Fresh off the heels of the 2016 NBA All Star Game in the lovely city of Toronto, I decided do something I hate. Make a list. “Why?” you may ask. Short answer, “Hmmm…”. Long answer, the All Star Game is an exhibition bonanza to entertain the NBAs well wishers and sponsors. It is the NBA’s marquee event second only to The Finals, which aren’t nearly as elaborate, and unlike the NFLs marquee event the Superbowl, it does not hold any significance to the current season. It does reflect in a player’s career achievements, but ever since Yao Ming got voted to start at the 2011 NBA All Star Game without playing a minute that season, I stopped taking it seriously enough as a point of contention in the argument of the greatest players ever. So that makes the NBA All Star Game a mela. A multimillion dollar, everybody-who-is-anybody-needs-to-be-seen-there, let’s-not-play-defense-and-give-the-fans-what-they-came-for mela. And I don’t mind making lists about melas, because lists about melas ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of things.
Number 10: 1951 NBA All Star Game, Boston Garden, Boston: The Beginning
The game that started it all. This may come as a surprise to the young twenty somethings, but basketball wasn’t popular in its early days. In fact it was quite unpopular as allegations of point shaving in college basketball were making headlines. Sensing the opportunity to turn things around in favor of the game, then NBA President Maurice Poldoff, NBA publicity director Haskell Cohen and Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown decided to hold an exhibition game featuring the league’s best players. Players were selected by sports journalists across the country without regard to position and the coaches were those whose teams had the best records in their respective conferences, a practice that continues to date. Brown was so convinced about its success that he agreed to bear all costs and losses, if any. He was right. The game drew a then record 10,094 fans in a league that averaged just 3,500 per game.
MVP: Ed “Easy Ed” Macauley who not only scored 20 pts but held the great George Mikan to just 4 pts.
Other Notable performances: Bob Cousy 8 pts, 9 rebs, 8 asts.
Number 9: 1964 NBA All Star Game, Boston Garden, Boston: The Strike (almost)
Any All Star moments list that omits the 1964 game is being disrespectful to the very principles the league has come to rest on in the years following the 1963-64 season. The players union, founded in 1954 by Bob Cousy, was saturated from ten years of expressing their concerns (Saturday night-Sunday noon back-to-back games, no pension / insurance, poor pay and terrible playing conditions among others) and presenting their demands to Commissioner Walter Kennedy, but not getting the ear, time or respect of the team owners and league officials. The 1964 NBA All Star Game was to be the first All Star game televised live, and sensing an opportunity the league’s biggest stars led by Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Tom Heinsohn and Jerry West (a huge deal in the midst of race tensions, especially in a city like Boston), threatened to strike by not playing if their demands were not met. Long story short, the league and owners could not risk giving up a potential a TV contract, especially since basketball was still a fringe sport, and gave in to the demands of the players. It signaled a shift in the attitude of the league and team owners towards the players, and brought NBA players the respect that is commonplace nowadays. Strangely enough yet understandably so, the recap of the game on the NBA site as well as Wikipedia barely mentions the strike. There are two fairly elaborate pieces describing the events of the 1964 NBA All Star Game here and here.
MVP: Oscar Robertson 26 pts, 14 rebs, 8 asts.
Other Notable Performances: Bill Russell 13 pts, 21 rebs; Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Petit with 19 pts each and 20 and 17 rebs respectively.
Number 8: 2016 NBA All Star Game, Air Canada Center, Toronto – Scoring Galore and The Black Mambas Last Hiss.
The only reason this game makes the list? The scoring. The first NBA All Star Game to travel outside the US, possibly encouraging talks for another team in Canada, was also Kobe’s last All Star game. Unlike MJ, Kobe did not bring anything close to his A-Game, and this turned out to be more a farewell for him. None of that characteristic competitiveness that Kobe brings to every game he plays, which was disappointing. What did happen though, was scoring. Lots of it. Tons of it. Both teams barely scratched the surface of what would be considered below average defense. The total number of blocks was two consequently resulting in an offensive display for the ages. The sheer quantum of points scored was staggering, 369 points between the two teams, with the leading scorers Paul George and Westbrook scoring 41 and 31 points respectively. This game was toying with being boring, because frankly no played defense. But competitive play from Paul George, MVP Westbrook, Chris Paul who had 16 assists and cannot turn off his competitive switch, DeRozan and Lowry who were playing in front their home crowd and in their first All Star, John Wall and Kevin Durant kept the game as interesting as it could be.
