When Drake Said “What a Time to be Alive," This Is What He Meant
Celebrating Kobe, LeBron, Curry, Durant, Obama, and a Toronto rapper’s cultural prophecy — all in one night of North American hoops
Who would’ve predicted that the prophecy of our generation would arrive in the form of Drake and Future’s diamond-encrusted 2015 mixtape: What a Time to be Alive.
Have truer words ever been rapped in human history? Reflect back on those years. How everything felt somehow more manageable; more reachable; more comforting; more trusted; more exciting; more alive. Quite simply, it was a thrilling time to be breathing, especially for North American citizens with access to the National Basketball Association’s flashiest weekend: the All-Star game.
In 2016, this basketball event represented the apex moment of our past decade, a time capsule of how good we fucking had it, not only as NBA fans, but as members of our cultures, our nations, our times.
Who else — besides maybe a studded Michael Jordan in his prime, or the World’s Basketball Olympians of the Dream Team descending from their Barcelonian Mount Vesuvius, or perhaps Adam Silver’s alter-ego, Vince McMahon — could have orchestrated such a perfect evening of entertainment, history, culture, and, of course, celebrity-dom for the modern audience in one weekend?
As if scripted, only four months after dropping their NBA-inspired banger, “Jumpman” — which took over the world like MJ’s Bulls of the 90s did — Drake and Future suddenly appeared as the frontmen of the sport’s growing popularity on an international stage, in front of over 18,000 fans, on February 14, 2016.
But listen, this night was much more than a duo of men rapping about their infinite glory and infatuation for hoops (and women). In fact, this night was even bigger than the literal glory and infatuation of pro hoopers flexing their game in a friendly competition. Much bigger. This 2016 All-Star game — hosted in none other than Drake’s own city, Toronto — was everything our world used to be.
I’ll begin with the tragically obvious: a tribute to the beloved Laker, Kobe Bryant, in his final All-Star game. In what would become his ultimate appearance, Kobe’s farewell to the world can be witnessed and relived here, as highlight clips show nothing but sheer gratitude and awe for our era’s greatest scorer in his last out of 18 total All-Star appearances.
Of course, it wasn’t just him scoring the rock, as we’d numbly grown accustomed to and which we’d already begun to miss as soon as he announced his retirement entering that season. This was more than that. I don’t want to minimize this as one athlete’s swansong performance. It was more like watching many of our crescendoing to an end. Watch these clips. You’ll see a barely-emerging Giannis goofing around with the old man; you’ll see good friends LeBron James and Dwayne Wade jabbing at their alpha; you’ll see an overly energetic Westbrook dancing around his hero. It’s nothing short of special, in every sense, to see all the hoopers we adore showing adoration for Kobe.
Without a doubt, it was a pivotal intersection in contemporary sports when you had a change of leadership in the League, and the door suddenly opened for others to step up. It was the end of something great, and the beginning of something potentially greater, as Curry and Klay evolved into their next-level-selves (who only shared a combined 5 All-Star nods at that point) while Kobe (and to a lesser degree Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, and D-Wade, who must’ve combined for a total of 5,035 All-Stars appearances) were still balling, but gracefully becoming spectators to the next crop of top-shelf shooters. I can’t think of any other way to say how watching this transition makes me feel — even now, in 2023. It was a transcendental moment you had to be alive for; when these older All-Stars who my generation grew up idolizing were now trying to keep up with, and genuinely honor, the newer All-Stars who today’s kids would be imitating.
Bryant ended up posting 10 points, six rebounds, and seven assists, and exited the game to a roaring crowd — we were all aware he would soon retire, but had no foresight that so much more would be lost (RIP). It’s the last footage we have of him inside his metaphorical arena, with the most elite basketball players on the globe cheering him on as he teases them like his little brothers in a way that can only be labeled as Mamba til’ Infinity.
But I said this story isn’t only about basketball. Another important layer to this exhibition game — in retrospect — is that it was also a changing of the guard on a more important level for us all: the United States’ presidency. It would be the last time that President Barack Obama would preside as our compassionate, humorous, and basketball-obsessed Commander-in-Chief. Though he didn’t attend the game himself, it’s well-documented that Obama is an avid hooper, a fan, and vocal supporter of NBA icons like Kobe, Bron, and Steph. No other president has a YouTube video of his basketball highlights. And for me, as a millennial man of color, there was a genuine sense of joy and comfort in seeing a young, Black President who equally loved the game I did.
