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The Greatest NBA All-Star Celebrity Game Players, Ever

Compiling a starting five of the best talent that show business has to offer — and Arne Duncan

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

All-Star Weekend is the time for the best basketball players on the planet to show off. It’s also the time for some very mediocre basketball players to play against one another on national TV because they are good at singing and acting. I’m talking, of course, about the annual NBA All-Star Celebrity Game.

This year’s game features the father-son combo of Master P and Romeo Miller: P made a few NBA preseason rosters, and no-longer-Lil Romeo played for a second at USC. Other notable names include Nick Cannon, playing in his ninth celebrity game; Win Butler from Arcade Fire, who won MVP last year; Brandon Armstrong, the former D-League player who has gone viral for imitating NBA players; and others. They’re also joined by retired NBA players Jason Williams and Baron Davis, and Brazilian Hall of Famer Oscar Schmidt (who might have scored the most points in the history of basketball in his 30 years playing professionally). The game also features WNBA superstars Candace Parker and Lindsay Whalen because apparently the best female basketball players on earth are worthy of as much of our basketball attention as celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez.

The NBA has long sought to court goodwill among celebs by enabling their basketball exploits — for over a decade it sponsored a rec league called the NBAE League, apparently on its own dime — and now it lets them play a nationally televised game with referees and shot charts. This is great for two reasons. One, it leads to sentences like this:

But it’s also great because from time to time we discover that one celebrity in the game possesses genuine athletic talent. This would be good enough to know, but it’s even better when we get to watch that celebrity humiliate other famous people who should never be allowed on a basketball court. With that in mind, here is the All-Time All-Star Celebrity Game Team:

PG: Nelly

Nelly was a baseball talent in high school — he was MVP of a St. Louis amateur league all-star game — so we know he was reasonably athletic. He had 14 points and 12 rebounds in the 2006 game — both game highs — earning MVP honors even though his team lost, 37–33. Unfortunately, the NBA hasn’t posted video of his performance, so you’ll have to settle for this picture of 5-foot-8 Nelly wearing a Gheorghe Muresan–size uniform and this clip of Nelly’s character in the video game NBA Street Vol. 2.

NBA Street Vol. 2 was incredibly accurate, so I’m sure that gives you a pretty good gist of how he carried his celebrity team.

SG: Kevin Hart

Kevin Hart’s All-Star Celebrity Game performances provide a decent summary of his actual career. He was loud and intentionally irritating in an attempt to draw attention to himself, and for some reason, this was wildly popular.

He’s OK at basketball — he’s fast and knows how to dribble and hit layups, but he’s 5-foot-4 and I probably wouldn’t want him on my rec league team. But he’s not here for the basketball. He’s here to make a big show of fighting with retired NBA players, dramatically calling out fake plays to his teammates, and of course, screaming at the referees, even taking his shirt off and hurling his shoes at them during the 2014 game.

Hart won four consecutive MVP awards, from 2012 to 2015, via fan vote despite clearly not being that good. (The other most egregious fan vote recipient: Justin Bieber, who went 3-for-11 shooting but rode a wave of his tween army to MVP honors in 2011.)

I respect Hart’s All-Star Celebrity Game performances more than anything else he has ever done. Most of the celebs at this event seem to think they can prove they’re more than just an actor or singer, as if I’m going to think more highly of Nick Cannon now that I know he can score six points in a game against the dude from Arcade Fire. Not Kevin Hart. He’s working. When being outrageous is your job, the grind never stops.

SF: Arne Duncan

At first it seemed odd that Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education from 2009 to 2015, was chosen to play in these games. Most of the players are selected with the aim of potentially enticing an 18-to-35-year-old into turning on the television; bringing in a C-SPAN celebrity accomplishes the exact opposite. It was perhaps even odder that Duncan would accept. He was a sitting Cabinet member responsible for pioneering policy that could change the future of our country. What is he doing playing in a game with Ne-Yo and Rob Kardashian?

But then Duncan started playing, and we understood: The secretary of education — who averaged more than 10 points per game as the co-captain of Harvard’s basketball team and spent several years playing professionally in Australia — was here to take these B-listers to school.

