Old Man Game

In 1983, a hoops-loving lawyer named David Stern prepared to succeed stodgy NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien. Among his goals was to embrace the game’s history.

Rick Welts, then the League’s director of national promotions, had an idea. The young executive was watching TV and came across the Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic. It was compelling television, especially when a player of indeterminate age hit a home run in front of a Cracker Jack sign. This game, Welts thought, could work for the still-struggling NBA.

Soon he had an irresistible package for the upcoming 1984 All-Star Game in Denver, an affair that usually possessed the grandeur of a Christmas Eve flight delay. Nuggets president Carl Scheer wanted to reintroduce the Slam Dunk Contest. The timing was perfect. The ABA invention, featuring Julius Erving’s iconic foul-line jam, was unveiled at halftime of its 1976 All-Star Game in Denver. Include the Old-Timers Game and—presto!—All-Star Weekend. The two new events would take place the day before Sunday’s game.

Thirty-three years later, the Slam Dunk Contest highlights All-Star Weekend. The Old-Timers Game, later renamed the Legends Classic, has been defunct since 1993.

Bob Pettit. Pete Maravich. Earl Monroe. The player introductions, Welts recalls, brought goose bumps. After that, the glow of nostalgia succumbed to the blunt force of reality. His first clue: how the players looked in their uniforms. The current image didn’t match “the greatness that was represented in each player.” Then the game started and Welts quickly learned “that baseball old-timer games are a lot easier to look good playing than basketball games.”

“[It was] a little painful to watch your heroes not quite display the same level of skill,” he admits.

Thankfully, that day, there were no major injuries. Such luck would not last. Players getting wheeled off the court—as David Thompson and Norm Nixon were in 1992’s contest—wasn’t exactly conducive to a good time. “That, more than anything else, caused the League to decide, that was fun, but let’s move on to something else now,” Welts says.

It became harder to book participants as years passed. Brian McIntyre, then the NBA’s Director of PR, said some stars couldn’t play, wouldn’t play or didn’t want to look bad. The starting lineups for 1993’s finale stretch the definition of “legends.” George Gervin—great! Jamaal Wilkes—sure! Dan Roundfield—um. ML Carr—really?

The game did serve a purpose. “It fulfilled Stern’s promise that as we looked toward the future, the history of the game was going to become more important,” Welts says. “For players who were participating in the All-Star Game, most of them had never met the majority of players who were there as part of the Legends Classic. That connection to history, I think, became a real important theme in the NBA and has continued today.”

Thanks to both festivities, the All-Star Game immediately became an event. The Brown Palace, the game’s host hotel in Denver, couldn’t accommodate all the people attending or working the weekend. The NBA had never had that problem, Welts says.

In the lobby, Welts remembers, greatness was part of the decor. You’d look around and see Elgin Baylor talking to somebody or Oscar Robertson milling in the corner. The writers and broadcasters went nuts, Welts says, “because there were more great stories to be told just with the people who were there than they’d ever experienced in an All-Star event before. There was a buzz around it that was really special.”

“I remember Johnny Kerr, [John] Havlicek and a bunch of players in the bar talking about the game and Bill Walton in particular just soaking it all up, listening to all these great stories—as were many of us,” McIntyre says. “It was a fascinating bit of history. And to see the love these guys had for the game and for one another, it was a cool moment.”

The weekend initiated a new NBA. Denver’s festivities were O’Brien’s last official function. Stern embarked on a historic 30-year run that turned basketball into international entertainment with the help of stars like Michael Jordan and LeBron James. McIntyre and Welts saw the NBA embrace the past as the League and team front offices hired more retired players. All-Star Weekend evolved in that respect, holding an annual Legends Brunch, an event that doesn’t rupture Achilles tendons.

Still, everything old is new again—no pun intended. So, should the Legends Classic return?

Former All-NBA forward Marques Johnson would be up for a run if the competition were his age, and, preferably, if the game were half-court. He could do full-court if he had a few months to train, he says. McIntyre defers to “brighter brains than mine” to make that decision. An NBA spokesperson told SLAM that there are no plans to bring the game back.

Welts, now President and COO of the Warriors, offers a polite-but-firm “No” when asked about a revival. He did summon the courage to watch some footage of the inaugural game before being interviewed.

The verdict: “It wasn’t terrible. A lot of shots went in.” What’s most gratifying, Welts adds, is how much fun everyone was having.

Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images