The NBA All-Star Game started in 1951 in Boston, and over the years it has expanded into a weekend-long celebration of all things basketball. The game itself is merely the exclamation point of three days of contests, exhibitions, celebrities, dunking, music, shooting, and no-look passing. And whether the game itself is a nail-biter or a blowout, there's always plenty of drama in the dunk contest, the three-point shootout, or even Shooting Stars. It's clear why the All-Star Weekend is the most fan-tastic of all the major sports, even seven decades in. Let's take a look back at some of the most spectacular, hilarious, and heartwarming moments from All-Star Weekends past.
After his diagnosis of HIV in 1991, Magic Johnson abruptly retired from the NBA. He didn't get a chance to say goodbye until the All-Star Game in Orlando, after the fans had voted the inactive Johnson in as a starter. It was a rout for Magic's West squad, which won the game 153-113 behind his 25 points and nine assists. He capped off the performance by guarding old rivals Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas one-on-one and then drilling a three-pointer over Thomas with 15 seconds remaining. The Orlando crowd went crazy, and the game stopped as players on both teams celebrated with Magic. He said afterward, "It's the first game ever to be called on account of hugs."
One of the finest one-on-one battles in dunk contest history happened in 2016, as young high-flyers Zach Lavine and Aaron Gordon faced off. Lavine's dunks were pure athleticism and power, though you could argue that the more creative Gordon was robbed. How can you throw down a monster, under-the-legs dunk off a handoff from a mascot who's rotating on a hoverboard and not take home the title? Dikembe Mutombo gave Gordon only 9/10 for the dunk, and Lavine won in overtime. Gordon returned with a failed drone dunk, which we are choosing to see not as a mechanical failure but a critique of U.S. foreign policy. He returned in 2020, only to lose a dunk-off when Dwyane Wade allegedly rigged the vote, which prompted, what else, a rap video response.
In the 2008 dunk contest, Gerald Green suffered a loss when the more popular Dwight Howard won the fan vote in the finals, even though Green delivered the brain-melting “birthday cake” dunk. He also did a between-the-legs dunk with no shoes on. Maybe the dunks were too esoteric, or maybe it would have threatened all of the NBA’s shoe sponsors if a player won the dunk contest in his socks.
Before the start of the 1964 All-Star Game, the players threatened to strike unless the owners agreed to recognize their union. At the time, the players didn’t get a per diem, regular trainers or any kind of pension plan, but they couldn’t get a meeting with the owners. The game – the first NBA All-Star Game to be televised – finally gave the players enough leverage to force the owners to bargain. Players association leader Tommy Heinsohn organized the boycott, and while team owners threatened the players (Lakers owner Bob Short yelled that he’d be through with Elgin Baylor if he didn’t play, and Baylor yelled back, “Tell Bob Short to go f--- himself!”), the players held firm. The “22-minute strike” worked, commissioner Walter Kennedy caved and the players association finally got a seat at the bargaining table. Unions get results! And Tommy points.
Chris “Birdman” Anderson declared to the other competitors that the Birdman was going to fly, and then he delivered the worst performance in dunk contest history. He missed dunks when he passed to himself, he misses dunks when J.R. Smith passed to him and even screwed up passing to J.R. It took him nine tries to land his first dunk and another six attempts to land his second. It made the NBA institute a time limit, meaning his dunks were so bad the NBA made a rule against him. Birdman overshadowed two genuinely great dunk performances by Amar'e Stoudemire and champion Josh Smith.
The 2020 All-Star Game took place just three weeks after the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. And the NBA filled the game with honors for Bryant, including the numbers worn by the two teams – Gianna's No. 2 for Team LeBron and Kobe's No. 24 for Team Giannis, plus an eight-second moment of silence and video tributes before and after the game. The All-Stars also paid tribute to Kobe's Mamba mentality with a hard-fought 4th quarter using the "Elam Ending," where teams play to a final score, rather than to the end of 48 minutes. After a series of big defensive stops, the game ended somewhat anticlimactically with Anthony Davis' winning free throws, but overall it was an emotional, competitive evening of basketball.
