But the man himself seemed to make more appearances in Magic Johnson’s Instagram feed than he did at Spectrum Center, where he passed on judging the slam dunk contest and left the Saturday night festivities to former Hornets stars like Alonzo Mourning, Muggsy Bogues and Glen Rice.
Jordan’s light public schedule — he did present an honorary basketball to the city of Chicago, next year’s host city, on Sunday — forced the NBA to get creative in filling the vacuum.
Silver’s two boldest All-Star Game strokes were to keep the “captains” format and to include aging stars Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki as honorary selections.
LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo were voted in as captains, neatly setting up “The King vs. The Kid” dynamic that produced a competitive All-Star Game for the second straight year. Team LeBron, loaded with the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden, came back from a 20-point third-quarter deficit to beat Team Giannis, 178-164. Durant, who scored a team-high 31 points, claimed his second career All-Star Game MVP award.
Despite the comeback, Antetokounmpo fully embraced his prominent role and emerged as the All-Star Game’s brightest star. “I was just in the locker room sharing a meal with Team Giannis,” the Milwaukee Bucks’ 24-year-old forward told reporters Saturday. “I’m leading the all-star team! Picking teams with LeBron James! If you told me that six years ago, I would never, never, never have thought I would be in this position right now.”
Although James drafted the superior team, Antetokounmpo wasted no time leaving his stamp on Sunday’s action. The “Greek Freak” made all eight of his first-quarter field goal attempts, including six dunks, en route to a game-high 38 points.
Meanwhile, Silver’s decision to create extra spots for Wade and Nowitzki — a stark departure from the NBA’s strict 12-man all-star rosters of the past — led to laughs and cheers all weekend.
Nowitzki cracked self-effacing jokes about his poor defense at age 40 and starred in video clips on the arena’s big screen with Dallas Mavericks rookie sensation Luka Doncic. Wade sat courtside with his family at the slam dunk contest, drew one of the loudest ovations during Sunday’s pregame introductions and tossed a lob to James for a thunderous dunk in the second half. Both future Hall of Famers were honored during a brief ceremony between the third and fourth quarters Sunday.
“The suggestion actually came from a fan in an email to me [through NBA.com],” Silver explained. “You had two NBA champions, two NBA players who had long, fantastic careers, both of whom had been all-stars multiple times. Dwyane Wade had already announced it was going to be his last season. I saw Dirk Nowitzki painfully running up and down the court, and I think it was clear that this was going to be his last season.”
Given the Hornets’ relatively short and complicated history — the original franchise relocated to New Orleans in 2002 and was replaced in 2004 by the Bobcats, who took back the old nickname in 2014 — the NBA also smartly leaned on other athletes and entertainers with North Carolina ties.
In the slam dunk contest, Wake Forest product John Collins unveiled a Wright brothers tribute, and N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. incorporated rapper J. Cole, a fellow Fayetteville, N.C., product, into one of his dunks. Charlotte natives Stephen and Seth Curry competed in the three-point contest — with Stephen finishing second. Their father, Dell, a former Hornet, led a Saturday night shooting competition to raise $35,000 for local charities.
All things considered, Jordan’s low profile did more good than harm. Three-point contest champion Joe Harris and slam dunk contest winner Hamidou Diallo had their moments in the sun despite being relative unknowns, the “captains” format produced a competitive All-Star Game for the second straight year, and Antetokounmpo had the chance to raise his superstar profile to even greater heights.
For once, Jordan, whose name is synonymous with supreme confidence under pressure, shrank from the moment. And no one had reason to complain.