In The Courts: The State of NBA Betting

NBC Sports

In The Courts: The State of NBA Betting

LeBron James was done hiding it. 

After getting swept in the 2018 NBA Finals, James sat at the postgame podium and briefly rested his hands on the table in front of him. A tsunami of camera flashes began flooding the room because, there it was, for all the world to see: a soft cast covering his right hand. James picked up the microphone with his left hand and began to take questions from the surrounding media.

Sitting at his Las Vegas home, Vic Salerno couldn’t bring himself to watch. The legendary Vegas bookmaker, who is the president of USBookmaking and was inducted into the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 2016 for his innovation in the regulated sports wagering industry, thought he had seen it all in his 40 years of work in the sports betting industry. But nothing quite like this. 

In that presser, James admitted he played through what he described as “pretty much ... a broken hand,” confirming the stunning media reports that trickled out within moments after Game 4 final buzzer. Salerno was blindsided by the news that James had suffered a serious injury to his shooting hand in the aftermath of a bizarre Game 1. Multiple MRIs were taken, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, for his visibly swollen hand. Still, James kept playing through the injury and averaged 28.3 points, 10.7 assists and 8.7 rebounds in the final three games, all losses. No one said a word about the hand.

To many, it was a Herculean feat by James.

But to Salerno, this was something entirely different. In Salerno’s eyes, this was a devastating blow to the integrity of the game, an inexcusable breach of trust. Perpetrated by, not LeBron, but the NBA itself. And Salerno was ready to battle the league office head on, in the courts.

* * *

Even before the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) on May 14, 2018, NBA lawyers had begun lobbying in various state courts and proposing that sportsbooks (like the ones Salerno helped operate across the US) should be required to pay the NBA a small percentage of every bet placed on its games to ensure integrity is being maintained.

“Call it a royalty, call it an integrity fee,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters at his annual NBA Finals press conference two weeks after PASPA was reversed. “We will have additional expenses [to further protect integrity], and it’s ultimately our intellectual property and we ultimately believe we should be compensated for it.”

Salerno was incensed at James’ revelation, and so were other sportsbook operators, he says. Here was the NBA’s biggest star playing on the biggest stage, suffering what he says was a broken bone in his shooting hand, and laboring through it for multiple games.. Millions of dollars were wagered on these games with betting lines based on, in large part, official injury reports provided by the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. 

Nothing in those reports said anything about James’ injured hand and thus bettors went heavy on the Cavs. After Game 1, 94 percent of bets to win the series at William Hill’s Nevada sportsbook were placed on Cleveland and MGM’s sportsbook took six times more bets on the Cavs than the Warriors, according to ESPN’s David Purdum. As it turns out, the Cavs failed to cover the spread in any of the remaining games (though Salerno says the sportsbooks didn’t lose money on the bets, nor did they spot any irregularities in betting). 

But the issue raises a host of questions. How soon did the Cavs know about James’ injury? Who in the organization knew? Did the league know and if not, why not? And did anyone leak that information to bettors? 

Without citing concrete evidence, Salerno believes the league was aware of James’ injury and chose not disclose it.

“Oh, they knew,” Salerno says over the phone. “They knew.”

But when contacted by NBC Sports this week, NBA spokesman Tim Frank called that claim “100 percent false” and denied any knowledge of James’ injury before it became public following Game 4. Salerno finds that hard to believe, considering the stakes and, you know, the fact that the hand belonged to LeBron James.

Dan Spillane, NBA Senior Vice President and Assistant General Counsel who is leading the league’s efforts to lobby for royalty fees and a compensation package in state legislature, says the Cavs followed league policy that requires teams to detail whether a player is probable, questionable, doubtful or out due to injury, illness, personal matters or resting.

“In this particular situation, LeBron [James] played in all of those games and played very well,” Spillane explained over the phone. “This wasn’t, as I understand it, an injury that was going to affect whether he was going to play or not. LeBron was going to play in the rest of the series.”

John T. Holden, a leading sports law expert and an assistant professor at the University at Oklahoma State, worries that the NBA’s policy needs to be expanded to cover injuries like James’ that could affect the gambling world.

“These things need to be disclosed,” Holden says. “Otherwise, you’re just creating a market for people with that information. And that’s where integrity really gets threatened.”

