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Marvin Gaye and the National Anthem That Changed the N.B.A.

Editor’s Note: This story is included in The Athletic’s Best of 2023. View the full list.

For one afternoon, America’s anointed theme song had a suede soul, velvety enough to be simultaneously sexy and spiritual.

For one afternoon, patriotism masqueraded as a Motown kind of cool. The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., was graced by a superstar’s serenade, stirring together hope and love, resilience and confidence, into a concoction delightful enough to be served on the rocks.


For one afternoon, the time set aside to honor America became a historic homage to the rhythm and blues of Blackness, a tribute to the resilient genius of African American culture.

And after that afternoon in Inglewood, neither “The Star-Spangled Banner” nor the NBA would ever be the same.

The NBA was not always, as some of its critics would later say, “woke.” Or even a Black league, as it’s now known.

For its first three-plus decades, the league was as strait-laced and non-controversial as the other major U.S. sports leagues. While individual star players like Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson pointed out the inequalities faced by the league’s Black players, both on and off the court, the NBA as a whole was conspicuously conservative. So much so, it was considered a big ask when then-Suns owner Jerry Colangelo went to CBS Sports president Bob Wussler in 1975 requesting two minutes at the top of the network’s upcoming broadcast of the All-Star Game in Phoenix so crooner Andy Williams could sing “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” with Henry Mancini’s orchestra.

It was into this vanilla void that stepped Marvin Pentz Gay Jr., on Feb. 13, 1983, on the floor of The Forum — at the time the home of the Los Angeles Lakers and, that day, the site of the NBA All-Star Game.

He was resplendent in a steel-blue suit, set off by a light-blue banker’s shirt and a blue gingham tie; a dangling white handkerchief added a bit of extra flair. His aviator sunglasses with the gradient and thin temples popped beneath the spotlight-style lighting on the court. This was a legend on a different level, and the awe of the audience was tangible from the moment he stepped to the mic.

No nexus between ballers and entertainers existed back then. No celebrity game during All-Star Weekend. (There was no All-Star Weekend; it was a one-day, one-game event.) The most notable, public friendship between an NBA star and musicians was Bill Walton’s lifetime affinity for the Grateful Dead.


Hip-hop was in its infancy as a commercially viable genre. Kurtis Blow was 18 months from releasing “Ego Trip,” his 1984 album featuring one of the first meshes of hoops and bars, “Basketball.” It would be a while before lyrics about star ballers were the norm.

Gay, though, was already a superstar. Adding an E to his surname, Marvin Gaye became one of Motown’s biggest stars during nearly two decades with the label, a musical leviathan whose seminal 1971 album “What’s Going On” was voted, almost 50 years later, as the greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone. It was more than just an innovative leap of popular music, but a soundtrack of social consciousness. It spoke of a time for a plighted community, and to a struggle still ongoing today.

Singing was only part of his incredible musical talent. But Gaye’s voice — stirring, sultry and defiant all at once — had become vox populi.

Gaye’s career was a paeon to surviving life’s tribulations and persevering. His ballads with Tammi Terrell. His 1968 classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which he reimagined into his own amazing, plaintive wail a year after Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version. His baby-making anthem “Let’s Get It On.” Even his bouts with depression — an issue throughout his life — and years of drug abuse. Fans claimed all of it, the angelic crooning and the flawed humanity.

By the early ’80s, Gaye had again fallen into depression. He was, however, in the beginnings of a comeback, having released his 17th album, “Midnight Love,” late in 1982. The album featured the hit “Sexual Healing,” which got Gaye back to the top of the charts at age 43. He was living cleaner, trying to deal with his demons.

Four months later, he seemed to glide onto The Forum floor. Minutes later, he had again reshaped a song in his voice, turning the national anthem into a ballad, a soulful call for our collective nation to, at long last, live up to the promises in the song’s words.

Ten days after his performance at the All-Star game, Gaye won his first Grammy. (Armando Gallo / Getty Images)

In ’83, Gaye was the second choice to sing the anthem at the All-Star game.

“I originally wanted Lionel Richie to do the anthem,” said Lon Rosen, now the executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1983, the then-23-year-old Rosen was director of promotions for the Lakers and Kings, as well as special events for the Forum.


“The NBA was much different than it is now,” Rosen said. “The local team would really run most of the event. It was really like a normal game; there wasn’t much different. I had to get the anthem singer, but I did have to get approval. We worked with the TV network on the introductions.

“Back then, it was just a one-day event. … So, it was really more like a normal game with a little bit of input from the league on maybe one or two approvals. Because we had so many national games, we’d worked with the (CBS TV producers) Bob Stenners and Mike Burkses and Sandy Grossmans. It was a normal game for us.”

But someone — Rosen didn’t say who — in commissioner Larry O’Brien’s office vetoed Richie, who was starting his solo career and who would have three of Billboard’s Top 100 songs by the end of the year. Instead, Rosen went to Plan B: Gaye. He got approval to reach out to the singer, who quickly agreed to sing the anthem.

