SALT LAKE CITY – This was the first All-Star weekend since the death of 11-time champion, Hall of Fame player and Hall of Fame coach Bill Russell.
He was not forgotten.
The entire season has been a tribute to Russell, with all teams putting his No. 6 at midcourt and all players wearing it on their jerseys. And at Sunday’s Legends Brunch — one of the best events of All-Star weekend, not to mention one of the toughest tickets to secure — Russell was honored with remarks from Boston All-Star Jaylen Brown, former on-court rivals Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Hall of Famer Grant Hill.
Abdul-Jabbar called Russell “my friend, my mentor, my role model.” He was 14 when he first met Russell and the initial greeting wasn’t overly friendly; the Celtics were using the gym at Power Memorial in New York, Abdul-Jabbar’s high school, for practice. Russell was reading The New York Times, and Celtics coach Red Auerbach suggested he meet the player then known as Lew Alcindor.
How Abdul-Jabbar remembered Russell's response: “I’m not getting up to meet some kid.”
They met anyway, and became very close over the years, with Russell — notorious for disliking autographs — even signing a Celtics jersey for Abdul-Jabbar a few years ago. And that day, just as he did in that high school gym a half-century earlier, Russell called Abdul-Jabbar “kid.”
“There’s a whole lot more truth and love and respect for my 60-year relationship with Bill Russell,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Not just as one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, but as the man who taught me how to be bigger as a player, and as a man.”
Hill spoke of how he had heard plenty about Russell — his commitment to social justice and civil rights, an unwillingness to be deterred by threats, and his pride in standing alongside other athletes committed to the same, everyone from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick.
“And then I got to meet Bill Russell. It wasn’t at all what I expected,” Hill said. “While I had read about his strength and his seriousness, what I saw with my own eyes was his happiness and his humor. He was all of those things. And that’s what made Bill Russell great. Great for the game. Great for the country. Just great to be around.”
Erving told the story of how he played golf with Russell, and how neither was very good. Golf was merely an excuse to get together and tell stories, ones that would often bring Russell’s loud and distinct cackle when he found something humorous.
“Everybody knew when William Felton Russell was in the room,” Erving said. “I cherish those times.”
There was a huge crowd of fans on the floor for the halftime show. And a whole lot of players, too.
The halftime concert featured three Nigerian artists — Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer Burna Boy, Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated singer Tems and rapper Rema — doing an Afrobeats-themed performance. Several players were on the court for the performance, including Pascal Siakam and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Jewel, a Utah native, performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the game, Post Malone did a medley after LeBron James and Antetokounmpo drafted their teams, and Jully Black sang the Canadian national anthem before the game.
As always, the stars were out for All-Star.
Among the many in attendance: retired skiing great Lindsey Vonn, EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winner Jennifer Hudson, actor-director Spike Lee, retired baseball star Albert Pujols, tennis standouts Frances Tiafoe and Naomi Osaka, snowboarding’s Shaun White and, of course, Utah Jazz Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone.
LeBron James always said that he wasn't chasing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record, so there was no sense of relief when he actually took over the top spot on the NBA points list.
To him, the best moment within that moment was the reaction of his daughter Zhuri to the record-breaking jumper earlier this month. James posted the clip on his social channels.
“The Lakers’ social media post, they posted the one with my whole family on there that I actually posted I believe yesterday or the other day," James said. “It’s hard for me to stop watching that because watching Zhuri’s reaction to that is, like, the greatest — it’s so cool.
“If I’m having a bad day, I know exactly where I can go to fix my day," he added. “Seeing Zhuri’s reaction to that moment was pretty, pretty cool."
Not only was this weekend the 30th anniversary of Utah’s first time hosting the All-Star Game, but it was also the 30th anniversary of Adam Silver’s first All-Star Game as part of the NBA.
Back then, he was special assistant to Commissioner David Stern. Now, Silver is the NBA Commissioner.
“It’s interesting to think about the contrast between then and now,” Silver said.
It’s all different.
All-Star ballots were on paper then and distributed in arenas; Michael Jordan was the leading vote-getter with just over 1 million votes. Voting is electronic now; LeBron James got about 8 million votes this year.
There’s been about a 500% increase in the number of international players in the NBA over the last 30 years, from around 20 in 1993 to around 120 now. And no All-Star Game will mean more to a local economy than this one, Silver said, with a $280 million estimated impact from the weekend on Salt Lake City businesses.
“In terms of the magnitude of All-Star, this is our largest in our history,” he said.
The NBA said Sunday that the video of All-Star Saturday Night — highlighted by Mac McClung’s win in the dunk contest — generated more than 520 million views in the first 12 hours following the competition.
That was the most ever for an All-Star Saturday night, the league said, and the figure is obviously just going to keep rising.
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