I'm not much for contests, but man, you couldn't beat what happened in Big D on the NBA's first Super Saturday. In the dunk contest, Spud Webb, all 5-foot-6 of him, stood at the mid-court line bouncing the ball. What was he going to do? Well, he threw the ball high in the air, started trotting and, after it bounced somewhere between the foul line and the basket, he took off at full speed, gathered in the ball at the apex of its bounce and dunked it.
The place went nuts and his victory over Dominique Wilkins was assured.
Oddly, I always felt that 'Nique -- absolutely, positively the best dunker in history -- got screwed. (I told him that on a hotel elevator after the contest.) All in all, his dunks were superior to Spud's. But Spud had the show-stopper.
My other favorite moment from that weekend was at the Saturday on-court interview sessions. Larry Bird, at the height of his powers, was in the 3-point contest that evening. He sidled up to Leon Wood (now an NBA ref, then a long-distance bomber who played for the 76ers and the Washington Bullets) and said, "Hey, Leon, you shootin' it different?" Woods looked confused and said he didn't think so. "Okay, don't think nothin' of it," said Bird.
Of course, Woods thought about little else. He did poorly in the contest due to the psyche job and could only watch as Bird won the first of three straight 3-point contests. "I'm the 3-point king," he crowed afterward. Bird seemed to get as much enjoyment out of that as winning a championship, which he did later that season too.
The East, by the way, won the game 139-132. Without Jordan around to distract him -- the Bulls star was injured -- Thomas was the game's MVP.
No. 4: Orlando, 1992
It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the story when commissioner David Stern allowed Magic to compete for the West. Three months earlier Johnson announced his retirement after learning that he was HIV-positive. Fear and recrimination ensued, for this was in the early days of HIV understanding. Several players said they didn't want to play with or against Johnson for fear of contracting the disease through contact.
The day before the game, I interviewed Magic in his hotel room. He seemed assured and confident (When didn't he?), but allowed that he was a little worried about what the reaction of the other players would be when he was announced.
Well, the reaction was great. One by one, players on both teams came up to him. Some shook hands but some hugged him too. Who knows what that did for AIDS understanding in this country?
Magic, obviously energized by a return to action, was the game's MVP, punctuating the West's 153-113 rout with a 3-point shot right before the buzzer. But the game, to an extent, was theater. The reception was real.
No. 5: Philadelphia, 2002
Playing in his hometown -- actually, he went to high school in the Philadelphia 'burbs -- Kobe Bryant was brilliant with 31 points, five rebounds and five assists in the West's 135-120 victory. Bryant shot, passed and defended. Plus, he had worn his father's throwback jersey to a Friday media event, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant being an old-school 76er who was still popular around town.
In short, Kobe did everything -- but win the crowd. He was booed in the introductions, booed during the game, booed when his game MVP award was announced. Was it because he was perceived as being not "Philly" enough, more California roll than cheesesteak? Because he played for the West? Because he was a Laker? Because he was, you know, Kobe?
Whatever the reason, it cut deep. "I don't know what to say," said a disheartened Bryant after the game. "I'm happy to win MVP in Philadelphia. The booing was just hurtful. But it's not going to ruin this day for me." Few teammates, it seemed, rushed to his defense either. And so this All-Star Game seemed to cement the idea that Bryant, while indisputably a brilliant player, would never be warmly received by either the public or his fellow players.