It started out routinely enough. During introductions Shaq preened and Kobe put on the patented Kobe mask -- jaw jutted, eyes glazed -- when the Denver crowd booed. Both teams snoozed through the first quarter, which looked like a Globetrotters game gone amiss -- players fumbling would-be dunk passes off their fingertips, skywalkers trying to feel each other out.
The game's first dunks belonged to the guys closest to the basket (two Big Fundamental dunks that sandwiched a Shaq slam). The West jumped out to a 33-27 lead after the first and it looked like this year's All-Star game had taken on all the boring trappings of a Gregg Popovich-coached, Tim Duncan-led affair. Same old, same old.
But in the second quarter, the ghosts of two All-Stars reappeared. Five minutes in, with the West building on a 13-point lead, Grant Hill showed us all what we'd been missing since his last A-S turn in 2000.
He gathered a pass at the top of the key, faked his now all-too-common midrange J, and then reminded us of the Thrill Hill of days gone by. The oft-injured former Jordan heir drove left and exploded past Tracy McGrady and Rashard Lewis for a lay-in. Okay, so a "contested" All-Star layup is not the same as a contested run at the hoop in May, but it's been so long since Hill drove to the bucket on that Erector-set ankle on such a big stage that the Pepsi Center crowd didn't seem to know how to react.
On the East's next trip down the court, Hill made sure everyone in the building knew that his start on the squad wasn't just a "feel good" selection. Frontcourt mate Dwyane Wade led a fast break, then fed an alley-oop to a trailing Hill, who flew high with the greatest of ease.
"I hadn't had an alley-oop in four or five years," said Hill after the game. "That was fun. Now I know I can do it, so maybe I'll do it again in the second half of the season."
By now everyone knows the Grant Hill story -- how he seemed to be finished and now he's leading Orlando to the playoffs and putting up 16 a night on fadeaways and pull-up jumpers. But until that series of plays, the exploding, dynamic Grant Hill we once knew -- the guy with All-Star speed and hops -- had been MIA. The last time Hill played in an All-Star Game, teammate LeBron James was just beginning high school.
"I watched him growing up and the things he did were amazing," James said. "I talked to him before the game and he said he wasn't gonna catch one, but when he did, I was just so happy to see him at 100 percent."
But Hill wasn't the only one in Denver with something to prove. An overwhelming but incomprehensible fan selection to start the All-Star Game, Vince Carter wrapped the East's big second quarter with a highlight that was unthinkable, by Carter's own admission, at the beginning of the season.
Unlike Hill's, Carter's operatic season was largely his own creation. After numerous injuries came this season's trade demand, his anti-dunk stance and then his admission that he'd been dogging it in Toronto, all of which made most around the league forget why checking Carter's box on the All-Star ballot is always a no-brainer for fans.
In the first quarter, Carter had been 1-for-5, chucking up shots with that old, reckless Raptors abandon. Then, with a minute remaining in the half, Carter virtually said allow me to reintroduce myself. Running down the lane uncontested on a fast break, Carter gave us both the alley and the oop, underhanding a pass off the backboard, elevating to 2000 dunk-contest levels, catching the ball in his right hand, and throwing the ball through the hoop with some mustard. It seems like it's been forever since fans have seen VC face-to-face with the rim, but in that moment Carter made us hold our collective breath again.
"That's why I come here. I definitely put on a show for the fans. They're the ones that pay the money, that buy your shoes and support who you are wherever you are. They gave me the opportunity to be here so I gave them what they want to see -- at least one highlight, that's all I had in me," said Carter.
Sure there were other moments -- LeBron's tomahawk, Shaq's one-handed free throw attempt, both AI and Yao attempting behind-the-head passes, T-Mac reminding all that he'd been the first to self-oop.
But, for one moment in time, none of them measured up to the show put on by the ghosts of All-Stars past.