What Ever Happened to the NBA Legends Game?

Once a staple of All-Star Weekend, the NBA Legends Classic was replaced by a younger, more dynamic alternative—just like its players.
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On the same evening in February 1988 that Michael Jordan outdueled Dominique Wilkins in one of the NBA’s great slam dunk competitions, fans in Chicago Stadium witnessed a number of other basketball stars in action. Celtics greats John Havlicek and Dave Cowens took the floor alongside fellow Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. Rick Barry, another multi-time All-Star and Hall of Famer, headlined an opposing team that featured notables like Doug Collins and Jerry Sloan. “The one thing I’m looking at these guys, [is] we’ve got more knee braces and bandages than we ever thought we’d see,” player turned game analyst Steve “Snapper” Jones said to open the 1988 NBA Legends Classic broadcast. “We better have the paramedics standing by.”

The latter collection of stars had long since retired from professional basketball. But with medics likely on alert, they were still very much a part of the NBA All-Star Weekend festivities.

From 1984 to ’93, the likes of Havlicek and Robertson, George Gervin and Walt Frazier, Pete Maravich and Bob Cousy, plus countless others who aren’t part of the sport’s pantheon, took their turns on the hardwood for the NBA Legends Classic, an annual 24-minute exhibition showcasing the sport’s stars—and role players—of yesteryear. The basketball retirees ran baseline to baseline, often at varying speeds, sprinkling a tinge of nostalgia on those in attendance.

Some, like Gervin, had more success. In the 1992 contest, the Iceman scored 24 points in 16 minutes, including two three-pointers, while grabbing 11 rebounds. "I think I can shoot just as well as most of the guys in the league,” said Gervin, then 39 and more than five years out of the NBA. “I can't play as long, but if the opportunity comes, I'll sure come back."

But missed layups, errant passes and sloppy dribbling maneuvers were also aplenty. “I’m always ready to shoot,” Barry said ahead of the 1988 Classic. “I don’t know whether it will go in or not.” For that reason, threes and dunks often appeared to be reserved for the competitions held later in the day’s proceedings.

John Havlicek

John Havlicek

Still, past rivalries of the NBA and ABA were charmingly dusted off and the competition proved at times to be intense, especially in the waning minutes of the second half as players tried to steer clear of a first-basket-wins overtime situation.

“It was like World War III out there,” Collins, then the Bulls’ head coach, said in 1988 when he was a member of the West team that lost 47–45 in extra time. “In the sudden death, it was a melee for a rebound. There’s pushing and shoving. It was like a typical NBA game.”

While the game itself was an exhibition, some suffered real consequences from participating. In 1992, both David Thompson and Norm Nixon had to be stretchered off the floor with non-contact injuries. Thompson twisted awkwardly while driving to the rim for a layup and sustained a ruptured patella tendon in his left knee. Nixon planted to go up for a free-throw-line jumper and said he heard a snap. He ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his right knee.

“It takes a lot of the fun out of it because at their ages, those guys aren’t going to bounce right back,” former Lakers center Jamaal Wilkes said after the game.

By the mid '90s, what seemed like a good idea had soured. The Gannett News Service’s Mark Woods suggested it should be renamed the Anterior Cruciate Ligament Classic. Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum wrote that perhaps the game should be turned into the Legends Free Throw Shooting Classic.

“I said to myself, we’ve got to find another way to give something to the fans,” former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said in 1994.

That February in Minneapolis, the league did as Granik said, re-retiring the league’s legends in lieu of a brand-new all-rookie game. An exhibition featuring elders Artis Gilmore and Rod Hundley became a battle between budding stars like Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway. This March marks the first time in a non-lockout shortened season that an all-rookie or rookie-sophomore game has not been held.

“It doesn’t make you feel like you’re missing anything because most of them are out of shape. I haven’t seen anybody dunk the ball,” Red Auerbach, the Hall of Fame Celtics head coach turned team executive, said from the stands in a mid-game interview during the 1993 Legends Classic. “But nevertheless, it’s a good feeling just to see what they look like and see them go up and down the court.

“But other than that, as a game …” Auerbach’s thoughts trailed off as a Calvin Murphy jump shot clanked off the back iron.

You can imagine what the nine-time NBA champion coach was going to say.