Larry Bird was a confident player, especially when it came to the three-point contest. He'd already won the first two versions of the contest, in 1986 and 1987, so in 1988 he walked into the locker room and asked, "Who's coming in second?" It was Dale Ellis who lost out when Bird hit the money ball to win it, walking away with one finger raised in the air in triumph. As if the locker room declaration didn't show enough confidence, Bird also competed wearing his warmup jacket.
In the first All-Star game since the ABA-NBA merger, Julius Erving won the MVP with a dazzling 30-point performance. But it was the late Paul Westphal who won the game for his West team, hitting two baskets in the final minutes of the game and stealing the ball from Pistol Pete Maravich to seal the game. Dr. J would also be stymied by a Western team in the finals, as Bill Walton's Blazers upset Erving's 76ers in the NBA Finals.
Rookie Dee Brown became instantly famous when he pumped up his sneakers before a dunk during All-Star Weekend in 1991. The moment, invaluable publicity for the Reebok Pump, launched Brown to a dunk contest title — and inadvertently set off a shoe war with Nike. Brown said that afterward Michael Jordan met him in the tunnel and warned him that, even though he was a rookie, Jordan now had to go at him as hard as possible to defend the honor of the Air Jordan. Sixteen years later, Gerald Green paid tribute to the "Pump dunk," putting on a Dee Brown jersey and his own pair of Reeboks before dunking over Nate Robinson.
In his final All-Star appearance, after coming out of retirement with the Wizards, Jordan hit a fadeaway with seconds left in overtime. The shot put the East up 138-136 and seemingly gave Jordan a storybook ending. But on the ensuing possession, Tracy McGrady fouled Kobe Bryant, who hit two free throws to send the game to a second overtime. When MJ attempted a second game-winner, Shawn Marion blocked his shot. Kevin Garnett dominated in the second overtime, and the West ultimately prevailed 155-145 with Garnett and Allen Iverson each playing 41 minutes and Tim Duncan logging 40 – which might have given Gregg Popovich incentive to start sitting out his starters midseason. The real MVP? Mariah Carey, with her jaw-dropping halftime tribute to Jordan.
Jeremy Evans' favorite hobby outside of basketball is painting, so at the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest, the defending champ decided to combine his love of painting with his love of dunking — by dunking over a painting, a painting of Evans dunking over that same painting. It’s an amazing, Möbius strip of a dunk that no one really understood in real time — more of a Dadaist deconstruction of the dunk contest than a standard competition dunk. And he painted it himself! The philistine voters didn't appreciate art, and they gave the title to Terrence Ross instead.
The 1984 All-Star Game was in Denver, and perhaps the high altitude was responsible for the offensive explosion. Or it was simply Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson, two point guards at the height of their powers and their generosity, combining for 39 assists in a 154-145 overtime win for the East. Isiah won the MVP with his 21 points and 15 assists, and Magic had almost a mirror image line, scoring 15 points and delivering a record 22 assists. The two guards were so good you could almost overlook Julius Erving scoring 34 in the last truly spectacular All-Star effort from Dr. J.
The first ever “dunk-off” in All-Star Weekend between resulted in a controversial win for Nate Robinson. Andre Iguodala earlier did one of the best dunks in history when took a pass off the back of the backboard and jammed it, while Nate Robinson needed 14 attempts to land a single dunk and also dunked over Spud Webb – the shortest dunk champ. It was Nate Robbery.
In the finals of the 2009 dunk contest, Nate Robinson's final dunk involved him donning "Kryptonite shoes" and dunking over Dwight Howard, who was wearing a Superman cape. Howard was also his competitor in the finals, showing the first signs of Howard's lack of killer instinct. His crucial missed free throws in the 2009 Finals were a direct result of the humiliating final of this dunk event. He put on a costume, just to get dunked on! And getting dunked on would ultimately define Dwight's post-Orlando career, whether on the court or on Twitter.