Spillane believes it’s hard to imagine the NBA expands its injury-reporting policy to include injuries that might affect performance without “hundreds of reports being filed constantly” by NBA teams. 

“While it’s a fair question to raise, it’s not obvious how you would construct a rule that would require disclosure of that kind of thing without becoming all-encompassing and requiring a much more burdensome, intrusive and wide-range of disclosures than we have today,” Spillane says.

Still, Salerno isn’t satisfied with the league’s stance.

“This really blows their whole argument apart,” Salerno says. “That proved to me that we couldn’t count on the NBA to protect the integrity of the game.”

This isn’t just an opinion of a bitter bookmaker. Salerno is one of the biggest, most-trusted names in the sports betting industry. In October, as the director of sportsbook operations for BetChicago, Salerno testified in front of Illinois lawmakers at a sports wagering hearing and raised the Finals issue as an example of why sportsbooks should not be required by the law to pay an integrity fee to sports leagues. In that meeting, a National Basketball Players Association representative defended James’ right to withhold that information.

State legislatures, so far, are siding with Salerno and the sportsbooks. None of the eight states with legal sports betting have included an integrity fee, which is currently proposed by the NBA, MLB and PGA Tour as 0.25 percent of the amount of money wagered, otherwise known as the handle. (The compensation package was initially introduced as an “integrity” fee in January but has since been called a royalty). Still, Spillane and the NBA’s team of lawyers continue to make their case that the NBA deserves a cut off the top. It’s a big ask considering sportsbooks in New Jersey, for example, took home just six percent of the handle

“It has been a part of several bills that have been introduced in various states over the course of the year including a couple that came very close to passage,” Spillane says. “We view this as the very beginning of the process, though.”

Four years after Silver wrote a groundbreaking op-ed for the New York Times, the NBA has put on the full-court press to leverage the Supreme Court ruling and boost revenues for NBA owners. The integrity fee (or royalty fee) is just one revenue stream related to gambling. 

The others will undoubtedly change the way fans will experience the sport. Already, the whole NBA landscape is shifting before our eyes.

* * *

Sports leagues and the gambling world have long been embroiled in something of a cold war. 

For years, the NFL went as far as banning the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority from advertising during the Super Bowl, even without any reference to sports betting or gambling in general. Now, the NFL will relocate the Oakland Raiders to Vegas in 2020 and commissioner Roger Goodell announced on Wednesday that it will hold its 2020 NFL Draft in Sin City, saying the NFL is "looking forward to working with" that same Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in its press release. As recently as 2012, then-NBA commissioner David Stern wrote in a declaration in a New Jersey case against legalized sports gambling: “The NBA cannot be compensated in damages for the harm that sports gambling poses to the fundamental bonds of loyalty and devotion between fans and teams.”

Like the NFL, the NBA also reversed its position recently. In one of his first landmark moves as NBA commissioner, Silver’s 2014 Times op-ed argued in favor of legalized sports gambling. Silver’s direct repudiation of his mentor changed everything and laid the groundwork for the current gambling-friendly climate. (Stern now backs legalized sports gambling).

“Silver’s op-ed was huge,” Holden says. “It was sort of the first professional sports league change in policy in about a hundred years. It was certainly a monumental change.”

But May 14, 2018 changed tides and opened up the floodgates. That afternoon, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban went on CNBC and didn’t hold back when summarizing the SCOTUS decision: “Everybody who owns top-four professional sports teams just basically saw the value of their team double,” Cuban said. “At least.”

The NBA didn’t hesitate to line up business deals that industry sources say are amounting to millions of dollars of revenue. In late July, the NBA announced that MGM Resorts would become an official gaming partner of the NBA and WNBA, marking the first partnership of its kind with a sports betting operator in the United States. This week, the NBA landed another partnership, this time with the Stars Group, which operates in New Jersey under its BetStars brand.

Things have changed so quickly that Las Vegas is now seen as a potential safe harbor for an NBA team. On Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported that Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver was threatening to move the team to Las Vegas (or Seattle) if the city couldn’t agree on an arena deal. The NBA has developed strong roots in Las Vegas, holding its Summer League there since 2004 and making it the premier offseason showcase in recent years. In 2017, it became the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League through a marketing deal with the casino giant. 

