The players’ anthem: when Marvin Gaye sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1983 All-Star Game
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J and more on the pride and heartbreak of witnessing Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem
Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.
— Pat Riley
Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend, the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area, the synergy is a given.
Thirty-five years ago, of course, things were different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.
But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. After a stint in Europe in which the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.
Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, was. But Richie ultimately wasn’t chosen because the league’s office wasn’t familiar with his music.
Players and coaches lined up on opposite free throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.
“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”
Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes-Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular-season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals; the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.
Gaye was an avid sports fan — he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether or not he knew it, though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.
“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”
— Julius “Dr. J” Erving
Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. “ ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”
Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”
By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.
“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star point guard Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”
Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”
Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had its course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself: “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing with what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On,’ for my lifetime, had the most impact on me than any record ever.”
“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas
Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”
All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”
Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A long-standing myth says the notoriously reclusive singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition the day before at rehearsal was too long. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public-address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”
But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track that Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair too. Each note left his vocal cords with the pizazz of a street crooner.
Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”
Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former Rookies of the Year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 people in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”
Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”
“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”
A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.
The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench after the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high-fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”
As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record after its 1985 release.
The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was, of course, the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being the game was great,” said Theus, “but that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”
“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”
McIntyre, for his part, was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind, McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”
The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife, Shelly, were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”
“[Marvin] died young, and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving
Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.
“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”
The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more, Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.
But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallel to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”
For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”
Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.
“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”
By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”
Four hundred and fourteen days after his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but 7 miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”
He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.
“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”