Greatest game nobody ever saw
The greatest game nobody saw was a Dream Team scrimmage in Monte Carlo
Michael Jordan scored 19 points in a 40-36 victory over Magic Johnson's squad
The game has become legendary; Jordan calls it the best game he was ever in
Excerpted from DREAM TEAM by Jack McCallum. Copyright © 2012 by Jack McCallum. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
You have a tape?" Michael Jordan asks. "Of that game?"
"I do," I say.
"Man, everybody asks me about that game," he says. "It was the most fun I ever had on a basketball court."
It befits the enduring legend of the Dream Team, arguably the most dominant squad ever assembled in any sport, that we're referring not to a real game but to an intrasquad scrimmage in Monaco three days before the start of the 1992 Olympics. The Dreamers played 14 games that summer two decades gone, and their smallest victory margin was 32 points, over a fine Croatia team in the Olympic final. The common matrices of statistical comparison, you see, are simply not relevant in the case of the Dream Team, whose members could be evaluated only when they played each other. The video of that scrimmage, therefore, is the holy grail of basketball.
A perfect storm hit Barcelona in the summer of the Dream Team. Its members were almost exclusively NBA veterans at or near the apex of their individual fame. The world, having been offered only bite-sized nuggets of NBA games, was waiting for them, since Barcelona was the first Olympics in which professional basketball players were allowed to compete. The Dreamers were a star-spangled export from a country that still held primacy around the world.
This debut couldn't have been scripted any better, and when the Dream Team finally released all that star power in a collective effort, the show was better than everyone had thought it would be ... and everyone had thought it would be pretty damn good. The Dreamers were Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East, Santana at Woodstock.
Most of the 12 names (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler and Christian Laettner) remain familiar to fans two decades later, their cultural relevance still high. It's not just that Danger Mouse and Cee Lo Green christened their hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley, or that other artists have sung about Johnson (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West), Pippen (Jay-Z), Malone (the Transplants) and Jordan (impossible to count). Consider this: The name of Stockton, a buttoned-down point guard, is on a 2011 track by Brooklyn rapper Nemo Achida, and the popular video game NBA 2K12 features Jordan, Magic and Bird on the box cover -- not LeBron, Dirk and Derrick.
Yet the written record of that team during the summer of '92 is not particularly large. The Dreamers, like the dinosaurs, walked the earth in a pre-social-media age. Beyond newspaper stories, there are no detailed daily logs of their basketball activities (Bird shot around today, but his back is sore) and no enduring exclamations of chance meetings around Barcelona (OMG, jst met ChazBark at bar & he KISSED me on cheek; hez not rlly fat LOL). Much of the story is yet to be told, and the scrimmage in Monte Carlo may be the most tantalizing episode of all.
Negotiating for the team to train in the world's most exclusive gambling enclave started, believe it or not, with commissioner David Stern, who at the time was understood to be fervently antigambling and terrified of betting lines. But he also recognized that a training camp in, say, Fort Wayne, Ind., was not an inducement for players such as Jordan and Magic to buy in. So he began talking to a friend, New York Giants co-owner Robert Tisch, who also owned the showpiece Loews Hotel in Monaco. From there, NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik and Loews chairman Robert Hausman reached a deal with the principality.
Players, coaches and schlub journalists like me said bravo to the decision. The Dream Team did get in some work during its six days in Monaco, but on balance it was more like a minivacation. The team's daily schedule called for two hours of basketball followed by 22 hours of golf, gambling and gaping at the sights. Nude beaches and models were a three-point shot away, sometimes closer. "I'm not putting in a curfew because I'd have to adhere to it," said coach Chuck Daly, "and Jimmy'z [a noted Monte Carlo nightclub] doesn't open until midnight."
The Dream Team flew into Nice at midnight on July 18 and made a crash landing at the Loews, or Jet Set Central, about 20 miles away. During a security meeting before the team arrived, Henri Lorenzi, the legendary hotel manager, had complained about the number and the aggressiveness of the NBA's security people. "Do you realize who is gambling in my casino right now?" Lorenzi said to the NBA's international liaison, Kim Bohuny. Lorenzi ticked off the names of politicians, movie stars and even tennis immortal Björn Borg. "No one will care that much about this team," he said.
"Well, we'll see," replied Bohuny.
When the team bus pulled up, there was such a rush of fans to see the players that some fans crashed through the glass doors at the entrance. "I get your point," said Lorenzi.
The Loews casino was located in the middle of the hotel, thereby serving as kind of theater-in-the-round when the Dream Teamers were there, the regulars being Jordan, Magic, Barkley, Pippen and Ewing, the same group that had started playing a card game called tonk back at the team's first training camp, in La Jolla, Calif., and would play right through the last night in Barcelona. On one occasion Barkley, feeling like the luckiest blackjack player in the world, hit on a 19; it would be a better ending to the story to say he drew a deuce, but he busted. From time to time Jordan even reserved his own blackjack table and played all five hands.
Each afternoon, after their workout and lunch, a gaggle of players trod through the foot-thick casino carpets in golf shoes, sticks on their backs, bound for the Monte Carlo Golf Club, a 25-minute ride away. The course wasn't a jewel, but it was hilly and commanded wonderful views of the Riviera. One day, after practice, Newsday writer Jan Hubbard arranged a foursome with Barkley, Drexler and me. Barkley was at that time unencumbered by the neuropathic-psychosomatic disorder that has come to plague his golf game, which at this writing remains a wretched smorgasbord of tics and stops and twists and turns. He hit the ball far and had a decent short game, though he was subject to lapses in concentration. Drexler, whom Barkley called Long and Wrong, was just learning the game. With a full, aggressive, coiled swing, he routinely hit 300-yard drives, usually 150 out and 150 to the left or right.