In the 2014 game, Duncan had 20 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists. And those assists were DIMES, including a smooth no-look, behind-the-head dish to a cutting Skylar Diggins. Dropping 20 and six would be a decent haul in an actual NBA game, but in the low-scoring morass of the celebrity game, it’s preposterous. He’s the only celeb ever to hit 20, and he scored and assisted on more than half the points in his team’s 60–54 win. Hart was voted MVP, but even a ruthless self-promoter like Hart couldn’t take the award in good conscience, handing it over to Duncan.

Sadly, I think a Cabinet member participating in a dumb celebrity game was something that would happen only under President Obama. Trump appointees are more likely to own NBA teams than play on them, literally — the family of the current secretary, Betsy DeVos, owns the Orlando Magic.

PF: Brian McKnight

Brian McKnight had legitimate dreams of making it as a professional basketball player: He logged a season in the ABA, played in a semipro minor league, and was a dominant force in the aforementioned NBAE League for the five games in which he was involved. He hit a game-winning shot in the 2005 celebrity game and was named its first MVP. Sadly, the only video I can find of McKnight playing basketball is from this streetball game that features our cameraperson taking long breaks from the action to scream at the camera, but it’s clear McKnight could really play. He was 6-foot-4, strong, and skilled, which makes him probably the best basketball player in celebrity game history who wasn’t a professional athlete.

OK, now that we’re done with that, I’d like to take a moment to note that the chorus to “Back at One” is bogus. “Just wanna be with you” and “You’re like a dream come true” are not steps. The only actual step Brian sings about is “make you fall in love with me,” but that’s Step 5. And Step 4 is “repeat steps 1–3,” which creates a recursive loop that permanently prevents the person following the instructions from getting to Step 5. Brian McKnight created a never-ending cycle in which he can never possibly make the intended target fall in love with him, and it makes me absolutely furious. Remind me never to assemble Ikea furniture with him.

C: Terrell Owens

They really let Terrell Owens play in this game — Owens, a professional athlete who dominated NFL cornerbacks with his athleticism and played college basketball at the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga. They let him play against Mark Cuban.

Somebody cut a mix of the top-five dunks in celebrity game history. One is by Usain Bolt, one is by J. Cole, and three are by T.O., including an off-the-backboard alley-oop.

It really should have been just five T.O. dunks, but J. Cole fans always find ways to put J. Cole in discussions he has no business being in.

In 2008, Owens showed up in the second quarter and finished with 18 of his team’s 51 points, winning MVP. In 2009, he had only 17, but was still named MVP. In 2010, Owens scored only 10, so Michael Rapaport was named MVP for holding Owens to only 10 points in a game with a final score of 41–37. That’s how good Owens was in comparison with the competition: You could get the MVP for simply preventing him from dominating.

Owens is pretty obviously the best person ever to play in this game. We can’t take too many legitimate sports thoughts away from this stupid exhibition game, but Owens’s performances provided a rare glimpse of what it looks like when a motivated world-class athlete plays a sport against regular humans.

Sixth Man: Jason Sudeikis

If you’re used to watching high-level basketball, the celebrity game can make you wince. Most of the celebrities haven’t regularly shot a ball since they were significantly younger. A lot of the points come off of layups. Anything more than a midrange jumper is likely to clang.

Unless it’s shot by Jason Sudeikis:

Last year Sudeikis hit four 3s on seven attempts. The other 21 players in the game shot 6-for-39 from 3, or 15.4 percent. If we subtract the shots by NBA legend Tracy McGrady and WNBA All-Star Elena Delle Donne, that drops to 2-for-24, just 8.3 percent. Sudeikis is the greatest shooter in celebrity history, and nobody else is really close.

Honorable Mention: Justin Timberlake

Reminder: In 2002, Justin Timberlake COOKED Kenny Smith, and then got in his face about it.

This should have been the end of the game. The other four members of ’N Sync should have descended from the ceiling on strings and performed “Bye Bye Bye” while Smith walked off the court, never to be seen again.

This is why this game exists. So we can show videos of Justin Timberlake with frosted tips ruining an NBA player’s day.