Twenty-five years ago, the single-greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled was brought together under one roof for NBA All-Star Weekend in frosty Cleveland. And when the long evening of competition and pageantry finally ended, the closing spotlight was shining on Charlotte Hornet Glen Rice standing at center court.
The date is Sunday, Feb. 9, 1997 and the 47th All-Star Game is being televised by NBC. The broadcast begins with a Cleveland-themed rock-and-roll medley featuring the likes of Queen, James Brown, Steam and the Isley Brothers before the time-honored NBA on NBC tune starts playing (this song is actually called Roundball Rock by composer John Tesh). Bob Costas and 11-time All-Star Julius Erving are the in-arena NBC hosts with Ahmad Rashad, Peter Vecsey, Jim Gray and Steve Jones all reporting from the sidelines as the teams go through warmups.
Costas and Erving are soon joined at the desk by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. A major component of the 1997 All-Star Game festivities at Gund Arena – now called Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse and where the Cavaliers still currently play – was a halftime ceremony honoring the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players as part of the league’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
Marv Albert, Matt Guokas and Bill Walton are on play-by-play and color commentator duties down by the court. Eventually, the arena goes dark and the players begin getting introduced – first the Western Conference, then the Eastern Conference. From the looks of it, the honorees are walking through a giant, nearly-15-foot-tall, hollowed-out star in the court’s left corner.
Gary Payton, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp and Hakeem Olajuwon are West starters, but Barkley is sidelined with injury, which opens up a roster spot for Detlef Schrempf and pushes Karl Malone into the first string. Two other reserves – Clyde Drexler and Shaquille O’Neal – are also out and those spots are given to Chris Gatling and Kevin Garnett. Latrell Sprewell, Mitch Richmond, Tom Gugliotta and Eddie Jones round out the West bench.
As for the East, Glen Rice entered as the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer and landed as a reserve for the second straight year. Michael Jordan, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Scottie Pippen and Patrick Ewing are all starters, with Dikembe Mutombo replacing the injured Ewing. Chris Webber is added to the roster as is Joe Dumars for also injured, former-Hornet Alonzo Mourning. Vin Baker, Christian Laettner, Terrell Brandon and Tim Hardaway make up the rest.
Maybe it was because of the 50th Anniversary celebrations, but for the first time, there were no All-Star-specific jerseys for this game. East players wore their own home whites, while the West donned primary road uniforms. Compared to some of the louder late-1990’s NBA warmup designs – specifically the snowy mountain landscape on Stockton and Malone, the full-body, wrap-around Hawk on Mutombo and Laettner and the half 45-degree-angled Magic logo, half pinstripes on Penny Hardaway – Rice’s all-teal ensemble is fairly tame for this era.
Detroit’s Doug Collins is the Eastern Conference Head Coach and two-time NBA Champion Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets is leading the West. These two combined for nine All-Star appearances as players and competed against one another in the 1976, 1977 and 1979 editions.
Moments later, future Platinum recording artist Amanda Marshall sings the Canadian National Anthem, then R&B star Brian McKnight and saxophonist David Sanborn follow with the Star-Spangled Banner. All the flashy warmups are soon ripped off, Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon meet for the opening tip and the 1997 All-Star Game is officially underway.
At first, there is a good amount of defensive intensity for an exhibition, but it takes only a few minutes for the run-and-gun style to take over. Alley-oops and early-shot-clock jumpers start popping up a few minutes in, with unfamiliarity between some of the players leading to multiple poorly-timed lobs off the backboard or into the stands. As Tomjanovich eloquently explains on the broadcast, the coaches set the rotations, then “try and stay out of the way.”
Glen Rice checks in with less than four minutes remaining in the first quarter and the West is holding a 21-15 lead. His first attempt is a missed catch-and-shoot jumper from just inside the free-throw line. His second try comes with 30 seconds left in the frame and is also off, this time a turnaround fadeaway on Latrell Sprewell.
The West has a 34-21 advantage heading into the second quarter and on its first possession, Eddie Jones blows by Rice on the baseline for a two-handed reverse layup plus the foul. Oddly enough, these two players would be traded for each other two years later as part of a package that also sent JR Reid and BJ Armstrong to the Lakers and Elden Campbell back to Charlotte.
Rice soon misses another paint jumper, grabs his own rebound and then finally banks in his first two points of the game. His next two shot attempts are blocked back to back by Kevin Garnett and Jones, but Vin Baker is there to snag the second loose ball and slam home a dunk.
The hosts fall behind by 23 points in the frame before Michael Jordan, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill catalyze a 27-7 run to enter halftime trailing just 60-57. Rice clanged a 3-point attempt off the front of the rim at the end of the quarter, pushing his first-half shooting clip to just 1-of-7 for two points. Jordan has a team-high 12 points, Hardaway and Hill each sit with 11.
Now the time has come to honor the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players, 47 of which are in attendance. The only three who couldn’t make it were Shaquille O’Neal (injured and unable to travel), Jerry West (undergoing surgery) and Pete Maravich (passed away in 1988). Eleven of the honorees are active players – Jordan, Pippen, Stockton, Malone, Barkley, Drexler, O’Neal, Olajuwon, Ewing, David Robinson and Robert Parish. Then-Hornets Head Coach Dave Cowens, who won two titles and the 1973 MVP Award as a member of the Boston Celtics, is also included.