With the climate softening on Vegas and NBA gambling in general, Cuban hired the most famous NBA bettor, Haralabos Voulgaris, and brought him into the Mavs’ front office to help him win games. Voulgaris’ nearly 150,000 followers on Twitter won’t have access to his keen insights into the NBA anymore. But soon, fans might be able to attend an NBA game and legally bet on it without having to look over their shoulder. Yes, in-arena betting may be coming sooner than you think.

* * *

At the local level, teams are joining in on the betting biz boom. 

In October, the Philadelphia 76ers’ ownership group, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, announced a multi-year partnership with Caesars Entertainment, which operates the Harrah’s Philadelphia just 30 minutes away from the Sixers’ home at Wells Fargo Center. Caesars also operates sportsbooks in Atlantic City, which will be the destination for Sixers in-game promotions such as “Score For The Shore” half-court shots or “Live Like A Caesars VIP” social media contest on the team’s official feed.

Was it a coincidence that they struck a deal just months after PASPA was repealed?

“It’s not,” says Caesars SVP Marketing & Chief Experience Officer Michael Marino. “For us, we think there’s a lot of value in meeting sports fans because we believe they’re highly likely to become sports betting fans as well. There’s certainly more interest now than five months ago in meeting these fans. We’re looking forward to the many different activations as a brand partner and then also, obviously, the more direct to the consumer we can get, the better.”

Caesars has reason to be bullish about officially getting into the NBA space. In less than six months of operation, gamblers in New Jersey have wagered nearly $1 billion. (Under the hypothetical of a quarter-percent royalty fee, a $1 billion handle would mean sportsbooks would have to write a $2.5 million check to sports leagues). On Thursday, Philadelphia’s first sportsbook, SugarHouse Casino, is set to open just a 15-minute drive from the Sixers’ arena.

Marino envisions that in early 2019 fans seated inside Wells Fargo Center can open up their Caesars app on their phone and bet on the game. The state of Pennsylvania legalized land sports betting in November, but online gambling hasn’t been launched yet. Now, fans on their phones can only bet legally in New Jersey, just a few minutes away. 

It’s partnerships like these that have people wondering how soon we will see a sportsbook at an NBA arena. Salerno believes fans will be soon able to bet on NBA games in a brick-and-mortar space at an NBA arena “within the year.” Think Churchill Downs, but with an NBA game as the live event.

Marino doesn’t think Wells Fargo Center will have a sportsbook any time soon, but it’s not out of the question for Caesars to open up a sportsbook on-site down the road.

“Someday,” Marino says, “we would love that.”

One theory is that legalizing sports gambling will make more fans tune into games and attend live events.

But that hasn’t happened just yet. According to Sports Media Watch tracking, ratings have been in surprising decline so far this season. Through last Friday, ESPN and TNT have seen a year-over-year drop in 24 of the 37 NBA games they have aired this season. Part of that might be due to Stephen Curry’s injury, general Warriors fatigue and the early struggles of elite teams in some of the NBA’s largest markets like Houston and Boston. Still, the gambling boom hasn’t led to more eyeballs quite yet.

“The numbers are well below what I expected this season with LeBron’s move to L.A.,” said Jon Lewis, who writes under the psyeudonym “Paulsen” at Sports Media Watch and has been covering sports ratings since 2006.

However, at the local level, it might be a different story. As Pennsylvania and New Jersey ramp up their sportsbooks offerings, the 76ers now rank No. 1 league-wide in attendance, averaging 20,339 fans per home game. What’s more, the team’s local broadcast partner, NBC Sports Philadelphia just posted its highest November average since 2001 -- the year Allen Iverson won MVP. It’s far too early to attribute that growth to the legalization of gambling in the Philly region, but these sort of viewership gains are the goal.

To Salerno, this is why lobbying for integrity or royalty fees is a waste of time. In his view, the NBA will make plenty of money on gambling-related private partnerships, advertising and increases in franchise value. The NBA, from his perspective, has already benefited greatly from gambling even before PASPA was repealed.

“Who’s going to watch the Nets-Celtics game when the Celtics are a 16-point favorite? If nobody’s betting on it, nobody’s going to watch the game,” Salerno says. “We’ve made them a lot of money.”

