The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game was looking weak. Then some strong basketball saved it.

No one would have been able to argue, with a straight face, that the cast of characters shooting around during warmups for the 2019 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game on Friday night was a who’s who of household names.

During a red-carpet arrival event a few hours earlier, in fact, members of the media could be observed discreetly gesturing at the various smartly dressed folks on the other side of the ropes while muttering the same question over and over to each other: “Hey, do you know who that is?”

(The full original roster can be found here.)

Unfortunately, it didn’t help that some of the best-known participants — including Basketball Hall of Famer Ray Allen, former “American Idol” finalist Chris Daughtry and rapper Quavo of the hip-hop trio Migos — opted to skip the carpet.

It also didn’t help that a pump-up-the-crowd video shown on Bojangles’ Coliseum’s Jumbotron a few minutes before tip-off seemed to rub in the fact that the 2019 lineup was underwhelming, by featuring clips of true global superstars like Chris Tucker, Jamie Foxx, Nick Cannon and Drake hooping it up in past Celebrity Games.

The final insult pre-game came when visiting Miami Heat PA announcer Michael Baiamonte told the Bojangles’ crowd that “one of the world’s biggest stars” was in the house, perhaps leading some to believe that there had been an awe-inspiring late addition. After all, it’d happened a year ago at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, when Justin Bieber jumped in at the last minute.

But that huge star turned out to be “the one and only Mickey Mouse!,” and Baiamonte’s enthusiasm was met with indifference. (If anyone cheered, I didn’t hear them. I’m surprised no one booed, if for no other reason than Baiamonte shouldn’t be teasing people like that.)

A’ja Wilson, a former South Carolina Gamecocks women’s player and current WNBA player for the Las Vegas Aces, drives to the basket for two points over Ronnie 2K during the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game at Bojangles’ Coliseum on Friday night. Jeff Siner TNS

All of this is to say: The Celebrity Game could have easily been a snooze-fest.

Yet the biggest surprise of the night was that the whole thing was kind of a wonder to behold — not for its star power, but for its inordinate amount of legitimately good basketball.

And it started with Ray Allen.

A 2018 Hall of Fame inductee who hasn’t played professionally in five years, Allen showed glimpses at 43 of the player he was at 33 from the start, distinguishing himself less than a minute in by scoring the first 4-point basket of the night.

This was a wrinkle introduced for the first time in the 17-year history of the Celebrity Game. The idea? Any shot made from beyond an arc marked off 30 feet from the basket would be worth four points for the scorer and $4,000 for Special Olympics, courtesy of Ruffles.

Over the course of the evening, the former NBA star racked up 24 points, half of which came off three 4-pointers (although he curiously went 0-for-8 from 3-point land, which is 6-feet 3-inches closer to the basket). He also tallied nine rebounds and five assists, including a nifty no-look pass to teammate James Shaw Jr. late in the second quarter.

Quavo, who joined Allen on the “Away” team, also elevated the proceedings above the typical hack-fest you might see when a bunch of casual basketball players get together for a game of 5-on-5.

With a canny knack for wide-open looks from downtown but also for swashbuckling drives into the lane, the rapper added two 4-pointers of his own and finished with a game-high 27 points and a game-high five offensive boards, besting the 19-point performance he posted last year on the way to winning MVP of the game.

Allen and Quavo were on the losing side of this affair, however, eliminating them from contention for the MVP award. That honor instead went to a viral video star named Famous Los, a former Division II basketball player who had a Division I-type night, racking up 22 points on the strength of three 4-pointers for the “Home” team (which consisted of players with ties to the Carolinas — Los is a Durham native).

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In what was arguably the play of the night, Los popped off a 4 attempt early in the second quarter right before getting checked by Quavo; the shot fell through the net as Los fell to the ground, and then he converted the free-throw to make it a 5-point play. Still, Los was more effective in the first half than the second. After scoring 16 before the break, he cooled off — which gave the “Away” squad an opening.

Famous Los, right, and Ray Allen chase the ball during the first half of the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. Gerry Broome AP

And in the fourth quarter, Quavo went on a 13-point scoring spree that helped his team come back from being down 18 to within 2 with just over 10 seconds to play.

“Away” got the ball into Allen’s hands as time wound down, but he couldn’t produce a miracle before the buzzer sounded and the “Home” team claimed an 82-80 victory. (Still, it represented the highest combined score in the history of the game, and would have broken the previous mark even without the cushion that came from the night’s 10 4-pointers.)

Not that it mattered which team won.

It was more about seeing, for one, how well former NFL great Steve Smith Sr. could play basketball ... and the answer is pretty well: He scored 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and had two steals. This despite his pregame assertion that he “could probably after tonight probably build a Bojangles’ Coliseum with the bricks that I’m gonna throw up.” (We also should clarify that we know Smith is a bona fide celebrity, and he was showered with the thunderous cheers during player introductions to prove it.)

TV personality Dr. Oz chases down a loose ball during the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. Jeff Siner TNS

It was also more about seeing, for two, how well Dr. Oz could play ... though the answer is not great: The 58-year-old TV talk show host got the second-most minutes of anyone on the “Home” team, but failed to achieve his goal of putting points on the scoreboard.

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And it was more about seeing, for three, whether your phone had good enough service so that you could successfully Google names like Brad Williams, Stefanie Dolson, Amanda Seales, Marc Lasry, Bad Bunny, Rapsody, Terrence J and Jason Weinmann.

Which brings me back to my original point, and sets up these final two observations:

1. One of the arena hosts did an on-court interview during halftime with Food Network star Guy Fieri, who was attending the game with his son; meanwhile, I saw on Twitter that former NFL coach Tony Dungy and rapper Fat Joe were among the fans in attendance. I couldn’t help but think that if these three had played instead of watched, the star quotient would have made a giant leap.

2. The first person to walk the red carpet Friday afternoon was a woman I didn’t recognize (and didn’t see playing in the game later). I still don’t know who she is. But maybe I will, eventually: I overheard her say to a companion that she hoped to return to the Celebrity Game next year, promising that all the media members would know who she was by then.

Seriously, I’m rooting for that to be the case for her — and for everyone else who walks that 2020 red carpet, too.

Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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