MVP: Russell Westbrook 31 pts, 8 rebs, 5 asts, 5 stls
Other notable performances: Paul George 41 pts, 5 rebs, Chris Paul
As hard as I tried, I could not find a way to feature both these games and still make sure the other nine stayed put. So I did what every confused All Star MVP Awards does, kept them both, tied at the 7th spot.
By his own admission, his performance in the 1986 game drove Isaiah Thomas to push his game to the next level and pursue championships. He was already one of the league’s premier point guards and well on his way to crafting an eventual Hall of Fame career. It was this game, however, that saw him mature into the leader that eventually led the Pistons to back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90. Finishing with 30 points and 10 assists, K. C. Jones’ one guard offense ran amok and erupted for a 39 point quarter led by Thomas en route his 2nd NBA All Star MVP.
MVP: Isiah Thomas 30 pts, 10 asts, 5 stls.
Other notable performances: Larry Bird 23 pts, 8 rebs, 5 asts, 7 stls; Moses Malone 16 pts, 13 rebs; Magic Johnson 4 pts, 15 asts.
It may be hard to fathom, but before the 70’s, basketball was a game largely played below the rim, with only bigs like Russell, Chamberlain, Petit and Baylor holding dominion above the rim. Dr. J changed all that paving the way for guards playing above the rim and the high flying NBA action we see as commonplace these days. He scored 22 points in his last All Star Game fittingly handing over the reins to a young phenom named Michael Jordan, who idolized Erving. But the story of the game was Tom Chambers, who made it into the game only thanks to a knee injury to Ralph Samson, and ending up crashing Dr. J’s party by scoring 34 pts, stealing the ball 4 times and leading the West to a win en route his against-all-odds MVP Trophy.
(against-all-odds) MVP: Tom Chambers with 34 pts, 4 stls.
Other notable performances: Moses Malone with 27 pts, 18 rebs; Magic Johnson with 9 pts, 13 asts, 7 rebs, 4 stls.
Number 6: 1962 NBA All Star Game, St. Louis Arena, St. Louis – The Record
I never liked Wilt Chamberlain. I still don’t. But we cannot deny that the physical presence he brought to the game was way ahead of his time. Chamberlain did set the record for most points scored in an All Star Game by dropping 42 on the West, and flirted with the record for most rebounds falling shy by just three to finish with 24 for the game (the record? Set in the same game by Petit with 27! Go figure.), but it was the West’s balanced attack with Baylor, Robertson, West, Petit and Bellamy that dominated the East that was no pushover with Russell, Cousy, Schayes and Heinsohn rounding up a stacked team. The West was devastatingly good, with all starters scoring 18 points or more and pulling down 79 rebounds, a record at the time. Petit deservingly took home MVP honors pouring in 25 points to go along with a monster 27 rebounds, a record that stands till date. Another significant fact about this game: It would be the last time Chamberlain and Russell would be on the same team.
MVP: Bob Petit with 25 pts, 27 rebs.
Other notable performances: Wilt Chamberlain 42 pts, 25 rebs; Elgin Baylor 32 pts, 9 rebs, Walt Bellamy 23 pts, 17 rebs.
I could harp about how MJ was so ill before the game, he allegedly would not be playing the game, let alone start it. I could harp about how he passed on the torch of greatness to a young rookie named Kobe Bryant, then the youngest rookie to start the NBA All Star Game. I could write about how Kobe was far from shoddy scoring 18 points and pulling down 6 rebounds to Jordan’s 23 points, 8 assists and third All Star MVP, just the third player since Oscar and Petit to do so. But since hindsight is 20:20, I’ll just leave some of the post game press quotes here:
Larry Bird, coaching his first NBA All Star Game: “Give it to Michael and get out of the way. That is the way it usually happens.”
