Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — before each signed million-dollar max contracts, negotiated their own lines of signature sneakers and reached superstar status, they had one thing in common. All three balled out in the Rising Stars Challenge, which in the past two decades has become the NBA’s marquee event kicking off All-Star Weekend.
In 1994, the league turned its annual Legends Game, which featured a matchup of teams of retired players, into the Rookies Game, a showcase of the NBA’s top first-year talent. By 2000, the game was renamed the Rookie Challenge, with a revamped format that included second-year players — after the 1998-99 lockout season that deprived rookies of the opportunity to play.
The Rookies vs. Sophomores structure lasted until 2012, when the league rebranded the event as the Rising Star Challenge and combined both first- and second-year players on each competing team’s roster through a draft. Now, the challenge matches American players against international players in a Team USA vs. Team World makeup that began in 2015.
Some of the best young players in recent memory have laced ’em up — from Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway in the inaugural 1994 contest to Allen Iverson vs. Kobe Bryant in 1997, and Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade running together on the Rookie squad in 2004. In the early ’90s, the games were low-scoring affairs of fundamental basketball. But over time, they’ve become artful displays of athleticism and bravado.
As we head into 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend, which begins Friday with Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell leading Team USA against Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jamal Murray and Team World, these are the top 15 performances of all time from the event that’s become the All-Star Game before the All-Star Game.
1997 — Kobe Bryant
Stat line: 31 points, eight rebounds in 26 minutes
On Feb. 8, 1997, the crowd at Cleveland’s Gund Arena booed when Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson, the No. 1 pick of the 1996 NBA draft, was named the MVP of the 1997 Rookie Game over Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, the 13th overall pick of the same draft class. Iverson led the Eastern Conference’s rookie squad to a 96-91 win with 19 points and nine assists, while Bryant propelled the West with a game-high 31 points, which set a Rookie Game record that wouldn’t be broken until 2004. Later that evening, the then-18-year-old Bryant avenged the loss and MVP snub by becoming the youngest player in NBA history to win the Slam Dunk Contest. And he did it with pop star Brandy, his high school prom date, watching him from the stands. What a way to bounce back.
2003 — Jason Richardson
“He was just trying to get the crowd riled up, but he has no class. You don’t do that.” This is what Carlos Boozer, then a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had to say after the 2003 Rookie Challenge, in which Jason Richardson, then in his second year with the Golden State Warriors, went “off the heezy” — that is, he threw the basketball off Boozer’s head — in the waning seconds of the game. “Fans like stuff like that — a little streetball,” said Richardson, who dropped a game-high 31 points to lead the Sophomores to a 132-112 win over the Rookies. Even more disrespectful? Richardson followed up the move taken straight from an AND1 mixtape by draining a 3-pointer in Boozer’s face to seal the game. One of the great unsolved mysteries in NBA history is how Richardson didn’t catch the hands that night.
2004 — Amar’e Stoudemire
Stat line: 36 points, 11 rebounds in 35 minutes
Is Amar’e Stoudemire a Hall of Famer? He certainly thinks so, but it’s an often-debated question when you look back at the now-retired big man’s 14-year tenure in the NBA. Back in 2004, however, it appeared as if Stoudemire was destined to one day be enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts. Just watch the tape from his MVP performance in the 2004 Rookie Challenge. Stoudemire’s 36 points broke Kobe Bryant’s 1997 record (31) for the highest scoring output in the history of the game. He also dropped more points in the game than three surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers: Carmelo Anthony (17), LeBron James (33) and Dwyane Wade (22). Stoudemire’s Sophomores dominated Anthony, James and Wade’s Rookies in a 142-118 win.
2007 — David Lee
Stat line: 30 points, 11 rebounds in 24 minutes
David Lee didn’t miss a single shot in the 2007 Rising Stars Challenge, which he finished as the game’s MVP with 30 points on a perfect 14-for-14 from the field to go along with 11 rebounds in only 24 minutes on the floor. Lee and the Sophomores demolished the Rookies, 155-114, even with then-second-year New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul coming off the bench. Moral of the story: Lee is definitely invited to the cookout, where he’d bust your drunk uncle’s butt in some post-meal pickup.
