The 1988 All-Star weekend in Chicago was probably the greatest and most famous in the history of the NBA’s midseason celebration. It featured Michael Jordan’s famous slam dunk duel with Dominique Wilkins, Larry Bird completing his trifecta in the three-point shooting contest with his whimsical walk off court with his finger raised signaling No. 1 with the ball still in the air. It also was the last All-Star game for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Chicago Stadium fans chanting for one more sky hook as time wound down and, perhaps even more aesthetically pleasing, an actual basketball game taking place.
Chicagoan Glenn “Doc” Rivers, recalled Jordan with the East team hanging onto a 60-54 halftime lead ripping into his teammates. “He didn’t want to lose in his own building and he went off because guys were goofing around,” Rivers said at the time. Rivers said Jordan asked generally if guys wanted to have fun and not care about the result, then someone else can play, Then he stared down coach Mike Fratello.
“I’m not losing in this building,” Jordan spat.
Believe or not, and especially for the All-Stars of this era, that’s the way the All-Star game once was.
There was individual pride, conference honor, personal competitiveness.
The East extended its lead to double digits after three quarters and had enough breathing space for East coach Pat Riley at the urging of the raucous crowd to put Abdul-Jabbar back in and call his famous five down play for a Johnson to Abdul-Jabbar sky hook. Abdul-Jabbar got his basket and Jordan’s East team got the win.
Jordan the MVP finished with 40 points, two short of Wilt Chamberlain’s then All-Star game record. Jordan also had eight assists, four steals and four blocks.
Those records have since been erased by the pantomime that the game has become in recent years with players often indifferent and taking turns allowing each other to score. Anthony Davis broke the scoring record last year, which finally embarrassed the NBA enough that it is changing the format for this season’s All-Star game in Los Angeles for captains to select players like in a playground game. Gone will be the traditional East/West divisions. The scoring record thus became more like the home run records of the baseball steroid era. Wilt’s 42 and Jordan’s 40 remain the NBA All-Star standard.
That 1988 game in Chicago was in some respects a marker for the pinnacle of the greatest era of All-Star games, the alchemy of extraordinary athletic talent combined with intense, serious competition that saw some of the best players at their peaks competing intensely and with entertaining flair.
Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas on competing sides delivered the pizzazz with the full court bounce passes and behind the back mysteries while Jordan and Wilkins danced in the air and Hakeem Olajuwon added the guile. Competitors like Larry Bird and Johnson still were in their primes and Jordan was driven like few others as a 25-year-old star taking ownership of the league.
This quaint little idea that started in 1951 as an answer to baseball’s popular All-Star game—NBA players then being asked to play an extra game were given TV sets as prizes, which was big then—grew into a star studded extravaganza with the celebrity players of the 1960s and 1970s playing for a few thousand dollars winner’s share that was substantial in an era when it represented almost 10 percent of the salary of many of the players. This wasn’t an exhibition to them. And then came the march of performers with the merger with the ABA and the likes of Dr. J., David Thompson and George Gervin. Then followed Magic and Bird and a handoff into the Jordan era that brought all these stars together with greats like Isiah Thomas, Wilkins, Moses Malone, Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and James Worthy. It was an annual Dream Team going at one another seriously.
That changed with time, especially in the last decade, not so much with the talent, which has been extraordinary, but often the commitment to the basketball part of the game. The winning team has scored more than 190 points in each of the last two games. In the first All-Star game in Chicago in 1973 with 20 future Hall of Famers, the two teams combined for 188 points. In five of the last six games, the two teams combined for more than 300 points in almost a complete lack of competition even to the end. The NBA hopes the lure of picking your own team will bring back some of that professional pride.
Which even extended to the contests in 1988 in Chicago on a weekend that if frigid outside was scorching inside with excitement.
First it was Larry Bird going for his third consecutive three-point shooting contest win. Bird never was big for All-Star games given his preference for subtle team play, the interior pass, the shot on the run. But the self-proclaimed “Hick from French Lick” could always talk with the best of them. He famously once goaded the refined Julius Erving into a fight and in one of the iconic taunts of all time as he entered the locker room for the 1986 shootout announced, “Which one of you is finishing second.”
Bird made 11 straight at one point in 1986 and beat the Bulls Craig Hodges in the final. He knocked out Hodges and perennial competitor Dale Ellis early in winning in 1987 and then saved his best for last in 1988. He started out hot and then cooled down and against the sweet stroking Ellis in the final round, Bird was eight behind with two racks left. Bird knocked in all five on the penultimate rack and then with three balls left needed two points to tie and three to win. Bird made one and was going to the last ball for the tie or win. Bird shot and before the ball reached the rim, Bird was strutting off with his index finger raised to signify a third straight title.
