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All-Star Weekend

(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBA All-Time All-Star Weekend

All-Star Weekend
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s NBA All-Star Weekend! It’s a time to celebrate a bench sniper taking out the 3 point competition; celebrities doing their best to play basketball like their true hero, Arne Duncan; the wrong man winning the dunk contest….again; and the celebration of defensive intensity that is the All-Star Game.

Yes, Dear Reader, that is snarkiness you sense. Whilst I usually thoroughly enjoy All-Star Saturday, I’ve not a huge fan of the All-Star game itself in recent times. I like seeing basketball that has a consequence – a meaning. The All-Star Game is not that, in any way, shape or form. Frankly, the reforms that that NBA have instigated this year were welcome, regardless of whether they worked (they worked wonderfully, by the way). Any time that a hyper-competitive player like Jimmy Butler chooses to sit it out just….because, should be an indication that your model isn’t working.

I haven’t always felt this way, though. The All-Star games of my youth were wonderful things. We saw remarkable athletic feats from players like Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb. We saw scrubs like Tim Legler get their moment in the sun. And the centrepiece of the weekend was a contest – a real live contest.

People talk about how the ACC circuits and the players interactions on social media have dampened that competitive edge that the likes of Michael Jordan had (for the record, such open access to his competition would make Jordan even more competitive in this day and age – the man is a sociopath). Whilst I don’t believe that the actual NBA games have been affected, the All-Star games of the past 15 or so years bear that out. Nobody wants to take anybody on, or try to stop their man in the All-Star game, in recent times, but back in the early days, the All-Star Game was the ultimate proving ground. Bigs contested just about every shot at the rim. Every passing lane was jumped. It was glorious.

In that spirit, I’m creating my own All-Time All-Star Weekend.

My weekend will consist of the 3 standard bearers of the All-Star format: 3 point shootout, dunk contest, and All-Star game. I won’t be changing a thing from the actual events – I’m transporting them straight from whatever year they happened, into a single All-Star event. And my weekend will be held in Atlanta (Champagning & Campaigning, people!).

Three Point Shoot-out

1988: Larry Bird wins his 3rd straight crown.

There have been some remarkable performances in this competition over the journey, from Craig Hodges starting his round with 19 straight makes in 1991, Steph Curry putting teammate Klay Thompson back in his place in 2015, Peja Stojakovic winning the contest with a rack to spare in 2003, to Jason Kapono finishing white hot in 2008. The performance that gets the nod here is Larry Bird winning his 3rd straight shootout in 1988.

Larry Legend came into the 1988 shootout as the two time reigning champion. He was also the only 3 point shootout champion, with the competition first taking place in 1986.

Bird – as is customary – approached the contest with a swagger that would make Sam Cassell and his Big Balls blush. In 1986, Bird got in his opponent’s heads with his now famous ‘Who’s playing for 2nd?’ quip. By the time the ’88 competition rolled around, Bird didn’t need to tell anyone who was winning – we all knew. Bird was so confident that, in such an understated but bad-ass move, he competed with his warm-up jacket still on.

Bird laid the smack down in the semi finals, with his 23 points almost double the 12 that 2nd place Dale Ellis scored. And poor Detlef Schrempf: the career 38% 3 point shooter froze in the semis, accruing the all time worst score in the history of the competition with 5 points. He was even booed off the floor!

In the final, Ellis scored a solid if unspectacular 15 points, but for a while it looked like it might be enough to dethrone the champ. After 3 racks, Bird only had a minuscule 7 points, helped by hitting 2 of his 3 money balls. But that 4th rack changed the story: Bird nailed every shot to get himself back in it. On the final rack, Bird bricked the first and second shots, before nailing the last three to steal victory. That last shot was iconic. A soon as it was released, Bird pointed his finger to the air and walked away without bothering to watch the ball splash into net, knowing that the crown was his.

All-Star Weekend

In a career full of great moments, this was perhaps the most typical Larry Bird moment: pure, unadulterated swagger.

Bird retired from the contest after 1988, making him undefeated in the history of the NBA All-Star 3 point shoot out.

Dunk Contest

2000: Vince Carter revives the Dunk Contest

There is surely not a single player in the NBA that wasn’t inspired, in some way, by Vince Carter’s iconic Dunk Contest performance in 2000. Just as the generation before was wowed by Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, and the one before that by Julius Erving and Daryl Dawkins, Vinsanity defined the early 2000’s.

