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The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw
JACK MCCALLUM
July 02, 2012
The toughest competition faced by the best team in basketball history was, in fact, its own: at a closed scrimmage in Monaco between sides led by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, the details of which remained a secret for nearly 20 years
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July 02, 2012

The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw

The toughest competition faced by the best team in basketball history was, in fact, its own: at a closed scrimmage in Monaco between sides led by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, the details of which remained a secret for nearly 20 years

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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.

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