Jordan: “I’ve been in bed for three days, basically. I didn’t really expect to come out here and win the MVP. I just wanted to fit in, to make sure Kobe didn’t dominate me. He came at me early, which I would have done if I were him. If you see someone who’s sick, or whatever, you’ve got to attack him. He attacked. I like his attitude.”
Kobe: “That’s all about competitive nature, I came out aggressive, he came back at me he hit those two turnarounds, and I was like ‘Cool, let’s get it on!”.
And my favorite…Bryant: “As far as carrying the torch for the years to come, I don’t know. I just want to be the best basketball player I can be. If that happens, that will be fine.”
Who woulda thunk! Hindsight is always 20:20.
MVP: Michael Jordan 23 pts, 8 asts, 6 rebs, 3 stls.
Other notable performances: Kobe Bryant 18 pts, 6 rebs, 2 stls.
Fast forward five years.
Kobe is now the alpha dog and halfway through the number of rings MJ has won. MJ, now 39, seems to (I repeat: “seems to”) be shadow of his former self. They get mic’d up for a video that has become a Youtube sensation since and will remain so forever. But nothing about the game stands out more than the second last play of overtime. With just over ten seconds left and the game tied, Jordan, guarded by the West’s best defender the 6’8” Shawn Marion who happens to have a 7’0” wingspan, receives a pass on the right wing, posts up Marion on his left, switches to his right, drives to the baseline and pulls up about midway between the 3pt line and the paint to unleash one of the deadliest shots in NBA history over the stretched-out-to-max hand of Marion, and sinks what could’ve been one of the greatest shots in the history of the All Star Game, and a reminder to Kobe of who’s his 40-yr old boss. Just imagine… a (nearly) 40 year old Jordan comes out of his second retirement, scores 20 points in the All Star game AND hits the game winning jumper with 5.2 seconds left! How is that NOT a fourth MVP for Jordan?! Alas, sadly we all know what happens next. Jermaine O’Neal has the idiotic audacity to foul a 3pt shooter, who just happened to be Kobe freakin’ Bryant!. Kobe calmly sinks two of three taking us to the first double overtime game in the history of the NBA All Star. Amongst all this madness, my favorite player of all time Kevin Garnett took home MVP honors, putting on an offensive clinic scoring 37 points on 71% shooting from the field! Add that to him filling every stat on the sheet except 3pt and you had one deserving MVP. If only Jermaine kept his freaking hands to himself!
MVP: Kevin Garnett 37 pts, 9 rebs, 3 asts, 1 blk, 5 stls and 71% FG%. Told ya…stat sheet stuffed and how!
Other notable performances: Allen Iverson 35 pts, 5 rebs, 7 asts, 5 stls (stat sheet stuffer alert!); Tracy McGrady 29 pts, 5 rebs; Kobe Bryant 22 pts, 7 rebs, 4 asts, 3 stls; Jordan 20 pts, 5 rebs, 2 stls.
Number 4: 2013 NBA All Star Game, Toyota Center, Houston. The Black Mamba bites The King
This was special. Because I was there. But more on that later.
This, in my humble opinion, was the last ever competitive All Star Game.
As with every All Star Game, the media creates a storyline, and this time, fittingly so, it was Lebron vs. Kobe. Lebron and his Miami Heat were in the midst of what would become the second longest win streak in the history of the regular season. Appearing invincible, the media began to wonder if Lebron, who before the All Star Game became the 1st player to average 30+ points while shooting 60+ pct from the field in six consecutive games, was finally ready to take on the mantle from Kobe. (This seemed ridiculous, even at that time, not only because Lebron had won just one championship, but he did so leaving Cleveland and joining another alpha dog’s (Dwayne Wade) quest to win a few more rings. Something Kobe would’ve never done, no matter what the rumor wines said. Even Jordan chipped in, picking Kobe over Lebron because well…five is better than one). Kobe disagreed, and Kobe being Kobe decided to take it to Lebron and his budding legacy. While the numbers do not reflect this (Kobe 9 pts in 27 mins), the last 5 minutes of the game do. With 5:37 left in the game and the West up by 5, Kobe turned up the heat (pun intended) playing Lebron full court, and doesn’t let up for the rest of the game. But the drama begins in earnest around 2:57 when Kobe crosses Bosh over for a lay up finishing on the left of the rim.