Holden believes that won’t stop the NBA from going to the courts and advocating for an integrity fee. A federal sports betting bill has recently been drafted and, though it’s unlikely to pass in Holden’s view, how Congress proceeds will be worth monitoring. Still, expect more NBA/MGM-like business deals to continue.

“I think the league is going to continue to press very hard to get a cut of the handle, but I think the best opportunities for the league to profit from legalized sports gambling is through these private partnerships,” Holden says. “There are a number of legal issues associated with states mandating integrity fees.”

Holden warns that the NBA might be sending the wrong message to fans that, before the federal ban was lifted on sports gambling, the league wasn’t financially or systemically equipped to protect integrity of the game. If bringing sports gambling from the shady underground to above ground will be safer for bettors as Silver argued in his op-ed, why suddenly ask for integrity fees now?

“That’s a very contradictory statement that they’ve made,” Holden says. “I don’t know how sustainable it is to continue asking for the integrity fee. They are not going broke paying lobbyists to ask for integrity fees but at some point, how many times do you want to strike out, before you move onto something else?”

Holden then pauses.

“But it can’t hurt to ask for free money,”

How Michael Jordan and LeBron James broke through the NBA's glass ceiling

How Michael Jordan and LeBron James broke through the NBA's glass ceiling

The crowd roared as Michael Jordan walked onto the court during Sunday’s All-Star Game. Jordan had made this stroll 14 times as a player, but this time, he wasn’t wearing a jersey. Instead, he was dressed in a black blazer, gray jeans and a giant watch that sparkled with the power of the sun.

The announcer’s growly voice blared from the Spectrum Center speakers.

“From North Carolina, the 6-6 guard and chairman of the Charlotte Hornets, Michaelllllll Jordannnn.”

Jordan was ceremoniously handing the All-Star Game ball to Michael Reinsdorf, the president of Jordan’s former team, the Chicago Bulls, and the son of Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. The city of Chicago will be hosting the 2020 All-Star Game.

Looking on from the sidelines during the timeout, LeBron James and 25 other uniformed All-Stars watched the two shake hands. It was a symbolic gesture with historical weight. In 2010, Jordan became the first former NBA player to become a majority owner of a franchise. He is currently the only African-American majority owner in the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB. 

These handshakes are almost always done with white hands.

That fact wasn’t lost on the All-Stars that surrounded Jordan on Sunday, the majority of whom were black. Jordan broke through a wall, opening a door that many of those same players hope to one day walk through.

Only days before he stood in front of Jordan in Charlotte, James, the most prominent All-Star of them all, announced to the world his intention to follow in Jordan’s footsteps.

Last week, through The Athletic, James boldly declared that he was going to own an NBA team one day, just like Jordan.

“Ain’t no maybe about it,” James told The Athletic. “I’m going to do that s***.”

That’s always been the plan.

“That’s what he’s gonna do,” Dwyane Wade said of James this past weekend. “He’s going to own a team. He’s been talking about this since we were rookies. I think all of us want to be a part of ownership,” Wade said. “It’s a goal of mine, it’s a goal of (Chris Paul), (Carmelo Anthony) and our whole crew.”

Jordan’s power has gone all the way to the top. And today’s players are flexing their muscle.

* * *

Kevin Durant grew up outside Washington, D.C., in Prince George’s County, MD, and was four days away from his 13th birthday when, on Sept. 25, 2001, Jordan announced he would return to play for the local Washington Wizards. Six years later, by the time Durant was drafted No. 2 overall in 2007, Jordan had purchased a minority stake in the then-Charlotte Bobcats, the first stepping stone to buying the team outright in 2010.

As a kid in PGC, Durant never even considered that he could one day be an owner of any NBA team. But Jordan changed all that. Nowadays, Durant is thinking bigger. While Jordan played host at All-Star Weekend, Durant was asked whether he ever dreamed he could possibly own a franchise.

“I never thought about it as a kid,” Durant said. “You don’t even think about the business until halfway in [after] you accomplish everything you want as a player. Only thing I [previously] thought about is stepping into this oasis, this freedom as a man, to just do everything I wanted every day -- play basketball, play video games, watch TV, eat junk food. I’ve been doing that for the last 12 years.

“Now, I’ve started to think about what’s next.”

