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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 12 February, 2003, 15:41 GMT
NBA stars mark end of era
By Alex Trickett

Michael Jordan (left) with Yao Ming
With Michael Jordan on the brink of retirement, the 2003 All-Star game was always going to be a special occasion.

And it did not disappoint.

A thrilled Atlanta crowd was treated to emotional tributes, a speech from the great man, and - best of all - another Jordan record as he passed Kareem Abdul-Jabar to set the All-Star points mark.

Before any of that, however, came a typical piece of American drama, with no-one sure whether or not Jordan would actually start.

He had fallen short in the public vote and was reluctant to take an honour not due him, until Vince Carter did the honourable thing and gave up his starting place.

"I owed the fans the respect of him being on the court," said Carter, before it emerged that his cousin Tracy McGrady had been ready to leave his starter's jersey in the locker room to force matters had the need arisen.

I feel the transition has arrived where I can sit back and watch these kids play
Michael Jordan

Eastern Conference coach Isiah Thomas said his players had even threatened not to play unless Jordan started.

"Every guy in the locker room wanted to give up his spot. It's a young generation that wanted to honour him. They wanted to be very respectful to the history of the game."

History became a by-word for the game as Jordan first set some by scoring his 252nd All-Star point and then made it clear that he was handing the sport down to the "kids".

"I feel the transition has arrived where I can sit back and watch these kids play," he said after scoring 20 points in a losing effort.

"I leave the game in good hands - so many great stars still in the game, so many great stars rising.

He meant everything to the game - he still does
Allen Iverson

"I have passed on the things some of the great players - like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird - passed on to me."

Adulation for Jordan, a proud father (along with Dr J) of modern slam-dunk basketball, continued well into the Atlanta night.

"He's the greatest to ever play the game," said LA Lakers centre Shaquille O'Neal, by common consent, the best in the business at present.

"He meant everything to the game - he still does," agreed Philadelphia's Allen Iverson, who is - like Jordan - a pure shooting guard of the highest order.

Minnesota's Kevin Garnett had mixed feelings after picking up MVP honours for the West in their narrow overtime victory over Jordan's East.

"I'm in no hurry to see greatness leave," he said, before admitting his delight at "finally beat bald head".

Jordan's shining bald head may soon be missing from the NBA.

But the great man's influence will linger on.

For evidence of that on All-Star night, you needed to look no further than an awestruck Chinese centre called Yao Ming.

Making his first appearance in the showcase game, the 7ft 5in Houston centre sported a sleek pair of powder-blue trainers.

The footwear clashed badly with his red kit, but made a fitting global tribute to the University of North Carolina, the institution that nurtured the NBA's greatest ever player, Michael Jordan.

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