It was good!
Can you top that?
Jordan and Dominique Wilkins would in not only the greatest, most competitive dunk contest in league All-Star history, but in a message to the game that great competitors are willing to compete, anytime, anywhere, without fear or failure. The greater the potential for embarrassment and defeat, the greater the challenge.
It was further evidence why that weekend will be remembered most fondly in the history of the All-Star game and the history of the league. The best put their reputations on the line in the game, in contests, to any challenge. It’s why the players of that era can claim it the greatest. The best never took a step back from anyone or anything.
So, of course, Michael Jordan, who took the baton of brilliance from Julius “Dr. J” Erving and ran farther with it than anyone imagined, never hesitated about potentially damaging his standing.
Jordan lost to Wilkins in the finals of the 1985 dunk contest when Jordan was a rookie. The contest, which was born in the ABA thanks to the likes of high fliers like Julius Erving and David Thompson, the latter actually Jordan’s idol as an adolescent, was renewed by the NBA in 1984. It was won by Larry Nance back in Thompson’s Denver. Jordan missed it in 1986 injured and then Wilkins, the so named Human Highlight Film, missed it in 1987 when he was injured. Jordan won in 1987. So did he need to participate again? Perhaps lose his title to Wilkins? At the All-Star game in Chicago you weren’t keeping Jordan out of the contest. The anticipation of the Jordan/Wilkins dunking duel in the Saturday events was drawing more attention than the game.
The highest flying league featuring the final fly-off, Jordan against Wilkins!
“There was electricity in the air for that dunk contest,” Wilkins said then. “You had some of the best dunkers in history in the same contest. People got there early to see this contest. Expectations (were) out of this world.”
When I wrote my Jordan oral history/narrative, “There is No Next,” I spoke with Wilkins about that contest and the significance.
“The dunk contest really wasn’t about us,” he told me. “We competed so hard for the fans. We wanted to know who was the best dunker and give the fans the best show. That’s the way we thought about things then. Go out and prove yourself. Dr. J., David Thompson, they set a high bar. So we wanted to reach that, see if we were on the same level. Michael and I set the bar a little high after our dunk contest. (The most famous players in the future) didn’t seem to want to compete at that level.”
Also competing was fan favorite and 1986 winner Spud Webb along with Drexler, Jerome Kersey, whom Jordan defeated in the 1987 final, Otis Smith and Greg Anderson. It wasn’t much of a contest for Jordan and Wilkins, who swept through the first two rounds to their inevitable final matchup.
It would be three dunks each for a total score.
Wilkins was more the power dunker while Jordan was more creative and dramatic with his extended tongue.
The old Stadium, affectionately known as the Old Barn, was rocking, the anticipation deafening.
Jordan won the coin toss and had Wilkins go first. Pressure on Wilkins?
Wilkins tomahawked a ball he threw to himself off the backboard running in from the three point line for a perfect 50.
Who’s the pressure on now?
Jordan took a path from the left wing, took the ball between his legs and through. I see your 50 and raise you.
Wilkins then stunned the building with a powerful windmill from the right baseline. Another 50.
Jordan slipped up. Or did he? Jordan came from the right side for a rocker, two hander, his legs splayed: 47.
The fans were furious. Boos cascaded down. Wilkins now could close out Jordan with a 48. But, hey, this was Chicago and we know how elections sometimes go.
Wilkins came flying in to close it with a two-handed, rim-shaking, power windmill dunk
“I thought it was a 50 because it was my best dunk out of the previous two,” Wilkins would say later.
It earned a 45. Jordan had an opening.
Jordan needed 47 to tie and 48 to win. Few knew how to play a crowd like Jordan, and suddenly he was making eye contact with the great dunker, Erving. Erving’s free throw line throw down remains one of the epochal moments in NBA history.
Uh oh. Jordan missed his first attempt. One more chance. Jordan admitted later he was uncertain. He went to the far end of the court to run the entire 94 feet.
“I saw the man, Dr. J. who got it all started,” Jordan said.
Emulating Erving. Jordan took off running, leaped from the free throw line, double clutched in the air and slammed: 50!
The crowd went wild.
Jordan was gracious, saying he would have rewarded Wilkins more than 45 on that last dunk, and Wilkins, who would win in 1990, would laugh that it’s tough to counter that “home cooking.”
The Sunday game was dessert, and Jordan took the MVP with his 40-point game and Eastern Conference victory. They don’t come like that anymore.
Perhaps that historic weekend and game will be an inspiration when the All-Stars return to Chicago in 2020.