Durant, who is almost four years younger than James, followed a similar path to James off the court. James built a business empire through agent Rich Paul, manager Maverick Carter and others in his inner circle. So far, James has opened a public school in his hometown of Akron, launched an athlete-owned media company in Uninterrupted, and had at least some role in founding a sports agency, Klutch Sports Management, with his longtime friend Paul. There’s also SpringHill Entertainment, a production company started by James and Carter, which produced James-centric shows on HBO and ESPN and will shepherd James’ starring turn in Space Jam 2 in the role once held by Jordan.

Last week, Durant debuted his own show, “The Boardroom” on ESPN+, in which he and his business partner Rich Kleiman will have starring roles alongside ESPN analyst and former No. 2 overall pick Jay Williams. The original series, in a similar vein as James’ “The Shop,” will feature in-depth discussions from icons inside and outside basketball about the sports business. It’s just one of several projects hosted within Thirty Five Ventures, a company Durant co-owns with Kleiman. Durant has also pledged a $10 million donation to open The Durant Center, a new facility seeking to increase the number of low-income and first-generation college students in the Prince George’s County public school system.

Durant, like James, also has interest in adding an NBA team -- or a slice of one -- to his investment portfolio. The Golden State Warriors forward is just 30 years old and has made $160 million in salary. He knows it’s going to take a lot more than that to get into the ownership business.

“If I make enough money, I would for sure think about it,” Durant said. “I would love to. It’s much easier said than done.”

In 2010, Jordan successfully made a $275 million bid, plopping down $30 million in upfront cash, according to the Charlotte Observer, to purchase the team from Bob Johnson, the co-founder of BET and the first African-American majority club owner of a major American sports league. Jordan’s investment was a shrewd business move. This month, Forbes valued the Charlotte franchise at $1.25 billion. 

The money is one thing, but Durant stressed how significant it is that Jordan, as an African-American, was able to smash through that glass ceiling that, for so long, had been colored white.

“I don’t want to understate that when it comes to Michael Jordan, it’s so hard to break into that club of being an owner,” Durant said. “Because that’s what it is -- it’s a boy’s club. It’s a bunch of friends that make those deals together. So when you see a black man from North Carolina, that started off as a basketball player, rise up and own a basketball team, it’s very inspiring.”

Count Portland Trail Blazers star guard Damian Lillard among those who drew inspiration from Jordan and his business pursuits that empowered him to own a team.

“I think he’s definitely opened the doors for it, just letting you know it’s possible,” Lillard said. “For him, the great Michael Jordan as a player, but on the business side he was the first guy to really, really, really do it. Especially as an African-American man. For him to do that, now you see so many guys try to establish that business away from basketball.”

* * *

For so long, the business of basketball has been disproportionately white. In 2015, Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, found that the NBA was a leader in the sports industry for racial and gender hiring practices, receiving top scores in men’s pro sports. 

However, a survey of the league’s org charts showed that, despite those strong marks, the higher and higher one looks, the fewer and fewer African-Americans appeared. According to the UCF study, 74.4 percent of all NBA players identified themselves as African-Americans or black compared to just 33.3 percent of their head coaches, 19.4 percent of GMs and 3.3 percent of owners (with Jordan the sole majority owner). In 2019, after Tyronn Lue was fired by Cleveland earlier this season, the coaching percentage fell to 23.3 percent, or seven of the 30 jobs. For any player looking at positions of power in their sport, that’s not an encouraging sign.

Just last week, James spoke out against what he sees as racial bias against his African-American representatives. 

Following a trip to take in a Duke-Virginia game, James and Paul were chided for what many  saw as a “recruiting trip” of projected 2019 No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson.

In talking to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, James fired back.

“A recruiting trip? I didn't talk to anybody,” James said. "They're only saying that because it's Rich … Now, Rich is a threat to everybody, and they look at it and they want to keep trying to jab my agent and jab my friend. And what is he doing that's wrong? They don't say that about no other agent when other guys go see [players]. They don't say that about no other agent, but my guy because he's a threat.”

James went on.

"And he's African-American, too. Throw that in there.”

* * *

Not every star sees themselves as a future NBA owner. Kemba Walker, who plays for Jordan’s Hornets, wasn’t about that life, telling NBC Sports, “no sir, just not my thing.” After praising Jordan’s business efforts, Lillard just shook his head when asked if he’d like to be an owner or run an NBA team. Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson said owning a team “would be fun, but it takes a lot of capital to do that. I’ll just stick to owning a fantasy team one day.”

