NBA All-Star 2023: Thank the Elam Ending for the thrilling fourth-quarter finish in Salt Lake City

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Saturday, February 18, 2023

AMONG THE SELLOUT crowd packed into Chicago's United Center for the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, Nick Elam and Jon Mugar couldn't believe what they were witnessing.

The league had decided to make a radical change for the league's midseason showcase, and the excitement was palpable as the fourth quarter played out.

"It was legendary," Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell said earlier this week.

Instead of playing until the clock hit zeros in the fourth quarter, the two teams of NBA stars would instead play to a final target score -- a play on the Elam Ending, which had grown in popularity over the prior few years after being used in The Basketball Tournament (TBT).

Elam, who initially conceived the idea, Mugar, who agreed to implement it in TBT and TBT co-founder Dan Friel were invited to Chicago by the NBA.

Elam was giddy. Who knew the idea that germinated in the mind of a high school math teacher while watching a college basketball game nearly 20 years ago would become a fixture in the G League, a million-dollar tournament and now one of the NBA's signature events?

"The intensity in the arena for that fourth quarter was just off the charts," Elam, now an assistant professor of educational leadership at Ball State University, told ESPN.

"It was absolutely amazing to see."

The NBA will hold the 2023 All-Star Gameon Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Salt Lake City's Vivint Arena. And for the fourth consecutive year, the game will be played to a final target score in the fourth quarter.

Here's the story of the game-changing idea that sparked the new All-Star format, its evolution through the years and the journey one man has taken to bring it to basketball's biggest stage.

LONG BEFORE ELAM was reinventing the way basketball games finish, he was an obsessed college hoops fan from Southeast Ohio, irked while watching the ending to Xavier vs. Duke in the 2004 men's Elite Eight.

Xavier, the seventh seed, had made a Cinderella run to the regional final against the top-seeded Blue Devils, and while Duke's largest lead -- only six points -- came with 24 seconds to go, the final moments of the game were riddled with intentional fouls and stoppages in play.

"Here's just this great game -- intense, competitive, athletic -- and then you get to the final minute or two of the game," Elam said, "and then just all the life goes out of the arena.

"So my buddies and I, we're looking around at each other. It's just so weird that the game changes so much at the end. It kind of becomes this warped style ...

"And that's when we started throwing around these ideas that were not viable, and it would be something that I would think about every now and then."

Those ideas kept creeping in and out of Elam's head over the next three years. It wasn't until March 10, 2007 -- when Elam was watching an ACC Tournament semifinal game between NC State and Virginia Tech -- that the idea struck him.

"That's when the light bulb went on [that] idea that might actually work," Elam said. "Ever since then, I haven't been able to get the idea out of my head."

Elam's concepts have evolved over time. Initially, he called it -- in language only a math teacher would use -- "The Hybrid Duration Format," and said that the clock should be stopped for the entire second half.

He kept fiddling. Elam settled on a more muted formula. Applied to NBA games, it would see the game clock shut off when it hits the three-minute mark, with the winning score tabulated by adding seven points to the leading team's total.

"If we're going to cut out the last three minutes of a 48-minute game, we're essentially cutting out 1/16th of the game," Elam said of his formula. "Now we need to find some way to get that 1/16th back in there.

"That would correspond to about 112 points per team per game."

Elam had fine-tuned his method of fixing basketball. The problem? He needed someone to buy in.

WHEN MUGAR OPENED the email attachment, he had no idea the chain of events he set into motion.

It was the summer of 2016, and Mugar was on vacation after the third edition of TBT -- which has now been played nine times -- when he pulled up an unsolicited email sent to TBT's general, catch-all address. It was from Elam, who had spent the past nine years unsuccessfully pitching his new end-of-game idea.

Inside was a PowerPoint titled, "Time's Up for Basketball's Game Clock." It was 67 pages long.

As Mugar kept reading, he waited for something to stop him. Nothing did.

"I grew up playing basketball," Mugar told ESPN. "But now being in a position where I'm putting on an event and really worried about the entertainment that you're serving to fans, I become really self-conscious of end of games that were in that 4-to-12 point spread where it's a march to the free throw line and it was just absolutely painful for me to experience."

Mugar's first idea: Change the name from "Hybrid Duration Format" to something catchier and easier to remember: the Elam Ending -- a suggestion Elam himself liked.

After consulting with ESPN -- TBT's television partner -- and Elam, an agreement was reached. TBT would have a play-in tournament that it called a "Jamboree" the following year, in Philadelphia. The Elam Ending would make its debut.

And, after a few TBT play-in games had interesting endings, the fifth game -- between Brothers Dat Ball and ATL Hoops4Hunger -- delivered the finish Elam had spent a decade dreaming of, with former NBA guard Josh Selby hitting a runner in the lane to deliver Brothers Dat Ball a 76-75 victory by hitting the target score exactly.

"I was flying high by the end of that first day, and I knew that somehow, someway, this concept was going to live on beyond that weekend," Elam said.

"The project had a heartbeat."

Mugar agreed. TBT began using the Elam Ending in all 71 of its games in 2018 and hasn't looked back. The Canadian Elite Basketball League adopted it in 2020 for all of its games.

The idea's next step forward came when Mugar received another email at TBT's generic, catch-all address. This one, though, was not from an unknown commodity.

