The NBA All-Star games have been played since 1951 and I’ve had the good fortune to be chosen for 19 of them. I noticed a lot of changes over the years from my first time to my last. Certainly the level of intensity increased as the players began thinking of it as more than just an exhibition game. All-Star games are a real challenge for the players because they aren’t used to playing with (only against) their teammates or their coach and suddenly asked to perform with relative strangers. In that way it’s a little like playing a pick-up game.
I know that every game I played in – I played to win. I enjoyed the change of pace of playing with new teammates because it was a challenge and back then I thrived on challenges. Still do. In those All-Star games I played with some of the greatest basketball players in history, made some close friendships, and came away with a lot of great memories.
One of my fondest memories is my first All-Star game in 1970 in Philadelphia. I was just a rookie and was proud to make the All-Star team in my very first NBA season. I got to play with some of the older players that I had admired while I was in high school and grade school and it was a big thrill for me. Even though I didn’t get very much playing time, I enjoyed the trip and I promised myself to do better if I was ever selected for another All-Star game.
In those days the All-Star game was a very rushed affair. Many times there wasn’t enough time for all of the players to get to the game on time travel to the game and there was even less time to prepare. One year I was chosen, we had a Friday night game in Los Angeles. I was expected to be in Washington, D.C. the next night for the All-Star dinner. So on Saturday I had to leave L.A. as early as possible to get to the All-Star banquet that night. But leaving L.A. any later than 6 AM will get you to the East Coast after 6 PM. So of course I was late for the banquet. The game was played early in the afternoon of the next day and the then it was all over. It was really a stressful few days and I didn’t have any chance to be on time for any of the events which really bothered me because I believe in being on time at all times. Today it is easier to get to the game and its other related events without having to do so much stressful traveling. A travel day has been added and that has improved the event immensely.
Even when I was a wide-eyed rookie, the other players on the All-Star team treated me with respect. I tried to get along with everyone and do what was asked of me because it was my very first game and I was hanging with icons of the game. The thing that surprised me most I would have to say was the fact that many of the players did not seem to take the game very seriously. They wanted to have fun playing, but for them it was mostly an exercise in trying to please the fans.
Since my first time, the All-Star game has evolved into a much more intense competition. A lot of sports pundits complain that the players don’t really play very hard because they don’t want to sustain an injury that might affect their regular season play. Maybe that’s in the backs of the minds of some of the players, but even so, there’s no way that you put a bunch of high-octane, jet-fueled, competitive professional athletes on the same court and they don’t play to win. Sure, there’s significant prize money, but professional athletes play just as much for personal pride.
Sometime the All-Star drama gets to play out beyond the weekend. In 1983, Pat Riley was coaching the Wests’ All-Star team in Inglewood at the Forum. Before that night, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had always been sung in a fairly traditional manner—and in two minutes, as was mandated by NBA. However, that night Marvin Gaye came out and sang a four-minute rendition that was part soul, part gospel, and part funk. It was so different that it reminded me of Jimi Hendrix’s anthem at Woodstock. Marvin changed the whole template, and that broadened people’s minds. It illuminated the concept: We’re Black and we’re Americans. We can have a different interpretation [of the anthem], and that’s okay. Director of Promotions, Lon Rosen spent the weeks afterward supplying tapes of Marvin’s performance to all the people who requested them. My favorite rendition of the National Anthem is by Al Jarreau – he sings the second stanza.
But there was drama on the court as well. Hall of Famer George Gervin was on the West team and as one of the league’s leading scorers at the time, he rightfully expected to get some significant minutes of playing time. Riley however forgot to get George in the game until “garbage time” and that really got to George, even though he didn’t say anything about it at the time. Unfortunately for the Lakers, George’s first regular season game after the All-Star break was against the Lakers. George scored close to 50 points against us and several times during the game he rolled his eyes at Pat. It was his way of saying, “How you like me now?”
One of my least favorite memories came at the San Diego All-Star game in 1971. Lenny Wilkens had an outstanding first half and the sportswriters were so impressed that they voted him the MVP at halftime. However, at the end of the game, I was able to score a couple of key baskets and we won the game by 1 point. If the sportswriters had waited and taken the whole game into consideration, I probably would have won. This was really the only time that I felt I that I should have won the All-Star MVP. I felt pretty frustrated at the time but, hey, I was only 24 and couldn’t be sure I’d ever do as well again. When the sportswriters who voted for the MVP were questioned about their choice, their self-serving statements were really lame.
My best memories of the All-Star games are those times when I was able to contribute to my team winning. I think that especially toward the end of my career, the last six or seven, I was able to significantly contribute to some All-Star game victories. It felt great to be able to remain competitive against players who were a lot younger—some of them 15 years or more younger.
I have to say at this point in time the All-Star game is a lot of fun for the fans and a challenge that the players embrace and it is now one of the premier American sporting events. Thank you David Stern!