All-Star Remembrances

By Peter Vecsey

It’s All-Star (Reader’s Digest) time. Hence, another trip down the Memory Lane (Violation) of observations and anecdotes from exhibitions gone by.

     Interest of full disclosure, Michael Jordan froze me out of many memories, so I’m putting a fair amount of faith in Al Gore’s Internet.

     I was much younger and smarter back in ‘64 when icons of yore, led by Tommy Heinsohn, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others decided the show didn’t have to go on.

     This was at the old Boston Garden, but the arena paled in comparison to the agenda. The players’ union reps, backed by many of the participating All Stars, took a stand vs. a knee less than an hour before the NBA’s first made-for-TV All-Star Game. 

    Create a pension fund, Norma Rae declared, or we’re outta here! 

    One can’t forget that back then, test patterns and civil-defense drills had more television exposure than the NBA. So, when ABC decided to give the league a shot by airing the All-Stars, it was ankle-breaking news.

     Not wanting the humiliation of airing dead air, J. Walter Kennedy, only months into his inaugural season as commissioner, placated the rancor and file despite owners’ uncompromising position against complying and on-the-scene threats to ban the leaders from ever playing again in the league.

     Kennedy huddled with the player reps in the dressing room and promised he would convince the owners to start a pension plan. They took his word. Within months, it was approved.

     By virtue of 26 points, The Big O was judged the game’s MVP in leading the East to a 111-107 win, though it failed to cover, according to well-preserved IOUs to my least favorite bookie.

     Robertson, West and Russell all played 42 minutes, a feat matched by Nate Thurmond’s feet in 1967, but never surpassed.

     Fifty-five years ago (1966) was the game of Adrian Smith’s career. Playing at home in Cincinnati Gardens, the Royals’ reserve, in his lone Star soirée, went for a game-high 24 points in 26 minutes. 

     The car (’66 Ford Galaxie; shade under 60,000 miles as of Jan. 2016) remains in his garage; at least that’s what every feature I’ve skimmed, scanned or browsed maintains.

     Back in 1973, inside Chicago Stadium, the East won, 104-84. Those 188 points may very well be a first-quarter total when the defense parade rests come Sunday in Atlanta. The West’s figure was the last time either side failed to crack triple figures.

     For some strange reason, the West took 25 fewer shots. A vicious rumor has it players broke a sweat back then.

     In 1975, Walt Frazier was awarded the MVP in Phoenix where the ‘best’ hotel was Del Webb’s Town House, owned by the former co-owner (ex-partner Dan Topping died the year before at 61) of the Yankees. 

     The sole spot to eat afterward for famished players was a diner-like restaurant. At the table to my left was Tiny Archibald and a beautiful woman named Jean. At the table to my right was Frazier, decked out in a full-length fur coat. 

    Milwaukee hosted the 1977 classic. It was Julius Erving’s initial NBA appearance as a 76er. His MVP award (30 points, 12 rebounds, four steals, three assists) was controversial in that the West rallied late behind Paul Westphal to win, 125-124. 

     “I’ve seen him almost every game this season, but this is the first time I’ve seen him play,” hissed Turquoise Erving, rebuking Gene Shue’s constrained coaching of her then husband.

     John Havlicek’s last All Star presence occurred in Atlanta in 1978, his retirement season. Doug Collins paid homage by yielding his starting East spot to him. Randy Smith (11-14 FG, 27 points) led a late comeback offensive and dominated MVP voting. 

     I did not look it up, but I’ve got to believe he was the last All Star to earn five or more fouls. Whoops, copy editor Jason Javaherian happened to look it up. Turns out, I’m wrong, exceptionally so. 

     Rick Barry actually fouled out of that same game. Then Hakeem Olajuwon fouled out of the ’87 Game in Seattle. MVP Sonic Tom Chambers got whistled for five fouls, as did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

    Since, no one has fouled out. 

    Before, there were many. Bobby Wanzer was first to six in ’54 at Madison Square Garden. Bob Cousy did it twice. Barry had six in two different decades. Walt Bellamy and Richie Guerin had six each in ’62. Russell had six in ’65, as did Johnny Green. Kareem fouled out in spectacular fashion his rookie year; took him 18 minutes. Willis Reed had six that game as well.

     From 2009-2019 nobody had 5 fouls.

