The 1996 NBA All-Star Game was defined by one man. And his name wasn't Michael Jordan.
Turning 28 isn't a milestone birthday. At least not in the way 16, 18, 21, 25, 30, 40, 50 and so on are. Yet, for me, it was.
I turned 28 Feb. 1, and with the gift of seeing another year rang in a slew of realizations. Being 24 months away from 30, only so much time remains to be featured on some publication's "30 Under 30" list. It's been 18 years since officially entering double digits, which in and of itself was a remarkable deal because chances are seeing triple digits isn't in the cards. Plus, at a whooping 10 years old and with middle school on the horizon the same year, adulthood — my interpretation of it at the time — had officially arrived.
Nevertheless, 1996 also marked the year Martin went downhill with the beginning of its fifth season airing later that fall on Sept. 5. Tupac's chest cavity was peppered with bullets (two days after episode one) and died (a day after episode two) that same month, which in the years since has proven to be anything but a coincidence.
However, '96 was filled with infinitely more blessings than burdens. The 1996 NBA All-Star Game ranks near the pinnacle on the list of "thumbs up" moments. Describing life in February '96 as "euphoric" was an understatement. Four days before turning 10, the Dallas Cowboys captured their third Super Bowl in four seasons, defeating the Steelers 27-17, and Michael Jordan was competing in his first All-Star Game since 1993. And in my association basketball league, I was basically viewed as the prototypical Stephen Curry thanks in part to a wicked outside jumper. The only difference was my dribbling skills were putrid, so in retrospect, perhaps I was more James Jones than Curry.
More importantly, however, all seemed on the up-and-up in the world because all was.
Ask me who and what I remember most from the the '96 ASG and it all boils down to one man. Not Jordan, but rather Shaquille O'Neal.
Shaq Antonio. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Lost in '90s basketball lore to many who casually follow the game is a well-known fact. O'Neal was as dominating, intimidating and entertaining a figure as MJ (at times). He rapped, acted and broke basketball rims — the unholy trinity of everything bad-ass in the quickly merging worlds of hip-hop and basketball.
Having grown an immense appreciation for The Diesel while MJ was off serving his gambling debt playing minor league baseball, Feb. 11, 1996, was a day where pulling blindly for MJ and Scottie wasn't number one on my list of priorities, a rarity of a feat as there was in pre-adolescent life. I wanted them to get theirs after such an historic first half of the season (which led to a doubly historic 72-10). Also, the lingering feeling of what happened the prior postseason further continued to cast an unwavering reminder that MJ and Scottie were in the unfamiliar position (since 1990) of climbing up a mountain instead of standing valiantly atop one.
But I wanted Shaq to dominate. Leave a trail of bloody carcasses in his warpath. Make little children cry. Make President Clinton declare a state of emergency. Eighteen years later, I'm still in awe that the son of a gun actually did so.
The G.O.A.T. All-Star Game Uniforms
Teal never looked so good. (Photo by Greg Foster/NBAE via Getty Images)
The West's uniforms were tough, but the East's teal green jerseys are embedded in my brain as the pinnacle of ASG fashion proficiency.
1989's rank second with 1995, 2002 and 2013 in some order following, but nothing before or since has surpassed what the league rolled out 18 Februarys ago. And in comparison to what Adam Silver and the gang have LeBron, Durant, CP3 and company wearing in about 48 hours, consider this handwoven by Gianni Versace himself.
An Unfuckwitable Starting 5 (And Shoes)
Oh, man. Oh, man. Oh, man. OH, BABY! Let's run through the lineup.
Young Grant Hill was living up to his billing as the league's next transcendent megastar. He was the reigning co-Rookie of the Year. He was — FUN FACT ALERT — the leading vote-getter in the '96 ASG (not Shaq, not Jordan, not Penny, not Kemp, but Grant Hill). And little did anyone know, that picture-perfect, walking triple-double machine would marry Tamia three years later in what became one of the most idealistic African-American marriages in modern pop-culture history. For whatever reason, Grant and Tamia receive nowhere near the public affection Jay-Z/Beyonce or Barack/Michelle get, and we've known about them for longer. Will/Jada, too, but they were married in 1998.
Anywho, from the Chicago branch were Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, whose résumés spoke for themselves. MJ donned the Jordan XI "Columbia" for an evening that featured arguably the greatest collection of sneakers in recorded history.
And lastly, the Disney World duo — Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway. Or as I came to know them during this time, Neon and Butch McRae of Blue Chips fame.
