The Oral History of Michael Jordan’s Pickup Games Against Regular Chicagoans

During his first retirement from the NBA, Michael Jordan was a fixture in pickup games at an upscale Chicago gym. For the guys lucky enough to play with him, it was a rare glimpse at a different side of MJ. For Jordan, it was a chance to just be one of the guys.
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Michael Jordan did play plenty of basketball in Chicago in 1993 and '94—just not for the Bulls.

During his time with the Bulls, Jordan was a fixture at the Athletic Club at Illinois Center, an upscale gym downtown. There, during his first retirement from the NBA, Jordan worked out with his trainer, Tim Grover, in preparation for his transition to baseball, but he was also a frequent participant in games of pickup basketball. Jordan, still just 30 years old and in the prime of his basketball career, would write his name down on the basketball court’s signup sheet and wait for his turn to take the court against a bunch of regular Joes.

On Jan. 4, 1994, while Scottie Pippen and the Bulls were beating the Pistons, Jordan was three miles away at the Athletic Club, playing against a bunch of guys who just got off work.

SportsChannel Chicago, a now-defunct regional sports network, sent a cameraman down to the gym to film Jordan playing. A clip from the resulting SportsChannel segment went semi-viral on Twitter last month, which led a man named Ben Terrell to go digging around his basement for a VHS tape that had been down there for 26 years. Terrell, who played with Jordan that night, was the one who tipped off SportsChannel anchor Steve Kashul, the husband of an old friend, that Jordan was at the gym. Kashul gave him a tape of the segment as a keepsake, which featured not only the SportsChannel segment but also all the raw footage of Jordan that cameraman Dyrol Joyner had captured.

“A couple people in my family have seen it, a few friends, but it’s very limited,” Terrell says. “I’ve had this video forever. I was kinda worried that I was going to go down to the basement, put it in the VCR and it would just be dust.”

Terrell has another unseen video of Jordan playing pickup at the gym, this one shot on a home camcorder that another member had hid under a jacket to circumvent the gym’s strict rules designed to protect Jordan’s privacy.

For Terrell (seen in the SportsChannel video wearing a red No. 44 jersey over a white T-shirt) and the other gym rats lucky enough to share the court with Jordan, the experience was unforgettable. These are their stories.

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Jim Watkins (wearing a Scottie Pippen jersey in the SportsChannel video): The first time that I saw him up there, I was on the stationary bike and I had heard Jordan would come up there but I never thought I would see him. As I was spinning around on the stationary bike, I caught wind of this bald head coming behind me and I looked around and it was Jordan. He took the bike right next to me and he spoke to me. He said, “Hey, what’s up?” When I was able to pick my jaw up off the ground, I said something, I don’t know—I might have squeaked, “Hi.”

Mike Watkins (no relation to Jim, played with Jordan once as a guest at the gym): It’s a little different for me than if I had seen him walking down the street or in a nonbasketball setting. That would be great, too. But seeing him on the court while I’m actually playing, that’s a whole different experience, just being a basketball and a Bulls fan, a Michael Jordan fan, a basketball player, born and raised in Chicago. So when you see Michael Jordan doing what you do, it’s a totally different experience.

My highlight was I got the ball on a fast break and I scored on him. He played some defense, but certainly didn’t try to stop me. But I scored on him, and he said something like, ‘Nice move there.’ I was happy about that. I was 23 years old at the time, so it was beyond my wildest dreams.

David Boone (trained at the gym in preparation for a CFL tryout): The thing that I found most amazing was that it didn’t look like he worked hard to do it. You saw all the stuff he did in terms of working out, but on the court it wasn’t like he was pressing to get it done. It was very casual. I mean, he would just torch you, and you couldn’t do anything about it. And it wasn’t like he was running so fast he was blowing by everybody and dunking on people—he wasn’t. He was like, well, OK, I’m gonna post you up. Now I’m gonna start over here and shoot this jumper. His jumper was pure. It was pure.