From 1984-1993, All-Star Weekend included the Legends Classic, a basketball old-timers game featuring retired greats. This is common in baseball, a sport that requires very little running where players can and do compete while drinking. But basketball is a lot more physical, and aging players' bodies are much more vulnerable. This became clear in the 1992 Legends Classic, when both David Thompson and Norm Nixon suffered debilitating leg injuries that sent them to the hospital. The NBA subsequently canceled the Classic, so now if you want to see retired players going at each other and blowing out their knees, you have to settle for watching the BIG3.
The 2008 All-Star Game was a hotly contested affair, tied 125-125 with less than a minute to go. That was when LeBron James took matters into his own hands by snatching an outlet pass away from teammate Jason Kidd so he could steam down the lane and dunk over what seemed like the entire West team. The game ended 134-128, and LeBron took home his second All-Star MVP with 27 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.
The brainchild of NBA president Maurice Podoloff and Boston owner Walter Brown, the first All-Star Game was considered a huge gamble. It turned out to be an immediate success, drawing over 10,000 fans and tripling Boston's normal attendance figures. Hometown hero No. 22 Ed Macauley was the Most Valuable Player by scoring 20 points and shutting down Lakers big man George Mikan, though he didn’t get the award until two years later when the league retroactively decided there should have been an MVP Award every year.
People often complain that no one plays defense in the All-Star Game. That was certainly not true in the early '50s, as the 1953 All-Star Game was 79-75, the lowest-scoring in history. George Mikan won the MVP with his 22 points, but he shot only 9-of-26, and the teams had almost as many free-throw attempts as made baskets. It’s no surprise that a year later the NBA added a 24-second shot clock.
In 2001, Jason Kidd hit a half-court shot seconds after setting up Tim Duncan with an alley-oop. Kidd may have never won All-Star MVP, but he’s had some of the most spectacular assists you’ll even see in the exhibition. Kidd doesn’t score a lot himself, but he’s so good at setting up other stars that it’s no surprise he’s undefeated in national team games.
In 1988 the All-Star Game came to Chicago, and Michael Jordan dominated. First, in the dunk contest, Jordan dunked from the free-throw line to win. MJ tipped off Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. to let him know which way each dunk was going so he could capture the perfect lighting of what might be the iconic Michael Jordan photograph. His future sponsors would be thrilled that Iooss also got a big shot of the Gatorade ad on the scoreboard (as well as of Winston — remember when cigarette companies used to sponsor sports?) On Sunday, MJ poured in 40 points to win the MVP as the East won a close game 138-133. He's still the only player to win an MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and a dunk contest in their career – and Jordan did it in a single year.
Craig Hodges won the Three-Point Contest three years in a row, from 1990-92, once racking up as many as 25 points in a round. But his most impressive moment was in 1991, when he electrified the crowd by sinking his first 19 shots before his first miss. Despite not being on a team in 1993, the NBA allowed him to return and defend his title as a free agent, probably because it felt bad for blackballing him for his vocal opposition to the Gulf War.
In what might be the most creative losing performance in dunk contest history, JaVale McGee broke out an array of moves, including dunking on two hoops and dunking three balls at once. McGee was robbed by the fan vote and the suspiciously product-placed winning dunk from Blake Griffin, who jumped over a car from NBA sponsor Kia. Griffin probably should have lost out to Serge Ibaka in the early rounds anyway, but once it had arranged for a gospel choir and a Kia, there was no way the NBA wasn't bringing them out for the finals. It was also suspicious that the NBA sent out a press release calling Griffin the champion before the contest even began!