Gaye came to the Forum on Saturday, the day before the game, to rehearse — just as the East team was finishing its practice.

“We do the rehearsal, and it’s six minutes long,” Rosen said. “And we only have, really, 2 1/2 minutes. So, he’s done with it, and I said to him, ‘Marvin, we have to shorten it.’ He wouldn’t really focus on what I was saying. He was kind of turning around. I was kind of, like, going in a circle with him. It was kind of bizarre. And one of his, they weren’t really handlers, kind of stopped me from going in a circle with him.

“(Gaye) ended up saying, ‘OK, I’ll come back tomorrow with a shorter version.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you come in and let’s do it at, like, 11 o’clock?’ The game was at 12:30 (p.m.), or something.”

The next morning, game day, brought new anxiety to the young Lakers executive.

“He didn’t show up at 11,” Rosen said. “He didn’t show up at 11:15. He didn’t show up at 11:30. He didn’t show up at 12. By then I’m like, ‘Holy crap, what do I do?’ There was an usherette that worked (at the Forum) that I actually went to high school with; that was my backup anthem singer during the regular season. She was ready to sing the anthem.”


Seemingly at the last minute, Gaye arrived, walking down the center aisle of the Forum, dressed to the nines, with a cassette tape in his hand. It was the drum track that had been laid down Saturday by Gaye and his longtime collaborator, guitarist Gordon Banks, at Gaye’s sister’s house in L.A. Rosen quickly got the tape upstairs to the building’s sound engineer.

Standing on the East team’s introduction line was Marques Johnson, in his fourth All-Star game, a young star with the Milwaukee Bucks. Born in Louisiana, Johnson and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a child. He starred at nearby Crenshaw High before becoming all-America at UCLA.

“I just remember being out on the floor when Marvin came out,” Johnson said. “It’s back home for me in Los Angeles. I had flown this kid out from Milwaukee who actually was a burn victim, Maltese Williams. He had gotten in a fire and he was in a coma, and he came out of the coma. I was visiting him at the hospital in Milwaukee and then had the idea to bring him out for the All-Star Game. It was just a big, exciting time.

Isiah Thomas stood near his Eastern Conference teammate. He, like so many his age, was a big fan of Gaye. Thomas said he’d met him a couple of times. The first time was his rookie season in 1981. He and Magic Johnson saw Gaye perform at the Palladium in L.A.

“He hit ‘Distant Lover,’” Thomas said. “Oh, man. G–damn. Whoo! He sung the s— out of that song!”

Thomas said they went backstage to meet Gaye after the show. Magic Johnson did all the talking. Thomas, starstruck, stood there silent. It was all he could to keep his mouth from hitting the floor.

Two years later, he was centerstage with Gaye at the All-Star Game. Still starstruck.

“So Marvin walks out,” Thomas said. “They got his music, he grabs the mic … just as cool as ever. But the anthem music doesn’t come on. It’s another beat. The first thing you notice is, ‘Wait a minute; this ain’t the national anthem soundtrack.’”


There have been other memorable versions of the anthem. Whitney Houston delivered a powerful rendition before Super Bowl XXV in 1991, days into the Gulf War. But if Houston’s adaptation fit neatly into the jingoistic narrative of a nation at war, Gaye’s version spoke to a different kind of patriotism, one in which Black Americans were, still, waiting for the country to do what it said it was going to do.

“I listened to it again (last month),” Marques Johnson said, four decades later, “and I got chills.”

“I will never forget it as long as I live,” said Thomas, then appearing in the second of his 12 All-Star Games. “It was the most amazing feeling in the world.

“I remember when he walked onto the floor, with his sunglasses on. We all loved Marvin Gaye. We knew how cool he was. But you’ve got to put yourself in our place as players. For the anthem, you stand straight, at full attention. Hands by your sides, or you put your hand over your heart. The place is silent, except for the person who’s singing.”

In a 1987 Showtime special about his life and career — premiering three years after Gaye was shot and killed in 1984 by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., following an argument at his parents’ Los Angeles home — Gaye said, “I felt that singing it with that kind of music in the background gave me an inspiration. And I asked God that when I sang it, that it move men’s souls.”

No one remembers what happened in the game. No one. Including the players.

“If you ask anybody about the L.A. All-Star Game, they say, ‘That’s the Marvin Gaye national anthem game,’” Thomas said.

Totems like the anthem were still sacrosanct. They were not to be altered, amended, reinterpreted. Gaye had sung the anthem before sporting events many times, but with more of the traditional rendering.

In October 1968, Gaye sang the anthem in Detroit before Game 4 of the World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals. That was toward the end of a year in which America nearly came unglued. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated within weeks of one another in the spring, with King’s death in April touching off riots in large swaths of the country, accelerating both the decline of Black-owned businesses in the inner cities and White flight to the suburbs.


The Democratic national convention, in Chicago in August, became the scene of a police riot to quell protestors, at the behest of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

But when Gaye sang the anthem at the World Series, he sang it straight, at the request of the Tigers’ legendary play-by-play man, Ernie Harwell, who was in charge of picking anthem singers during the Series.

