Asked his favorite All-Star memory as NBA commissioner, he chose the 1992 game, when Magic Johnson returned to win MVP honors after retiring the previous fall because of the HIV virus.
“Giving sweaty Magic Johnson a big hug right after he hit the last 3 and still being able to hug him, because he’s alive every time I see him,” Stern said. “That is at the top of the list.”
Stern could have cited Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins battling in a famed dunk contest, or Larry Bird winning the first 3-point shootout. Maybe it could’ve been the record crowd for a basketball game when the league staged it in a football stadium.
All those and more helped turn what was once a minor event into a massive celebration.
“It used to be a one-day get together, and it’s now not only a weekend, I mean it goes way beyond that, when you look at the host city and all the preparation that takes place,” said longtime Phoenix Suns owner and executive Jerry Colangelo.
And with Stern less than a year from retirement, it will be up to Adam Silver to continue to grow All-Star weekend when he takes over on Feb. 1, 2014.
“We’ve discussed playing internationally All-Star games, I’m not sure if it will work logistically, but it’s something we’ll continue to study,” Silver said. “We’ve looked at other neutral cities. We’ve looked at refreshing All-Star Saturday night and other innovative events for the weekend, and I think we’ll continue to do that, the same way we have under David’s leadership.”
The first of Stern’s 37 All-Star games with the league was in Philadelphia in 1976, back when the host team was responsible for putting on the game. Colangelo hosted the previous year, hiring Andy Williams and Henry Mancini to perform.
Stern became commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984, and almost immediately oversaw changes that turned a game into an event.
With Denver hosting the ‘84 game, it wanted to honor its ABA roots with a dunk contest. Not wanting to just squeeze it into halftime of the game, the NBA decided to stage it on Saturday, adding an old-timer’s game along with it so there were multiple things to see with one ticket.
That game was soon scrapped for fear of injury — the legends have a brunch now — and the 3-point contest was added in 1986.
“It wasn’t like David had a big plan in his drawer, we were figuring it out as we went along,” former longtime NBA executive Terry Lyons said. “But he was very focused on, people will define our league as we try to build it back up based a lot on events, and we’re competing against the big boys for the sponsorship dollars, for the media attention, for everything. So the event planning became huge, absolutely top of the list, and All-Star started to define it.”
Players realized it, with even the biggest stars never declining if asked to compete in Saturday night events. Bird was perhaps basketball’s biggest name when he won the inaugural 3-point event in Dallas, and by the time Jordan edged Wilkins on his home floor to win the 1988 dunk contest in Chicago, Lyons said league officials knew the event had turned the corner.
Unlike NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has changed the Pro Bowl schedule and threatened to take it away entirely because players don’t take it seriously enough, and Major League Baseball counterpart Bud Selig, who made the All-Star game determine home-field advantage for the World Series, Stern never cared much about the result of the actual game.
“It was fun. The finals are competitive. All-Star game is fun. Period,” Lyons said. “David’s focus was always, ‘How long are the lines at the receptions? Were the parties good? If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.’ All that kind of Sternesque focus.”
That allowed Stern to try things that sometimes assured the game wouldn’t be good. The league took the 2007 event to Las Vegas, and the basketball was a bomb after three days of parties and events. The 2010 game went to Dallas Cowboys Stadium, where the massive size of the structure behind the baskets had players worrying about their shooting. (No problem, it was a thrilling game before a record crowd of more than 108,000).
The “weekend” now starts Thursday with the opening of Jam Session, featuring shops, interactive exhibits and more at a convention center. Friday morning is the tech summit, added before the 1998 game in Oakland, Calif. as a way to attract business and technology leaders from the Silicon Valley, and which now has become popular among owners and executives.
This year’s event was to be seen live in 215 countries and territories in 47 languages through various media.
“I think probably the most drastic change that I’ve seen and I’ve experienced, as a kid growing up overseas, you couldn’t watch the game live. You know what I mean?” 15-time All-Star Kobe Bryant said. “It was on delay, would come on the next day, it wouldn’t be a big publicized thing, you’d have to kind of search it out. Until now, it’s televised live across how many countries? That speaks to his influence, that speaks to his business savvy.”
Silver will have work to do. The dunk contest has been diminished, names like Jordan and Wilkins replaced by lesser players. The search for host cities with enough hotel and entertainment space for staff, media, sponsors and fans has grown more difficult.
And those are the things that turned a game into an event.
“Event planning, (butt)-kicking parties and fun, good hotels, all those little things that people judge a weekend by, David was on it,” Lyons said.