Brent Barry may have been a reluctant participant in the 1996 dunk contest, which you could have inferred from his refusal to take off his warmup jacket. Nonetheless, he delivered a winning performance, including a free-throw line dunk where he took off further back than Michael Jordan did on his. It was a haphazard contest — players had 1:30 to do as many dunks as they could. Darrell Armstrong ran out of time, and his final “dunk” was a reverse layup. Barry didn't seen especially proud of being the NBA's only Caucasian dunk king, and he later turned his trophy into a candy dish.
Red Auerbach, who had retired from coaching the Celtics at the end of the previous season, ended up coaching the East team at the All-Star Game in San Francisco after the 76ers fired their coach, Dolph Schayes, before the game. Red got his second technical for vulgar language in the third quarter, which greatly amused the Celtics player-coach Bill Russell. Meanwhile, hometown star Rick Barry won the MVP and scored 38 points on 27 shots, an All-Star record that was later shattered when Anthony Davis took 39 shots in 2017.
In 1997, Mavericks guard Michael Finley made the finals of the dunk contest. What did he do when he got there? A terrible cartwheel. It’s embarrassing enough when you miss your dunk in the finals, but it's worse when you do the world’s worst cartwheel and then miss a dunk. Presumably he practiced! Did he or anyone else step in and say, “Michael, you don’t know how to do a cartwheel. Are you sure you want to do one in front of an arena full of spectators and a national TV audience?” The cartwheel haunted the NBA so much that it canceled the next year's dunk contest, and it didn't return until 2000.
1985 was Michael Jordan's first All-Star Game, and veterans Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and a few others conspired to “freeze out” MJ. The players were allegedly jealous of Jordan's shoe riches and fame, and so the East players wouldn't pass to him, and the West players guarded him aggressively when he did get the ball. Jordan would never forget, especially since it was his childhood hero doing it - Jordan went by “Magic Mike” in high school. The guys who refused to pass to him underestimated the vengefulness of MJ, who eventually destroyed the Pistons dynasty in 1991, and beat Magic's Lakers in the Finals. He and Magic remained cool rivals until Magic broke the ice, and by the time they were both on the Dream Team in 1992, they were friends. Isiah wasn’t their teammate, because MJ wouldn’t join the Olympic team if Isiah was on it, thus freezing him out of a gold medal.
Adrian "Odie" Smith of the Cincinnati Royals was a controversial choice as an All-Star in 1966. He'd never been an All-Star before, and was only the third-best player on his Cincinnati Royals team, behind 1964 All-Star MVP Oscar Robertson and 1965 All-Star MVP Jerry Lucas. But the game was in Cincinnati, so he made the team – and went on to win the MVP with his 24 points in a 43-point win over the West. He’d never make another All-Star Game, and remains the only one-time All-Star to take home the MVP.
At home in Los Angeles, Jerry West hit a game-winner with one second left at the Fabulous Forum. Though he only had 13 points, the game-high was 15, so West was a deserved MVP recipient. It also meant Jerry West had a Final Four Most Outstanding Player Award, an All-Star MVP, and a Finals MVP. Though unlike when he won the Finals MVP, this time his team actually won.
In 1990, the Lakers' A.C. Green played in his lone career All-Star Game, and just like in his life off the court, Green was the only player not to score.
The All-Star Game and regular season MVP Allen Iverson led a comeback from 21 points down in the final nine minutes of the game. The East won 111-110, after Iverson scored 15 of his 25 points in that stretch. Iverson reportedly asked if anyone wanted to bet on an East comeback as he checked into the game. The end featured a scoring duel between Kobe Bryant and Stephon Marbury, but on the last play, Kobe passed to Tim Duncan, whose shot was blocked by Vince Carter. Then and there, Kobe resolved to never pass the ball again. The combination of Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo in the 4th quarter intrigued East coach Larry Brown so much that he traded for Mutombo 11 days later.
