The All-Star weekend of 2003 featured one of the better slam dunk contests ever. Save for a tame effort by Richard Jefferson — in which he managed the rare feat of doing an elbow dunk that didn’t involve use of an elbow — it was a high caliber affair that culminated in a showdown between 2001 champion Desmond Mason and 2002 champion Jason Richardson, both pushing the other to produce their A-games, crescendoing beautifully with J-Rich’s final clincher:

The All-Star game itself was not half bad, either. The first and thus far only All-Star game to go to double overtime, it saw 300 total points scored, an in-his-prime Allen Iverson doing what an in-his-prime Allen Iverson did at All-Star games, and an in-his-prime Kevin Garnett dominate proceedings on his way to the MVP trophy. Shaq faced off with Brad Miller for the first significant time since Shaq tried to kill him, an amusing in-game report spoke of Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce’s outrages at playing so few minutes, Yao Ming looked woefully out of place on his way to two points and two rebounds, and the close finish saw the game’s very best turn up the intensity and play at something resembling their very hardest. It was good fun to watch, right down to the Zydrunas Ilgauskas experience. Even the 52 turnovers were aesthetically pleasing.

However, this was all secondary. The weekend wasn’t about Iverson, nor Garnett, nor Richardson, nor the surprise appearance by Kool and the Gang. This whole night was about a player who, on talent alone, barely deserved to be there. (And no, that person wasn’t Yao.)

Despite his status as the greatest ever, and his 20.2ppg average on the season to that point, Michael Jordan was not voted in as a starter to the game. The fans were given an opportunity to say if they wanted Jordan to start, and they didn’t. That should have been the end of it.

But it soon transpired that, voting system aside, deciding who started wasn’t the fans’ decision after all. Iverson, voted in as a starting guard, was the first to magnanimously offer to give up his starting spot for Jordan, and leading Eastern conference votegetter Tracy McGrady soon followed with the same. Jordan declined both; inevitably, attention turned to the third guy-who-wasn’t-a-big-man, Vince Carter, to make a similar offer.

He didn’t. Despite only playing 15 games in the season to that point, Carter nonetheless recorded the third-most votes of anyone in the league, 360,000 before the next Eastern forward (Jermaine O’Neal), only 15,000 behind his cousin McGrady for the overall Eastern lead, and 218,000 ahead of Jordan. Fans voted for Vince knowing that he had barely played, because they wanted to see him start anyway. More so than Jordan, it seemed.

The voting system is not truly representative of consensus. After all, this was the year that Yao tallied the fourth-most votes in the league, starting ahead of a prime Shaq, despite having less than half of his averages and barely a trillionth of his legacy, all because the Chinese made it so. Nevertheless, it represents something. If it wasn’t regarded an honor, it wouldn’t matter that Jordan wasn’t starting.

However, not only did Vince not offer his place, but he also came out and said that he wasn’t going to offer it, that he felt doing so would be letting down all the people who voted for him. Even if you read between the lines of that logic, and conclude that Vince didn’t give up his starting spot because he simply didn’t want to, that is fair enough. He didn’t have to do anything.

That is, not until everyone told him otherwise. After Iverson and McGrady’s gestures, and in light of his season to date, the media pile-on of Carter began. And with an about an hour to go until the tip-off, a totally shocking thing happened — the pressure took and Vince offered Jordan his starting spot, presumably upon pain of death. And Jordan — who had said all the perfectly correct things in declining his two previous offers — was now somehow willing to accept.

This was all very convenient. With all the subtlety of a hand grenade, the NBA had crafted the weekend around the idea that Jordan’s last ever All-Star game — again, but really this time — was to be hyped above everything else. The weekend was a Jordan love fest, from the montages, to the press, via the interviews, all the way down to Mariah Carey’s eerie (yet honestly rather erotic) Monroe-esque serenade to him. It was the lead story in the run up to the game, and the first thing commented upon in the aftermath.

And yet, in between, in the game itself, Jordan was terrible. He missed his first seven shots, got blocked four times (no mean feat in an All-Star game), finished 9-27 from the floor, and missed a potential game-winner that sent the game into the first overtime. Jordan did not play like a man who deserved to start a showcase of the game’s very best, and he wasn’t even particularly exciting in doing so.

This was, however, all overshadowed by the big shot he made.

It was a moment that gave the NBA the moment it was hoping for, the aged super-duper-ruperstar still handing it to the young guns, showing them how it was done. It was an unbelievably difficult shot over the league’s best perimeter defender at the time, a moment of genuinely incredible quality on a stage where genuinely incredible quality is what we expect. For a brief moment there, it all made sense.

Of course, it was all then ruined. Jermaine O’Neal committed a foul down the other end, Kobe tied the game from the foul line, and the West blew it open in the second OT with Jordan watching from the bench. As much as the NBA, the media, and much of the viewing public, wanted it to be the perfect Jordan send-off, it wasn’t. But that didn’t stop the pretense that it was.

The entire affair was about lauding Michael Jordan as being better than everybody else, at an occasion where he was emphatically proving that he wasn’t. And only for that one moment could he counter it. In reality, the Jordan love fest was nauseating, even to Jordan fans, in light of what actually transpired. If the preceding year and a half had not made it obvious that Jordan no longer held the torch, the 2003 All-Star weekend made sure to remind us. And the torch had not been so much passed as it had been stolen.

The NBA had on its hands an absolute showcase to market, milk and manipulate without having to force the Jordan thing upon us. But they just couldn’t help themselves.

And yet, they would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for Jermaine’s foul. Ho hum.