2:42: West by 8. Kobe picks up Lebron full court, sticks with him and locks in at halfcourt. Lebron runs towards the Bosh screen, looking to come off the screen and pull up for a shot. Kobe goes over the screen and blocks his shot clean, leading to an open Durant layup.
2:30: West by 10. Kobe is still chasing Lebron around forcing him to give up the ball and stand around watching Wade, Anthony and Bosh play ball.
0:56.8: West by 6. Lebron brings the ball into the half, is hassled by Kobe as he reaches the top of the key, tries to split the screen but dribbles it off his leg into KD’s hands who passes it to the Griffin for the off the board slam.
0:47.7: Wesy by 8. Griffin gets in on the action and double teams Lebron receiving the inbound pass followed by Kobe chasing him full court. Lebron’s had enough and decides to take Kobe all the way to the rim. Kobe stays with him and blocks the shot! Reggie Miller says “Kobe’s making this personal”
0:40.9: West by 8. Both teams clear out as Lebron posts up Kobe on the right side. He spins right, thinks he’s lost Kobe and goes up for the shot, only to get swatted hard by Kobe. Foul. Two shots for Lebron. He makes the 1st, giving him his FIRST point of the 4th quarter. Kobe swings over to the West bench loudly proclaiming to Kerr “He can’t score on me!” Lebron misses the second.
0:33.2: West by 7. Harden gets the rebound off the miss and goes by Lebron, who has lost all will in this game. Visibly distressed that Kobe is coming at him so hard.
And that’s it.
None of the players currently in the NBA, except for maybe Chris Paul, will ever do this in the NBA All Star Game. None. I’d like to be proven wrong. I’d love it, actually. But I know I won’t be. As much as I dislike Kobe, he will always have my respect for being one of the most competitive players to have ever stepped on hardwood.
MVP: Michael Jordan: 40 pts, 8 rebs, 3 asts, 4 stls, 4 blks.
Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.
Number 3: 1992 NBA All Star Game, Orlando Arena, Orlando. The Magical Farewell.
There’s everything he did on court, and there’s everything he did off it. But nothing exemplifies the place Magic had in the hearts of fans more than being voted to start in the 1992 NBA All Star Game. Upon learning he contracted HIV, Magic decided that he needed to focus on treatment and hung up his jersey for good before the 1991-92 season began. Remember that this was a time when HIV was terribly misunderstood and the harshest judgments were reserved for those who contracted it, especially vile when it came the individual’s personal life. Magic was one of the biggest celebrities to come out openly about his condition. The media went nuts speculating, especially since the Lakers were known to indulge in the good life. Fans fed off the speculation for a while, fueled by Magic’s decision to retire just as he was coming off the peek of his career. But almost immediately, the fans felt a void. Magic was more than just basketball. He was a global ambassador of the game, and much unlike Jordan, he was just as brilliant off the court as he was on it. His mega watt smile, coupled with his magnetic personality had the fans pining for one last Showtime Show, voting him to start the NBA All Star Game that season. The League bent the rules, Magic complied to play, and what followed was a few of hours of pure blissful magic as the world was watched Earvin Johnson weave his “Magic” into the 1992 NBA All Star Game. He barely missed a step all game, and played his heart out, sky hooks here, no look passes there, 9 assists and 25 points on 75% shooting while being a perfect 3-for-3 from 3pt land, panting at half time interviews, knocking down threes in his good friend Zeke’s face. He closed out the game successfully defending Zeke and Jordan on consecutive possessions, and put an exclamation mark when with 16.3 secs left and Zeke guarding him he launched and awkward looking but fundamentally perfect three that touched only the bottom of the net going in. It was a blowout with the West winning 153-113 and Magic was the heart of that win, deservingly taking home MVP honors for the second and last time in his career.
