ATLANTA, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- The league's biggest, brightest and newest stars will give up center stage Sunday to Michael Jordan at the All-Star Game.
Perhaps the greatest player in NBA history, Jordan announced earlier this season that this would be his final campaign. The superstar swingman of the Washington Wizards has walked away from the NBA twice before, only to return.
But Jordan turns 40 later this month and this time it appears he means it. With that in mind, just about everyone involved with the midseason gala has decided to make this weekend a special one for him.
Some called for Toronto Raptors forward Vince Carter to step aside and offer his starting spot to Jordan. Carter received more than a million votes in fan balloting despite being sidelined by a knee injury most of the season. He explained his decision to stay a starter.
"If I'm a fan voting for you, and you're starting, and all of a sudden you're not starting, how do you think I would feel? I would feel disappointed," Carter said.
Fifteen years ago in Chicago, Jordan turned All-Star Weekend into a coming-out party, winning the Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday and scoring 40 points to claim MVP honors in the All-Star Game on Sunday.
That was the first of three All-Star MVP awards for Jordan, who also won in 1996 and 1998. Only Bob Pettit, with four, has won more.
Jordan also needs only 10 points to overtake Pettit (246 points) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (251) as the leading scorer in All-Star history. About to play his 13th All-Star Game, Jordan is one of just five players who has averaged better than 20 points in the midseason showcase.
NBA to change playoff format
ATLANTA, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- NBA Commissioner David Stern announced Saturday the NBA will go to a best-of-seven format for the opening round of this season's playoffs.
That will potentially add millions in revenue for each participating team and force the eventual champion to win 16 games. The change from a best-of-five opening-round series had been rumored for months and the announcement was a joint one between Stern and NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter.
"The players have approved that change, effective with this season," Stern said. "So the first round of the NBA playoffs will be four out of seven."
Stern and Hunter also said they had agreed to begin negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement, even though the current one could run through the 2004-05 season.
For the 2000 playoffs, the NBA shifted the opening of the postseason from mid-week to the weekend to give more games to network partner NBC. The opening round was stretched over 12 days, with three and four days between games in the same city.
With a similar playoff schedule established with new broadcast partners ABC and ESPN, the extended time frame already in place and the desire on both sides for increased revenue, the addition of two games to first-round series was a natural move.
In exchange, the players will receive an increased share of the playoff revenue pool and the aboliion of two-a-day practices for veterans after the first 10 days of training camp.
Love tries for Pebble Beach win
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif., Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Davis Love shot his second straight 5-under-par 67 on Saturday to grab a two-stroke lead after three rounds of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Two years ago at this tournament, Love used a spectacular front nine and fired a final-round 63 to erase a seven-shot deficit and end a two-year victory drought on the PGA Tour.
"Obviously, you don't have to go out (Sunday) and shoot a course record," said Love, who has a 54-hole score of 10-under 206.
A victory by Love would make him the first American to win on the PGA Tour this season.
Canadian lefthander Mike Weir, former Player of the Year Tom Lehman and Australian rookie Rod Pampling were tied for second at 208. Coming off a victory at last week's Bob Hope Classic, Weir matched Love's 67 as he tries to join Ernie Els as two-time winners in the first five weeks of the season.
Gators bounce back with big victory
GAINESVILLE, Fla., Feb. 9 (UPI) -- The top-ranked Florida Gators extended their home winning streak to 16 games Saturday with a 75-56 blasting of No. 20 Alabama.
Matt Bonner scored 21 points and freshman Anthony Roberson added 16 to add to the Crimson Tide's road woes.
Florida (19-3, 8-1 SEC East) bounced back from Tuesday's loss at Kentucky with a fast start in its first game at home as a top-ranked team. The Gators never trailed and took a 16-3 lead on a dunk by Bonnell Colas.
Alabama (13-7, 3-6 West) lost for the sixth time in eight games and saw its offense sputter once again. The Crimson Tide have lost four straight visits to Florida.
Erwin Dudley scored 15 points to lead Alabama, which was held below 60 points for the third time in five games.
All the top 10 teams in action Saturday night emerged with wins. No. 2 Arizona improved to 18-2 by fighting off Washington State, 75-62; No. 3 Texas rallied past Texas A&M, 95-87; and No. 5 Oklahoma crushed Baylor, 91-42.
No. 6 Louisville extended the nation's longest winning streak to 17 games by downing Houston, 81-55.
Richardson claims Slam Dunk Contest
ATLANTA, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Jason Richardson defended his Slam Dunk title Saturday night, using an acrobatic slam to impress a superstar panel of judges.
The high-flying guard of the Golden State Warriors relied on a series of dunks that began with high ball tosses into the air. None was more spectacular than his final attempt, which displayed balance and all but defied gravity. It was the highlight show of All-Star Saturday, which serves as a preview for Sunday's All-Star Game.
From the right baseline, Richardson tossed the ball in the air and caught the bounce while going into his leap. With his back to the rim, he put the ball through his legs with his right hand and dunked over his head with his left hand.