Alex duBuclet (a regular at the gym, who was interviewed for the SportsChannel segment): I always thought, before I played with him those times, that the guy had a lot of ego. I’d see him out with his buddies, might even sit at the same table and have drinks with him, and you would think that this guy would walk in thinking that he’s big and bad and nobody should really talk to him. But at the end of the day, I really think Michael really appreciated playing even more so with the sort of guys who weren’t from the NBA. I think he rose to that occasion.

Ben Terrell: The dude just loved basketball. I played with a lot of other guys who came up there, but he was very engaging. If you played with him more than once, he would probably learn your name. He would know what you were good for. Like, oh, this guy is a rebounder, he’ll tip it back in but I won’t pass it to him. You had to earn his respect if he was going to pass it to you. But he would definitely learn what you could do. He was very competitive. I don’t ever remember him losing a game.

duBuclet: He loved the competition, but there’s something special about playing with average folks that he liked. The reason I know that is because he played with us way too often not to like it. Michael didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do. He had enough money, he had enough people to chase down if he wanted to go out with women, he had everything you could want. Why would he, with all the money in the world, all the cars in the world, all the women in the world, want to spend three hours or four hours in a gym with a bunch of smelly, sweaty guys who just got off their 9–5 jobs? It’s the love of the game.

Boone: When I played with him—I was actually pretty quick—so I scored a bucket. He kept giving me the ball and I was like, that’s interesting. But once it got down to clutch time I was like everyone else—just give him the ball and get out of the way. He would just take over. He would have games, or he would play one-on-one with guys, where he would just shoot jumpers and they could do whatever they wanted. And he wouldn’t lose.

Michael Jordan on the court during a pickup game

Tom Tuohy (a regular at the gym): When he played, the elite players showed up. I think a bus pulled up with all the elite college players and NBA players. When Jordan showed up, if you got in, you’d better be ready to play at a real high level.

Boone: On Saturdays, there would be certain athletes who would come in and play. It would be a game where you knew there was going to be some good athletes there and if you couldn’t play, that’s probably not the day to go.

Tuohy: I don’t care where they played and at what level, everybody’s game went to the next level. You played better than you ever played in your life. I mean, your concentration level—he made everybody on the court better. You saw that in the NBA, but the same was true in pickup.

Jim Watkins: I’m a football player. I’m not a basketball player whatsoever. I would shoot from short distances and I would just brick every one of them. Then Michael would show up. When he got on the court, every shot I took I made. Every shot that I took. I kind of got that thing that would say that he elevates the game of everybody on the court. I swear to god, I would swish every shot when he was around. As soon as he left, it was bricks again.

Make no mistake, though. Jordan was there to have fun but he was also there to win. The guys at the Athletic Club were not immune to MJ’s legendary trash talk.

Boone: One time I played against him, I had another guy guarding me and I was able to get by him and I got to the bucket really quick. Mike was delayed on the switch and I was able to lay it up before he was able to get to me. I was ecstatic. Now, did I score on Mike? Maybe not, but in my mind I did. He went to block it but I was already there. We’re running down the court and he says, “You will not score again today.” I was like, OK, whatever. I didn’t really think anything of it. He wasn’t even guarding me. I had a guy on me who was a little smaller than me and I went into the post. I got the ball and I turned to shoot a fadeaway and Mike was already there. He blocked it and he sent it up to the track [above the court]. And he said, “I told you, you will not score again today.” He was dead serious that I was not going to score again because I scored that one time.

Tuohy: There was a friend of mine, Dr. Rick Weber, he was in his 40s and he played in a game where he called out Mike for cheating. And I’m telling you, Jordan just about rode him and trash talked him out of the gym. He said, “I don’t have to cheat, old man, to beat you.” All the way to the locker room and taking a shower: “Now don’t slip, old man, and break a hip.”