Consecutive Baker dunks to start the third quarter puts the East in front for the first time since the score was 2-0. Here’s where Rice starts to get cooking. On each of the next three possessions, hometown point guard Terrell Brandon finds the Hornets marksman for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer – one from the left break, one from the right break and then another from the top of the arc. Rice then returns the favor by hitting Brandon for a triple to make it a 16-0 East run.
Shortly thereafter, it’s Pippen assisting on another 3-pointer to Rice, who is now 4-of-4 from distance for 12 points in the quarter. The East is now leading 78-63 just four minutes into the second half, forcing Tomjanovich to re-insert the defensive-minded Jones to try and slow down Rice. A few minutes later, Chris Webber lofts a perfect pass into the paint for Rice, leading to an easy dunk.
The Hornet soon gets two more transition buckets coming off passes from Webber again, then Hill. Rice now has 18 points since halftime, which is one away from tying Hal Greer’s record for most in a single All-Star Game quarter set way back in 1968. After a missed floater, Rice sinks a turnaround jumper despite Jones’ air-tight defense to surpass Greer’s mark and push the East’s lead to 92-79 with 90 seconds remaining in the third.
Rice heads to the bench having scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting and 4-of-5 from 3-point range in the quarter. He’s already just three points away from tying the All-Star Game record for points in a half, at the time co-held by Wilt Chamberlain (1962) and Tom Chambers (1987).
The East wins the third, 40-27, to take a 97-87 advantage into the fourth. During the break, Ahmad Rashad find the Hall-of-Famer Chamberlain to notify him that his All-Star Game scoring mark is in serious jeopardy. “It hasn’t gone yet, though right?” he asks. “Well, I can do something about that. I’m about to go back and put on some sneakers.”
But Rice isn’t the only player chasing history. Jordan needs just a couple of assists for the first-ever All-Star Game triple-double. The double-digit East lead holds steady throughout the fourth, yet over seven minutes go by and still no sign of Rice. “I’m shocked that Glen Rice has not gotten back in this game,” says Bill Walton. Says partner Marv Albert, “Maybe Wilt did have a conversation with Doug Collins.”
Rice finally checks back in with about 4:25 remaining and the East leading 114-102. His next attempt is a missed right corner 3-pointer and on the ensuing possession, Jordan finds his Bulls teammate Pippen for a transition layup, marking his 10th assist and the historic triple-double. He soon exits for good with 14 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and a 14-point East lead.
All-Star Game MVP chatter begins breaking out on the broadcast. Nine voters including NBC Sports, USA Today, ESPN Radio and the Cleveland Plain Dealer will weigh in and the initial consensus is that it’s down to either Rice or Jordan.
“Is Wilt down there shaking the basket?” asks Walton as Rice misses another 3-point attempt. A one-handed turnaround jumper on Sprewell fails to drop on the next trip down the court for Rice. Moments later, Brandon finally finds him for a dump-off underneath the basket, leading to an uncontested two-handed slam and a 123-110 East lead.
Fully aware of what’s at stake, Collins calls a timeout to draw up a play for Rice. On the subsequent East possession, Rice pump fakes Detlef Schrempf, then hoists up an air-ball that falls into Baker’s hands, leading to another dunk. The next try, Rice maneuvers his way around Kevin Garnett, but can’t connect on a tricky finger-roll bank shot.
There’s now less than a minute remaining and every East player is trying to help Rice get this record-breaking basket, but Garnett is holding strong defensively. Well, almost every East player at least, as Brandon drains a long 3-pointer with about 25 seconds to go. “The entire East bench is looking at Terrell Brandon. They can’t believe he took that shot,” exclaims Albert.
Gary Payton finishes a quick layup for the West and Rice has one more crack at the record. With Garnett draped all over him, Rice wrangles in a bounce pass into the low post from Penny Hardaway, as the Timberwolves forward pulls him away, leading to a foul. Rice makes his way to the line, sinks both free throws and another record is his with exactly 11.6 seconds to spare.
Payton slams a meaningless dunk shortly before the final horn goes off to signal a 132-120 victory for the Eastern Conference All-Stars. Ahmad Rashad, NBA Commissioner David Stern and McDonald’s USA Chairman Jack Greenberg make their way onto the floor to join Rice, who has just been given word he’s officially been named the All-Star Game MVP following his 26-point showing and two new scoring marks.
After Rice has hoisted the trophy over his head, Rashad asks what it’s like to win this award with so many legendary players watching from the stands. “It was very special,” says Rice, now the first and still only Charlotte player to garner this honor. “I just have to give thanks to God first of all. My teammates did a really great job in trying to get me this award today.”
Albert transitions to reading a promo for a viewing of The Shadow starring Alec Baldwin, which is coming up next as part of NBC’s Sunday Night at the Movies. “We say good night from the Gund Arena. This has been the NBA on NBC,” he adds and with that, the curtain officially closes on Glen Rice’s star-studded performance.