in the "Image is Everything" category too.
Case in point: the unveiling of the latest edition of its All-Star jerseys, which feature sleeves. Like the wig drama, this introduction of a new style marked a key moment for the league: In the biggest showcase of its biggest stars, the NBA will present its new and changing image for the foreseeable future.
This image theme spilled into this week's naming of the All-Star starters, as voted on by the fans. While the hometown hero (and statistically deserving) LaMarcus Aldridge didn't make the cut, arguably the biggest surprise was starting staple Dwight Howard not making it either. Instead, Minnesota's Kevin Love surpassed Howard in the final weeks of voting to clinch the final frontcourt spot.
Amid the controversy surrounding the consolidation of the center and forward spots -- and whether or not players from .500 teams should even be given a chance to play on All-Star teams -- there's no denying it's a popularity contest that determines the starting five in each conference. Knowing this, it's tough to ignore the dwindling popularity of "D12." Howard has struggled with his image over the last few years, starting in Orlando, moving to Los Angeles and now trying to repair it in Houston. Howard, Roy Hibbert and other centers who suffered in the new voting process (which merges small forwards, power forwards and centers into one "frontcourt group) also appear to be battling the glamorous image of the league's top scorers.
Regardless of how much progress Howard has made in his comeback trail with the fans, there's no doubt there's still room from improvement. Like changing the jersey style for the All-Star Game or even adding food options to an arena, this was a yet another moment where the "Image is Everything" mantra was quite apparent.
There were a few other times when image was at the forefront of the league as we moved through the final week of All-Star voting. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that the Miami Heat -- one of the league's most popular teams -- unveiled a throwback jersey just prior to the All-Star break when the NBA was offering a League Pass free trial. It may also not be a coincidence that Paul George, an electrifying player trying to emerge as an MVP candidate, threw down one of the most epic in-games dunks you'll ever see this week.
Franchises and players aren't naive -- they know when the world is watching. Just ask Richard Sherman post-Erin Andrews rant.
Knowing the final week of All-Star balloting is one of these Andre Agassi-type times, voting obviously favors those that are most conscious of that fact. Miami and Paul George are examples of this. It also favors people that are inherently in more popular situations, whether they play in bigger markets, star in more commercials, or play an entertaining brand of basketball (think Blake Griffin or Kobe Bryant).
On the flip side, there can be some gain by players that aren't necessarily savvy or favored in this way. What it takes, though, is a player like Dwight Howard to get on the bad side of fans before these players can make headway. In this case, it was Love that made the best impression, not Aldridge. While these situations aren't necessarily common, they do provide opportunities for players to compete for a spot that might previously have seem reserved.
Regardless of how the process unfolds, All-Star starting spots are a reflection of the ten most popular players of the season's first half. This is the system the NBA created. In a league built on image, players that take advantage of this heightened environment may not be the ten best, but they are the ones that best fit the given criteria.
For better or for worse, that's the status quo in a league where Stern and the NBA are constantly aware of image.