If you were breathing and alive back in 2016, you don’t need me to remind you how different the air tasted in our mouths when he was inside the oval office. Say what you will about Obama being an imperfect imperialist — I won’t disagree. But look me in the eyes and tell me that the cultural atmosphere of our nation wasn’t significantly less violent, less abrasive, less murderous in our day-to-day interactions when Barack was running the point. Instead, a few months after this NBA ASG, Trumpito would be elected and would take his seat as a failed dictator.
Obama meant so much to the game and to the players that two years after the 2016 All-Star Game, when the Golden State Warriors claimed their third championship in 2018, the whole team would skip a visit to the actual White House with Elote Head in office, and would instead visit the then-retired-prez Obama, in his personal office, before their game versus the Washington Wizards.
So yes, the year 2016 offered more than just great basketball — it offered a much healthier and happier reality, especially for folks of color — that I wish we could go back to.
Of course, you had the rest of the game’s entertainment value: LeBron’s Cavs at their peak versus Steph’s Warriors; KD still playing alongside his brother, Westbrook, in OKC. In more ways than one, 2016 was a game of “lasts.” That summer, Durant would leave behind his longtime buddy in Oklahoma to join a dynasty in Oakland, and NBA history would be re-written. And just a couple seasons after, LBJ would bounce Cleveland to become a Laker in Los Angeles. But for one final time, in Toronto, Durant and Westbrook were still together, and LeBron still rocked the maroon and gold in his final seasons as a Cav. And that nostalgia of a prior era is not to be overlooked.
Don’t even get me started on the rest of the game’s best moments, when D-Wade tossed it up to his former South Beach homie for a nasty oop; when an unbreakable, downhill Westbrook — the game’s MVP — yammed it off Durant’s high pass; when a fully-healthy Klay smiled his awkward smile and shot his beautiful shot; when Kobe attempted his immortal fadeaway jumper and it almost spun itself out of the rim’s vortex before the fate of gravity pulled it down through nylon; when Melo was still an iso-machine for the Knicks. And remember Indiana’s Paul George and Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins? How they were both touted as franchise heroes (or, in Boogie’s case, a franchise bully)?
And then, you had all the random tidbits in between that every All-Star game provides: CP3’s trick passes to ahigh-reaching Pelican, Anthony Davis; Isiah Thomas and Andre Drummond standing in a corner; John Wall’s running between-the-legs backwards assist into a running windmill LeBron Dunkman. Tell me: what more could you ask for to feed the modern NBA addict? Are you even an NBA head if these names and combinations don’t evoke some tingle of cultural fantasy, athletic possibility, and electrifying appeal that no longer exists in 2021? It’s no surprise that the evening ended in the 2nd-highest scoring game in NBA All-Star history, and the highest single-team output (the West scored 196 points) ever.
All I’m saying is this: when someone asks me what my favorite basketball memory is, I have to pause and deeply consider what occurred on this singular night, when all the little things I have ever loved and appreciated as a lifelong spectator of this sport — including Kawhi Leonard’s first All-Star selection as a young Spur, and the lovable Spaniard Paul Gasol’s final one — happened. Because I’m not sure there’s ever been a game where so many storyline moments swirled together (I almost forgot to mention it was also the same weekend when Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine blew the lid off our stratosphere with their life-defying Dunk Contest) — while Drake awkwardly ushered it all in.
It’s important to remember that not everything has changed since then, though, and that there is still much to appreciate about today’s game. You still have LBJ and SC30 balling out of their brains — both in a race for the 2021 MVP trophy. You’ve got Giannis as a stronger, bigger, faster version of himself. CP3 is still somehow around, lurking in the Phoenix desert, where he belongs, and bringing along Devin Booker (who was only a rookie in 2016 but debuted in the Rising Stars event and announced his arrival with 23 coins — yes, coins — scored) and now, KD.
But still, I don’t know if we will ever go back to what the 2016 All-Star game represented about a former reality. So, say it again with me, one more time for those in the nosebleeds, who undoubtedly know what I’m talking about, and who surely felt the timeless energy of it all unfolding in front of them: what a time it was to be alive.
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