What did the NBA’s stars think of All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City?

What did NBA stars think of Utah as the league’s mid-season showcase descended on the state?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (0) wins the 3-Point Contest as part of NBA All-Star Weekend, in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023.

When Michael Jordan became the leading vote-getter for the 1993 NBA All-Star Game, His Airness aired a complaint: He didn’t really want to spend his midseason break in Utah.

A few things have changed in the 30 years since then, though.

Jordan received about 1 million votes (on paper ballots) as the league’s biggest star that year. This year, LeBron James got about 8 million from around the world.

“In terms of the magnitude of All-Star, this is our largest in our history,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, touting all-time records for the weekend’s estimated economic impact, the number of hotel nights for the event, and the number of fans in attendance.

Salt Lake has changed a little in those 30 years, too.

“I love shedding light on cities that a lot of people probably don’t understand,” said DeMar DeRozan, the All-Star guard from this year’s Chicago Bulls squad. “It is a great city. It is cool to be able to experience it. "

Late on a Friday night, in the aftermath of the Rising Stars game, Sacramento Kings shooting guard Kevin Huerter stood out in the cold plotting his destination for the night.

What does an NBA player do in Salt Lake City on a night off?

Admittedly, Huerter said he didn’t have much experience in Utah other than a team dinner at Valter’s Osteria. So he went with what he knew, spending his night down the street from Vivint Arena at the Italian restaurant that has long been beloved by NBA personalities, including Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr.

“It is really the only place I know here,” Huerter said. “But Salt Lake has been great. It has been fun.”

Huerter was like many NBA players this weekend who were trying to navigate life in Salt Lake for All-Star weekend. It is a city that has notoriously drawn criticism from NBA players for a lack of nightlife in the past. Certain players on the Golden State Warriors once said they wanted to play the Los Angeles Clippers rather than the Jazz in the 2017 playoffs because of a lack of entertainment.

On TNT’s broadcast of Sunday night’s All-Star game, NBA legends Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal seemed to agree with that idea.

“These people going to heaven,” Barkley said. “Ain’t nothing to do in this boring a-- city.”

O’Neal seemingly agreed, saying he never “ate so much room service in [his] life.”

But as the league’s mid-season showcase converged onto Utah for the first time in 30 years, other players said the reputation didn’t entirely match reality.

“The love is intense here,” Memphis All-Star Jaren Jackson Jr. said. “They definitely care about the players. The ovation for [Jazz player Walker Kessler] was crazy. Everybody has been very welcoming.”

DeRozan spent his nights in Utah with his children. “I’m a chill person, don’t really go out,” he said.

But there was plenty to do and see in downtown Salt Lake City over the past few days.

The rapper Travis Scott hosted a snowboarding competition at The Gateway. There were concerts featuring artists Wiz Khalifa and Chloe Bailey, and a comedy show put on by former Utah Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell.

Jazz owner Ryan Smith made it clear he wanted this weekend to alter the perception of the state.

“I think we want to show every kid that other people think their state’s cool,” Smith said.

One person who didn’t need convincing was Portland Trail Blazer Damian Lillard.

“I mean, honestly, it’s fun for me,” said Lillard, who wore a Weber State jersey while winning the weekend’s 3-point contest. “I think I always make my way back here because I spend so much time here. I know so many people here, so many great memories here. To be able to be in my 11th year and to be a seven-time All-Star and to have this experience here where a lot of the people that saw me kind of blossom from the beginning, for them to see me at this point and at this level of my career and as a man, it’s pretty special.”

It was also special for Utah Jazz rookie Walker Kessler, who along with teammates Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton, won the NBA’s skills challenge on Saturday night.

“It’s cool to hear your name called and the Salt Lake City crowd cheer. I couldn’t ask for a better fanbase — super, super thankful it’s here. Funny how something works like that. I’m getting a little choked up,” Kessler said.

Count Scoot Henderson, who many expect to be the second player taken in this year’s NBA Draft, among the young stars who enjoyed his time in Utah.

“It’s been an awesome weekend in Salt Lake. It was a great experience,” Henderson said. “I’ve been here probably once. You know, I didn’t really, you know, go out of the hotel then. So just having the All-Star weekend here. I think it was pretty good. It turned out well.”

Indiana Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard indicated he was looking forward to coming back to Utah. Dating back to his days at Gonzaga, the Zags would normally stay closer to Salt Lake City when they played BYU.

“You get off the plane and you see the mountains right there,” Nembhard said.

At Vivint Arena, celebrities Michael B. Jordan, Spike Lee and Jennifer Hudson were among those who had come to Utah to take in the festivities.

Still, there were some who joked about the cold in February. Traditionally, players, who like Jordan 30 years ago, still tend to want warmer spots for an All-Star break.

That, like most things though, is a matter of perspective.

“Is it colder here than Toronto?” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam laughed.