SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Some six hours later, they would be inducted en masse into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But, at 2 in the afternoon on Friday, an assemblage of basketball's all-time greatest sat around a table in the ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel gossiping like high school kids in the lunchroom.
Most of the talking was being done by -- no surprise here -- Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson. Also at the table, listening and nodding affirmation from time to time as they pecked away at their grilled chicken, were four of their Dream Team mates -- Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin and John Stockton. Lenny Wilkens and P.J. Carlesimo, who were assistants on the 1992 gold-medal winning team, were there, also.
The occasion was a roundtable discussion in which the Dream Teamers reminisced about the '92 Olympics and their time together, Hall of Fame weekends being about nothing so much as reminiscing. NBA Entertainment will be slicing and dicing the 30-minute discussion into clips, probably for the next two decades.
The good people from NBAE had been trying for a while to get the thing started, but the gab session went on. As they entered the room, some of them started yakking immediately about how they wanted to "get it rolling," but then they wouldn't stop talking. Perhaps they realized that, as time goes on, the occasions when they will get together will become fewer and fewer.
Finally, another Dream Teamer, Karl Malone sauntered over from the other side of the huge room.
"If you guys don't mind," began Malone ...
"Anything you say, Karl," interrupted Drexler. "It's your weekend, man."
Malone stopped and embraced Drexler, who had just arrived for the weekend ceremonies at the Hall of Fame, where Malone and Scottie Pippen were to be inducted singly along with the Dream Team collectively.
Malone smiled. "I'm just getting old and grumpy, but I'd like to get this started," he said. This was not an easy group to order around but Malone's words immediately lifted the Dream Team chowhounds off their chairs.
Eighteen years later, they're still a team.
The ensuing discussion offered several priceless moments as a bunch of immortals sat around talking about the best time of their lives. The positive vibe of the thing might've come across as staged, except there was no script and the actual experience was pretty much like that. I covered the team from the opening of training in La Jolla, to the Tournament of the Americas in Portland, to the pre-Olympic camp in Monte Carlo, to the Games in Barcelona, and this was truly a special team with special feelings about each other, feelings that have endured. (You saw the same thing about the 1960 Olympic team, which was also inducted this weekend in Springfield. They won a gold medal 50 years ago in Rome, but the bond remains strong.)
There was Wilkens talking about the concern shown him after he severed his Achilles midway through the Olympics and had to limp through the final four games in a cast. "You guys always looked out for me, made sure I was getting around all right," said the Hall of Fame coach. "I never forgot that."
There was Pippen saying, "Chris, you'll be in next year," referencing the fact that Mullin was not voted in as an individual this year, an inexcusable oversight, by the way, considering the whole of the man's high school and college career, never mind what he did in the NBA. And there was Drexler patting Mullin on the leg in affirmation.
There was Mullin stopping in mid-sentence during a reference to the '84 Olympic team (which he and Michael Jordan were on) to say: "And you three should've been on it, by the way." He was talking to Barkley, Stockton and Malone, all of whom were cut by Bob Knight.
Small matter now. For they will always have Barcelona.
The only '92-ers who weren't at the roundtable were Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Christian Laettner, all of whom did arrive in time for that night's official induction at Springfield's Symphony Hall. The most glaring absence, of course, was that of coach Chuck Daly, who died of cancer in May 2009.
As the discussion evolved, it took on a familiar pattern, the players reprising the roles they had two decades ago. Magic and Barkley talked the most, the former showing his Sunday School sincerity, the latter in a rambling style that interspersed jokes and serious sentiments, often in the same sentence. (One of Barkley's highlights was his rambling tale of the day that Drexler brought two left shoes to a shootaround and was trying to skate through undetected.)
Bird didn't say much, but, when he did, everyone listened. Stockton had to be urged to talk at all and, typically, was self-deprecating when he did speak, partly because that's who he is, partly because he missed a great deal of the Olympics with an injury. Mullin didn't say much either but always made sense when he did; that's how he played. Pippen and Malone, who never stopped smiling the whole weekend, waxed eloquently about how the Dream Team represented the best moment of their professional lives. So did Drexler and Robinson.
Herewith a few highlights of the roundtable:
On the intensity with which the Dream Team practiced:
Magic: "One thing that really got us going was the first day [at training camp] when that college team [led by players like Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Chris Webber and Allan Houston] came in and beat us. So we said the next day, 'Let's show them what the real NBA is like.' And we turned it on. And then Charles kind of gave an elbow.
Pippen: "It was Carlos Rogers ...
Magic: "And Charles gave it to him and said, 'Welcome to the NBA.'"
Drexler: "I remember Michael and Magic going at it at practice, stirring the pot, getting everybody going."
Wilkens: "Coach Daly was a little worried about our intensity after the Tournament of the Americas. So I went to Magic and told him, and he said, 'Don't worry. I'll take care of it.'"
Magic: "One of the things you guys [the coaches] did was pit West against East, me, Karl, Mullie, John, Clyde, David against Michael, Scottie, Larry, Patrick. Like that. So I went to Michael and said, 'I'm coming at you, so we can get this going, but don't turn into Michael Jordan on me.' Of course, that's what he did."
