CLEVELAND — A league widely known for staging star-studded events dialed it up Sunday night to offer up one that was diamond-encrusted.
To create one special evening in the NBA’s season-long 75th anniversary, the 2022 All-Star Game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse was transformed into a treasure chest, packed with basketball’s crown jewels.
An awe-inspiring collection of the best living, breathing and/or remembered players in the league’s history — 76 of its greatest, determined by balloting of a select committee of players, coaches, executives and media — were honored at halftime of All-Star weekend’s showcase event.
It was reminiscent of the 50th anniversary celebrated in the same arena in 1997, but a little different. The timeline stretched longer now, adding some poignancy and a sense of mortality to the festivities.
For instance Bob Pettit, the remarkable but somewhat forgotten Hall-of-Fame forward from the St. Louis Hawks in the 1950s, was a vibrant 64 the last time he walked to center court here. He is 89 now, still in impressive shape but steadied by a cane.
Anyone who doesn’t know much about Pettit’s career and place in the game – 11 All-Star appearances in 11 seasons, an MVP who thrived right in the teeth of Bill Russell’s, Wilt Chamberlain’s and so many other stars’ primes — well, that’s on them. Including current All-Stars, who had a chance to visit with such trailblazers who make their lavish livelihoods possible.
The halftime presentation introduced the 75 Greatest by position, forwards first, followed by centers and guards. One by one, those present walked a red carpet, wearing the elite blue “NBA 75” blazer.
Charles Barkley, Carmelo Anthony, Dominique Wilkins and on and on from the first group. Then Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Bob McAdoo, Bill Walton and other big men who had made the trip to Cleveland. Finally, the playmakers and scorers with Allen Iverson, Chris Paul, Reggie Miller, George Gervin and the rest.
The last player introduced for each group were Mt. Rushmore types: host city favorite LeBron James for forwards, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for centers and Michael Jordan for guards. (Jordan had pulled off the impressive double duty of appearing at both the Daytona 500 and the NBA 75 — separated by roughly 1,000 miles — in the same day. Private jets must be awesome.)
Here’s a breakdown of who was in the house, who showed up from afar via brief video clips and who was honored posthumously:
— Eighteen of the 29 forwards made it to Cleveland. Of those who didn’t, five have passed away.
— Among centers, it was eight on hand, three absent — including Russell, who told his Twitter followers he was staying home out of virus concerns — and five who have died.
— Nineteen of the 31 guards were present for the halftime show, the photo sessions and the story-telling across generations that went on all weekend. Seven appeared on video, and five others have passed, including Kobe Bryant, from among the 25 greats added to the 1997 list.
(And yes, that adds up to 76 players chosen for the 75th anniversary due to what the league said was a tie in the voting results.)
So 45 of the 76 were there, all attracting attention from fans, staff, reporters and especially current young stars such as Memphis’ Ja Morant, Phoenix’s Devin Booker, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Dallas’ Luka Doncic. Each of them briefly paid tribute to the legends once they all were assembled on stage.
For comparison’s sake, in 1997 all but three of the 50 Greatest were present for the celebration and only one, Pete Maravich, had died. But as the players tend to say, Father Time is undefeated. Another 25 years meant inevitable losses, but even greater legacies.
“It’s a testament to the longevity of the NBA and just the evolution of the game itself,” said Shawn Marion, a former All-Star with Phoenix now serving on the NBRPA “Legends” board of directors. “Over the course of the league, first 25 years, then 50, now to 75, I feel like we’re watching history and making history at the same time.
“And we’re a part of both, man.”
There always is a heavy presence of big-name alumni at All-Star weekend. The dunk contest on All-Star Saturday always touts memorable players as judges and this year’s was no exception: Clyde Drexler, Isiah Thomas, David Robinson, Dominique Wilkins and Julius Erving.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters at his news conference Saturday he was struck by how young the league is, even at 75 years and counting. “I think of the fact that I always say our equivalent of Babe Ruth is Bill Russell to me [and] is someone that I can still speak to on the phone and be around, and is in position to pass down sort of NBA lore to many generations of players.”
At the other end of the weekend’s timeline, seven first-time All-Stars participated in Sunday’s game.
Earlier in the day, the league held its Legends Awards show. This was different from years past, when a lavish Legends Brunch served as a highlight of the weekend for many of the retired players and their families. In a nod to virus protocols, food was limited and pre-packaged in the back of the vast hall. Seats were spread wide in front of the stage, arm’s length apart.
And yet, when 62-year-old Magic Johnson introduced 83-year-old Jerry West — “The Logo” — as the 2022 Legend of the Year, and West talked about his bond through the years with the great Oscar Robertson, no one was thinking about the orange juice or eggs.
Dikembe Mutombo of the trademark “no, no no!” finger wag, was named the Global Ambassador Award for his philanthropic work especially in his native Arica. He had a message of “yes, yes, yes” for those in attendance: “It’s in your hands to make the world a better place.”
Politician and activist Jesse Jackson was presented with the Legends’ Pioneer Award, introduced both by Silver and Thomas. NBA broadcast Hall of Famer Marv Albert was on hand for recognition since his retirement last summer. Tamika Tremaglio, newly named executive director of the players’ union (NBPA), and Scott Rochelle, her counterpart with the retired players association (NBRPA), both spoke.
Finally, Carmelo Anthony introduced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the inaugural recipient of the Legends Social Justice Award for his work and commitment to civil rights dating back to the historic 1967 Cleveland Summit with Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and others. The former Bucks and Lakers star talked of the impact on him as an 8-year-0ld in learning of Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955. And he linked the causes for which he was honored Sunday to the values in sports of fair play, discipline and teamwork.
Those are things that have endured, to varying degrees, since the league’s inception in 1946-47. They haven’t gotten old, even as the greatest players — heck, all of us — have.
“Let me tell you, anybody who says it isn’t nice to be remembered is lying,” said Pettit, a season-ticket holder with the New Orleans Pelicans. He added with a laugh: “It is very nice. So I am very pleased to be one of the 75, as I was pleased to be one of the 25 and one of the 50. I may not be around for 100.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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