Fans have fueled the NBA’s global presence for decades. The explosion of national television audiences in the 1980s and live-stream viewers in the 21st century each served as pivotal launching pads for the visibility of the league and its stars.
But attending the game itself remains the ultimate experience, a chance for fans old and young to witness the pinnacle of athleticism, coordination and competition in person.
The San Antonio Spurs set a new standard in that regard on Friday, when the franchise broke the NBA’s all-time attendance record for a single regular-season game with 68,323 fans present. The previous single-game mark of 62,046 was set by the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks at the Georgia Dome in 1998.
The Spurs’ entry into history occurred at the old Alamodome, home to classic Spurs games from 1993-2002. Steve Kerr, a key player on that 1998 Bulls team, fatefully coached the visiting Warriors in Friday’s record-setting effort at San Antonio.
“I think it’s awesome. I think it’s a great way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Spurs,” Kerr said before the game. “It should be a really fun atmosphere. I think our players are really looking forward to it as none of them have played in the Alamodome.”
In light of the Spurs and NBA’s groundbreaking achievement, here’s a look at some of the most memorable and highly attended games in league history:
Chicago Bulls vs Atlanta Hawks
dates: March 27, 1998
Stage: Georgia Dome
Bull’s starters: Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Bill Wennington
Hawk’s starters: Dikembe Mutombo, Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock, Alan Henderson, Tyrone Corbin
As always, Michael Jordan proved immune to the slower pace of the 1990s, dropping 34 points on 50% shooting in Chicago’s 89-74 victory at the Georgia Dome. Mutombo stuffed the stat sheet for the Hawks, who hosted the attendance record-setting game in Atlanta. The venue was necessary as the Hawks’ standard arena was under construction, while fans flocked to witness what many thought could be Jordan’s last game in Atlanta.
Kerr recalled that the combination of the venue and the sheer amount of people made for one of the more unique experiences of his basketball career.
“Yeah, it was pretty weird, especially because a lot of the fans couldn’t see the court,” Kerr said. “In order to fit 62,000 fans in a dome that’s configured for basketball, a lot of people have to sit on a side of the dome that has no vantage point. So, they were watching the game on the scoreboard. It was pretty bizarre walking onto the court and knowing that there are a bunch of people in there that couldn’t even see you. But they were there.”
2010 NBA All Star Game
dates: Feb 10, 2010
Stage: AT&T Stadium
East starters: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson
Western starters: Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire
Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, set up an all-time NBA spectacle for its pinnacle midseason showcase. Injuries to reigning NBA champion Kobe Bryant and 24-year-old Chris Paul did not dent the electricity in the arena. Fueled by Wade and James (who would become teammates in Miami the following season) the East outscored the West 141-139. Wade and James combined for 53 points, 17 assists and nine steals, and Wade took home MVP honors. Anthony paced the West with 27 points and 10 rebounds.
Boston Celtics vs Detroit Pistons
dates: Jan 29, 1988
Stage: Pontiac Silverdome
Celtic’s starters: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge
Piston starters: Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Adrian Dantley, Rick Mahorn
The Eastern Conference’s cycle of power spun furiously with elite talent in the 1980s. Detroit, fresh off a heartbreaking 4-3 conference finals loss to Boston just eight months earlier, was a hotbed of Celtic scorn and title aspirations. Fans filled the Pontiac Silverdome to witness the latest chapter in this iconic rivalry. They were rewarded with vintage team basketball, as eight Pistons scored in double figures (led by Dantley’s 22) to counter Bird’s 25 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in Detroit’s 125-108 victory. The Pistons and the Silverdome would headline two other top-10 attendance games that decade.
Denver Nuggets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
dates: April 17, 1990
Stage: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome
Nugget starters: Alex English, Fat Lever, Michael Adams, Joe Barry Carroll, Jerome Lane
Timberwolves starters: Pooh Richardson, Tony Campbell, Tyrone Corbin, Randy Breuer, Tod Murphy
Minnesota’s short, inaugural stay at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome produced two games with more than 45,000 fans in attendance. The league’s newest team led in the first half before succumbing to Adams and Lever’s combined 43 points. Corbin, acquired via the previous offseason’s expansion draft, led the home team with 25 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block in the 99-89 defeat.
Boston Celtics vs Log Angeles Lakers
dates: May 5, 1969
Celtic’s starters: Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Em Bryant, Bailey Howell
Lakers starters: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Keith Erickson, Johnny Egan
The Forum’s then-record crowd of 17,568 gathered to witness one of the most epic Game 7s ever played, a winner-take-all clash of the dynastic Boston Celtics and a star-studded Lakers squad that had not won a championship since moving from Minneapolis . With home-court advantage, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor all in tow, balloons were hung in anticipation of a championship in Los Angeles. Bill Russell and the Celtics had other ideas, out-running and ultimately holding off LA to win by a single basket, 108-106. Russell grabbed 21 rebounds and his 11th championship in what wound up being his very last game.
Detroit Pistons vs. Sacramento Kings
dates: Nov 15, 2013
Stage: Sleep Train Arena
Piston starters: Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
King’s starters: DeMarcus Cousins, John Salmons, Ben McLemore, Greivis Vasquez, Jason Thompson
History was made this night, not by the players, but by the fans. Kings faithful combined to set a new world record loudest crowd roar at an indoor sports stadium, reaching 126.0 dB between the third and fourth quarters. The mark remains the highest ever recorded in an NBA arena.
Denver Nuggets vs Phoenix Suns
dates: october 11, 2008
Stage: Indian Wells Tennis Garden
Nugget starters: JR Smith, Kenyon Martin, Nene, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Carter
Sun’s starters: Steve Nash, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, Boris Diaw, Raja Bell
This game wasn’t notable for its attendance as much as its location: outside. The Suns “hosted” the league’s first outdoor preseason game since 1972, when Hall of Famers Connie Hawkins (Phoenix) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Milwaukee) faced off at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, a baseball field in Puerto Rico. This modern renewal took place at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in California, though it was marred by cold evening temperatures that left Steve Nash commenting, “It felt like Edmonton, Alberta, not Palm Springs.” That did not stop the Suns from hosting two more outdoor preseason games in the following years, including in 2009 against rookie guard Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.