      From 2001-to-the-present, in reverse order, James Harden had five fouls last year. Before that, the last guy with five was Chris Paul in 2008, Amare Stoudemire in 2007, Kobe and Shaq in 2006. Kobe did it in 2005 as well, three times, actually, in 2003, too. Dikembe Mutumbo had 5 in 2001. 

     I’m in fact, repentant for bringing up the subject.

     A most intense retention of the 1982 All Star Game in East Rutherford involved Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien and coach Bill Musselman. I had branded them ‘Septank’ and ‘Musselhead’ and unremittingly used their nicknames in columns. They asked to talk with me in private. I walked vigilantly alongside them into the bowels of Brendan Byrne Arena, fully expecting swings to be swung. Instead, they politely asked me to stop using the nicknames. So I did. 

    Indianapolis was the site of the 1985 All-Star Game. For Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas it was their homecoming. For rookie Michael Jordan, it was his unveiling. At halftime, Thomas’ agent, Dr. Charles Tucker, alerted me on press row to an alleged ‘freeze out’ of Jordan, which I broke the next day in the New York Post. Supposedly, Thomas was its organizer. 

     If anything, it was not a freeze out, but collusion by Tucker’s clients, two of them opponents, George Gervin and Magic Johnson, the purported objective being to show up the sensed showoff; Nike had him adorned in a flashy warm-ups and a shoe the NBA was opposed to him wearing. 

     The real intent, I submit, may very well have been to make Michael honor the chain of command and respect his accomplished elders. Gervin flushed his first six shots being defended by Jordan, and finished 10-12. Magic, I’m convinced, felt Jordan was undeservingly stealing his commercial and publicity thunder. Thus he pounced on the East squad as if it were a playoff game, and pushed the pace (15 assists), which had Jordan backpedaling on the break, and staggering into screens. 

     Any way you wish to view it, Jordan’s debut was a dud. He was 2-9 (seven points) from the field and committed four fouls in 22 minutes. 

     Thomas, meanwhile, injured his hamstring at the end of the second quarter after recording 17 points. He played sparingly thereafter, yet managed to notch 9-14, nourish Bird, Moses Malone and Erving (five assists) and hypothetically neuter Jordan.

       “Just go back and examine the game,” Thomas challenged me years ago when his would-be principal role in the debate was discussed at length. “People say, ‘you could have passed to Jordan, but you passed to Bird or Erving.’ That’s right! But those were the guys you’re supposed to throw the ball.” 

     Those same people, Thomas professed, “forget that Jordan wasn’t Jordan then. What he was in the ‘80s, was not what he became in the ‘90s. He was one of many. Not the dominant guy!” 

     What’s more, he underlined, all the starters got roughly the same number of shots. Bird hoisted 17, Erving 15, Thomas 14, Malone ten, and Jordan, who saw the least amount of daylight, nine 

     “It’s preposterous to think I had the clout to orchestrate such a scheme. To say, we need to do this or that. I was not one of the top guys then.”

      However, he was. The previous All Star game in Denver, Thomas won the MVP. He also won it the next year in Dallas. In his fourth season, he had already become one of the NBA’s celestial beings. That doesn’t mean he coordinated a conspiracy, of course, but it also doesn’t liberate him from being a lead participant in one. 

     “I believe Michael just had a bad game,” Thomas resolutely decided.  

     Jordan has been quoted in later years saying he doesn’t believe there was a freeze out. There’s not a lucid person alive who believes him. 

     Years ago, Rod Thorn told me in a long interview at the league office, where he was VP of Violence, felt from his vantage point in the stands as then-Bulls GM that something troublesome concerning Jordan was going in the game.  

     Conversely, Jordan did not pick up the scent of scandal until the next day when papers blared the story. Bulls beat writer, Sam Smith, wrote in the Chicago Tribune Michael was both furious and embarrassed. Whether it occurred or not, he determined it had. He told reporters it made him feel small, that he felt like crawling in a hole and hiding and not coming out. 

     “I was very quiet when I went down there (Indy),” Jordan said. “I didn’t want to go there like, ‘I’m a big shot rookie and you must respect me.’ And then they try to embarrass me out of jealousy?”

     At practice back in Chicago, Jordan fumed about the situation, and fumed about Thomas. As destiny would dictate, the Bulls played the Pistons two days following the All Star game. 

     In a 139-126 overtime win, the Bulls’ record reached the equator. 

     Jordan detonated for 49 points (19-31 FG, 11-13 FT), 15 rebounds (seven offensive), five assists and four steals.