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."
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.
Over in the Boyz locker room, Nelson's thoughts were mixed. He had enjoyed the up-and-down tempo of the first half (if his Warriors would ever get healthy, that's how they would play), but he also knew it was far from over. The clear advantages the Dream Teamers had, Nelson believed, were experience and composure, particularly in the backcourt. Dumars had been in big games before, but neither Hardaway (who was still not 100% after missing most of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament), Price or Smith could match the championship experience of Magic, Michael, Scottie Pippen or even Clyde Drexler.
Nelson's fears were well founded. Daly started a peculiar alignment of Jordan, Pippen, Drexler, Magic and Robinson, which was designed to trap all over the court. Six times in the first five minutes of the third period, the Dream Teamers converted steals into baskets and, having successfully turned the game into a defensive battle, finally tied the score at 86 as the third period ended.
Nelson decided to play his two young centers, O'Neal and Mourning, together and try to control the action from inside. At one point O'Neal, who had made no bones about his lack of respect for Malone, went up hard on defense and knocked over the Mailman on his way to the basket, then stood above him with a menacing look on his face until Barkley muscled his way in. O'Donnell immediately separated the combatants. A minute later Mourning took a pass from Price on the wing and threw down a jam over Ewing that could have been heard back in Georgetown.
"Get 'em back, Patrick!" Bird yelled from his back-resting position on the floor in front of the Dream Team bench. "Throw it to Patrick, Magic, and let him get it back." So the Dreamers ran a clear-out for Ewing, and he hit a short turnaround over Mourning. Bird jumped to his feet and waved a towel. With seven minutes left it was 97-97.
Nelson, searching for a rotation throughout the game, finally settled on one. He put Shaq in the middle, Mourning and Johnson at forward, and Dumars and Danny Manning (the last player added to the team) in the backcourt. Nelson felt that Price and Hardaway were too small to check Magic and Michael, and he felt uncomfortable handing the ball to the erratic Smith down the stretch. So, just as in the good old days of Chicago-Detroit, there was Dumars guarding Jordan, leaving the 6'10" Manning to stare into Magic's eyes. Daly, meanwhile, mixed and matched lineups, keeping only Jordan on the floor all the time. "I didn't know who I'd need when push came to shove," Daly would say later, "so I didn't want anybody to get cold." With 18 seconds left and Dream Team up 122-121, the Boyz went inside to Shaq. He whirled, ignored a double team by Drexler and Robinson, and dunked a split second before Jordan came from the opposite side trying to block. The Boyz went up 123-122. One possession for Dream Team to win it or lose it. They called timeout.
On the Boyz sideline, Nelson figured that Magic would get the inbounds pass, kill time with the dribble and finally look for Jordan, who would run off a pick inside. So Nellie took Johnson and O'Neal out—"If Michael even comes close to Shaq, they'll call a foul," he whispered to assistant Don Chaney—and sent in Manning, Dumars, Smith, Majerle and Mourning. "If we get caught in a switch, any of them can play Michael," he said. Daly went with Jordan, Magic, Barkley, Ewing and Chris Mullin, clutch shooters all. When he saw the defense, Daly considered calling timeout and going inside to Barkley or Ewing but decided that if the play had to be changed, Magic could do it.
As Nelson predicted, Magic caught Mullin's inbounds pass and began a yo-yo dribble. With nine seconds left, Jordan, with Dumars practically inside his shirt, headed for a double-pick set near the baseline by Barkley and Mullin. As Jordan passed by, Barkley broke off and came toward the foul line, and Jordan continued to the corner, Dumars a step behind. Magic's eyes followed Jordan all the way, and he pump-faked toward him as the clock showed six seconds.
On the other side of the court, meanwhile, Mullin bounced out to the left corner. His defender, Majerle, had edged toward the middle to help out on Barkley in case the pass went there, and his eyes, like everyone else's, were on Jordan.
"Omigod!" Nelson said, grabbing assistant Pete Gillen. "He's going to Chris."
Sure enough, Magic turned from Jordan and whipped a bullet to Mullin, who was nearly alone in the corner. Mullin caught it with four seconds left, took two pitty-pat steps and let fly an effortless lefthanded flick-jumper with three ticks on the clock. Nothing but net. Dream Team 124, Boyz II Men 123.
With characteristic restraint Barkley ran to Mullin, grabbed him around the knees and picked him up. "I knew we had you for a reason, but I'd forgot what it was," he said. On the sideline Daly sought out Dumars, his former player, put his arm around him and said, "That's it, Joe. I'm leaving the Nets. That's the last game I'll ever coach. And it doesn't get much better than this."
O'Neal, Mourning and Johnson, three shining lights of the NBA's future, sat watching the scene on court and wondering if they would ever feel the things that Jordan and Magic and Bird had felt. Security guards led Stern onto the court—Clinton had left at halftime—and he motioned to the somber trio. "Come on out to midcourt," he said. "We've got something to give you." Another NBA official waited there with Jordan, Magic and Barkley. Magic smiled and handed an American flag to Johnson.
"Take this to Canada," he said, "and don't come back unless you win that championship." Stern saw the moment in symbolic terms, the passing of the torch from one generation to another, and he whispered that to Jordan. "Not so fast, David," said Jordan. "See, Charles and I have been talking, and...."