As you will likely remember, the Dunk Contest was given its apparent last rites back in 1997. It’s not that the dunks weren’t great – Kobe Bryant and Brent Barry threw down some wonderful jams – it’s that there wasn’t really anything new being pitched out there. JR Rider’s through the legs dunk was perhaps the last great ‘new’ dunk in the BC (Before Carter) era. The contest was ‘rested’ for the 1998 All-Star weekend, and the lockout put pay to any All-Star activities in 1999.

Come 2000, there was new hope for the new millennium. The Dunk contest contained 5 players in their 2nd year of NBA service, with relative old man in the 25 year old Jerry Stackhouse the outlier. All 6 players would have – at worst – good NBA careers. This was, the NBA hoped, a new dawn for the dunk competition. Vince Carter ensured that it was.

Sure, Carter played some of the Classics, like Rider’s through the legs dunk – he just did it better. He brought out Dominique’s trademark windmill – he just made it harder. He went and created a new dunk, even if most of the crowd didn’t realise it at the time.

The reactions of those court side after Carter’s dunks said it all. People were giggling, they were shaking their heads in disbelief, they sat in stunned silence, trying to compute what they were witnessing.

The dunks themselves only tell half of the story. Carter’s vigour was infectious. Every step, no scratch that, every bounce was pure energy. That energy transferred to the crowd. Oakland Arena was heaving.

Carter also paved the way for other young stars to show out at the Dunk Contest, healing the other disease that had infected the competition: a lack of star power. Steve Francis, Amare Stoudamire and Baron Davis all made appearances in the seasons after Carter’s Opus Magnum. Dwight Howard, Andre Iguodala, John Wall, Paul George and Donovan Mitchell have all appeared. The big names (LeBron aside) want to be a part of this, now. That is all thanks to Vince Carter.

Sadly, Carter never returned to the competition, even though he can still throw it down despite being in his 40’s. Perhaps it’s better that way. After all, how do you top perfection?

All-Star Game

1992: Magic’s last dance (or so we thought)

It’s the NBA’s version of the Moon Landing. Most NBA fans of a certain age can tell you exactly where they were when the new broke in November 1991, that Magic Johnson had contracted HIV and would immediately retire from professional basketball.

For a 13 year old me, I was in my backyard getting some shots up when my Mum called me inside to watch the news. Something was definitely amiss: why would she want me to watch the news? Watching the report was heartbreaking. One of my heroes was going to die! I called up my friend Trix who was a Lakers tragic and he was in tears. We were due to play a game that evening and we did the only thing we could think of and wore black armbands; for a man that was still alive and kicking. Trix held back tears after the game as my mother hugged him. That’s the sort of impact that Magic had, even all the way on the other side of the globe in Australia.

Thankfully, Magic has lived a full life since his diagnosis. However, we didn’t know that would happen back in 1991. The world was witnessing the demise of Freddy Mercury from the disease. Now it was going to claim Magic? It was hard to comprehend.

All of this made the 1992 All-Star game in Orlando all the more important. It was Magic’s swansong.

The game itself was fairly typical of the era in that it was relatively high scoring, but still competitive, with Hall of Famers like Olajuwan, Robinson and Ewing trying to block everything in sight, leading to some big dunks for the likes of Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, Drexler and uh…Dennis Rodman. The passing was delightful. The game was still competitive, despite the West running up the score.

The moment where this game became special was the closing stretch where, at one end Isaiah Thomas and Michael Jordan unsuccessfully put the moves on Magic, while at the other end Magic rifled a trademark no look laser to a cutting Dan Majerle and – a career 30% shooter from deep, remember – made three consecutive 3’s, the last of which was heavily guarded, including an off ball double team! Que euphoria as first his teammates, then the East led by his great friend Isiah Thomas, then the coaches all embraced a smiling but clearly feeling the moment Johnson. Que the shot of his emotional parents in the crowd. Que the shot of an emotional 13 year old in his Melbourne lounge room.

This was the glorious finale. Magic Johnson triumphantly riding off into the sunset.

Given the success of the 2020 All-Star Game – Kyle Lowry even took a charge! – let’s hope that we get to see many years of the NBA’s best make the All Star game special with their effort, competitiveness and enthusiasm, rather than having an assumed tragedy make the game iconic. The All-Star game is supposed to be the best, taking on the best, to see who stands on top of the mountain. 2020 has gone a long way to re-establishing what the game should be about.

So that’s my All-Time All-Star weekend: the 1988 3-point shoot out; the 2000 dunk contest & the 1992 All-Star Game.

What’s yours?

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