Instead, it was from C.J. Paul -- brother of Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul -- who had his own message.

"C.J. said, 'Chris and I are big fans of the event. We'd love to get involved somehow,'" Mugar said.

Paul himself would later coach a team in TBT, and became a fan of the Elam Ending.

"It's fun because it's strategy," Paul told ESPN. "You got to think about the strategy ... it's not all that fouling."

Just like that, the Elam Ending found a place in the NBA.

THE ALL-STAR GAME'S popularity has waned at times in recent years over a lack of competitiveness, with the game devolving into a series of rarely contested dunks and 3-point shots. As a result, the league has made several changes to up the stakes for the players, including having captains draft the teams -- on Sunday, the captains will draft live before the game for the first time -- and the teams playing for charity.

But in the buildup to the 2020 All-Star Game in Chicago, Chris Paul -- then in his role as President of the National Basketball Players Association -- reached out to NBA commissioner Adam Silver and told him to check out the exciting finishes to TBT games.

"The [TBT] championship game was in Chicago a few years ago and I called Adam [Silver] before the championship game," Paul said. "I said, 'Watch this game, because the Elam Ending [and] TBT has been really fun to watch.' It's a dope way for the game to end."

Silver tuned in and liked it enough to give the target score a chance. (The NBA doesn't call their finish the Elam Ending, as the TBT has the phrase trademarked.)

The NBA uses a slightly different format -- 24 points are added to the winning team's total to start the untimed final frame -- but the result was an epic fourth-quarter battle that wound up being decided by an Anthony Davis free throw.

"I didn't finish the game [in Chicago]," said Mitchell, who will be a starter at this weekend's All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. "But just to be able to see those guys on the floor, the level of competitiveness and you'll see it again this weekend."

"I think it was a good innovation to the game, to be honest," said Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, who was on the court for those final moments in 2020. "Especially for the fans for it to be more competitive. When you got the 24 best players, you want to see who's the best."

The success of the target score's debut got the league thinking: Would there be other spots to implement it around the NBA?

"I think we've been long focused on potential innovations, new rules that can improve the quality of play, improve player health, improve fan engagement, and the idea of playing a basketball game to a score as opposed to with a clock is certainly not a new concept," Evan Wasch, the NBA's executive vice president of basketball and strategy, told ESPN.

"Probably 99% of games played on the history of the Earth have been played to a target because that's how pickup and playground and YMCA ball is played. So we understand there's tradeoffs between playing a game to a number versus a clock.

"Obviously the use of the Elam Ending in TBT was one of the first higher profile events to use the hybrid model, and Chris Paul had seen that, brought it to some conversations we had had around how to reinvigorate All-Star a little bit, and so we thought that was a nice place to test it."

Wasch was speaking in December at the G League Showcase in Las Vegas, where the NBA had utilized the final target score for every game played there as part of the tournament format of the week -- after having implemented a target score for overtime games in the G League this season, as well.

It's not the first time the NBA has used the G League as an idea incubator to try new ideas. Some of them -- the coach's challenge, the transition take foul and the 14-second shot clock reset -- have been incorporated into the NBA game. Others, like using the FIBA goaltending rule, where the ball can be touched anytime after it hits the rim, or shooting one free throw to score two points, have not.

One thing that won't be coming to the NBA, however, is the name Elam Ending, as the league has instead leaned toward a more descriptive way to describe the change.

"If you say, 'We're playing to a target score,' the name itself describes what we are doing," Wasch said. "We thought that would be [an easier] entry into a new and what could be seen as a radical concept by traditional basketball fans.

"We've put our own stamp on this to do the [entire] fourth quarter. It's a little different. ... We didn't think 'Elam Ending' would necessarily resonate with that broad a fan base."

It remains to be seen which path the target score will ultimately take. Not everyone, though, is a fan of such an idea.

"I like it for the All-Star Game," Mitchell said. "I don't know about the actual game.

"I think with the clock and you have to manage the game, think things out, I think it's one of those things that has been part of the game for 75 years, so I don't think we should change it."

"I don't like that idea," Embiid said, of implementing it outside of the All-Star Game. "I prefer that there's some type of time, and you go from there."

For his part, Mugar has become an evangelist for the ubiquity of the target score finish taking root. He's looking to turn tradition -- that the game has always been played one way, so why change it? -- on its head.

"If the game of basketball were invented with the Elam Ending and someone came along 75 years later and proposed playing down to 0:00 on the clock, it would last maybe one game and be completely demolished by absolutely everybody," Mugar said.

"They see the march of the free throw line. They'd say, 'This is a disaster. It doesn't work.' So by flipping it and inverting it, I think that's how I'm really able to convince myself that it will be the future of basketball."

Whether it is the future or simply a fun quirk that has infiltrated parts of the sport, the idea has come a long way from when Elam was watching foul-heavy college basketball games nearly 20 years ago.

"I was trying to figure out, 'Why won't this work?'" Elam said. "Once we got into the summer of 2007, I convinced myself that the idea really had some merit. I thought that it was necessary, I thought it was sound, I thought it had the potential to be very cool.

"Then the really tough part started of trying to convince people in the basketball world that the idea had merit. What I didn't know is that it was going to take 10 years to get the idea implemented, but I'm glad I stuck with it."

ESPN's Nick Friedell contributed to this report.

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