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Game a changing of guard (and center)

©Associated Press
February 9, 2003

ATLANTA -- When the ball goes up for tipoff of the All-Star Game today, Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan will be watching from the bench for the first time.

Karl Malone probably will be off hunting or fishing, Reggie Miller might be on a beach, Grant Hill and Dikembe Mutombo will be recuperating, and David Robinson will be planning his impending retirement.

A new generation of perennial All-Stars, along with the NBA's newest curiosity, will comprise the two starting units as the league holds its 52nd annual showcase event.

Four of the starters, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal, jumped directly from high school to the pros.

One, 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming, made the biggest leap of all -- coming from China to the United States and becoming the first rookie to displace an established starting center since O'Neal did it to Patrick Ewing a decade ago.

This will be the first time in 25 years that the All-Star Game is in Atlanta. The last time, in 1978, Randy Smith of the Buffalo Braves came off the bench to lead all scorers with 27 points.

Jordan would become an All-Star seven years later, eventually being voted a starter by the fans 13 times.

"It doesn't matter if you play or you don't play," Jordan said. "It's truly an honor just to be selected on that team. That's the way I accept it. I don't go in there thinking any less than the other 13 times I've been there."

Making his 14th and final appearance, Jordan plans to retire after this season -- he swears he means it this time -- and will be bidding farewell to an event he has dominated.

He has the only triple double in the game's history, three All-Star MVP trophies and needs to score 10 points to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (251 in 18 appearances) as the leading scorer in All-Star history.

O'Neal, meanwhile, has reached a sort of NBA middle age, a bridge between the Jordan generation and the current era -- Generation Y, as in Yao.

Today, O'Neal and Yao will be teammates for the first time.

"He can play point guard, and I'll be the shooting guard," Yao quipped.

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