Michael Jordan Received a Special Gift During His Final NBA Season From Vince Carter With an Assist From a Surprise Source, Isiah Thomas

In 2003, Michael Jordan appeared in his 13th and final NBA All-Star Game, a game in which he averaged 20.2 points and was named MVP three times over the course of his career. MJ was technically a 14-time All-Star but was forced to miss the game in 1986 due to a broken foot. But I digress.

As one might expect, in those 13 appearances, Jordan was in the starting lineup each and every time. However, that was not supposed to be the case in 2003, as for the first time ever, MJ didn’t receive enough fan votes to crack the starting five for the Eastern Conference. He finished third in the guard vote behind Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson but made the squad a reserve.

Perhaps he was only added to the team because everyone knew 2002-03 was his final season in the NBA, but he actually did play well for the Washington Wizards that year, averaging 20 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. But whatever the reason, Jordan was an All-Star and truly seemed content just to be there.

Naturally, from a sentimental standpoint, a lot of people were hoping someone would give up his spot so Jordan could start his final All-Star Game. And some actually tried to do so, offers which MJ refused. But on the day of the game, Vince Carter essentially forced Jordan’s hand and received a little help from an unlikely source, none other than Jordan’s longtime rival, Isiah Thomas.

Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson tried to give up their starting spots to Michael Jordan ahead of the 2003 NBA All-Star Game but he refused

As mentioned, Jordan placed third in the fan vote at the guard position in the East, receiving 1,082,909 votes. McGrady received 1,316,927 votes, while Iverson received 1,155,897. Joining them in the original starting lineup for the East were Carter, who received the second-most votes in the East with 1,300,895, Jermaine O’Neal, and Ben Wallace.

McGrady, who was leading the league in scoring at the time with 30.4 points per game, twice publicly offered to give up his spot to Jordan, as did Iverson in a private phone call with His Airness. But Jordan refused every offer.

As the game drew closer, Carter, who was already taking heat for being voted into the game at all as he’d only appeared in 10 games for the Raptors when the starters were announced due to injuries, was consistently asked if he’d give up his spot to Jordan. And he consistently said that he planned to remain in the starting lineup, saying he owed it to the fans who’d voted for him, all the while knowing that a lot of people would be disappointed.

And Jordan was completely on board with his decision (h/t The Undefeated).

“It’s a Catch-22. If he [Vince Carter] gives up his spot, some fans will be disappointed. That’s not the way it’s meant to be.”

Michael Jordan on Vince Carter

Even the day before the game was set to take place in Atlanta, Carter remained firm on his stance to start. But everything changed the next day.

Vince Carter gave up his starting spot to Jordan with a little encouragement from Isiah Thomas

Michael Jordan Isiah Thomas Vince Carter
(L-R) Michael Jordan; Isiah Thomas, Vince Carter | G Fiume/Getty Images; G Fiume/Getty Images; G Fiume/Getty Images

Isiah Thomas, the head coach of the Indiana Pacers at the time and the head coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars in 2003, knew exactly what Carter was going through. In 1987, he’d been voted in as a starter for the East but gave up his spot to a retiring Julius Erving. At the time, Isiah was the only player in NBA history to start the All-Star Game in each of his first five seasons, and he ended that streak to accommodate Dr. J.

With the decision apparently weighing heavily on Carter’s mind, Thomas talked to the young superstar and offered up his thoughts on the matter, which might surprise some given Isiah’s history with Jordan.

“With it being Jordan’s last All-Star Game, I let Vince know it would be a selfless thing to do and something I thought Jordan would truly appreciate.”

Isiah Thomas on what he said to Vince Carter about giving up his starting spot to Michael Jordan

On the afternoon of the game, Carter came to Thomas and told him he would go ahead and give up his spot. But he and Isiah had some fun with it as Jordan wasn’t told about it until Carter told him in the pregame huddle just before introductions. And even then, MJ still didn’t want to do it. Carter finally got him to agree, but there was still more fun to be had.

Isiah made sure Carter received his due while still honoring MJ, who scored 20 points in his final NBA All-Star Game

While Jordan, Carter, and Isiah knew MJ would be starting the 2003 NBA All-Star Game, the fans in Phillips Arena didn’t. So when Carter was announced as a starter during pregame introductions, a chorus of boos came his way. But just a moment later, when announced that Jordan would indeed take Carter’s place in the starting lineup, the crowd roared in approval as Carter flashed a quick smile. And that was apparently all Thomas’ idea.

“I thought it was important that Vince be listed and be acknowledged as the starter. And after giving up his position, we could honor Michael Jordan. I felt like they both should’ve been acknowledged.

“It was a great stand-up moment, and it spoke volumes to me about the person and the man that Vince Carter is.”

Isiah Thomas on the Vince Carter/Michael Jordan intro at the 2003 NBA All-Star Game

As for the actual All-Star Game itself, it was an absolute thriller and the first (and still only) to ever go into double overtime. Jordan didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, making just nine of 27 shots in 36 minutes, but still scored 20 points. With 4.8 seconds remaining in the first overtime, MJ drained a jumper to give the East a 138-136 lead, but Kobe Bryant hit two free throws with a second left on the clock following a Jermaine O’Neal foul to send the game into a second extra frame. The West then pulled away and cruised to a 155-145 victory. With 37 points and nine rebounds, Kevin Garnett was named MVP.

As for Carter, he scored nine points in 25 minutes but came away with so much more as he’s got a Michael Jordan story he can tell forever. Isiah has that going for him as well but when he and Jordan are discussed in the same breath, there are typically plenty of other stories being told. But maybe that’s one you didn’t know and now you do.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference

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