He became just the second player to repeat as champion, joining the legendary Michael Jordan.
The judging panel was made up of Jordan, Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Spud Webb and Dee Brown, all of whom won Slam Dunk competitions during their careers. They eliminated Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire and New Jersey's Richard Jefferson after the first round.
Peja Stojakovic, given a replacement round due to a clock malfunction, retained his unofficial title as the NBA's best shooter. For the second consecutive year, the All-Star forward of the Sacramento Kings was pushed to overtime in the All-Star Shootout by Person, the shooting guard of the Memphis Grizzlies.
And in the Rookie Challenge, the Sophomores used a 30-point performance from Golden State's Gilbert Arenas to down the Rookies, 132-112.
Maple Leafs win on emotional night
TORONTO, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- On the evening they raised Darryl Sittler's No. 27 to the rafters of the Air Canada Centre, Toronto extended its winning streak.
The Maple Leafs won their fifth straight game, 3-1 over the Montreal Canadiens, as Mats Sundin scored twice.
Sittler, the leading scorer in the franchise's storied history, was honored during an emotional pregame ceremony as his number joined those worn by Turk Broda, Johnny Bower, Bill Barilko, Ace Bailey, King Clancy, Tim Horton, Charlie Conacher, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps and George Armstrong above the rink at the ACC.
Five captains removed from Sittler, Sundin opened the scoring with a power-play goal late in the first period and made it 2-0 early in the second.
Defenseman Jyrki Lumme also scored and Alexander Mogilny and Nik Antropov each picked up two assists for Toronto, which had not won five in a row since Dec. 6-15, 2001. Ed Belfour was headed toward his league-leading seventh shutout, but a giveaway by Mogilny led to Jan Bulis' goal with 3:45 to go in the third period.
That was the lone bright spot for Montreal, which has lost four straight to fall to 3-4-2-1 under new coach Claude Julien.
Other NHL results: Pittsburgh 5, Boston 2; Colorado 5, Detroit 3; Philadelphia 2, New York Rangers 1; New York Islanders 3, Buffalo 1; Ottawa 3, Atlanta 1; Tampa Bay 4, Florida 4; St. Louis 4, San Jose 1; Nashville 3, Columbus 2; Dallas 3, Phoenix 1.
Americans in trouble in Davis Cup
ZAGREB, Croatia, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Goran Ivanisevic helped rally Croatia from a two-set deficit Saturday and put the United States on the brink of Davis Cup elimination.
Out of action for most of last year and still experiencing shoulder problems, Ivanisevic partnered with Ivan Ljubicic for a 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 6-4 triumph over Americans James Blake and Mardy Fish.
Ljubicic will try to complete a victory for Croatia on Sunday when he squares off against Blake in the first reverse singles rubbers. The second singles match will pit Fish against 18-year-old Croatian Mario Ancic. Nominations can be changed for both matches.
Due to elbow and shoulder problems, Ivanisevic has played sporadically since finally winning his first career Grand Slam crown at Wimbledon in 2001. He has played in only a Challenger event in Heilbronn, Germany last month since undergoing left shoulder surgery on May 16.
The 31-year-old Ivanisevic notched his 48th Davis Cup victory, 20th in doubles. He is 6-0 with Ljubicic in doubles.
France, Australia, Spain and Argentina all clinched their first-round series. The Netherlands has a 2-1 lead over Switzerland, Brazil owns a 2-1 advantage over Sweden and Russia is in front of the Czech Republic, 2-1.
Serena to play for title
PARIS, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- The dominance of world No. 1 Serena Williams and hometown favorite Amelie Mauresmo set up a dream final Saturday at the Open Gaz de France.
Williams thrashed eighth seed Eleni Daniilidou of Greece, 6-2, 6-0, in 46 minutes to extend her WTA Tour winning streak to 10 matches. She is 14-0 in 2003 after helping the United States win the Hopman Cup in January.
Mauresmo blanked Russia's Elena Dementieva, 6-0, 6-0, in 42 minutes. It was the first shutout of Mauresmo's WTA Tour career and arranged a rematch of the 1999 championship match.
The 21-year-old Williams captured the Australian Open last month to become only the fifth woman in tennis history to hold all four majors at the same time. It was her 20th career crown.
Williams' first career title came here in 1999 when she defeated Mauresmo, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4). She reached the final again the next year.
USA soccer team falls to Argentina
MIAMI, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- The United States lost its first international soccer match of the year Saturday, falling to Argentina, 1-0.
The Orange Bowl crowd was announced at 27,196.
Argentina holds a 5-2 all-time lead over the Americans dating back to 1928. It was the first loss for the Americans since they fell to Germany by the same score in Ulsan, Korea in the World Cup quarterfinals last summer.
It was not an attractive game with seven cautions and an ejection, along with a scoreline that remained unchanged for 81 minutes after an early American error led to a goal in the ninth minute by Luis Gonzalez.
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