Add that all up, and ladies and gentlemen, we're staring at the finest All-Star Game starting five ever voted in by fans.
Shaq Iverson'd Jordan Before Allen Iverson Iverson'd Jordan ... Kinda
First the highlight...
Three things of note here:
- Those warm-ups are glorious. From the Bulls, Magic, OG Hornets, Bullets, not only do I want them all. I need them all.
- If Michael Jordan calls for the ball saying, "Right here, lil' man," to a 1996 Tins, there's a 93.4% chance I hyperventilate and pass out with the ball in my hands. Not to compare any man to holy standards (and take away what I've come to learn about Mike over the years), but there's a 99.99999% chance I would've reacted like I saw Jesus in the flesh after awaking from said hyperventilation.
- Shaq exposing the lost art of the mid-range, one-hand jumper was impressive. But oh me, oh my, that work he bestowed upon Mike in the paint was new god flow-worthy. The move was so outright dastardly the crowd even reacted, and all Mike could do was smile and slowly backpedal. In his mind, however, was the Jason Terry "I eat ass" face.
MJ and company would get the last laugh later that spring. And in a weird way, they opened the door for the next great NBA dynasty in the process (the Shaq and Kobe Lakers).
Shaq Literally Put David Robinson Through The Rim
I've waxed poetically about this dunk before. But the fact is not enough words in the English language exist to properly describe this manslaughter.
Shaq was the young buck in a league littered with future Hall of Fame big men (Hakeem, Robinson, Ewing, Alonzo and Mutumbo). Not for nothing, too, the game was held in the Alamodome, the Admiral's stomping grounds and the city where an even younger Shaq became a nationwide prodigy at Cole High School.
I can't remember the first time I cursed, but I know in my head seeing Shaq pour down the tears of frustration from whatever rafter he found the ammunition on upon his West counterpart provided an "OH SHIT!" moment. And in a sign of the times, had this happened in the social media world, @Jose3030 would have it on YouTube with Jim Ross commentary overlapping it in less than three minutes.
What I'm attempting to say is Shaq expunged David Robinson's soul on live television with a dunk that sounded more like a bomb being detonated. And then he threw up the hooks to his frat brother, MJ. The same MJ he shook quicker than a side chick when the clock strikes midnight on Valentine's Day.
Go ahead. Find a better example. In fact, if someone does, I'll buy him or her the first two rounds of drinks at the next happy hour. No better "big man on big man dunk" exists.
I promise it doesn't.
Shaq Was Robbed Of MVP
The worst kept secret in sports was the NBA and America's unprecedented bromance with Michael Jordan. So when His Airness coasted to 20 points on 8-11 shooting while watching the fourth quarter from the bench, him earning game MVP honors for the first time since 1988 in a ballyhooed return was anything but surprising.
The only thing is this: It actually was surprising. Had sports betting sites been around in America then, a lot of gamblers would've been left upset.
Jordan earned much of everything he came in contact with during his time in basketball, but the 1996 All-Star Game MVP wasn't one of them. Anyone — besides the seven media members who voted in favor of MJ over Shaq, 4-3 — would reflect the sentiment.* Hell, even Jordan himself did. To make the moment more awkward than it already was, after Jordan greeted Shaq at halfcourt following the game to congratulate him on earning the honor, fans showered down boos after learning the recipient.
Yes, Michael Jordan was peppered with boos. That Michael Jordan. At the height of his dominance, Michael Jordan. The King of America, Michael Jordan. And it's not as if the crowd didn't have solid backing either. O'Neal scored nine of his 25 points in the final frame, fending off a West rally, and punctuated it with the aforementioned David Robinson baptism with less than a minute remaining. Of the job, Jordan remarked in his acceptance speech the MVP should have been Shaq's. Fellow East starter Scottie Pippen reflected the same opinion, telling reporters, "We were all shocked. I think all the players felt, like the fans, that Shaq had an MVP-type performance."
As for Shaq:
"These are the trials and tribulations that happen to all great players," he said. "I'll get [the MVP] one day. I'll get a bunch of things one day."
Ain't that the truth.
* - The voting media's view was this: Ballots were to be submitted by the three-minute mark in the fourth quarter. Jordan's 10-point third quarter helped push a three-point East lead to 102-80 by the start of the fourth. As S.I.'s Jackie MacMullan noted, "In a tight game Michael had been Michael." That's true and all, but another guy on his team had 25 points and 10 rebounds.
@JustinTinsley is stuck halfway between a dream and reality. The plan? To make that dream a reality.