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Marvin Gaye’s Memorable Performance: His Own Version of the NBA All-Star Game National Anthem

Editor’s Note: This story is included in The Athletic’s Best of 2023. View the full list.

For one afternoon, America’s anointed theme song had a suede soul, velvety enough to be simultaneously sexy and spiritual.

For one afternoon, patriotism masqueraded as a Motown kind of cool. The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., was graced by a superstar’s serenade, stirring together hope and love, resilience and confidence, into a concoction delightful enough to be served on the rocks.

For one afternoon, the time set aside to honor America became a historic homage to the rhythm and blues of Blackness, a tribute to the resilient genius of African American culture.

And after that afternoon in Inglewood, neither “The Star-Spangled Banner” nor the NBA would ever be the same.

The NBA was not always, as some of its critics would later say, “woke.” Or even a Black league, as it’s now known.

For its first three-plus decades, the league was as strait-laced and non-controversial as the other major U.S. sports leagues
. While individual star players like Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson pointed out the inequalities faced by the league’s Black players, both on and off the court, the NBA as a whole was conspicuously conservative. So much so, it was considered a big ask when then-Suns owner Jerry Colangelo went to CBS Sports president Bob Wussler in 1975 requesting two minutes at the top of the network’s upcoming broadcast of the All-Star Game in Phoenix so crooner Andy Williams could sing “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” with Henry Mancini’s orchestra.

It was into this vanilla void that stepped Marvin Pentz Gay Jr., on Feb. 13, 1983, on the floor of The Forum — at the time the home of the Los Angeles Lakers and, that day, the site of the NBA All-Star Game.

He was resplendent in a steel-blue suit, set off by a light-blue banker’s shirt and a blue gingham tie; a dangling white handkerchief added a bit of extra flair. His aviator sunglasses with the gradient and thin temples popped beneath the spotlight-style lighting on the court. This was a legend on a different level, and the awe of the audience was tangible from the moment he stepped to the mic.

No nexus between ballers and entertainers existed back then. No celebrity game during All-Star Weekend. (There was no All-Star Weekend; it was a one-day, one-game event.) The most notable, public friendship between an NBA star and musicians was Bill Walton’s lifetime affinity for the Grateful Dead.

Hip-hop was in its infancy as a commercially viable genre. Kurtis Blow was 18 months from releasing “Ego Trip,” his 1984 album featuring one of the first meshes of hoops and bars, “Basketball.”

It would be a while before lyrics about star ballers were the norm.

Gaye, though, was already a superstar. Adding an E to his surname, Marvin Gaye became one of Motown’s biggest stars during nearly two decades with the label, a musical leviathan whose seminal 1971 album “What’s Going On” was voted, almost 50 years later, as the greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone. It was more than just an innovative leap of popular music, but a soundtrack of social consciousness. It spoke of a time for a plighted community, and to a struggle still ongoing today.

Singing was only part of his incredible musical talent. But Gaye’s voice — stirring, sultry and defiant all at once — had become vox populi.

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