Our merry group played nine, then picked up Robinson at the turn. He was fairly new to the game and, in the fashion of a Naval officer who had built televisions with his father as an adolescent, was working on it with consummate dedication. Robinson was as enthusiastic as anyone about being a Dreamer; as the sole returning member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, which won only the bronze medal, he was on a redemptive journey. But Robinson was, to a large extent, a loner. "He wasn't driven like myself and most of the other players," Jordan says. And years after Barcelona, Robinson still seemed unable to fully comprehend the thirst-for-blood competitiveness of his teammates. He told me a Jordan story from the first time they met, at a 1988 exhibition game. "I go back to meet Michael because, like everybody else, I'm big fan, and you know the first thing he says to me? 'I'm going to dunk on you, big fella. I dunked on all the other big fellas, and you're next.'
"And he said it almost every time we played. I'd go back at him: 'Don't even think about it. I will take you out of the air.' And Michael would always promise to get me."
And did he? "Eventually," Robinson said. "It was a two-on-one with him and Scottie. Michael took the shot and I went up to block it, but I didn't get there, and he dunked it and the crowd went crazy. 'Told you I was going to get you one day,' he said. Man, what a competitor. He never forgot anything, never let you get away with anything."
By Dream Team time, Robinson had, as he puts it, "been born again in Christ." He didn't drink or swear and was finding it uncomfortable to be around those who did. But a golf course -- certainly one with Charles Barkley on it -- is a very tough place for a true believer. Our fivesome played on, insults and four-letter words flying. At one point Robinson complained to Hubbard about Drexler's cussing and also wanted Barkley to tone it down. Charles seemed to comply, but then -- I believe around the 14th hole -- he let loose with another barrage, all of it in good humor but salty. So Robinson shook his head, smiled, picked up his bag and left.
In my mind's eye, I still see Robinson walking off the course on that day. Most athletic teams and most athletic relationships are built on sophomoric humor, insults and d--- jokes, all wrapped in testosterone. To stand with your team yet somehow to have the guts to stand alone from time to time ... now, that takes a particular kind of man.
If the gentleman from Italy -- whose name nobody remembers -- had it all to do over again, I'm sure he would toss the ball to his fellow referee, assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo, and proceed rapidly to the nearest exit of Stade Louis II, the all-purpose arena in the Fontvieille ward of Monaco. For soon he will become the unluckiest person in town, and that includes all those who are surrendering vast quantities of French francs at the tables.
He tosses the ball up between Ewing and Robinson, and Robinson taps it -- on the way up, illegally -- toward his own basket. Robinson's teammate on the Blue Team, Duke's Laettner, the only collegiate Dreamer, races the White Team's Pippen for the ball. Take note, for this is the first and last time in history that this sentence will be written: Laettner beats Pippen to the ball. Laettner sweeps it behind his back to his Blue teammate Barkley, who catches it, takes a couple of dribbles and knifes between the White Team's Jordan and Bird. Jordan grabs Barkley's wrist, the whistle blows, and Barkley makes the layup.
"Shoot the fouls, shoot the fouls," Chuck Daly yells, sounding like that character in Goodfellas, Jimmy Two Times. It's morning and almost no one is in the stands, but Daly is trying to install gamelike conditions because even the best of the best need a kick in the ass from time to time. As Jordan calls for a towel -- it is extremely humid in the arena, and almost everyone is sweating off a little alcohol -- Barkley makes the free throw.
Magic Johnson's Blue Team 3, Michael Jordan's White Team 0.
And so the Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw gets under way.
About 12 hours earlier the U.S. had finished an exhibition game against France. It was awful. The players were still getting used to local conditions -- meaning the steep fairways at the Monte Carlo Golf Club and the nocturnal bass beat at Jimmy'z -- and even the seemingly inexhaustible Jordan was tired after walking 18 holes and arriving back at the Loews not long before the 8:30 p.m. tip-off. The Dream Team was sloppy and allowed France leads of 8--2 and 16--13 before it woke up and went on to win 111--71.
It didn't matter to the fans, though, who had gobbled up the 3,500 available tickets in a 15-minute box-office frenzy. The opposing team's guys, at least half a dozen of whom had brought cameras to the bench, were deemed heroic by dint of being slain. Happiest of all was the French coach, Francis Jordane. "He was very excited because he figured that his last name would give him special entrée to Michael," recalls Terry Lyons, the NBA's head of international public relations. "We took a photo, and sure enough, there is Jordane right next to Jordan, with his arm around him."
By breakfast this morning Daly had decided that his team had better beat itself up a little bit. The Dream Team had scrimmaged several times before this fateful day, a couple of the games ending in a diplomatic tie as Daly refused to allow overtime. He normally tried to divvy up the teams by conference, but on this day Drexler was nursing a minor injury and Stockton was still recovering from a fractured right fibula he had suffered in the Olympic qualifying tournament. Lord only knows how this morning would've gone had Drexler been available. Jordan had already taken it upon himself to torture the Glide in scrimmages, conjuring up the just-completed NBA Finals -- in which Jordan's Bulls had beaten Drexler's Trail Blazers in six games -- and taunting Drexler, "Stop me this time!"
So with two fewer Western players than Eastern players, and only two true guards (Magic and Jordan), Daly went with Magic, Barkley, Robinson, Chris Mullin and Laettner on the Blue Team against Jordan, Malone, Ewing, Pippen and Bird on the White.
The gym was all but locked down. The media were allowed in for only the last part of practice. A single cameraman, Pete Skorich, who was Chuck Daly's guy with the Pistons, videotaped the day. It was a closed universe, a secret little world: 10 of the best basketball players in the world going at each other. Daly had a message for them: "All you got now. All you got."