But just about every player that spoke with NBC Sports praised James and Jordan for empowering the younger generation to think big. James and Jordan have not just asserted their own power, but have also elevated people of color to powerful positions. In 2006, Jordan hired Charlotte Hornets (then-Bobcats) president of business operations Fred Whitfield as the NBA’s only African-American chief operating officer. Whitfield has worked closely with Jordan for decades, initially as an attorney under Jordan’s longtime agent David Falk. (On Saturday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver name-checked Whitfield during his opening remarks at his annual All-Star press conference).

In 2012, while with the Miami Heat, James hired Paul, who had been working under Leon Rose at CAA, to be his agent. Paul left CAA to start up Klutch Sports and in short time has become one of the league’s top power brokers.

Since leaving CAA, Paul has added stars such as Davis, John Wall and Ben Simmons to his clientele. According to HoopsHype tracking, Paul currently represents 16 players with total salaries amounting to $194 million, the fifth-highest total among all agents.

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, just 22 years old and a participant in the All-Star 3-point shootout for a second time, admired James and Jordan’s business acumen but also noted their support staffs.

“They’re opening doors,” said Booker, who is not one of Paul’s clients. “It’s never enough for those type of guys, and I’d like to think of myself the same. Expanding their business, expanding their life. And they put the right people around them in the right positions to take care of them. Big shout out to them for changing the game and being an inspiration to us, the younger generation.”

* * *

It’s not hard to envision how a franchise owned by James might look. Could there one day be a Banana Boat Inc., investment group featuring James, Wade, Paul and Anthony? Wade hinted at it over the All-Star Weekend, and others in the league are connecting the dots.

Just as Jordan anointed his longtime associate Whitfield to be the Hornets president, some in league circles foresee a possible two-pronged brain trust featuring Carter at the head of business operations and Paul spearheading the basketball side. 

Paul is following a similar path as the current general managers for both James and Durant’s teams. Before taking over as the Lakers’ general manager, Rob Pelinka was a high-powered agent for over a decade, representing names like Kobe Bryant, James Harden and for a short time, Durant. Warriors GM Bob Myers did the same, spending 14 years as a big-time agent with SFX Sports and Wasserman. 

Both Pelinka and Myers played college hoops and earned a law degree before entering the agent business. Paul did neither but has amassed an impressive client list and is flexing comparable power just the same. 

Not everyone likes it, especially those in top managerial levels. Pelicans owner Gayle Benson fired the team’s general manager the morning after Paul walked out mid-game with Anthony Davis on national television, reportedly vowing to “take back control from outside forces,” according to ESPN. As the president of the Knicks, Phil Jackson once referred to James’ business partners as a “posse,” a term that James and Carter interpreted as offensive racially-coded language meant to minimize their business credibility.

"We see the success that we have, but then there is always someone that lets you know still how far we still have to go as African-Americans," James said following Jackson’s comments.

The All-Star Weekend was a homecoming for the Curry family, but it also represented something more than that. With Jordan owning a franchise and LeBron making noise about doing the same, it was a statement that black athletes are wielding more power within the game than ever before and opening doors for others to follow. Perhaps one day we’ll see James shake hands with Jordan at halfcourt of an All-Star game -- not as players, but owners.

Family focus: How the Currys are leading the second generation of NBA athletes

NBC Sports

Family focus: How the Currys are leading the second generation of NBA athletes

This year’s All-Star Weekend in Charlotte will be a family affair, a celebration of House Curry, if you will.

Stephen Curry will participate in the 3-point contest with his brother, Seth, a guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, marking the first time that brothers will compete together in the marquee event. Not only that, the Currys will let it fly in the same city where the two grew up. Their father Dell, currently an analyst for the Hornets broadcast team and a two-time 3-point shooting contest participant himself, was part of the original Charlotte Hornets team and retired as the franchise’s career scoring leader. On Sunday, before the All-Star Game, the NBA will honor Dell at an event for his contributions on and off the court.

Make no mistake about it, the Curry family is NBA royalty and this is their homecoming. Stephen is the two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion who currently leads the NBA in 3-pointers per game (5.1). Seth, now in his fifth season, leads the NBA in 3-point percentage, making a blistering 47.5 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. 

