The evolution of the NBA All-Star Game across basketball generations hasn’t necessarily been for the best. By February, even the notion that the squads involved in those exhibition contests cared about which sides won or lost was laughable for players, fans, commentators and those tasked with covering the game. For all intents and purposes, the modern NBA All-Star Game is little more than a four-quarter highlight reel occasionally taken over by an individual looking to earn that particular night’s MVP Award.
Whether this is a negative is in the eye of the beholder. Each decade has provided fans with numerous memorable and entertaining All-Star Game moments celebrated over the weekend that unofficially kicks off a season’s final push toward the postseason. Legends like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James padded Hall of Fame resumes with historic All-Star performances, and the hope is that the Association’s revolving-door youth moment will follow in their footsteps and make All-Star Games must-watch television beyond the start of the 2020s.
History was made in March 1951 when the NBA held its first All-Star Game, at the Boston Garden. As Richard Goldstein of The New York Times wrote in 2000, college basketball was left reeling from a point-shaving scandal in the early 1950s, so then-NBA publicity director Haskell Cohen suggested the league create an All-Star Game similar to the Major League Baseball exhibition as a way to attract interest for the Association’s stars. Over 10,000 people journeyed to the Garden to watch the East defeat the West, 111-94. Boston’s Ed Macauley was named MVP of that contest.
Wilt Chamberlain’s 50.36 PPG average during the 1961-62 campaign is a record that likely won’t ever be approached, let alone toppled, barring drastic rule changes or the league eliminating up to a dozen games from seasons. Thus, it’s only fitting that “The Big Dipper” set the bar for all future All-Star performances in January 1962. Chamberlain led all scorers with 42 points, an All-Star Game record that lasted for over 50 years. The West defeated the East, however, which resulted in Bob Pettit earning MVP honors.
Adrian Smith was featuring for the Cincinnati Royals in January 1966 when he made his only All-Star appearance as a reserve for the East. In a game that included Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry, Jerry West and Bill Russell, Smith led all scorers with 24 points en route to winning MVP, and the East crushed the West, 137-94. That proved to be the defining moment of Smith’s professional career.
The 1972 All-Star Game , played at The Forum in Inglewood, California, will forever go down as one of the greatest and most dramatic in history. With the score tied at 110 and nine seconds remaining, Los Angeles Lakers guard and hometown hero Jerry West was trusted to take the ball the length of the court. Walt Frazier blanketed West throughout the play, and "The Logo" dribbled to within 20 feet of the bucket and hit nothing but net on his jumper to produce the walk-off win and secure himself the game’s MVP Award.
The NBA-ABA merger ahead of the 1976-77 season led to the first All-Star Game of its kind that included noteworthy names from both competitions in February 1977. As noted by Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, most players viewed the All-Star Game as a legitimate encounter between two squads attempting to win back when ABA players joined in on the action. Per NBA.com , MVP votes were tallied before the game’s conclusion, so Julius Erving became the second man in All-Star history to win MVP despite playing on the losing team. Had those votes been counted after the final buzzer, Paul Westphal likely would’ve earned the award for his work in guiding the West to a nail-biting 125-124 win.
When some reflect upon the 1983 NBA All-Star Game won by the Eastern Conference players, they may not recall the final score or remember Julius Erving won MVP. The highlight of the day was delivered by iconic Motown superstar Marvin Gaye, who began the festivities with a unique and soulful version of “ The Star-Spangled Banner” that was introduced to some fans who weren’t around in the '80s by a compelling Nike commercial ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Sadly, Gaye’s performance at The Forum was the last time many basketball fans saw him, as he tragically died in April 1984.
Nobody has to wonder if Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach cared about winning NBA All-Star Games. Following his retirement as coach of the Boston Celtics, Auerbach made history as the only coach ever ejected from an All-Star contest for arguing with officials in 1967. In 1984 Auerbach suffered the same fate while coaching an “old-timer’s team” at an All-Star Game. This shouldn’t surprise anybody, per ESPN’s Ken Shouler, as Auerbach set NBA records for the most fines and ejections accumulated by a coach.
