Inside the sights, sounds and people of the Fake All-Star Saturday Night

By: Patrick Engel
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES – There’s no need to wait until Saturday night. Here are the final dramatic moments of the NBA All-Star Verizon Slam Dunk contest.

“It all comes down to this,” the emcee bellows. “Let’s see what Victor Oladipo has in store. He can make or break it right now.”

Instead, he’ll fake it.

In place of Oladipo, 24-year-old ex-college player Jarrell Tate trots onto the court. It’s Wednesday afternoon in an empty Staples Center, and Tate is posing as the Indiana Pacers’ star guard during the practice run-through of Saturday’s events.

Before the two-and-a-half-hour extravagant confab known as All-Star Saturday Night, there’s All-Star Practice Round Wednesday Afternoon inside the same silver saucer of an arena that will pack about 15,000 people into a show of deft displays of athleticism.

Sometime around 7:30 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday, either Oladipo, Dennis Smith Jr., Larry Nance Jr. or Donovan Mitchell will hoist a gold basketball fastened to a wood block signifying their supremacy in the slam dunk contest, the glitziest Saturday event and the magnum opus of this lavish gathering that will take up nearly all of TNT’s primetime slots on Saturday.

No attention, though, will go to the preparation that makes the All-Star Weekend events the glamorous production they are each year. That’s the expected standard, because that’s almost always how it’s done. Event presentation is comparable to officiating games. If it’s done well, the audience won’t notice its existence.

On Wednesday during this one-of-a-kind rehearsal, Staples Center is hazy and dim. About 100 production crew members set up cameras and lay cable as the emcee announces the events like they’re the real thing. The practice round is a precise run-through of the script to make sure it lasts the appropriate amount of time, the graphics function properly and player names are pronounced correctly.

There’s one problem, though. The players aren’t in town yet.

The solution? Have someone else pose as them. This is where Tate and others enter the picture. About 20 former college players from all levels are brought in to impersonate the actual participants. These players actually do a mock skills challenge, 3-point shootout and dunk contest as 12 people watch Wednesday’s practice from the stands. Most are friends and families of the impersonators.

None of the players are likely to end up in the NBA, or even the G League. The event presentation crew just needs bodies for the day to help create life-like practice. But for these players, this is much more than being a fill-in. It’s a story they’ll tell for the rest of their lives.

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Jesse Jones had never been to Los Angeles until Tuesday. A New Jersey native, he spent his entire life on the East Coast and in 2016, finished a two-year stint as a guard for the University of Bridgeport, a private Division II in Connecticut. He now runs a branded Instagram account, @filayyyy, where he does voice-overs of basketball highlights. It’s up to 650,000 followers.

Jones’ chance to travel west came via a phone call from Nick Ansom, the founder of Venice Basketball League, a streetball league based in Venice, Calif. , and the man tasked with finding some players for the practice round. He noticed Jones’ Instagram and offered to fly him to L.A. for the week.

“I was like, is this real?” Jones says.

Jones received a free flight and tickets to the real All-Star events in return for his help. Most of all, he says, he hopes the trip leads to more brand awareness for Filayyyy. For about an hour on Wednesday, though, he poses as Klay Thompson in a practice 3-point shootout.

Just like Thompson will do Saturday, Jones has one minute to shoot 25 3-pointers, five from each of the five designated spots on the floor. Each make is worth one point, and each make with the nine red and blue “moneyball” basketballs is worth two. The maximum score in a round is 34.

A career 45 percent shooter from 3-point range in his two years at Bridgeport, Jones scores 18 in his first round, and 16 in his next. It’s his best Thompson impression.

“I like the Warriors, and I’m a shooter,” Jones said. “I like shooting like other shooters.”

The strobe lights flash around the arena as his round ends at the buzzer. The emcee urges the crowd to clap for Thompson. The empty arena says silent.

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Jarrell Tate
Jarrell Tate, posing as Victor Oladipo, attempts a dunk during Wednesday’s practice run-through of Saturday’s slam dunk contest (Serena Yeh/MEDILL).

Like Saturday, Wednesday’s final practice event is the slam dunk contest. After the Smith Jr., Nance Jr., and Mitchell impersonators go, the emcee introduces Oladipo, and in comes Tate.

“Staples Center, make some noise!” the emcee yells.

Tate was a guard at East Los Angeles College and Bethesda University in nearby Anaheim. Like Jones, Ansom gave the Birmingham, Ala. native the chance to be an impersonator. He knew Tate from his previous seasons playing in the Venice League.

The Oladipo role was randomly assigned to Tate. He considers it a perfect fit. They play the same position. He thinks of himself a strong defender like Oladipo.

“I was like, ‘OK, Oladipo. I’ll mess with that,'” Tate says. “A lot of people tell me I play like him.”

Tate moves onto the mock final round. He misses his first dunk attempt. The second, too. The emcee builds the suspense for his final attempt.

At the emcee’s prompting, Tate jogs to the wing and bounces the ball into the air so it will descend somewhere in the paint. He runs, leaps, grabs the ball on its descent and tries a 180-degree dunk. It goes halfway down, then rims out.

Needing to run through the trophy presentation, the emcee and fake judges declare Tate the fake winner. He goes to half court, is handed an invisible trophy, faces a camera, and smiles while waving to no one. The pictures or video won’t be seen. No passer-by outside will know what was happening inside. Tate doesn’t care.

“Getting a chance to dunk and being inspired to dunk, that was great,” he says. “I’d never been in something like this.”

An empty arena, it turns out, is full of memorable moments.

Photo at top: An empty Staples Center during the practice run-through of All-Star Saturday night held on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018.