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The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw
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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You have a tape?" Michael Jordan asks. "Of that game?"

"I do," I say.

"Man, everybody asks me about that game," he says. "It was the most fun I ever had on a basketball court."

It befits the enduring legend of the Dream Team, arguably the most dominant squad ever assembled in any sport, that we're referring not to a real game but to an intrasquad scrimmage in Monaco three days before the start of the 1992 Olympics. The Dreamers played 14 games that summer two decades gone, and their smallest victory margin was 32 points, over a fine Croatia team in the Olympic final. The common matrices of statistical comparison, you see, are simply not relevant in the case of the Dream Team, whose members could be evaluated only when they played each other. The video of that scrimmage, therefore, is the holy grail of basketball.

A perfect storm hit Barcelona in the summer of the Dream Team. Its members were almost exclusively NBA veterans at or near the apex of their individual fame. The world, having been offered only bite-sized nuggets of NBA games, was waiting for them, since Barcelona was the first Olympics in which professional basketball players were allowed to compete. The Dreamers were a star-spangled export from a country that still held primacy around the world.

This debut couldn't have been scripted any better, and when the Dream Team finally released all that star power in a collective effort, the show was better than everyone had thought it would be ... and everyone had thought it would be pretty damn good. The Dreamers were Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East, Santana at Woodstock.

Most of the 12 names (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler and Christian Laettner) remain familiar to fans two decades later, their cultural relevance still high. It's not just that Danger Mouse and Cee Lo Green christened their hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley, or that other artists have sung about Johnson (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West), Pippen (Jay-Z), Malone (the Transplants) and Jordan (impossible to count). Consider this: The name of Stockton, a buttoned-down point guard, is on a 2011 track by Brooklyn rapper Nemo Achida, and the popular video game NBA 2K12 features Jordan, Magic and Bird on the box cover—not LeBron, Dirk and Derrick.

Yet the written record of that team during the summer of '92 is not particularly large. The Dreamers, like the dinosaurs, walked the earth in a pre-social-media age. Beyond newspaper stories, there are no detailed daily logs of their basketball activities (Bird shot around today, but his back is sore) and no enduring exclamations of chance meetings around Barcelona (OMG, jst met ChazBark at bar & he KISSED me on cheek; hez not rlly fat LOL). Much of the story is yet to be told, and the scrimmage in Monte Carlo may be the most tantalizing episode of all.

Negotiating for the team to train in the world's most exclusive gambling enclave started, believe it or not, with commissioner David Stern, who at the time was understood to be fervently antigambling and terrified of betting lines. But he also recognized that a training camp in, say, Fort Wayne, Ind., was not an inducement for players such as Jordan and Magic to buy in. So he began talking to a friend, New York Giants co-owner Robert Tisch, who also owned the showpiece Loews Hotel in Monaco. From there, NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik and Loews chairman Robert Hausman reached a deal with the principality.

Players, coaches and schlub journalists like me said bravo to the decision. The Dream Team did get in some work during its six days in Monaco, but on balance it was more like a minivacation. The team's daily schedule called for two hours of basketball followed by 22 hours of golf, gambling and gaping at the sights. Nude beaches and models were a three-point shot away, sometimes closer. "I'm not putting in a curfew because I'd have to adhere to it," said coach Chuck Daly, "and Jimmy'z [a noted Monte Carlo nightclub] doesn't open until midnight."

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