While Isiah Thomas won MVP for the 1984 All-Star Game after he notched 21 points and 15 helpers, it was Julius Erving who provided fans with the top highlight of the contest and one of the greatest solo efforts ever performed on the All-Star stage. Erving was closer to retirement than his physical prime on that January day, but he nevertheless led all scorers with 34 points, and he also contributed eight rebounds. His windmill finish over four defenders that seemed to feature Dr. J hanging in midair for seconds as he banked the ball in off the backboard is something young fans playing on driveways and outdoor courts have tried to replicate for decades.
Nobody may ever match the All-Star weekend enjoyed by Michael Jordan in 1988. “His Airness” reigned supreme at the conclusion of that year’s Slam Dunk Contest, which Jordan won via a tribute to Dr. J that became arguably the most well-known dunk in the sport’s history. During the actual game played in Chicago, Jordan’s star outshined all others, as he scored 40 points while shooting 17-of-23 from the field to lead the East to a 138-133 win. As mentioned by NBA.com, MJ scored 16 of his 40 points in the game’s last 5:30.
Between November 1991 and Feb. 9, 1992, Magic Johnson twice stunned the world. That fall the five-time NBA champion announced he was HIV-positive, and, as a result, was retiring from the Association. Fans nevertheless voted Magic into that season’s All-Star Game, the last of his career, and he returned for the contest played in Orlando. Johnson stole the show, as he tallied 25 points and nine assists, both game highs. A buzzer-beating three-pointer he drained with under 15 seconds remaining brought the crowd to its feet and cemented his legacy as the game’s MVP.
The 1997 NBA All-Star Weekend was more celebratory than most, as the league was in the middle of recognizing its 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion, the NBA honored the men named the 50 greatest players of the league’s first five decades during the ‘97 All-Star Game in Cleveland. The list included names such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Bob Cousey, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Oscar Robertson and, of course, Michael Jordan. From NBA.com:
“At the start of the 1996-97 season, the 50 players had accumulated 107 NBA Championships, 49 Most Valuable Player Awards, 17 Rookie of the Year honors, 447 All-Star Game selections, 36 scoring titles, 923,791 total points, and 410,327 total rebounds.”
Glen Rice departed Cleveland with the 1997 All-Star Game MVP trophy after he scored 26 points off the bench to help the East earn a 132-120 victory. Michael Jordan made history of his own in Northeast Ohio when he finished the exhibition with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. According to NBA.com, MJ was the first player to ever record a triple-double at an NBA All-Star Game.
Fans at the MCI Center in Washington D.C. on Feb. 11, 2001, as well as those watching at home, saw one of the greatest shots and one of the best individual rallies in All-Star Game history. With the West leading the East. 58-50. with only .5 seconds on the clock, Jason Kidd launched a shot from his team’s side of the half-court line that beat the buzzer and swirled inside the basket to give the West an 11-point advantage at the break.
The West held a 21-point lead over the East in the fourth quarter of the 2001 All-Star Game when Allen Iverson went to work. Per NBA.com, A.I. dropped 15 of his 25 ASG points in the contest’s final period, and some late-game heroics from Stephon Marbury coupled with a last-second Tim Duncan miss resulted in a 111-110 win for the East. Following the result, “The Answer” won his first of two All-Star MVP Awards.
On Feb. 10, 2002 , Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant wasn’t the most popular figure in The City of Brotherly Love. The previous June, Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers to win the NBA Finals, so the “Black Mamba” didn’t receive the warmest reception at First Union Center as he guided the West to a 135-120 All-Star Game victory. Bryant led all scorers with 31 points, but his MVP performance didn’t prevent local fans from booing him during his trophy acceptance moment.
All good things must come to an end. That was the case on Feb. 9, 2003 when Michael Jordan made his 13th and final All-Star Game appearance. (He missed the 1986 edition of the exhibition due to injury.) Fans didn’t care that MJ could no longer walk on air or finish as the game’s top scorer (he scored 20 and went 9-27 from the field), and he would’ve hit an overtime game-winner had Kobe Bryant missed a second of three free throws with only one second remaining in the extra period. The West defeated the East, 155-145, in double-overtime.