MVP: Earvin “Magic” Johnson 25 pts, 9 assists, 2 stls, 75% FG%, 3-for-3 3PT
Other notable performances: Clyde Drexler 22 pts, 9 rebs, 6 asts; Michael Jordan 18 pts, 5 asts, 2 stls.
Number 2: 1988 NBA All Star Game, Chicago Stadium, Chicago. – His Airness Micheal Jordan arrives.
Having received the mantle from Dr. J the previous year, it was Jordan’s time to shine. And the NBA could not have chosen a better venue. Whether the move was strategic knowing Jordan’s draw on fans and his impending blowout game, we will never know. What we do know, and have as a memory for ever, is Jordan exploding for 40 pts in one of the best All Star Games ever played. Both the East and the West were stacked with Hall of Famers, and Jordan saw this as the perfect coming out party. He felt he was sidelined in the games from 85-87, hinting that the older players were threatened by his presence and his abilities, and gave him the cold shoulder. Jordan decided to take matters in his own hands and dominate the All Star Game like no one has ever done and will ever do. In just 29 minutes on court. Jordan single handedly kept the East in the Game pouring in 40 pts (impressively this did not include a single 3ptr) and filling nearly every stat on the sheet. His running mates included his dunk contest nemesis, Dominique Wilkins and two NBA Finals nemesis Isaiah Thomas, with Bird and (Moses) Malone rounding up the East. The West was just as stacked with Magic, (Karl) Malone, Olajuwon, Alex English and the incredibly talented but streaky Lafayette “Fat” Lever. The two teams battled furiously, and remember, this was when teams actually played defense and treated the All Star Game with the utmost respect. Jordan scored 16 points in the final 5:30, but had to share his thunder with Kareem, whose sky hook took his All Star Game points total to 247 points, a record at that time.
MVP: Michael Jordan: 40 pts, 8 rebs, 3 asts, 4 stls, 4 blks.
Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.
Number 1: 2001 NBA All Star Game, MCI Center, Washington D.C. – The Comeback
The Game simply known as The Comeback.
My research for this article involved watching, pausing and re-watching All Star Game highlights and specials on Youtube. None though, gave me goosebumps the way the 2001 NBA All Star Game did.
I fell in love with basketball watching the 2000 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Blazers. So nearly everyone in the 2001 NBA All Star Game got me jumping out of my seat! “Damn! A young McGrady running with cuz Carter!”… “Look at that…Marbury when he actually played basketball and wasn’t eating jelly!!” “Holy crap Iverson was freakin insane!!!” … “ Ray Allen with the Bucks…young cats forget!!!” And my favorite “Holy Savior of the World…its Antonio McDyess!!!!”
Just so I could save my energy, I stood up and watched the whole video. Sitting down wasn’t an option. This was beyond incredible. These are the guys that got me hooked on to a game that has become the Purpose of my Life.
The East were almost puny in comparison to the giants of the West who, believe it or not, did not even have Shaq. This mismatch reflected in the score, with the West dominating just about every aspect of the game from the opening tip. Alley oops, rebound putbacks, dominating post play, incredible interior defense and just about everything you’d expect when a team as physically imposing as the West took on the comparatively puny East. Every one was in on the party…Kobe, Duncan, Garnett, Webber, MdDyess, while Iverson, Carter, Marbury and Allen tried to keep the East in the game.
So when they found themselves up by 21 with nine minutes left to go in the game, the West thought they had nothing to worry. Well, they were wrong.
The East, led by Iverson, suddenly caught fire and rallied to stage the biggest comeback win in the history of the NBA All Star Game. The West looked lost and frazzled by the East’s feisty defense during this stretch. The look in Iverson’s eyes was unmistakable, he wanted no part of a loss, possibly due to the sorry state that the media cut of the East, claiming that they stood no chance against the bigger West lineup. Scoring 15 of his game-high 25 in the fourth quarter, Iverson willed the East back into the game and was helped by Marbury whose two late threes in response to Kobe’s baskets at the other end, sealed the deal.
We may indulge in a pointless debate of why this list isn’t right, and I may even let you change my mind on games from 2 – 10. But for its relevance in my life, and what it means to me till date, the 2001 NBA All Star Game will always be number one in my books. And you cannot convince me otherwise.
