Nov 10, 2017 3:00 PM ET
The NBA All-Star game first was played in 1951 in Boston. It has produced some of the most stirring and spirited performances in sport. It will return to Chicago for the third time in 2020, the first time in the United Center. It will be the 69th All-Star game. Here’s a look at one view of the 10 greatest All-Star games.
This was the Hall of Fame on parade with a record number of future Hall of Famers with Russell backing up Wilt for the East, Robertson, Baylor, West, Wilkens, Sam Jones, Havlicek, Dave Bing, Willis Reed. It was one of many games in Madison Square Garden and a 144-124 East victory. Wilt was back in the East after finally going out West and having All-Star faceoffs with Russell. The first was in 1963 when Wilt went to the San Francisco Warriors. They faced off three straight seasons and Russell’s East team won each time. Wilt set his All Star scoring record of 42 points in the 1962 game in the season he averaged 50 points and scored 100 in one game.
He didn’t play, but his soulful pregame rendition of the national anthem was probably the best ever performed at a sporting event and just about made secondary a game featuring the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, David Thompson, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Gervin. But it also was probably the start of a decade long example of All-Star games at their best, a combination of competitive excellence and showmanship without one ceding to the other. Johnson and Thomas directed high powered offenses with creativity and thrilling athletes. The East won 132-123 as Erving had 25 points.
Jerry West was getting to the end of a career in which his image effectively became the logo for the NBA and his amazing scoring almost, but not quite, overcame the Celtics’ dynasty. West would get that title the following season. But with salaries still limited and players still fighting for free agency and even the stars playing under unguaranteed contracts, the winner’s share was important financially. West made a 20 footer at the buzzer for a 112-110 West win in a physical, no layups type game.
It was the game that almost wasn’t played and when it was the East won 111-107 behind 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists from Oscar Roberston, who had a triple double almost every game he played though no one too notice. But after years of getting nowhere in labor talks with owners, the players agreed to sit out the first nationally televised All-Star game. Owners were furious. Lakers’ owner Bob Short told Elgin Baylor and Jerry West they’d be banned from basketball. The players behind Tommy Heinsohn held firm and got an agreement that eventually led to the first pension plan and the first modern sports labor movement.
This was the second stage of the modern NBA. The first was the arrival of the great black players in the late 1950s into the 1960s with Russell, Baylor, Chamberlain, Robertson, Wilkens and then Frazier, Monroe, Unseld and Reed. Then it was taking the NBA airborne with the ABA high fliers like Dr. J, David Thompson, George McGinnis, Larry Kenon, and players like George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel. Though the NBA minimized the ABA, in the first All-Star game after the 1976 merger there were eight former ABA players and Rick Barry, who played much of his career in the ABA. The West with the majority of ABA players won 125-124.
It was Jordan’s final All-Star game, and he almost was MVP. He probably would have been with a fadeaway with five seconds left that looked like it won the game. But Kobe Bryant, always trying to upstage Jordan, attempted a three for the winner. He was fouled, made two and the game went into overtime. Jordan was selected as a reserve, but Vince Carter gave up his starting spot for him as Doug Collins would years before in John Havlicek’s last All-Star game. There were Jordan tributes at halftime and throughout to Jordan, but his legs couldn’t carry him through two overtimes. Kevin Garnett got hot on the way to 37 points and MVP. The West won 156-145. Jordan had 20. Allen Iverson had 35 for the East.
The game still was a contest, and it had competitors like Iverson to make sure. Iverson led the league in scoring that season and carried the 76ers to the Finals against the Lakers and was MVP. It was a Lilliputian East team that was supposed to be dominated by a West team with Duncan, Webber, Garnett, David Robinson and Shaq, though Shaq sat out injured. The East started Anthony Mason and Antonio Davis up front. With the East trailing by 21 with nine minutes left, Iverson took over with 15 of his 25 points and led the East to a 111-110 victory. Kobe Bryant had a last shot, but passed to Tim Duncan who missed.
This was the return of Johnson to basketball after he shockingly retired before the 1991-92 season with the HIV virus. That game is celebrated perhaps more for the public message about HIV and AIDS than the game, though the close was dramatic and heart warming with Johnson making a three. Much of the public and many NBA players then feared contagion. But both Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas embraced Johnson with instances of isolated one-on-one duels in the game. Many of these lists consider it the best All-Star game ever. It is for a lesson in empathy. Johnson’s West team won 153-113 and MVP Johnson led with 25 points.
No league does spectacle like the NBA, and this was overwhelming. The league revealed its 50 greatest players of all time and 47 of the 50 were present and appeared for a spectacular halftime welcome. Pete Maravich had passed away. Jerry West was having surgery and Shaquille O’Neal was ill. Michael Jordan recorded the first triple double in All-Star game history and Glen Rice was MVP as the East won 132-120.
Though Jordan was already an NBA star, this was his coming out party and introduction as the heir to the greats of the game. Jordan won the dunk contest in spectacular form over Dominique Wilkins, was All-Star game MVP with a near record 40 points and that season would go on to be named the rare double of league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Jordan still wasn’t winning titles, but he was now being considered the game’s best player. Jordan’s East team won 138-133.