Celebrating 75: Cleveland again welcomes back NBA's greats

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1997 AP

FILE - Former Los Angeles Lakers player Magic Johnson, left, Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan and former Boston Celtic Larry Bird pose for pictures during a photo session with the Legends of the NBA Saturday, Feb. 8, 1997, in Cleveland. Some of the NBAs most iconic players will be in attendance when the league celebrates its 75th Anniversary Team during a special halftime ceremony at Sunday's All-Star Game. The official list of players has not yet been announced. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)

CLEVELAND – The NBA is honoring its 75th anniversary team during Sunday's All-Star Game, though the league likely won’t be able to duplicate the magic from 25 years ago in its return to Cleveland.

In 1997, Michael Jordan climbed up first, the game’s reigning superstar a fitting leadoff to the 50th anniversary team celebration.

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George Mikan was last, the player considered the NBA’s first superstar getting a helping hand onto the platform in front of him from Bill Russell.

The golden anniversary ceremony was simple yet stirring.

Celebrating the 75th anniversary team is anything but simple. Some players have died and others are unwilling — or unable — to travel amid the coronavirus pandemic. Back in 1997, all but one of those 50 greats were still alive and 47 of the 50 were in attendance.

The players who will be in Cleveland are cherishing another chance to remember the past and celebrate the present.

“It’s just nice to be here and to be remembered and an opportunity to see and visit with some of the old guys that I remember and watch the new ones,” Hall of Famer Bob Pettit said Friday. “And that’s special good.”

The former St. Louis Hawks star of the 1950s and ’60s is 89, carrying a cane to help him with his balance. He said there’s still a few, though not many players from his day that he sees when players from the past come together.

Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes caught up with Archie Clark, an old teammate from the Baltimore Bullets who told him that he should have passed the big man the ball more. Not that that acknowledgement means much nearly 50 years later.

“When he was playing with us, he didn’t give it me,” Hayes laughed, before turning more serious when discussing these reunions.

“But I think that it also gives you an opportunity to miss people,” he said. “I miss Wes Unseld not being here. I miss Nate Thurmond not being here, so it’s one of those kind of things that you appreciate a lot of the guys who are here, but you miss also those guys who are not here.”

Only Pete Maravich had died when the 50th anniversary team was honored, being represented by his sons. Jerry West couldn’t make it and Shaquille O’Neal, then an active player, was injured.

Charles Barkley was still active when he took part in that celebration and recalled meeting Wilt Chamberlain, the larger-than-life center who died about 2 1/2 years later. Russell, the towering centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and ’60s, is now 88.

“Just to be around all those legends was pretty special,” the Hall of Famer and TNT analyst said. “And this year, obviously now I’ve been retired over 20 years, so I don’t get a chance to be around LeBron and Kevin Durant and guys like that and take pictures, so it’s going to be an amazing, special time.

“I mean, you think about, there’s a couple guys maybe had a gripe, but it’s going to be realistically like a who’s who of basketball royalty.”

Pettit has tickets to New Orleans Pelicans games. Hayes attends many Houston Rockets games. The old-timers enjoy watching today’s players — though Rick Barry would have liked to test himself against them.

“You know how much better I would be if I was playing today?” the Hall of Famer said. “Seriously. I had no weight lifting. We had no strength coach, no agility coach. we had no dietician. We did nothing to help us. I’d be faster, stronger, quicker, more endurance, jump higher. I’d be so much better a basketball player today than I was back when I played because of the training and the sophistication of what goes on in every sport.”

Those discussions are part of the fun that comes with putting the greatest players together on one platform. But it's an exclusive club.

During the NBA’s 50th anniversary team celebration players announced starting with the guards and ending with the centers, stepping up onto a platform with other greats who played their position. They wore letterman-style jackets in the colors of a franchise they played for with their uniform number on the sleeve.

Chamberlain stood next to Russell. Larry Bird was shoulder-to-shoulder with Julius Erving. Magic Johnson was alongside Isiah Thomas.

The league won’t be able to duplicate that in its return. The NBA hasn’t said how many members of the 75th anniversary team will be at the game Sunday or how they will be honored.

But in Cleveland, it’s understood that whatever acknowledgement can be done for the players of the past is important.

“The reason why we’re here, and the reason why we’re afforded all the luxuries, and all those things that we have now are on the backs of those giants,” said Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff, whose father Bernie also coached in the NBA. “And we have to have a respect for that, we have to have an appreciation for that. All the things that they had to go through to carry this league to this point, we have to respect and appreciate it.”


AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.


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