Terrell: I could jump a little. I’m like 6' 3". But there was one time where Jordan got the ball and he was going up to dunk. I don’t know why I did it, I didn’t even think about it, I just tried to block it. My hand went above the rim, like you see on most posterized guys. I just kept going up and then I started coming down and all of a sudden the ball got dunked off my head. I fell down on the ground—he knew my name because we’d played before—and he goes, “Ben, don’t hurt yourself.” He was standing over me like Scottie Pippen stood over Patrick Ewing. “Don’t hurt yourself” with a big smile on his face. It’s like David and Goliath. You have to at least try. He trash-talked me but I would do it again in a minute just on the off chance that it might have slipped out of his hand.

Tuohy: There was a guy named Dennis who was a good player, played all the time, one of the regulars. He started trash talking Jordan, and we’re all looking around like, "What are you doing?" It took about two times up the court for Jordan to be looking at him like, “What are you talking about?” He was riding him saying, “You used to be the world’s best player. You ain’t nothing.” Jordan turned around the second time down the court and said, “What did you used to be, Dennis?”

That same day, I just happened to be walking out of the gym with Jordan. You think about that series [The Last Dance] and how Jordan holds grudges. This is just a guy in the gym who was riding him two hours before. He’s walking out to his car and there’s a glass partition that looks into the gym and he stops and pounds his fists on it. Guys look up and he starts pointing to get Dennis. Dennis looks around and he smiles. Jordan looks at him and gives him the finger, and then laughs and walks off.

Jim Watkins: Oh, Dennis! Yes, I remember Dennis! Now I remember his face, too. That’s the first time I’ve heard that name in years. Dennis would give him the trash talk and do his best to back it up, but of course he wasn’t going to do it.

Boone: Oh my god, Dennis—OK. Dennis would talk a lot of smack. Dennis’s game was not at the level of his smack talk and Mike would laugh at it and torch him. He would talk a lot. There were guys who would certainly talk, but at the end of the day, no one could really hold Mike.

Dennis would get torched by me, in some cases. But the thing about Dennis was that he would hustle. Although you’re torching him, he’s still gonna make you work. He’s still there, he’s still there, he’s still there. Even if you score, you still have to work. Even if Mike is pushing him off and scoring, he’s still gonna do it again. He’s running around and he’s got a hand in your face and he doesn’t quit. He was always laughing. He kept the energy going. He was in shape, so he was somebody that would push against Mike—but, ultimately, his fate was just like everybody else’s.

Dennis Allen: All I wanted to do was beat Michael Jordan as many times as I could. I never wanted to play with him. Because he’s Michael Jordan. The basketball players now, they’ll join the best players and try to win a championship. I’m exactly the opposite kind of guy. I want to beat the best. I don’t want to play with the best, I want to beat the best. It makes no sense to me, for me to play with the best players and we win. If you’ve got any kind of championship blood within you, you always want to play against the best to measure yourself.

Was I the best player down there? Nowhere near it. But I was the most competitive. I was the most competitive player you’re ever going to go against. No one is going to outcompete me. I’m like Rodman. Nobody was going to outcompete me, and that’s what made me stick out. That’s why everybody remembers me.

Kendall Gill (15-year NBA veteran, trained at the Athletic Club in the summers): He was sort of like the mayor down there. Real competitive. Nobody can out-talk Dennis. When you come in and battle him, you better have great skills on the basketball court because you’re not going to be able to out-talk him. Not even Michael. Michael couldn’t out-talk him. No way in hell.

Allen: We had a little league down there, where we had teams and everything, so we had an all-star game. I don’t know that Michael played in the league or not but of course he wanted to play in the all-star game. I was the leading vote-getter—I don’t know how they voted—and so the announcer says that and the girl filming the video cuts to Michael, and he’s sitting on the bench. He subbed in for me maybe three or four minutes after the game started and I said to him, “Remember, in your prime, you subbed for me.”

That’s why he liked me, because I was quick-witted.

My life with Michael has intertwined all the way through—not by choice, just by chance. My son-in-law [Anthony DiCosmo] is now [global head of marketing] of Jordan Brand. My son took [Jordan’s] daughter to prom. My first wife and his first wife were friends. It’s an amazing thing. It’s just by chance.