2008 — Daniel Gibson
Shooters gon’ shoot, as the saying goes, and that’s exactly what Daniel “Boobie” Gibson of the Cleveland Cavaliers did against a team full of rookies in 2008. Coming off the bench for the Sophomores, Gibson, one of James’ most beloved teammates early in his career, took 20 shots, all of which were 3-pointers, and 11 of them fell through the net to set a record for the game. Gibson’s 33 points earned him distinction as the game’s MVP in a 136-109 win for the Sophomores. Ten years later, Gibson is no longer shooting shots but rather spittin’ bars, having retired from the NBA in 2015 to pursue a rap career. You can catch him nowadays on Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood.
2009 — Kevin Durant
In 2009 — with James sitting courtside between Kenny Smith and Kevin Harlan, calling the game — Kevin Durant, then 20 years old and the franchise player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, pieced together the single greatest performance in Rising Star Challenge history, with a record 46 points on 17-for-25 shooting from the field. “He’s been phenomenal. If you add a few more wins to [the Thunder’s] résumé, he’s definitely an All-Star for the Western Conference team,” James said that night before the game. After leading the Sophomores to a 122-116 win over the Rookies during All-Star Weekend in 2009, Durant was selected the following season to play in his first career All-Star Game, which he hasn’t missed since.
2010 — Russell Westbrook
Stat line: 40 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 32:16
Russell Westbrook did his best Durant impression with a 40-piece in the 2010 Rising Stars game, the year after his then-Thunder teammate Durant dropped an unprecedented 46. Yet Westbrook’s prolific performance, which he delivered after scoring a mere 12 points in the game as a rookie in 2009, wasn’t enough for the Sophomores, who fell to the Rookie team, 140-128, for the first time since 2002. Tyreke Evans might have the MVP hardware from that game on his mantel, but Westbrook straight-up balled out. He was the real MVP, if we’re keeping it 100.
2011 — John Wall
Stat line: 12 points, 22 assists in 28:56
No player in the history of this game has come out and tallied more assists than John Wall did at Staples Center back in 2011 during his first season in the league. His fundamental, 22-dime MVP display paced the Rookies to a 148-140 win over a roster of Sophomores that featured Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden. Pretty sure even Jesus caught a lob from Wall that night.
2012 — Kyrie Irving
Stat line: 34 points, nine assists in 27:03
A then-19-year-old rookie, Kyrie Irving didn’t miss a single 3-pointer in the 2012 Rising Stars Challenge. We repeat — Irving, fresh off of being selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA draft, made all eight shots he took from beyond the arc as part of his 34-point MVP night that helped his team, coached by Charles Barkley, beat Team Shaquille O’Neal in the newly formatted game that mixed rosters with both rookies and sophomores. Irving’s night, however, was just the warm-up.
2013 — Kenneth Faried and Kyrie Irving
Denver Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried absolutely dominated the 2013 game, with an efficient 40-point, 10-rebound outing that ended with him hoisting the MVP trophy. But let us take this moment to pour out a little liquor for Brandon Knight’s ankles, which Kyrie Irving, the 2012 Rising Stars MVP, destroyed on the hardwood at Houston’s Toyota Center. Irving caught Knight not once but twice with saucy combinations of his unrivaled handles. About a month after the game, DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers broke the internet after throwing down a poster dunk on Knight. It was a tough year for the young guard out of the University of Kentucky.
2014 — Andre Drummond, Tim Hardaway, Dion Waiters
Perhaps the greatest sequence in Rising Stars Challenge history is the back-and-forth battle between New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and then-Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters in 2014. For seven out of eight straight possessions in the final minutes of the game, Hardaway and Waiters went one-on-one, virtually operating as if there were no other players on the court. Hardaway would hit a 3 and Waiters would answer with one of his own. Hardaway would bring the ball downcourt and pull up, then Waiters would shoot from a little bit deeper. Rinse and repeat. Hardaway finished with 36 points on 7-for-16 shooting from 3, while Waiters scored 31 on a lights-out 10-for-14 from the field, including four 3s. What’s funny is neither player was named the game’s MVP. That honor belonged to Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond, who scored 30 points and grabbed 25 rebounds. No defense at all, but what a game.
2017 — Jamal Murray
No player has ever been named the MVP of back-to-back Rising Star Challenges since the game was first played in 1994. Yet this year, sharpshooting second-year Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray has a chance to make history, after coming off the bench in 2017 to drop 36 for Team World in a 150-141 win. Can Murray be MVP again? We shall see.