In fact, the NBA had gotten exactly what it wanted: one star-studded clash of generations, beamed to a live holiday audience on NBC and millions of others around the world. How big was it? Minutes before tip-off, amid a phalanx of Secret Service agents, in walked former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, NBC president of sports Dick Ebersol, Ted Turner, Coretta Scott King, Stern and President Bill Clinton. One by one, players walked by to shake the President's hand—"I wonder if Michael goes to him or he goes to Michael," mused Daly—and Barkley found himself approaching at the same time as Coleman.
"I know I don't have to introduce myself, Mr. President, but this bald-headed guy is Derrick Coleman," said Barkley. "With children starving all over the world, he's the one who turned down $69 million from the New Jersey Nets. And he thinks NAFTA is a nose spray." Clinton cracked up, and when word got around, so did the rest of the Dream Team. It was a needed tension breaker, for the only Dream Teamer who didn't seem tight was Bird. Dressed in a golf shirt and a pair of shorts that assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo pronounced "absolutely unwearable," Bird sat by his buddy Patrick Ewing in the locker room before the game and told everyone what Ewing could expect.
"Shaq's over there, listening to his rap music and dreaming about dunkin' on your head," said Bird. "Him and Alonzo. They got a contest. First guy to dunk five times on your head wins." Ewing looked only remotely amused. Jordan, Magic, even Barkley, were subdued, realizing, as Daly did, that the onus was on Dream Team. Win, and all they did was beat a bunch of kids; lose, and they could no longer lay claim to being the best team ever assembled. Barkley dug deep for the best pregame quote: "Our clearest advantage? I'd say coaching wardrobe. Chuck looks great. Don Nelson looks like he's going to a tractor pull."
Even the pregame analysis had undergone a subtle shift. When the game was announced most pundits figured Dream Team would win easily. Then the reality of Jordan's and Magic's inactivity set in, and a glance at the NBA regular-season leaders revealed a glut of Boyz II Menners. O'Neal, Coleman and the two Hornets, LJ and Mourning, were all over the place in scoring, rebounding, blocking and percentage shooting; Price and Majerle were among the top three-point shooters; Wilkins and Dumars, the veterans, were still consistent scorers. When final odds were posted in Las Vegas (to the chagrin of antigambling crusader Stern), Dream Team was just a one-point favorite.
The real Boyz II Men performed an impeccable national anthem, then left no doubt about their rooting sentiments when they removed their black suit coats to reveal Larry Johnson Grandmama T-shirts. The crowd went wild as LJ went out to hug them and Coleman offered chest bumps, almost knocking singer Shawn Stockman to the floor.
No starting lineups were announced during the pregame introductions, so there was suspense until Nelson sent out Larry Johnson and Wilkins (the hometown choice) at forward, O'Neal at center and Dumars and Steve Smith at guard. Daly kept his players on the bench until the Boyz were on the floor. Then, one by one, Barkley, Karl Malone, Ewing (the Finals MVP), Magic and Michael—the greatest starting five in history—rose, and the crowd noise reached a crescendo. As Jordan greeted Dumars, he whispered in his ear, "Been missing me?" Dumars smiled, shook his head and said, "Not at all, Mike." Jake O'Donnell, the NBA's best referee, tossed up the ball and O'Neal tapped it to Smith, who was immediately picked up by Magic in a battle of Michigan State products. Jordan covered Dumars, Barkley was on Wilkins, Malone took LJ, Ewing hung on O'Neal. President Clinton leaned over to Stern and said, "Doesn't exactly feel like an exhibition, does it?"
The Boyz led 67-59 at halftime, and in the Dream Team locker room Magic had a decision to make. He was the unquestioned leader in the 1992 Barcelona Games, but this situation was unclear. He wasn't an active player, and gassed as he was after registering three points and three assists in the first half, he obviously wasn't in prime condition. But, Magic figured as he stood to speak, once a leader, always a leader.
"Look at the score and think about it," said Magic. "We can play this like an All-Star Game and have both teams run up and down the floor, and maybe we'll win and maybe we won't, and maybe the fans will go home happy. But I won't be happy. I don't know how much you guys wanna win, and I didn't know myself until I saw Shaquille and Derrick do a dance after Shaq dunked on us in the second quarter. Now I know. I want them bad. We gotta start goin' to war!" He sat down, and Daly stood up.
"Look around this room," said the coach. "You got guys in here who changed basketball forever. Over there you got good young players with potential. None of you guys are about potential. You're about accomplishment. Now go show them what the greatest team in history can do."
Jordan caught Magic's eye and winked. Magic was glad he had spoken.