Tuohy: Dennis’s friend crossed Jordan over and beat him to the hole, and he scored on Jordan. Then he turned around and said, “Dennis is right, you ain’t got it anymore.” It took three times up the court. On the third time back, he was isolated on the fly against this guy and you knew something was going to happen that you would never forget—and it did. At the top of the key, he crossed him over and crossed him back where he lost his balance and took off right outside the free throw line and used his hand on top of the guy’s head as he was falling back and just flew in and slammed it. Of course, the whole gym exploded. He held onto the rim, straddled the guy, and said, “Now don’t hurt yourself.”

Allen: One day we were playing Michael real hard. We were tripling him and we were saying, "We’re not gonna let you beat us today." We’re doubling him and we’re tripling him and we’re kind of pushing him around. We kept giving him a hard time. He said, “OK, I got you guys.” The next day, he shows up with Richard Dent and Otis Wilson from the Bears and says, “I’ve got my defense.” Otis could play some, Richard could play a little bit, but he used them to set picks on us all day.

duBuclet: He would always win, s---. But there was one time where he lost that I recall, and he was actually pissed off about it. I was like, damn, it’s not that serious. But actually it was that serious.

I think he made a real conscious effort to do two things. 1) Show that he’s Michael Jordan and don’t forget that. And 2) If I really step up my game I’m going to annihilate you. There was a part of him that didn’t want to do that because I think he wanted to be a regular guy. I think he really saw that time in the gym, not to overstate it, but I really believe, from everything I ever observed of him playing on the court, he really used that time to just be f---ing normal, pardon my expression.

Boone: We’d go get dressed and go down to the restaurant and eat and laugh just like anybody else. He wouldn’t just go home or not socialize with you off the court. He would be in the restaurant or he would come on the court and talk in between games and just laugh. And it wasn’t all about basketball, it was just talking in general.

Allen: I don’t know why everyone talks about him being a bad guy. Mike was a great guy. Every time when we played, when we went downstairs to eat and he paid for all the food. They always talk about how cheap he is. He was never cheap with us. 

Tuohy: There was that whole sense that a lot of what you saw, the stuff people didn’t really know about him, you got to see that at the gym. He was really the most comfortable, the way he wasn’t around the media and with a crush of fans around him. In the gym, he was just relaxed and himself. It was really cool to see that.

There’s a certain part of gyms that I think is a gym culture where, amazingly, even a guy like him doesn’t get bothered. Nobody asks for his autograph. Hardly anybody comes up and talks to him unless he’s talking just like you would with a regular person. I think that’s why he came to that gym and why he went to gyms. It wasn’t the only gym that he went to.

Gill: That’s the way it was for all of us, especially Michael. People were used to seeing him there so they really didn’t bother him much. He got a chance to just be him and be one of the guys. I think that’s what he liked about it. He could come in and nobody has the Michael Jordan awe in his eyes. He was just one of the guys who hooped there in the summertime. He was the best one, but still, he was one of the guys.

In addition to Jordan and the NBA players who trained there in the summer, the Athletic Club attracted a wide variety of celebrities.

Boone: [Obama administration secretary of education] Arne Duncan was there. [Mutual fund chairman] John Rogers was there. Scottie Pippen played in there at times. Karl Malone would come and work out in there. I saw Dennis Rodman working out there. I remember R. Kelly came through with Aaliyah one time. I didn’t know who she was. At that particular time she had a baseball cap on and I heard that she was the newest artist and then I heard the song come out.

Jim Watkins: A lot of people would come in with entourages. I mean, R. Kelly would come in with a hundred people. But Jordan would just come in, get on the stationary bike, warm up and sign up for the court. Everybody knew not to bother him, pour all that adulation on him. They just let him go. He enjoyed it. He had a good time up there.

duBuclet: There were a bunch of guys who played professional sports and some NBA players, even an occasional Harlem Globetrotter. There were a lot of those guys, but I still didn’t see him hanging with those guys. I didn’t see him gravitating toward the people who were stars there. I saw him just playing on the team he was playing on and making that team the best they could be for those 12 minutes or 15 minutes or however long it took to crush the other team.

