Charles Barkley, the most public member of Dream Team I, had made rather a second career out of getting into trouble at night spots during the 1993-94 season, and NBA executives had made several quiet and ultimately fruitless efforts to get Charles to limit his nocturnal prowlings. "Your name's not Boris," he told commissioner David Stern at the All-Star Game in February in Minnesota, "and this ain't Russia. I'm an American citizen who can go where I want, and if people keep bothering me and acting like jackasses, then I'm going to get in their faces."
At the moment, which was 1 a.m. on July 4, 1994, some 19 hours before the Dream Game tip-off at the Georgia Dome, the person acting most like a jackass was Derrick Coleman, the loudest member of Dream Team II. Barkley was holding forth at an Atlanta nightclub on a variety of subjects (his announced retirement, his frustration at losing a second straight six-game series in the NBA Finals, this one to the Knicks, and his disappointment that Hakeem Olajuwon had beaten him out in the MVP balloting) when Coleman sidled up, along with Dream Team II teammates Dominique Wilkins and Larry Johnson.
"Excuse me, Charles," said Coleman, who was dressed in a red suit. "You telling these guys what our bet is on the game?"
"My name ain't Michael Jordan," said Barkley, "so I don't bet. And who you supposed to be in that suit, Santa Claus?"
"Santa tonight but no Santa tomorrow," said Coleman, smiling. "Boyz II Men gonna be in your face." Seeking an identity of their own, the Dream Team II members had adopted the name of the popular R&B group (which would be singing the national anthem before the game), and it had caught on with fans.
"Tomorrow's today, Derrick," said Charles, pointing to the clock. "And I forgot to tell you, I have a new name for your team. I look at you, and LJ there, and Shaquille O'Neal doing his rap number over there"—Barkley pointed to a corner of the room where the Orlando Magic giant was performing for an awestruck group of young ladies—"and trash-talking Tim Hardaway, and jive-ass Steve Smith, and I come up with this: Boyz II Morons." Coleman started to speak, but Barkley cut him off. "You gotta pay more attention to who you hang with, 'Nique. Later." And Barkley, against all odds, upped and left, well before last call.
Although it was an exhibition game for charity (the United Negro College Fund and the Magic Johnson Foundation would be the beneficiaries), the Dream Game had taken on a nasty edge. That was particularly true for Barkley, on whose tired shoulders had fallen the burden of defending the honor of Dream Team I, hereafter known only as Dream Team. The legendary Dream Team troika of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird was inactive during the 1993-94 season, leaving Barkley alone on the firing line. Magic had surfaced a few days earlier in Atlanta, but, plainly worried about his conditioning after three seasons away from NBA competition, he was keeping a low profile. Bird had come as an honorary captain, "a nonplaying appendix," said Barkley, until teammate and human dictionary David Robinson told him he meant "appendage." And Jordan hadn't been seen by anyone except his teammates. "We assume he's coming," said coach Chuck Daly, "unless his $50 Nassau goes into sudden death." Jordan had flown in for Daly's three closed practices, then flown out again without talking to the media. Daly would say only that Jordan was "rusty but ready."
Without Magic's knack for playground diplomacy or Jordan's and Bird's acid tongues, Dream Team's only true mouthpiece was Barkley. So at press conferences, there was Charles, sparring with Coleman or Dan Majerle or Mark Price. During a trip to Friedman's, the shoe store mecca in downtown Atlanta, there was Barkley, clowning around with Shawn Kemp and Alonzo Mourning. Charles even accompanied Robinson and Price to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Price performed a moving version of The Old Rugged Cross the day before the game. "I hang around with guys like Mark and David," said Barkley, "it's gotta help mc get into heaven."
But Boyz II Men (or The Young and the Clueless, as some referred to them) had any number of players willing to jaw before the cameras: O'Neal (added to the team in April after the NBA and Pepsi reached an agreement that allowed Shaq to participate), Coleman, Kemp, Smith and the Atlanta Hawks' Wilkins, the unofficial "host" of the event. The team's captain, Joe Dumars, conducted himself with class in interviews and won a lot of fans for Boyz. And coach Don Nelson, at last afforded the big-time stage he had desired when he campaigned for the 1992 Olympic job, seemed relaxed and animated, in contrast to Daly, who felt he had nothing to gain with the game. Then again, Daly had just spent the season with Coleman and the Nets, so he probably wouldn't have been in good spirits in any case.
The NBA put the game in Atlanta, obviously as a showcase event for the 1996 Olympic city. The idea for Dream Game was to prepare Boyz II Men for the world championships in Toronto one month hence, but not surprisingly, it had taken on a life of its own. The return to action of Jordan and Magic would've created enough excitement by itself, but Dream Game attracted reporters from all over the world and even prompted FIBA to rescind its rule that jersey numbers go no higher than 15; the Dreamers and the Boyz wanted their NBA numbers. A sellout—the Georgia Dome holds 60,000—was assured the moment Stern announced the exhibition in May, and there was a clamor to turn it into a best-of-five series. "It took us two months to convince Michael to play one game," said Stern, "so let's not get ridiculous."