NBA All-Star: How It All Began
Before the All-Star festivities come to a close, we look back on how it all began
In the winter of 1951, Haskell Cohen had an idea.
To generate buzz for the nascent NBA, which was still finding its footing after launching in 1946, the league’s newly hired director of publicity pitched NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff on having an All-Star Game to showcase the best players. Haskell’s proposal, inspired by baseball’s midsummer All-Star Game, was quickly supported by Podoloff and Boston Celtics President Walter Brown, who supplied use of the Boston Garden and offered to cover all expenses.
On March 2, 1951, a Garden crowd of 10,094 watched 20 of the NBA's finest players compete in the first All-Star Game. Ed Macauley earned All-Star Game MVP honors and joined Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes to lead the Eastern Conference past George Mikan and the Western Conference 111-94.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, the NBA All-Star Game remains a featured attraction on the league’s schedule, but it’s far from the only must-see event at the NBA’s midseason gathering. What was once a standalone game has grown into several days of on-court competitions, community projects, fan activities and NBA legends’ appearances—a global basketball extravaganza that reaches fans in more than 200 countries and territories in more than 40 languages.
NBA All-Star, former Commissioner David Stern said, “reflects the breadth of what we strive to be.” Stern played a leading role in NBA All-Star’s transformation, beginning even before he started his 30-year tenure as commissioner.
In 1984, just before Stern assumed the position, he was involved in creating the NBA’s first Slam Dunk Contest, which was staged in Denver, home of the memorable 1976 ABA contest that featured Julius Erving’s dunk from the free throw line. The 1984 Slam Dunk Contest, designed to honor the NBA’s ABA roots, was held on a Saturday, the day before the All-Star Game. To further recognize its history, the NBA also introduced an exhibition game for retired legends as part of the Saturday schedule that year.
Two years later, the NBA unveiled the Three-Point Contest—another instant hit. The Saturday events took off in part because the NBA’s marquee names embraced them. Erving headlined the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest (though Larry Nance would win it). Larry Bird swept the first three Three-Point Contests. Michael Jordan earned back-to-back Slam Dunk Contest titles in 1987 and 1988, the latter in a classic duel against 1985 winner Dominique Wilkins.
The league’s future stars and promising prospects also landed a prominent slot at NBA All-Star. In 1994, the legends exhibition was replaced by first-year players competing in the Rookie Game, which has since incorporated second-year players, become the Rising Stars Challenge and carved out a regular spot on the Friday of All-Star week. In addition, the NBA Development League holds its All-Star show in the same city as the NBA does, giving fans a glimpse of players who are on the verge of making an impact in the NBA.
The league’s legends may not compete against each other at NBA All-Star anymore, but they remain front and center during the week. NBA greats participate in NBA Cares community service initiatives, make the rounds at fan events and attend the various on-court competitions. Their presence, coupled with the action on the court, allows the NBA to honor its past, present and future at the same time in the same place.
“All-Star,” Stern said, “is the consummate, ultimate celebration of our game.”
The NBA continues to explore ways to enrich All-Star festivities. In 2015, for instance, the league unveiled a new Rising Stars Challenge format that pits first- and second-year NBA players from the United States against first- and second-year NBA players from around the world—a change that enabled the league to further highlight its influx of international talent.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has indicated that more enhancements could be in store for one of the league’s signature showcases.
“We continue to look at the format of All-Star weekend,” Silver said. “It’s something that we spoke to the Players Association about as part of collective bargaining. The players have a strong interest in making it a very exciting weekend with a series of events that fans will be interested in.”