A look at the history of the NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland
2022 marks the third time that the best players in the NBA will square off in Northeast Ohio.
The NBA’s best are about to descend upon downtown Cleveland to celebrate All-Star weekend as part of the league’s 75th anniversary season.
2022 will be the third time that the NBA All-Star Game will be played in Northeast Ohio. The 1981 NBA All-Star Game was played at the Richfield Coliseum. In 1997, Gund Arena (now known as Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse) hosted the All-Star weekend festivities, including the recognition of the NBA’s 50 greatest players.
Let’s travel back in time for a look at those previous NBA All-Star games in Cleveland.
1981: Richfield Coliseum welcomes NBA's best to Summit County
In 1981, the Cleveland Cavaliers were about as irrelevant as it gets in the NBA. They were on their way to a 28-54 record, good for 5th place in the Central Division. They averaged a little under 5,800 fans per game at the Richfield Coliseum, worst in all of the league. The Cavs at this time were owned by the controversial Ted Stepien, who nearly ran the franchise into the ground during his three-year tenure.
How bad did it get for the Cavs under Stepien? The league had to come up with a rule to stop Stepien from trading away first-round draft picks every year. Stepien fired popular radio play-by-play announcer Joe Tait, had five different head coaches (including future hall of famer Chuck Daly), threatened to move the Cavs to Toronto, and amassed a record as owner of 66-180.
The NBA itself was not in the best of shape in 1981. Although the league possessed young stars like Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, the NBA was plagued by rampant drug scandals. The Washington Post reported in 1980 that an estimated 40 to 75% of players used cocaine, with as many as 10% getting high with freebase cocaine.
Amid all of that turmoil, Northeast Ohio hosted the NBA All-Star Game on February 1, 1981. 20,239 people jammed into the Richfield Coliseum on Route 303 near I-271 to watch the league’s best in action. Philadelphia’s Billy Cunningham coached the Eastern Conference All-Stars, while Phoenix’s John MacLeod ran the Western Conference.
The All-Star Game rosters featured several future Basketball Hall of Famers, including Bird, Moses Malone, Julius Erving, and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
- Larry Bird – Boston Celtics
- Julius Erving – Philadelphia 76ers
- Artis Gilmore – Chicago Bulls
- Reggie Theus – Chicago Bulls
- Eddie Johnson – Atlanta Hawks
- Nate “Tiny” Archibald – Boston Celtics
- Marques Johnson – Milwaukee Bucks
- Bobby Jones – Philadelphia 76ers
- Mike Mitchell – Cleveland Cavaliers
- Robert Parish – Boston Celtics
- Micheal Ray Richardson – New York Knicks
Despite having one of the league’s poorest records, the Cavs were represented on that day by forward Mike Mitchell, who was an injury replacement for Atlanta’s Dan Roundfield. Mitchell averaged 24.5 points per game for the Cavs during the 1980-81 season and would go on to score 14 points in front of his hometown fans at the All-Star Game.
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Los Angeles Lakers
- Adrian Dantley – Utah Jazz
- Walter Davis – Phoenix Suns
- George Gervin – San Antonio Spurs
- Paul Westphal – Seattle Supersonics
- Otis Birdsong – Kansas City Kings
- Dennis Johnson – Phoenix Suns
- Moses Malone – Houston Rockets
- Truck Robinson – Phoenix Suns
- Jack Sikma – Seattle Supersonics
In the end, it was the Eastern Conference coming out on top, 123-120. Tiny Archibald, who scored 9 points and dished out 9 assists off the bench, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Paul Westphal and Dennis Johnson were the top scorers with 19 points apiece.
1997: The NBA celebrates its 50th anniversary at Cleveland's Gund Arena
1997 was a star-studded year for downtown Cleveland as both of its beautiful new facilities would play host to all-star games. On February 9, 1997, Gund Arena (now called Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse) was the site of the NBA All-Star Game, which also commemorated the league's 50th anniversary. Gund Arena's next door neighbor, Jacobs Field, would host the Major League Baseball All-Star Game later that summer.
Much had changed since Northeast Ohio had last hosted the NBA All-Star Game. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Cavaliers went from being among the league's worst teams to one of its best. The only problem was they could never quite figure out how to beat Jordan and the Bulls in the playoffs. Despite the team's success in Richfield, Cavs owner Gordon Gund jumped at the opportunity to have a new arena for his team built in downtown Cleveland. Gund Arena officially opened its doors in the fall of 1994. Less than three years later, it would be the site of the 47th NBA All-Star Game.
Between All-Star visits to Cleveland, the NBA had become a sports powerhouse. The rivalry between Bird and Magic in the 80s had ushered in a new era of league popularity, which would only increase with the emergence of Michael Jordan. By the time of the 1997 NBA All-Star Game, Jordan was well on his way to leading the Chicago Bulls to a 5th league title. While Bird and Magic were retired by 1997, new stars had already stepped forward to take their place, including Shaquille O'Neal and his rookie Laker teammate Kobe Bryant. The All-Star Game itself had morphed into All-Star Weekend, featuring such fan-favorite events as the Slam Dunk Competition and the Three-Point Contest.
Although he did not play in the All-Star Game, Bryant took center stage throughout the weekend in Cleveland. The 18-year-old from Lower Marion, Pennsylvania, scored 31 points in the Rookie Challenge game, then captured the Slam Dunk title. It was clear that the man who would become known as "Black Mamba" was destined for greatness.
Former Cavalier Steve Kerr returned to Cleveland as a member of the Chicago Bulls and captured the Three Point Contest title.
But the highlight of the 1997 NBA All-Star Weekend was not a look at the future, but a salute to the past. The league decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary in Cleveland by naming the 50 greatest players in league history and inviting them to appear together during halftime.
Check out this roster of superstars:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Nate Archibald
- Paul Arizin
- Charles Barkley
- Rick Barry
- Elgin Baylor
- Dave Bing
- Larry Bird
- Wilt Chamberlain
- Bob Cousy
- Dave Cowens
- Billy Cunningham
- Dave DeBusschere
- Clyde Drexler
- Julius Erving
- Patrick Ewing
- Walt Frazier
- George Gervin
- Hal Greer
- John Havlicek
- Elvin Hayes
- Magic Johnson
- Sam Jones
- Michael Jordan
- Jerry Lucas
- Karl Malone
- Moses Malone
- Pete Maravich
- Kevin McHale
- George Mikan
- Earl Monroe
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- Shaquille O’Neal
- Robert Parish
- Bob Pettit
- Scottie Pippen
- Willis Reed
- Oscar Robertson
- David Robinson
- Bill Russell
- Dolph Schayes
- Bill Sharman
- John Stockton
- Isiah Thomas
- Nate Thurmond
- Wes Unseld
- Bill Walton
- Jerry West
- Lenny Wilkens
- James Worthy
Out of this list, only three players were missing from the celebration. Maravich (who passed away in 1988), O'Neal, and West.
What made the return of the NBA's greatest players so special was to see them get together backstage and rekindle old friendships...and maybe a few rivalries as well.
And then, of course, there was the All-Star Game itself. Doug Collins of the Detroit Pistons served as the Eastern Conference's head coach, while Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich handled the Western Conference's All-Stars.
- Anfernee Hardaway - Orlando Magic
- Michael Jordan - Chicago Bulls
- Grant Hill - Detroit Pistons
- Scottie Pippen - Chicago Bulls
- Patrick Ewing - New York Knicks
**Ewing was injured and did not play. Dikembe Mutombo of the Atlanta Hawks was his replacement.
- Vin Baker - Milwaukee Bucks
- Terrell Brandon - Cleveland Cavaliers
- Joe Dumars - Detroit Pistons
- Tim Hardaway - Miami Heat
- Christian Laettner - Atlanta Hawks
- Alonzo Mourning - Miami Heat
- Glen Rice - Charlotte Hornets
- Chris Webber - Washington Bullets
**Mourning was injured and did not play.
Yes, there was a member of the Cavs on the Eastern Conference's All-Star roster. For the second straight year, point guard Terrell Brandon was selected as an All-Star reserve. Brandon averaged 19.5 points per game, along with 6.3 assists in 1996-97. He would score 10 points and dish out 8 assists for the East in front of his hometown fans at the All-Star Game.
- Gary Payton - Seattle SuperSonics
- John Stockton - Utah Jazz
- Charles Barkley - Houston Rockets
- Shawn Kemp - Seattle SuperSonics
- Hakeem Olajuwon - Houston Rockets
**Barkley was injured and did not play. Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz started in his place.
- Clyde Drexler - Houston Rockets
- Kevin Garnett - Minnesota Timberwolves
- Chris Gatling - Dallas Mavericks
- Tom Gugliotta - Minnesota Timberwolves
- Eddie Jones - Los Angeles Lakers
- Shaquille O'Neal - Los Angeles Lakers
- Mitch Richmond - Sacramento Kings
- Detlef Schrempf - Seattle SuperSonics
- Latrell Sprewell Golden State Warriors
**Drexler and O'Neal were both injured and did not play
The Eastern Conference would prevail in the 47th NBA All-Star Game, winning 132-120. Glen Rice was the game's MVP as he set All-Star Game records for most points in a quarter and half. In 25 minutes, Rice scored 26 points. 20 of those points came in the third quarter and 24 points in the second half.
Michael Jordan had the first triple-double in NBA All-Star history, finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. The West was led by Latrell Sprewell, who scored 19 points.
More coverage of the 2022 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland:
- NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland: Everything you need to know from special guests, moments, events and more
- NBA to honor 75th Anniversary Team at halftime of 2022 All-Star Game
- 3 things to watch for at the 2022 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland
- 3News exclusive: NBA commissioner Adam Silver says Cleveland Cavaliers are becoming a Super Team 'the right way'
- Cleveland Cavaliers' Sir C.C. welcomes travelers to Cleveland ahead of NBA All-Star Weekend