On the team clicking almost immediately:
Bird: "The main thing that happens when the best get together is that the game speeds up and you have to make plays a little quicker. Basketball is so simple. You can run the pick and roll to perfection; work for the open man; if you don't have a shot, swing the ball. But it doesn't always happen. On this team it happened. It wasn't about scoring because we could've just got it into Charles, who at that time was the most dominant player in the world offensively. But it wasn't about that. It was about playing the game correctly."
Stockton: "At camp, right at the beginning, you could make a list of the qualities you want on a basketball team. Competitive, smart, prepared. This team showed those qualities right away."
Barkley: "When you play with other great players, the game becomes so easy. Normally you play with certain guys and you're thinking, 'Uh, oh, I can't pass him the ball.' That didn't happen with this team. Like you throw a regular guy an alley-oop, all the stars have to be aligned correctly for it to work out. You play with David, hey, just throw it up there and he'll get it. Or sometimes you think, 'Don't throw the ball to a big man coming down on the break.' Well, you do throw it to Karl Malone."
Robinson: "We've all been on all-star teams and it [coming together] doesn't always happen. But this was basketball heaven. What surprised me, from the beginning, was how unselfish everybody was."
Malone: "The way we checked our egos from the beginning. That's what I remember the most."
Barkley: "I still tell everybody today: There wasn't a jerk on the team."
On Larry Legend:
Pippen: "For me, the chance to play with Larry Bird, who I idolized growing up, man ...
Bird: "Believe it or not, Scottie, I remember the first time you tried to guard me. [He meant in an NBA game.] I ain't gonna say what happened but ... Scottie came a looooong way."
Pippen: "I was probably one of these players that Larry did this to." (Pippen mimics Bird's fake overhead pass that made so many opponents turn their head as he went by them.)
Robinson: "I remember the first time I found myself guarding Larry out on a switch. 'Hey, I'm out here guarding Larry Bird,' I thought. And he said something like, 'This one's in your eye.' Then he made the shot."
Malone: "Larry got everybody in Boston at one time or another on that move where he took the ball out and looked down at the floor like something was there. And you'd look down and it would be all over."
Drexler: "When he got ready to shoot over you, he'd blow you a kiss."
On their reception in Barcelona:
Drexler: "You couldn't leave the hotel without an armed militia, helicopters overhead, police escorts. I remember setting up golf with Charles and it was a disaster trying to figure out how to make that happen with the crowds. Obviously it was a disaster when you saw his game."
On the game against Croatia when the Dream Team vowed to shut down Toni Kukoc, who had received a lucrative contract offer from the Bulls. And shut him down they did:
Barkley: "I remember Michael was, like, foaming at the mouth. 'Kukoc makes more money than Scottie and I put together! Wherever he goes, I got him!' And Michael and Scottie shut him down. It was hilarious."
Pippen: "I appreciate you guys talking like that, but it was truly a collective effort. If I got beat on the backdoor, David was right there. In truth? Toni did not have a chance in that game."
On the little things the team did for each other:
Robinson: "At that time, not everybody had won a championship. Michael and Scottie had, Larry had, Magic had. But nobody else. And everybody learned something from somebody. I'd see Karl lifting and how hard he worked. I'd see Mullie shooting in the gym and how hard he worked. And I thought, 'How do I go back to San Antonio and use this?' The experience definitely helped us back with our own teams."
Barkley: "The first day at Monte Carlo a couple of us went to the pool and found out, 'Whoa, a couple of women don't have shirts on.' So we started calling up guys. 'Hey, man, they don't have shirts on down here.' So every day after practice it was, 'Hey, man, where we going?' And the answer was: 'To the pool.'"
On their memories of the gold-medal ceremony:
Malone: "I never served in the military, so hearing that national anthem on that platform was the closest I ever came to serving my country."
Robinson: "I remember looking at everyone's face and saw what it meant to everybody. I'll never forget that."
On the 1996 Olympic team, sometimes called Dream Team II, which included Barkley, Malone, Pippen, Robinson, and Stockton and was coached by Wilkens:
Barkley: "The coach can't say it, but he knows it ? Dream Team II was a nightmare. We had guys bitching about playing time, arguing with Coach Wilkens. I said to Scottie and Karl, 'Man, I played with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan and we didn't have a problem, so what the hell is wrong with these guys?'"
Pippen: "The experience on the '92 team was a lot better than the experience on the '96 team. Not once did I think we would lose in '92. I can't say that about '96."
On Coach Chuck Daly:
Malone: "His hair and everything had to be perfect. When we'd go out on the floor I'd always look back and Coach Daly would be like ...". (Malone mimics a man touching up his hair and smoothing his collar.)
Wilkens: "Chuck worried about everything. I mean everything. But Karl's right. Before the game there would be Chuck ..." (And Wilkens mimics a man touching up.)
Barkley: "Here's what I always thought about Chuck. He was a really good dude. I can't believe he coached those pricks in Detroit."
Wilkens: "I remember standing next to Chuck and looking at you guys on the podium. It was a very emotional time for all of us and Chuck just grabbed my arm and held on. And I looked over, and there was a tear coming out of his eye. That said it all for me."