The 52nd NBA All-Star game will showcase a new generation of players.
ATLANTA -- When the ball goes up for tip-off of the All-Star game tonight, Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan will be watching from the bench for the very 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 showcase event.
Four of the starters, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal, jumped directly from high school to the pros without spending a day in college.
One of them, 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.
Five of this year's all-stars -- Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao, Tracy McGrady and Shawn Marion -- weren't born. Eleven -- Vince Carter, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Allen Iverson, Brad Miller, Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, Tim Duncan, Garnett, Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury, Peja Stojakovic -- were in diapers. (Steve Nash presumably was out of diapers by then. He was 4. Ben Wallace might have been. He was 3).
Jordan was 16, still a year away from his first job as a dishwasher at Whitey's restaurant in Wilmington, N.C. He would become an All-Star himself seven years later, eventually getting voted in by the fans as a starter 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 the game he dominated so many times.
He has the only triple-double in the game's history, three All-Star MVP trophies and the fourth-highest average (20.2) among all players with at least three appearances. Bryant ranks first with a 20.8 average in four appearances.
Jordan needs to score 10 points to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (251 points in 18 appearances) as the leading scorer in All-Star history.
And the game is just eight days shy of his 40th birthday.
"I look forward to spending time with some of the guys I never probably get the time to spend with, even though I'm a little bit older than most of them," Jordan said. "All I'm going to do is just try to enjoy myself."
Nash and Dirk Nowitzki will represent the Dallas Mavericks, the team with the league's best record (38-10).
O'Neal and Bryant will represent the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Jason Kidd is there for the New Jersey Nets, and the "other" O'Neal -- Jermaine -- will represent the Indiana Pacers. Those two teams enter the All-Star break tied for the best record in the East (34-15).
Coaching the East will be Indiana's Isiah Thomas, while Rick Adelman of the Sacramento Kings will lead the West.
Plenty of experience
Jordan, O'Neal, Kidd, Gary Payton and Jamal Mashburn will be the only players over 30, yet there will be plenty of All-Star experience among the twentysomethings in the starting lineups.
Garnett is making his sixth All-Star appearance, Bryant and Duncan are making their fifth, Iverson and Carter their fourth, McGrady his third, and Jermaine O'Neal and Francis their second.
For Shaquille O'Neal, it will be his 10th.
"That just speaks to the enormous capacity of the NBA to continuously renew with the influx of talent," commissioner David Stern said. "It makes me feel young."