In the Rookie Challenge in 2003, the Golden State Warriors young backcourt of Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas combined for 61 points as the Sophomores routed the Rookies. But even more disrespectful than the 20-point blowout happened when Jason Richardson bounced the ball off Carlos Boozer’s head, and then canned a jumper. Boozer got revenge four years later when the Jazz beat the We Believe Warriors in the playoffs. Richardson had a very good All-Star Weekend, also winning his second straight dunk contest.
In what could be called a "reverse Fresh Prince," the Mamba of Bel Air, Kobe Bryant returned to his hometown of Philadelphia and won MVP, scoring 31 points and getting five steals. He still got booed by the fans of Philadelphia, which is their default response to anything. This game represented the official passing of the torch from Michael Jordan to Kobe, as Kobe won the MVP and MJ blew a wide-open dunk.
After the dunk contest took a two-year hiatus (it was replaced with 2Ball in 1998, and the lockout cancelled All-Star Weekend in 1999), Vince Carter electrified the crowd in Oakland. By the time he put his arm halfway through the hoop on his last dunk, the contest had been saved for good. Carter had a worthy opponent in teammate/cousin Tracy McGrady, who also threw Vinsanity an alley-oop for one of his between-the-legs dunks.
In a game that featured 14 future Hall of Famers, the MVP was Supersonic Tom Chambers, who was only in the game as a last-minute replacement for Ralph Sampson. Seattle’s star was both a surprise starter and a hometown hero in a wildly exciting 154-149 game in Seattle. Chambers and his mullet poured in 34 points and had four steals to key the win for the West and delight the Seattle crowd. Chambers lost to Michael Jordan at the dunk contest, probably because he wasn't allowed to dunk on Mark Jackson.
At the end of the 1954 All-Star Game, voters had decided to award the MVP to Jim Pollard of the Lakers. But that was before George Mikan hit two clutch, granny-style free throws to send the game to overtime, where Bob Cousy dominated. Cousy scored ten points in OT to steal the game and the MVP for the East, all while never dribbling with his left hand.
Brian McKnight nailed an and-one leaning jumper while getting fouled to lock up the first-ever MVP award at the Celebrity Game. Back when the MVP award used to mean something, instead of being a popularity contest for Kevin Hart and Justin Bieber’s fans! It’s the greatest Celebrity Game moment, just edging out the time Donald Faison was traded for no one in 2007, when incumbent Secretary of Education Arne Duncan set the scoring record in 2014, and the time Sage Steele cut off MVP Win Butler’s speech about universal health care in 2016.
In the Shooting Stars competition, teams made up of an NBA player, a WNBA player, and a retired player competed to make shots from designated spots on the floor. And the most unstoppable group ever assembled was Team Bosh, a squad consisting of Chris Bosh, Swin Cash, and Dominique Wilkins. They won three years in a row, before the NBA cancelled the competition, though it was Cash's fourth win. It was just as well, as Bosh's career was about to be prematurely ended by chronic blood clots, and he got to retire on top. Pat Riley owns the trademark to the phrase "three-peat," so we are sure he made up for Bosh’s outstanding salary in Shooting Stars championship merchandise.
In one of the most dominant individual performances in All-Star history, Wilt Chamberlain scored 42 points on 17/23 shooting and grabbed 25 rebounds. The East still lost by 20 points. Bob Pettit of the West squad won his 4th MVP with a 25 points and 23 boards, despite Wilt the Stilt's killer efficiency numbers.
Though some claim he was just trying to throw a pass to Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman nonetheless hit a 70-foot shot as the clock wound down at the end of the first half. Since this was 1957, the shot was only worth two points, one for every 35 feet the ball flew through the air.
Sean Keane is a comedian residing in Los Angeles. He has written for "Another Period," "Billy On The Street," NBC, Comedy Central, E!, and Seeso. You can see him doing fake news every weekday on @TheEverythingReport and read his tweets at @seankeane. In 2014, the SF Bay Guardian named him the best comedian in San Francisco, then immediately went out of business.