MVP: Allen Iverson 25 pts, 5 asts, 4 stls
Other notable performances: Dikembe Mutumbo 6 pts, 25 rebs; Kobe Bryant 19 pts, 7 asts, 4 rebs; Tim Duncan 14 pts, 14 rebs.
Before I finish:
The All Star Game, while still an exhibition, used to be fairly competitive when it started, picked up in intensity in the mid – late 80’s and early 90’s, and stayed fairly competitive till late 00’s. That’s all gone now, and the game has turned into a dunk and trickery fest. There were two block the entire game in 2016! And one was by Kyle Lowry!! While offense wins games, defense wins championships, making it a vital part of the game. That’s what sets basketball apart from other team games, in that you have to play both ends of the floor as a team at all times. As much as fans idolize these players, they also remember great performances and pay good money to watch these guys play a decent game of basketball. Instead, the highlight of the 2016 game for basketball purists was Popovich’s face every time the camera panned on him. He seemed like he did not want any part of the dunk fest. Or maybe that’s Pop just being his stoic self.
It is sad that the casual and new fans of basketball do not take the All Star Game more seriously. Actually most of us serious fans do not as well anymore. And there’s good reason… even the players themselves barely take it seriously.
When watching highlights and re-watching earlier games, three things stood out:
- The All Star game meant something. Starters played their best, because they felt they owed it to the fans who voted them in. Benchers played their best to prove to the coaches and journalists they made the right choice.
- Everyone played Defense. Plays were called on Offense. Yes, it was made fancier with slick passing and theatrical dunking. But they were still solid offensive set plays with a purpose of “beating” the other team. Not cruising for uncontested lay ups and dunks. That’s what the Dunk Contest is for.
- Teams played hard. They went at each other. Players wanted to show up their opponent. You went after your opponent, because you knew he was coming back the other way next possession. There has to be a winner and there will be a loser. None of that “everyone-is-a-winner” bullshit. That’s what the game of basketball is about.
I fear that with Kobe, the last of the legends that took the All Star Game fairly seriously has gone.
A final thought:
I spent every waking hour from 2000 till 2012 dreaming of one day attending an NBA Game and meeting with players who were demi-gods to me. The only basketball I had access to till then was two live games a week on TV (no highlights), highlights on Youtube (only from ‘06 onward), and the two of most important influences in my life, Scoop Jackson for SLAM Magazine and Bill Simmons also named the Sports Guy. I devoured every letter of every word of every article they wrote, including Simmons’ The Book of Basketball which I read once at the beginning of every year.
And then the 2013 NBA All Star happened. And I was there. (you can read my running blog here)
To have come this close to actually playing hoops with Simmons at a closed game for the media (Thank you for the media creds Akash Jain), to pass by Greg Popovich in the player tunnel and have him promise to come back around after the pregame press conference (he didn’t come back, but I ain’t mad…I shook his hand. Greg. Popovich’s. Hand.), to be the only media representative from India ask both David Stern and Adam Silver what plans they had for India, to try and meet Magic Johnson only to have his bodyguard palm my chest and say “No.”, to promise myself that one day Magic will know my name, to bring in my 30th birthday a day after His Airness brought in his 50th, to have spent an hour going absolutely nuts talking hoops with Scoop over beers, and the best part of the weekend…to stand two feet away from my all time favorite player Kevin Garnett asking him when does he plan to come to India again and hear him say “Soon, man. Soon”, is a feeling that cannot be expressed in words, no matter how eloquent my language. So yes, the All Star Game has turned into a bunch of grown men playing aimless basketball. Yes, the All Star Game is just about the NBA calling its big guns to impress the corporate world in the hopes of more sponsorship, partnerships and money. Yes, the All Star Game isn’t something serious basketball fans take seriously anymore and neither do the players. And yes, the All Star Game doesn’t count for anything in the argument of who is the greatest of all time after Jordan (see what I did there?).
But for a starry doe eyed dreamer so far away from the action, those four days meant the world. They meant everything. They make living worthwhile.