Gill: Bears players, baseball players, actors. I saw Samuel L. Jackson in there one time. I saw Danny Glover in there. R. Kelly would be there all the time. It was actually a spot to check out celebs, too, if you wanted to. They had a restaurant in the place so after you work out you go and hang out in the restaurant and you might see Danny Glover in there.

Nobody was starstruck in there. I think that’s why Michael and a lot of other NBA players as well as movie stars just felt comfortable going to Lakeshore Athletic Club.

duBuclet: He’d talk to you like the rest of the guys. If you were sitting on the bench with him it was just like sitting around talking to anybody else. That was every time I saw him. He’d remember you. He was just a regular fricking guy who had phenomenal skills.

Michael Jordan on the court during a pickup game

Boone: He was a funny guy. As competitive as he was, and certainly in his workspace he was different, but we didn’t see the whole combative side because he just wasn’t expecting the same thing out of us as he does his teammates. Just socially, if he was in the club, he didn’t act like he didn’t know you. He was very social. He would always say hello. You’d be walking down the stairs and he’d nudge or push you. He was really a great dude. I enjoyed all my interactions with him. He was a competitor, and it was great to watch him play but he was really a nice guy, too.

Though the stakes were lower, Jordan’s competitive fire still burned bright.

Tuohy: In the gym, there’s an atrium in the middle with a climbing wall. It was one of the first encounters I had with Jordan. It was just me and him and Grover. I hadn’t seen him in there but I wasn’t going to be a goof and walk up and bother him. I was leaning on the railing watching where people were climbing this wall. You know how you get the sense, without seeing, that something’s now next to you? Imagine if you look and a foot away you’ve got the Wheaties box. He’s leaning on the railing and he looks at the wall and goes, “You ever do it? What’s the easiest way up?” I said, “The stairs.” 

But then Grover said to him, “You couldn’t climb that.” He goes, “Sure I could.” Grover said, “You couldn’t get 15 feet up that wall.” That’s all he had to say. You saw Jordan’s face change. He said, “Throw me some climbing shoes. Size 13.” The trainer throws up the shoes and they look like ballerina shoes, because they’ve got to be really tight. Jordan says, “I’m playing the Pistons tomorrow. I’m not putting these on my feet.”

Aaron Watkins (Jim’s son, who was 14 at the time): As a kid I had a problem with dribbling too much because I was a much better ball handler than I was a shooter. I just dribbled it out of bounds, kind of lost it. Immediately, I could just feel, I remember being able to sense that Mike was looking at me. Sure enough, he gave me this look of disappointment like I was actually on the Bulls like Steve Kerr dribbling out of bounds in a Finals game. At that moment when I saw Mike look at me like that, I don’t think I took a shot the rest of that game.

Allen: I’m guarding him, I got a blockout under the basket. He takes me and puts me over his leg and puts me down on the ground. I get up and I push him and they all come running over to me. I said, “Why are you all running to me? You didn’t run over to him when he put me on the ground.” And so they sent me a letter telling me if another incident occurred then they were going to kick me out. I showed the letter to Michael. I said, “So now they gotta defend you, huh?” He saw the letter, he took the letter to the front desk and he said, “If you put him out, I’m not coming back.” Just out of sportsmanship. He knows that I’m playing hard. He knows he was wrong when he did it.

Terrell: I was up there one night and I was on his team. I think we’d won about three games. I told Jordan, “I gotta go.” And he’s like, “What?! Where do you have to go right now?” I said, “Well, my girlfriend has Bulls tickets.” He just says it straight up, “F--- the Bulls, the game is right here.” I point over to my girlfriend and he just shakes his head and says, “You have no balls.” He walks over to my girlfriend, he puts his sweaty arm around her and he goes, “Would you mind if your boyfriend played one more game? I’m a little superstitious and I like to keep my team together.”

We ended up getting there maybe in the middle of the second quarter. My girlfriend and I were sitting at the game and she looks at me says, “How many people would believe what we just did?” I’m like, “Nobody. Nobody would believe it.”