(Ironically, before the next game, Game 5, of the Series, folk singer Jose Feliciano sparked a controversy when he sang the anthem — a guitar version in which Feliciano took a few liberties with the song’s tempo that, today, seem harmless, but which were almost universally panned at the time and damaged his career.)

Two weeks after the World Series, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who’d won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter dash at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, each raised a fist, upon which each wore a black glove, during the playing of the anthem at the medal ceremony. They were, they said, protesting poverty, calling attention to the murders of slaves and lynchings of freed Black people, and celebrating Black Unity. Within 48 hours, they were kicked out of Mexico City.

Gaye had been sports-adjacent even as he became a musical icon. He worked out for the Detroit Lions in 1970, believing he could “score a touchdown” the first time he touched the ball — even though he’d never played in high school or college. He had befriended Lions Hall of Fame defensive back Lem Barney and Pro Bowler Mel Farr; both are among the background singers on “What’s Going On.”

Years later, Gaye knew the significance of the court where he stood, the magnitude of the players lined up behind him and the intimacy of the setting.

By the end of the first line — which Gaye shortened to “Say, can you see,” omitting the opening “Oh” — the crowd began gasping and squealing.


“He gets to singing, and, I swear, I’ll never forget it,” Thomas said. “He’s singing, and without you even realizing what you’re doing, you’re swaying. You’re supposed to be standing at attention. But, you’re swaying. And I’m thinking ‘I’ve gotta stop swaying.’

“But then I look at the players on the other end, and they’re swaying, too. And you look at the audience, and they’re swaying, too.”

Gaye started ramping up towards the end of the song, turning up the passion on his lounge vibe. He raised clenched fists as he leaned into “banner,” stretching it out with a run. By the time he throttled back to smooth out “yet waves,” the crowd of 17,505 could no longer resist the melody. They started, on their own, clapping to the beat of the drum track.

“You’re going, ‘What the hell?’” Thomas said. “‘This is the national anthem. Ain’t nobody supposed to be moving. And they’re really not supposed to be clapping. I’ve never been in a building since where everybody was moving and swaying and clapping.”

Marques Johnson noticed, too.

“I was facing three former teammates: Jamaal Wilkes from UCLA, Alex English with the Bucks and Kiki VanDeWeghe from UCLA,” he said. “I looked at each one of their faces. Kiki kind of smirked, like, ‘What’s going on?’ Jamaal kind of looked and we shared a moment. Same with Alex. Kind of like, ‘Whoa.’

“The first thought was something to the effect of, like, the uber-patriots, Marvin’s kind of messing with the national anthem. ‘Boy, he’s going to get some blowback for this.’ But then as he went on, and it was so iconic and funky and soulful, all that good stuff, that wasn’t the thought. I was just standing there and enjoying the moment, realizing that this is a unique, special experience that we were all a part of.”

Gaye bent the song to his will and tempo, going fast on some sections, slowing down in others. He’d squat a little when really belting and used his hands to help emphasize his points. He adlibbed in some open spaces — “through the perilous fight … oh lawd … oooooh, the fight” — and in others he dropped his head and his arms to barely back off the mic, letting the beat build anticipation for his next riff.


“As great as Whitney was,” Thomas said, “Wasn’t nobody clapping when she sang it.”

The players, of course, couldn’t join in.

“You wanted to clap,” Marques Johnson said. “But I knew I couldn’t do that. National TV, you can’t just start partying and boogying to the anthem. But then the crowd, they started clapping the last 30 seconds or so. They started clapping and really getting into it and grooving. It was a real special, iconic moment to be a part of.”

When Gaye finished, Rosen said, “He walked right out of the building, and I never saw him again.”

The immediate reaction, in some quarters, was not sanguine. Rosen thought he was going to be fired, after O’Brien, as Rosen recalled, “tore me a new (one)” when Gaye was finished. Phones rang with angry callers.

Fortunately for Rosen, his immediate boss, the late Jerry Buss, the Lakers’ owner, loved Gaye’s rendition, so his job was secure.

Over time, what Buss recognized, what the players knew instantly, became clearer to the masses. What happened that one night in Inglewood became the watershed moment it deserved.

Marvin Gaye’s performance not only legitimized the A-list worthiness of the NBA All-Star Game and the league itself, but it opened the door for future artists to express the diversity of the U.S. through creative license with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For one day, the anthem was dipped in Blackness by one of the all-time greats and came up magic.

“I wish I could have broken protocol; forget the (player) introductions and all this, we’ve got to go give it up to him,” Marques Johnson said, four decades later. “‘Cause he knew what he had done. And as players, sitting there and listening to it, there was a vibe, a special vibe, that you had really heard something. … He turned that thing into his own, a funky rendition that, I dare say, nobody else has ever approached.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton/The Athletic; photos: Andrew D. Bernstein, Brian Drake and David Redfern / Getty Images)

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