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Sports Then and Now

1988 NBA All-Star Game: A Bridge To The Future

Posted on October 01, 2009 by Nick Gelso
Jordan was not a gracious host during the 1988 All-Star Game

Jordan was not a gracious host during the 1988 All-Star Game

This morning I woke up at 7 am and, in my normal routine, I switched on NBA TV. The 1988 All-Star game was playing and hearing Dick Stockton doing the play by play in the background, I had to stop and watch.

As I watched, I realized this may have been the game that encompassed everything the 1980’s were. As the decade was winding down and the NBA greats of that era were moving passed their prime, this exhibition was extremely hard fought with a blend of fundamentals and gritty determination – qualities that are far lacking in today’s All-Star games.

These guys wanted to defeat their peers, they saw this game as less of an exhibition for fun and more of an artistic exhibit of talent in a 5 on 5 competition of who is the best conference – not player.

Until today, I never realized what a bridge year 1988 was. The natural evolution of the game was perfectly displayed in Chicago Stadium on that Sunday afternoon.

As some of you know, I collect NBA basketball games. I enjoy watching old footage of 1970’s and 1980’s basketball. Though I always marvel at the fundamentals displayed in those vintage contests, I can’t help but notice how, compared to today’s game, the players seem to be moving in slow motion. The harmonious blend of great play-making never lacked in those old games, but the athleticism displayed in today’s league was certainly only still a trailer for what the league would grow into.

One aspect that shot out at me during the footage of this game was that the athleticism of the players started to emerge. Early in the second quarter, I was intently typing away at my lap top when I heard Stockton bellow out “Michael Jordan breaks free”, I looked up at my plasma and saw Jordan’s full sprint down the court on a fast break for another tongue wagging dunk.

The combination of the Chicago Stadium crowd, Dick Stockton’s voice and the sight of Jordan’s highlight reel dunk, brought back memories of watching games such as these in my grandmother’s living room, on her old TV that resembled more of a piece of furniture then it did a piece of technology. I can still smell the sauce cooking in the kitchen and I can remember thinking “please let the sauce not be finished until half time”. I didn’t want to miss a second of the contest, as every play was a highlight reel of offensive greatness and defensive grit.

Jordan and the Bulls were usually chasing Larry Bird and the Celtics in the 1980s, but in the 1988 All-Star Game Bird and Michael were teammates.

Jordan and the Bulls were usually chasing Larry Bird and the Celtics in the 1980s, but in the 1988 All-Star Game Bird and Michael were teammates.

The picks were set like an illustration out of a text book, the lob passes were set up with perfection, the fast break was ran like a play on a chalk board and speaking of plays, these teams ran none yet they were in perfect sync. This was an era where coaches were more like managers and less like head’s of state. The intelligence of the player dominated the game and “x’s & o’s” were less necessary.

Did I mention hustle in this exhibition contest? I just looked up as Larry-Legend was diving into the stands for a lose ball as if it was the finals. Is this an exhibition?

Did I mention dunks? With the human Highlight Reel and Air-Jordan sharing the basketball for the East, there was no lacking of amazing dunks.

In 1988, The Lakers were champs and the Celtics were one year removed from that title. The two titans from each coast were still the powerhouses in the league. Eager on lookers such as Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan were still licking their chops, waiting for their chance to compete for the greatest prize in basketball. Though Larry and the Celtics had competed in their last title bout, Ainge, Bird and McHale were still the prized possessions in the East.

Speaking of the Celtics, where was the Chief? He was missing from this All-Star competition. Robert Parish was always in the shadows of Larry and Kevin – a symbol of the great talent those old Celtics teams possessed.

Magic still had three Finals appearances left in him, yet 1988 would be his last championship and Kareem’s last finals appearance; a perfect nightcap to Kareem’s 20-year odyssey.

Kareem was moving around Chicago stadium like more of a 20-year old man in his prime and less of a 40-year old veteran close to waiving goodbye.

It seemed every player back then had their signature move. Larry Bird had the fade away jumper, Magic had the no look pass, Kevin McHale had the up and under, Hakeem had the baseline jumper, Worthy had the baby hook, Jordan had the tongue wagging dunk, Isiah had the killer cross over but there was only one player who possessed the most unstoppable weapon in sports.

Few basketball moves have been more distinct than Kareem's skyhook.

Few basketball moves have been more distinct than Kareem's skyhook.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook was unstoppable. Even at 41, as his extension and agility had faded away, Kareem still commanded a double team because of the devastation a team would face at the mercy of the unblockable sky hook.

Billy Cunningham, doing the color commenting, summed up the indelible legacy Abdul-Jabbar left on the game when he said “I played in All-Star games with him, I coached All-Star games against him and now I am broadcasting a game he’s playing in”.

No player’s domination would ever span generations the way Kareem’s did and in this All-Star game, one of his last, Kareem would fittingly become the All-Star games leading scorer. Out of 39 All-Star games played at that point, Kareem appeared in nearly 20 of them. A man who’s antisocial nature and uncharismatic approach with the media left his accomplishments often forgotten or unmentioned by today’s NBA scholars. This game, however, is a testament to the undeniable impact he left on the sport.

The NBA’s greatest winner, Bill Russell (then the coach of the Kings) looked on from the audience at the champions of the 70’s and 80’s such as Kareem, Magic, Bird, Mo Cheeks and Moses Malone were flanked by emerging champions of the 90’s such as Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas and Hakeem Olajuwan.

In a form of poetic justice, just three years removed from the East All-Stars “Freeze-Out”on Jordan, Larry Bird looked for Michael on every play rooting for his Air-ness to win the MVP in his home town.

There was one man who was most missed on this All-Star Sunday. The man who created the most exciting highlight reels in the history of the game. Julius Erving, the Ambassador of NBA basketball, retired before the 1988 season started and, for the first time in his life, looked on from the stands with pride as Bird and Magic seemed to be holding the torch he passed just fine.

In an era when the Eastern Conference dominated the NBA, it was fitting that they ended up winning that game. Jordan scored 40 point and it was a pretty decisive win by the Eastern All-Stars but that didn’t deter the Western squad from competing to the very end.

One year later, Kareem entered his last campaign and Larry Bird was injured. Mo Cheeks and Moses Malone had not been elected to the All-Star game. In 1989’s All-Star game, it just wasn’t the same but there is no doubt the torch was being left in competent hands.

As the 1980’s closed, though the game would never be the same. Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwan, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley would lead the way through the 1990’s, a less competitive era and yet NBA basketball’s following expanded to regions of the world where it’s presence had never been felt during the Bird, Magic, Kareem, Dr. J era.

I wonder if 20 years from now I will be looking back on today’s All-Star games with the amazement I do of the 1980’s exhibitions.

My god, I miss those days!

Top 10 Plays From the 1988 NBA All-Star Game

Nick Gelso covers the Boston Celtics and NBA for Boston Sports Then and Now. You can check out more of his great work on his blog: North Station Sports.

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