All-Star Games of any nature aren’t meant to provide passing-of-the-torch moments. Neither Michael Jordan nor Kobe Bryant likely viewed his trash-talking segments of the 2003 All-Star Game as anything of the sort. Jordan roasted Bryant over having more championship rings. Kobe hit a jumper over MJ as His Airness counted down the shot clock. This short clip makes us wish we had hours of footage of these two wearing microphones during meaningful games, particularly Finals encounters.
Much has been said and written about the beef between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal that resulted in the premature end of a dynasty and involved the two taking public shots at each other up through September 2019. For one night, at least, the two got along for the greater good at the 2009 All-Star Game in Phoenix. Kobe scored a game-high 27 points, and Shaq converted eight of nine field-goal attempts and scored 17 in the West’s 146-119 win. The former Los Angeles teammates shared MVP honors on the final night they played on the same team.
As of February, Bob Pettit and Kobe Bryant were the only players in history to win All-Star MVP on four separate occasions. Bryant earned his fourth trophy at the 2011 edition of the contest played at Staples Center. The Black Mamba scored 21 of 37 points in the first half, and he outperformed both LeBron James (who tallied the second triple-double in ASG history) and Amar'e Stoudemire in the West’s 148-143 win.
The year is 2014. LeBron James is in the middle of a contract season with the Miami Heat, and a youngster named Kyrie Irving is hoping to eventually make the Cleveland Cavaliers a watchable product. King James and Kyrie teamed up for the East at the 2014 All-Star Game that finished, 163-155, in favor of the Eastern Conference squad. On a night where defense was optional for the majority of the game, Irving shot 14-of-17 from the field and finished with 31 points and 14 assists. He became the second-youngest player behind LeBron to win ASG MVP. That summer James joined Irving and returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
By Feb. 19, 2017, an unwritten agreement existed among players that All-Star Games were more about entertainment and producing real-life versions of video-game moments than about winning and losing. History is history, though, and Anthony Davis set a new ASG standard when he scored 52 points to smash Wilt Chamberlain’s previous record and helped the West earn a 192-182 win and himself receive MVP honors, all of which AD did in front of what was, on that night, a hometown New Orleans crowd. Russell Westbrook added 41 points in the West’s winning effort.
The NBA and drama go together like an alley-oop lob and powerful slam dunk, and All-Star Games haven’t been shy of potential dust-ups between stars. Following the 2017 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving orchestrated a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, in part because he wanted to be the key man on a team that didn’t include LeBron James. Because of this, some were surprised that James picked Irving for his team ahead of the 2018 All-Star Game that included a new format by which captains chose their rosters. The two looked like old friends over that weekend, and they were again on the same page in February 2019. What feud?
Russell Westbrook was less than pleased with Kevin Durant after Durant announced he was leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2016. The two former teammates shared unpleasant words more than once in games played over the next few seasons, but Durant earned the last laugh by winning a pair of NBA Finals MVPs before the end of the decade. At least these two were able to play nice for the public at All-Star Games. In 2017, KD lobbed an alley-oop pass that Russ slammed home. The next year, the two joked around with each other before the All-Star Game.
Sometimes, the definition of a word such as “best” is a moving target. We won’t try to convince you that Fergie’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” ahead of the 2018 All-Star Game is the greatest you’ll ever hear. It certainly wasn’t boring nor was it an afterthought. How many versions of the national anthem can you remember that went viral and or were remixed by an NBA team?
The final All-Star Game of the 2010s provided fans attending the contest played in Charlotte to offer farewells to a pair of legends, as both Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade retired later that year. Neither of the future Hall of Famers impacted the final score of the outing that Team LeBron won over Team Giannis. Nowitzki went a perfect 3-3 beyond the arc, and Wade contributed seven points for Team LeBron. The NBA presented both with commemorative All-Star jerseys to thank them for their contributions to the sport over the first two decades of the century.
Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink.