The plane from New York touched down safely at O’Hare Airport. As it taxied to the gate and Rick Welts unbuckled his seat belt, he literally froze from the announcement made over the loudspeaker.
“Welcome to Chicago,” the pilot said. “The wind chill is minus-22.”
February is normally sluggish at the welcome center in Chicago because the Yukon is often a balmier option for travelers. This is not a sensible time to frolic on Oak Street Beach or window-shop along Michigan Avenue or see the beasts at the Lincoln Park Zoo who are probably under wraps anyway except for the penguins. But Welts was an NBA vice president on a business trip, prepping for the 1988 edition of All-Star Weekend which was his baby -- he created the concept four years earlier -- and Chicago suddenly was a popular destination in the dead of winter for two reasons:
The promise of greatness from Michael Jordan and the guarantee of warmth for a sport played indoors.
“Thank goodness for both,” said Welts, now the chief operating officer of the Golden State Warriors.
As a bonus, Larry Bird was in town to steal the weekend and nearly succeeded. Ask any historian -- better yet, just check the hazy CBS and TBS video and listen to Dick Stockton and Skip Caray -- and you’ll understand why the league’s annual midseason showcase was never more glorious than it was in Sweet Home in ’88.
Listen up: Jordan won the dunk contest in a duel over Dominique Wilkins. Bird proved his mastery of the 3-point shot. And the 1988 All-Star Game was played intensely with Jordan winning MVP before the home fans -- but not before bodies were diving on the floor. Need we say more?
That weekend will be forever symbolized by Jordan's takeoff just inside the free-throw line and Bird giving us the index finger while his money ball was still in the air and then Jordan again raising the trophy on the final day. And the best thing about that weekend, other than thank heavens for overcoats and scarfs, is how it still resonates here on the eve of All-Star’s return to Chicago.
Oh, what a different time it was: Jordan hadn’t yet won the first of his six championships with the Bulls, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made his final All-Star Game, all events were staged inside an old barn named Chicago Stadium which had staircases leading to brick walls, and the first name of the starting center on the West was spelled “Akeem.”
The weekend truly belonged to the host city; in addition to the presence of Jordan, it was the birthplace to three All-Stars that year: Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre and a star-struck Doc Rivers who couldn’t believe his timing.
“I made one All Star team in my career and it’s the one in Chicago,” he said. “I’m from Chicago and I made it with Isiah and Mark. We grew up together and played at 10th Park in Maywood, over by Proviso East, where I went to high school. That was the All Star team to make.”
The NBA then was robust, throbbing with heated rivalries and blessed by legendary players still in their prime, with winning teams in the biggest markets and the league making roots with a new generation of fans. The 80s laid the foundation for what we see in today’s NBA. Best of all, it had Jordan, already making inroads as a marketing Goliath and starving to become the face of the league.
“Michael was not from Chicago, but he was the perfect child for Chicago, especially for those two days,” Rivers said.
Also, the ’88 All-Star Weekend was an exhibition in name only. The pride of the players involved, along with their unflinching competitive instinct, made for an intense 48 hours.
Rivers said: “With that generation of players, no one backed down to no one. You respected everyone but when the game started you were trying to go at him. The game was played that way and the weekend was that way, too. All the events on Saturday. It was a competitive weekend.”
Welts had the job of coordinating the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts, a task he was familiar with. In 1984 he and the new commissioner, David Stern, wanted to expand the All-Star experience to involve more players and gain more sponsorship and attract media attention. After the league stole the dunk contest from the ABA, Welts pushed for another skills event and so the 3-point shootout was added. They also created an old-timer’s game but after five too many geezers collapsed from injuries it was eventually and thankfully scrapped.
Today, it’s often a chore to get superstars to compete in the Saturday night skills events. In ’88, it was a cinch; Jordan signed up immediately for a hotly anticipated dunk contest with two-time champ Wilkins among others, and the shootout wasn’t lacking a legendary contestant, either.
“Getting Larry in the contest wasn’t an issue because he loved kicking everybody’s ass,” Welts said. “Bird’s gamesmanship was a classic moment. He was just bent on crushing people.”
Besides, Bird was going for his third straight 3-point contest win. Two years earlier at the inaugural event, he entered the room where the other contestants gathered and famously announced: “Which one of you is finishing second?” Bird then made 11 straight shots at one point to back up his talk.
In 1988, before a back injury stole his mobility, Bird was so cocky and sure about his chances that he refused to remove his warm-up top the entire contest while he shot.
But, uh-oh: Bird trailed Dale Ellis by eight points in the final round with only two racks of balls left. As Ellis watched from a few feet away, his expression turning grimmer by the second as Bird came through in the clutch. He swished all five balls from his next-to-last rack. He needed to make the final ball on the final rack to win.
Well, with the clock running and the crowd standing and Ellis dreading what was coming next, Bird aimed from the deep corner and released. While the ball was just starting its descent toward the hoop, Bird shot a finger in the air to signify who was No. 1, yet again, trash talking without saying a word.
And that was just the appetizer.
Michael was not from Chicago, but he was the perfect child for Chicago, especially for those two days.”
