It was early 1983. Lakers’ Director of Promotions Lon Rosen was looking for a performer to sing the Star Spangled Banner for the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles.
Things were different in the early 1980s –David Stern hadn’t begun to mould the league into the global presence it is today. When the Lakers beat the 76ers to win the title in 1980, the game wasn’t even broadcast on live TV in Los Angeles.
In 1983, it was largely up to the host team to put the All-Star Game together. Rosen, a mid-20s former intern, had a lot of responsibility – including, but not limited to, finding an anthem singer. Lionel Ritchie was his first choice.
“When I brought up the name the person who was working with Commissioner [Larry] O’Brien said ‘Who’s Lionel Ritchie? We’d like somebody else.’ I thought that was peculiar, so I went back and came up with Marvin Gaye.”
Four months earlier, Gaye had released Midnight Love, which was propelled by the smash hit Sexual Healing. The success of the record made Gaye a star again, and presented Rosen with an opportunity to book one of his favourite artists.
Midnight Love had been released by CBS Records, and CBS Sports would be broadcasting the All-Star Game at The Forum — a convenient alignment of corporate interests.
Lakers’ public address announcer Lawrence Tanter has heard a lot of renditions of the Star Spangled Banner in the last 33 and a half years. When he was hired in the fall of 1982, he had no idea that the Lakers were hosting the All-Star Game the following February. Thanks to Gaye, he’ll never forget it.
“The anthem had been a traditional song in American history up to that point. Most people had done the anthem a capella, sometimes they’d be accompanied by an organ, but I had never heard the anthem at that point in my life with a track behind it.”
Rosen wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. The Lakers’ promotions director hadn’t heard much from Gaye’s people prior to his first rehearsal, which was scheduled for the day before the game. After the East and West teams finished practice, however, Rosen saw Gaye stroll onto the court – right on time.
“He was in a suit and he was wearing dark sunglasses. Dark sunglasses inside back then was unheard of.”
Magic Johnson, Julius Erving and a collection of other players stuck around to watch the dry run. Gaye handed off a tape that was to be played over the loudspeakers and calmly stepped to the microphone. “When Marvin went into the song, it was truly spectacular. Unfortunately, it was five and a half minutes long.”
Unfortunate because it was three minutes longer than what CBS had allotted for the anthem. Major revisions were needed. Rosen delivered the news.
“He kept spinning around and I was spinning around with him to say ‘Hey Marvin, it’s great, we just need you to get this down to two and a half minutes for TV.’ He wasn’t very responsive and one of his handlers actually tried to stop me from trying to speak with him. One of the players intervened – it looked like it was going to get physical. Luckily it didn’t.”
Gaye eventually agreed to deliver an abbreviated version. The game was scheduled for 12:30 p.m., so one final run-through was scheduled for the following morning at 10 a.m.
Rosen was a huge Gaye fan growing up, and hearing his very distinct take on the Star Spangled Banner
during the rehearsal had him excited. Rosen knew that when the national
audience heard the rendition, it would stand out, but “back then I
wasn’t smart enough to know that it might cause a little bit of
On the morning of the All-Star Game, 10 a.m. came and went, and Gaye hadn’t shown up. Rosen called the only number he had - no answer.
He found the number for Gaye’s record label, and tried that.
Tanter had heard that Gaye was going to be performing and saw his co-worker in an agitated state. “Lon was freaking out ‘cause he wasn’t there.”
At noon, Rosen took matters into his own hands and found an usher with some singing chops. With plan B in full swing, Rosen hedged his bets and waited anxiously.
At 12:25, just five minutes before the anthem was scheduled to be sung, sweet relief.
“I look across the court and coming down the centre aisle is Marvin Gaye – in a suit and some sunglasses again. He walked on the court and one of his guys flipped me a cassette tape."
Only Rosen and those who were at the rehearsal knew what the tape was for.
The crowd was still buzzing as Gaye walked off the court. “It was a cross-section of just shock, some of them were elated,” Tanter recalled.
Next to Tanter at the scorer’s table, CBS play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton could feel the atmosphere change in the Forum.
“As it was building, you knew it was special because the crowd was shrieking and was ready to explode at the end of it - that’s where it got incredibly dramatic.”
The players were just as dazzled. To Kiki Vandeweghe, who was making his first All-Star Game appearance for the Denver Nuggets, it was “almost a surreal experience. There was almost a beat, a moment, in between when he finished the anthem and before people went crazy – that’s how good it was.”
Rosen was stunned. “I thought for sure I was going to be fired… The commissioner wasn’t very happy with it, but our owner [Jerry Buss] was happy with it. The fans, for the most part, loved it.”
Gaye didn’t stick around to soak up the reception, or the game. Once he left the court, he was gone.
Rosen: “That was it – I never ever heard from him again… When he passed away, we had a game that night and I played his anthem again as a tribute to him”
Rosen, Tanter, Stockton, and Vandeweghe know they witnessed something special because they are still fielding calls about it 33 years later. From close enough to hear Gaye without a microphone, they listened and watched as the singer delivered one of the most celebrated performances in his storied career.
Rosen: “You get so used to the national anthem and people probably don’t pay attention to the words, but in this case you listened to every word that Marvin said…it was a spectacular, amazing and an historic anthem.”
Vandeweghe: “You hear a lot of anthems, but you just knew that this was one of a kind, and one you’d never hear again.”
Stockton: “When you say this (era) was a movement into a new cultural being of the NBA, I think there is no question that this was a forerunner… It was a Marvin Gaye concert, that consisted of one song – a song we’ve all heard millions of times.”
Tanter: “It was the highlight of my career, and I’ve done three All-Star Games. I’ve been in eight championships, 12 NBA Finals, Kobe’s 81-point game - I’ve been around some historic activity. For me to say that’s the highlight of my career, that tells me it was something."
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