The 1989 NBA All-Star Game was one for the ages, with the game’s brightest stars putting on a memorable offensive display. The best moment of the game, though, came at the very end.
Dale Ellis couldn't believe that he had actually reached the NBA until just before tip-off during his first-ever game against the Lakers—and he looked up and saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar standing there.
"That told me I had made it," Ellis says.
Six years later in 1989, Ellis had another Kareem moment, this time during the sweet-shooting guard's first and only All-Star Game appearance. There, sitting at the locker stall right next to him was the legendary Laker pivotman, who was playing in his 17th and final midseason classic. It wasn't hard for Ellis to be star-struck, even though he was a 28-year old NBA vet.
"I grew up watching a lot of those guys on TV," he says. "I came into the League in an era when many of those greats were on their way out."
Ellis could be excused a little hero worship at the '89 game, since it was quite a gathering of stars, from Abdul-Jabbar to Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Moses Malone and Charles Barkley. A lineup that power-packed required a particularly large stage, so the NBA decided to play the game at Houston's Astrodome, rather than the Rockets' home court, the Summit. The result was a record-setting performance in front of a record-setting crowd. The West blasted to a 143-134 win, scoring a best-ever 87 first-half points, in front of a throng of 44,735.
The weekend began with some interesting action in the slam-dunk and three-point shooting competitions. The dunking show belonged to Kenny "Sky" Walker, who bested a field that included neither Jordan nor Dominique Wilkins, the mid-80s' supreme jammers. But Spud Webb was there, and he joined Walker, Clyde Drexler and Shelton Jones in the semifinals. Walker and Drexler advanced, but Walker blasted to the title, thanks to a trio of dunks that totaled 148.1 out of 150 points, (the judges were encouraged to use tenths of points in their scoring.) Drexler missed on his first two dunks of the finals and declined to try a third.
The three-point shooting segment belonged to Ellis, who finally grabbed top honors after three straight tough losses, including the famous '88 showdown with Larry Bird, in which the Celtic legend nailed the money ball on his last try to take the title—and raised his finger in celebration upon releasing the shot. Bird wasn't there in '89, but Craig Hodges, who had bested Ellis in a second-round shootout in '86, was. Hodges made one more than Ellis in the first round. The two tied with 18 points in the semis. And Ellis prevailed in the finals, 19-15.
"Houston was always a fun place for me to play," Ellis says. "Coming out of college [Tennessee, in '83], I was projected to be the third pick in the draft. Houston had the first and third picks, and people thought they would take Ralph Sampson first and me third. But they took Scooter McCray instead, and I fell to ninth. I didn't forget that.
Jabbar finished his All-Star career in grand fashion.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
"From that time on, whenever I walked into an arena in Houston, I was on fire immediately. I loved shooting there."
Everybody, it seemed, love to shoot in the Astrodome, even though it didn't have the best sight lines in the NBA. "There isn't the greatest depth perception, because the fans are so far away from the action," Ellis says. "It looked like the court was 100 yards long." Once the All-Star Game itself began, the Western Conference caught fire and broke out to a 47-31 lead after one quarter. Laker point man Magic Johnson had been voted to the Western Conference starting lineup, but a hamstring injury kept him out of the game. So, Utah's John Stockton grabbed the maestro position in the first five. The fifth-year pro was playing in his first All-Star Game, and he was a little star-struck himself.
"I was a little apprehensive," Stockton said after the game. "After practice yesterday, I went home and told my wife that I've never seen anything like this. There were players in every lane on the fastbreak."
It must have seemed as if the entire Western squad was on the court in the first half, because by intermission, coach Pat Riley's squad had a commanding 87-59 lead. "I didn't even realize we scored that many points," says Ellis, who finished with 26 himself, on 12-of-16 shooting. Ellis may not remember the score, but he sure understands why the West had been so successful. In addition to the great talent on the roster, Riley had concocted some basic sets that led to easy opportunities. "I always thought Magic was running [the Lakers], but Pat Riley set up some plays that made it simple to score," Ellis says. "I didn't realize how good a coach he was until that game."
Stockton might have had a little to do with things, too. He finished with 17 assists and 11 points (on 5-of-6 shooting) and was the perfect set-up man for the many West scorers. "He made it so easy," Ellis says. Stockton wasn't perfect, though, and finished with an odd triple-double, adding 12 turnovers to his points and dimes.
"Well, I'm not going to let that taint the fun I had out there," Stockton said. "I wanted more than anything to prove that I wouldn't embarrass myself out there as Magic's replacement."
Even with the turnovers, Stockton did nothing to embarrass himself. In fact, his performance, coupled with that of Malone, his Utah teammate, gave the NBA a glimpse of what was to come over the next 10-plus seasons. With Stockton setting him up, Malone earned the MVP honors with a 28-point, nine-rebound performance. After the game, Barkley joked that it wasn't fair that Malone had Stockton to feed him, and that the MVP award was due more to the point guard's largesse than anything else. "Next year, I'm bringing Scott Brooks with me," Barkley said, referring to the Sixers' point guard. Barkley turned serious when asked for a real assessment of Malone's talents.
"Karl's my man," he said. "I like to play against all great players. I didn't look at it as a Karl Malone-Charles Barkley thing today. He's one of those guys you have to make sure you get your 10 or 11 hours sleep before you play against them. Some guys are so bad you can stay up all night. But he's one of those guys where you have to go to bed for eight hours and eat your Wheaties."
Despite the best efforts of Jordan (28 points) and Thomas (19 points, 14 assists), the East was unable to climb into real contention, despite narrowing the final margin to nine points. By game's end, the storyline was more about whether Abdul-Jabbar would be able to close out his final All-Star appearance in appropriate style.
The NBA had offered Abdul-Jabbar a spot on the team after creating a 13th roster position. The Laker center turned that down, saying that he didn't want to get special treatment. He also didn't want to deprive fellow pivots Kevin Duckworth of Portland and Utah's Mark Eaton of the chance to be All-Stars. When Johnson succumbed to the hamstring injury, the League offered Abdul-Jabbar that position, and the big man agreed to join the team.
But through the first 45-plus minutes of the game, he had been unable to convert a field goal, missing his first four shots. Although he did hit a pair of free throws, Abdul-Jabbar was without a basket, something Riley wanted to remedy. With 1:31 left, he put his center back into the game. Abdul-Jabbar missed a shot, but the West got the ball back with 0:28 left. It was time for one more play.
"I wanted to see that last skyhook in the All-Star Game go in, and it did," Riley said. "I asked him if he wanted to take another look at it. He said, ‘Why not? It might be my last, you never know.'"
So, Abdul-Jabbar unfurled one last All-Star skyhook, and it found the bottom of the net. "The way things worked out was kind of mystical, but I'm here, and we won for a change."
Riley wasn't the only one who wanted to see Abdul-Jabbar close things out properly. The rest of the Western Conference stars understood the significance of the game and wanted to grab a victory. Although the contest was an exhibition, there was still pride at stake, and the players understood that.
"It was Kareem's last year, so it was important for us to win," Ellis says. "It was definitely a competitive situation. It was about winning. I had to face Jordan, and if I'm on the court with Jordan, I had to play hard at all times, because I didn't want to look bad."
In the end, nobody showed poorly, but the West was looking a little better. And Abdul-Jabbar may have looked best of all.