Fans are obsessed with their every move. Seth’s Instagram account has 1.7 million followers, more than any MLB or NHL star. Meanwhile, Steph led the league in jersey sales for a third-straight season and boasts more Instagram followers than the top-three most-followed NFL stars, Odell Beckham Jr., Tom Brady and Cam Newton, combined. 

While the Currys changed the game of basketball by weaponizing the 3-point shot like never before, they’re also the most prominent faces in a fascinating trend. A wave of second-generation NBA players has flooded the league in recent years. This season, there are 27 sons of NBA players, including Steph, Seth, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Devin Booker, Domantas Sabonis and Justise Winslow, among others.

The Currys are the patriarchs among a growing family of patriarchs. These days, the term “NBA family” takes on a new meaning.

* * *

As Stephen, Seth and Dell act as official and unofficial hosts this weekend in Charlotte, they’ll also serve as reminders of the father-son dynamic infiltrating the league’s elite.

In the All-Star Game itself, Stephen will be joined by fellow second-generation player Thompson (father Mychal won two titles with the Lakers). Booker, son of former NBAer Melvin, will join Seth and Stephen in the 3-point contest after winning last year’s event. Sabonis (the legendary Arvydas is his father) and Jaren Jackson Jr (father Jaren played 12 seasons in the NBA) will be featured in the Rising Stars game. Al Horford and Kevin Love, though not chosen to participate this year, are All-Star mainstays who are also second-generation NBA players. 

That doesn’t even illustrate the full scope of this familial phenomenon. That list of 27 does not count Rising Star participant and Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen and his father, Leonard, who was drafted 50th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in 1985 but played professionally in Spain instead. JaVale McGee’s mother, Pamela, was the No. 2 overall pick in the WNBA’s 1997 draft and his father George Montgomery was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1985 draft but never played in the NBA. Also outside that 27: Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, whose fathers played pro basketball in Australia, and Luka Doncic, whose father, Sasa, played pro ball in Slovenia. 

Both of Lonzo Ball’s parents played college hoops and his father, LaVar Ball, once signed with the New York Jets as a defensive end. The Knicks’ Kevin Knox is actually Kevin Knox II; his father played in the NFL. Marvin Bagley III is the grandson of two-time All-Star (Jumping) Joe Caldwell and the son of Marvin Jr., who played pro football in the AFL. Lauri Markkanen’s father, Pekka, played pro hoops in Europe after playing for coach Roy Williams at University of Kansas. Lauri’s mother, Riika, played basketball for the Finnish national team. Dirk Nowitzki’s mother, Helga, once played basketball for the German national team while his father Jörg-Werner was an elite handball player. 

The Currys aren’t even the only active NBA brothers with a father who played in the league; Jerami and Jerian Grant are the sons of former NBAer Harvey Grant, who is the twin brother of All-Star and four-time champion Horace.

All these familial links may seem obvious. Height is the leading predictor of NBA players and that’s a genetically-linked trait passed on through DNA. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal found that nearly half of NBA players were related to current or former elite athletes. Giants tend to produce giants, after all. Not only that, but the pool of potential NBA fathers only gets larger over time.

But this latest boom seems extraordinary. The arrival of Curry in 2009 coincided with an influx of NBA sons. In 2008-09, the list was only 10 names long. During Stephen’s rookie season, in 2009-10, he led a group that grew to 16, the most the league had ever seen. The next season, two more. Another three the following year. By 2014-15, it ballooned to 27 players, where it currently stands.

There may be more on the horizon. Oregon center Bol Bol, son of the late Manute Bol, is one of the top prospects in the 2019 Draft. LeBron “Bronny” James Jr., is still in eighth grade, but he has reportedly received an offer from Duke University already and could reach the NBA right around the time his father turns 40 years. Dwyane Wade’s son, Zaire, has already been offered a scholarship by Nebraska as part of the class of 2020. Shareef O’Neal, the son of Shaquille, is at UCLA but sitting out the season with a heart ailment. Cole Anthony, the son of Greg, is the No. 2 prospect of the 2019 class on ESPN’s 100 and Trayce Jackson-Davis (son of Dale Davis) checks in at No. 25.  Scotty Pippen Jr., Kenyon Martin Jr., DJ Rodman (short for Dennis Rodman Jr.) are all highly-touted prospects coming through the pipeline.