Wilkins in the 1980s was almost as entertaining as Jordan. The “Human Highlight Film”, who would finish second in scoring to Jordan in 1987-88 with 30.7 points a game, was a must-see performer, especially when he had the ball on the break with nobody standing between himself and the rim. In those situations, photographers reached for their tools and fans rose from their seats. Wilkins was an exceptionally stylish dunker, who did so with force and creativity.
What was particularly interesting is how neither Wilkins nor Jordan dodged each other in ’88, not like prize fighters. Both Jordan (who won in 1987 in Seattle) and Wilkins (the winner in 1985 in Indianapolis) each already had a dunk contest win apiece in their pockets. Yet they put their reps and egos on the line for a title that mostly paid out bragging rights, and with the marquee set, the dunk contest generated more fan interest than the game the next day.
“I wanted to beat him as much as he wanted to beat me,” Wilkins said. “Michael and I were gonna put on a show. You didn’t have one guy who was definitely better than the other. You had the two best dunkers in the game. No matter who won, everyone was getting their money’s worth.”
Each easily made the final and had three dunks in the championship round. Wilkins dunked on a lob off the backboard for a maximum 50 points. Jordan followed with a between-the-legs beauty for 50. Jordan’s next dunk was for 47 points. Wilkins did him one better for 48.
On his final dunk, Wilkins executed a windmill that he said was his best of the day. But, in voting that conjured up some of those notorious Chicago political elections of the past, Wilkins was awarded just 45 points. Jordan had a chance.
He missed the next dunk, but the rules allowed for one more. Getting a nod from Julius Erving, who soared from the free-throw line to win the 1976 ABA dunk title, Jordan sprinted from the distant end of the floor. His right foot straddled the line -- a mere technicality -- and in order to gain more hang time to reach the rim, Jordan double-clutched in mid-air. The dunk was successful, the crowd roared and the judges’ cards all read 10 points each for a perfect 50.
Jordan was sympathetic to Wilkins and thought the final dunk by the Hawks forward was worth more than 45. A few years earlier Wilkins lost the dunk-off to 5-foot-7 Spud Webb in Webb’s hometown of Dallas, and so this was more of the same. Wilkins laughs about it today and likes to say he won four dunk contests but only has two trophies to show for it.
“It’s always stacked against you when you’re in that situation,” he said “That’s to be expected. It would’ve been the same if the All-Star Game was in Atlanta. Do I think I won? Yeah. But no regrets."
“You know, me and Mike, we’ve never talked about that contest, ever," Wilkins said. "Even to this day. It’s kind of an unspoken thing. We know what we did that night. We know what we brought to the game. We killed it. Mike’s dunks were incredible. And I thought mines were incredible too. He said later that he would’ve given me the trophy, but the contest was in Chicago and they would’ve had a riot had he done that. Well, today I’d tell him to just give me the $100,000 he won and we can call it even.”
Jordan’s competitive thirst was still evident the next day; in his greed, Jordan wanted the total weekend to be a ringing endorsement for him. At halftime, his team, the East, was up 60-54 and that was too close for Jordan. He sensed his fellow stars were letting their desire dip a bit.
“Mike came into the locker room,” Rivers said, “and he went off. He said, 'We ain’t losing, not on my floor, not in my place. Ain’t gonna happen.’ Then he turned to Mike Fratello, who was coaching us, and told him that in the second half, only play the guys who want to play. Jordan knew who the competitors were on the team.”
Rivers noticed an immediate uptick and how Fratello did as instructed. Only those who were willing to scrap and dive and hustle were on the floor for any extended time. That included Rivers, who owed his All-Star appearance for being that very same type of player for the Hawks that season.
“We were picking up full court on defense in the second half,” Rivers said. “Show me another All-Star Game where you’ve seen that. Well, at least you don’t see that as much today when the scores are pushing 200 points for each team. That might’ve been the last great competitive game where it wasn’t a show, it was straight competition.”
Jordan scored 40 points in the 138-133 East win. There were no claims of ballot-stuffing this time. Jordan was an easy choice for MVP and the weekend officially belonged to him, if only because he sparked a pair of intense competitions and caused everyone involved to elevate their level of play.
“The game was bragging rights plus you got that paycheck for winning,” Wilkins said. “We argued with the refs and everything. We wanted to win, and it wasn’t easy because you had all that great talent around you and on the other side of the floor. The tables were evenly set.”
It is now 2020 and Lake Michigan still freezes in winter, although the temps might be merciful this time around. Chicago Stadium turned to dust many years ago and the big events this year will be held in the United Center with entertainers sitting courtside, hyped player introductions and a starry halftime show. The All-Star Weekend returns to Sweet Home on a much grander scale in every which way, with a different cast of characters.
If Chicago is lucky, the passion of 1988 will be duplicated, although that will be tricky since the only shot of Michael Jordan soaring this time will be taken with cameras aimed at his statue in the United Center lobby.
“That weekend helped Michael’s legacy,” Welts said. “The whole thing was on a silver platter for him, and he took every advantage that he possibly could.”
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