CLEVELAND (AP) — One by one the names of the NBA’s greatest players were called, bridging basketball’s past and present.
And as each walked onto the floor, LeBron James found himself in further disbelief.
The posters on his bedroom wall as a kid came to life.
“Allen Iverson and Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson,” James said, still trying to grasp the experience. “To see those guys today and then be on stage with those guys — it’s just crazy.”
On Sunday night, the league celebrated its diamond anniversary with a sparkling tribute to honor 75 years on the hardwood floor.
During a moving halftime tribute at Sunday’s All-Star Game, 45 members of the 75th Anniversary Team — including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James — stood elbow to elbow on a giant circular stage in the middle of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
This was a chance for the game’s greatest to take a bow and be saluted for cutting the path for today’s players.
For James, who made a fadeaway jumper — the kind Jordan made famous — to send Team LeBron to a 163-160 win over Team Durant, the chance to be around players he idolized, was overwhelming.
“Every time they would announce another name, I didn’t even get an opportunity to like rejoice in the player that they had named,” he said. “It was, like, Gary Payton. I was, like, wow.! Then J Kidd showed up, and then A.I. (Allen Iverson) showed up, and then it was D. Wade, C.P. (Chris Paul), and Steph (Curry). I was just tripped out.”
James wasn’t the only one.
Each wearing blue blazers with a 75th logo on their chests, the best of the NBA’s best were introduced to huge ovations, with the loudest cheers going to Jordan, the last player to walk onto the raised podium at center court.
The forwards were brought out first with Charles Barkley leading the way. Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of six current All-Stars on the 75th team, changed out of his Team LeBron uniform for the on-court tribute.
During the TV broadcast, Barkley said being amongst the NBA’s elite hit him harder than he expected. Antetokounmpo, one of the two Europeans on the squad, also was awed by being part of the ceremony.
“When you start playing basketball when you are young, you never imagine to be next to all these all-time greats,” said Milwaukee’s star. “Your name being called, going out there to shake their hands and just stand next to them, interact with them, it was amazing.
“I kind of teared up on stage because I’m not supposed to be here, man. Being among those guys is — man, it’s crazy.”
Julius “Dr. J” Erving bowed to the sellout crowd, and the always entertaining Dennis Rodman strutted down the wine-colored carpet wearing a basketball cap and hooded sweatshirt under his jacket.
James was the last of the forward group to be welcomed, and the former Cleveland star spun in a circle to return the love coming from every corner of the arena. This was his homecoming weekend, and it coinciding with the 75th anniversary made it even more special.
Once James took his spot on the star-studded stage, he tried to soak in the moment.
“It would be like going to your favorite musician’s concert in the greatest stadium, and you are literally on stage with them while they’re performing, and the sense of “I can’t believe that I’m here,’” he said. That’s the best way that I can put it.”
“I can’t believe I’m sitting next to Bruce Springsteen while he is playing in a stadium in London with 160,000 people. Or I’m in the Garden with Jay-Z. I’m sitting here with Whitney Houston on stage in a coliseum with 90,000 people.
“That’s kind of what it felt like for me. I just couldn’t believe it.”
When it was the centers’ turn to be welcomed, Shaquille O’Neal stuck out his tongue toward the camera and posed while Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s career scoring leader, mimicked his signature “sky hook” before the 74-year-old took a seat at the stage’s edge.
Iverson, who once scored 54 points in the building, led the guards out and was followed soon after by George “Iceman” Gervin, who made sure the crowd remembered his famed finger roll.
Before Jordan’s entrance, Kobe Bryant’s photo on the giant scoreboard touched off an emotional response and chants of “Ko-be, Ko-be” for the late Lakers superstar who died tragically in a 2020 helicopter crash with his young daughter, Gianna.
Even Curry, who got booed by Cleveland’s crowd before scoring 50 points and winning MVP honors, got a nice hand.
Jordan’s appearance was something of a surprise as the league kept a tight lid on any details of the celebration.
Following the game, James made sure to reconnect with Jordan, who inspired the young kid from Akron to chase greatness.
“The way he wore his shoes, the way he wore his uniform, I mean, all the way down to some of the cars that he drove,” James said.
The still living members of the 75th team who didn’t attend were shown on video, with each saluting the fans with a wave.
This is the second time the league has honored its greats in Cleveland, after the 50th Anniversary Team was honored in 1997.
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