Nature is certainly a big part of the boom, but nurture could also play a pivotal role. More specifically: Follow the money. The NBA’s business skyrocketed in the 1990s with Michael Jordan and the globalization of the game. In Dell Curry’s first season, the NBA’s salary cap stood at $4.9 million. By the time he retired in 2001-02, it had grown to $42.5 million. It stands to reason that NBA players became substantially richer and therefore, able to provide more resources for their children -- access to trainers, gyms and specialists -- to pursue basketball as a profession. 

I asked Brent Barry, the vice president of basketball operations for the San Antonio Spurs who played 14 seasons in the NBA, if he could offer up any insight. He and his two brothers, Jon and Drew, both played in the NBA, following in the footsteps of his Hall-of-Fame-father Rick.

Brent first pointed out the fundamental role of genetics, but he also made a point to emphasize his mother, Pam. She is the daughter of NBA player Bruce Hale, which makes Brent a third-generation NBA player of sorts.

That’s when it hits: Does the rise of the father-son NBA combo have more to do with the mother’s side? The 1990s saw a boon for high-level female athletics. In 1991, the International Olympic Committee made a ruling that all new sports applying for Olympic recognition must include female competitors. Women’s soccer and softball became Olympic sports leading into the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The WNBA debuted in 1997, roughly around the same time as the current influx of NBA sons were born. 

David Epstein, author of the New York Times best-selling book “The Sports Gene,” is an expert on the role of nature vs. nurture in athletics. He agrees that genetics are the integral part of the rise of father-son NBA players. 

“You have the sons who have potential, the fathers with means and knowledge, and the high desire to follow in dad's footsteps,” Epstein says. “You have a perfect storm of convergence.”

Though he hasn’t studied this particular finding, he hypothesizes that there are more athletic parent couples than ever before. The athletic supercouples like the McGees, Nowitzkis and Markkanens are becoming more and more the norm.

"Women haven't really had many sports opportunities for very long at all,” Epstein said. “You could argue there's a lot more opportunity for elite athlete couples to form than in the past. I'd guess it will only become more common as women get more athletic opportunities."

Seth and Stephen’s father may have been an NBA sharpshooter, but their mother, Sonya, played collegiate volleyball at Virginia Tech and also led her high school basketball team to two state championships. Sydel Curry, Stephen and Seth’s sister, followed her mother’s footsteps and played Division I volleyball at Elon University. (Speaking of supercouples, she wedded Golden State Warriors reserve guard Damion Lee last year).  

The Plumlee brothers (Mason, Marshall and Miles) all reaching the NBA makes more sense when you find out their parents, Leslie and Perky, both played college basketball (Purdue and Tennessee Tech, respectively). Boris Diaw’s mother, Elisabeth, is in the French Basketball Hall of Fame while his father was a former Senegalese high-jump champion.

It’s tempting to focus on the father-son combos of NBA royalty, but the role of both parents, just like with the Currys, must be fully appreciated.

* * *

Twenty-seven years ago, Stephen Curry watched his father compete in the family’s first 3-point shooting contest. It was the 1992 NBA All-Star Weekend, Vanilla Ice was the halftime act, and Dell was a sharpshooter for the budding Charlotte Hornets, a franchise born the same year as Stephen. 

Stephen, just three years old at the time, was there on the sidelines with his father, getting a front-row view. He even sat on Dell’s lap during the contest and watched basketball greats like John Stockton and Drazen Petrovic compete against his father.

Nearly three decades later, Stephen continues to cement his family’s status as NBA royalty. 

In October, after Stephen scored 29 points, Stephen and Dell surpassed Donny and Dolph Schayes as the second-most points of any father/son combination in NBA history. The Currys (not counting Seth) now have 28,420 points between them and only Kobe and Joe Bryant’s total of 38,895 points stand in front of them.

One day, the Currys may well surpass the Bryants as the leading father-son combo. But even if they get there, the Currys might not hold that title for long. Their father-son successors could be in Charlotte, lurking on the All-Star sidelines, just like Stephen and Dell 27 years ago. 

With the Currys hosting the NBA, the All-Star Weekend in Charlotte is certainly a family affair. If current trends hold, the notion of Team LeBron, in time, may be more than an All-Star Weekend moniker.