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THE MAGAZINE
Posted: Tuesday July 24, 2012 9:49AM ; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2012 3:01PM

Greatest Game Nobody Saw (cont...)

By Jack McCallum

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Michael Jordan poured in 17 points while leading his team to a 40-36 victory.
Michael Jordan poured in 17 points while leading his team to a 40-36 victory.
John W. McDonough/SI

But there is always the root question in sports: Who was better? You have that moment when you can give only one person the ball, and whom would you choose? I'm sure that if players spoke honestly, Jordan would always get the ball. And I'm equally certain that the Barkley-or-Malone nod would go to Barkley. Charles had that ineffable something that Malone didn't have. He wasn't more important to a franchise, he wasn't as dependable, and he wasn't as good over the long haul. He was just ... better.

Of all the Dreamers, though, Laettner came closest to paying Barkley the ultimate compliment. When I casually commented that everyone believed Jordan was the best, Laettner pursed his lips and considered. "I guess," he said, "but by a very, very small margin over Charles."

Now, at the morning game in Monaco, Jordan and Pippen walk up the court together. "He's tired," Jordan says of Barkley. As if to disprove him, Barkley plows into the lane, and Malone is called for a block. Taking a cue from Magic, the Mailman bats the ball high into the air. Seeing a profusely perspiring Barkley at the line, Jordan moves in for the kill. "A man is tired, he usually misses free throws," says Jordan. This is a recurring theme for His Airness. "One-and-one now," says Jordan, wiggling two fingers at Barkley.

Barkley makes the first -- "Yeah, Charles, you gonna get your two anyway," sings Magic -- but Ewing bats the second off the rim before it has a chance (maybe) to go in.

Bird misses another open jumper but decides to make something of this personal nightmare. As Magic yo-yo dribbles on the left side, Bird suddenly comes off Laettner and steals the ball. He bumps Magic slightly, but even the gentleman from Italy is not going to call that one. As Magic tumbles to the ground, Bird takes off, Barkley in pursuit, pursuit used lightly in this case. In fact, takes off is used lightly too. Bird fakes a behind-the-back pass to a trailing Jordan, and Barkley takes a man-sized bite at it, his jock now somewhere inside the free throw line. Bird makes the layup. "Way to go, Larry!" Jordan yells. "Way to take him to the hole. I know you got some life in you."

(Years later I watch some of the game with Mullin. When Bird makes this turn-back-the-clock play, Mullin calls to his wife, Liz, "Honey, come here and watch this. Watch what Larry does here." And we run it back a couple of times, Mullin and his wife smiling, delighted by the sight of the Bird they love. A couple of months after that, I remind Jordan of the play. He grows animated. "That's Larry, man, that's Larry," he says. "Making a great play like that. That's Larry Bird.")

Jordan's White Team 26, Johnson's Blue Team 22.

Laettner makes two free throws, and at the other end Jordan feeds Malone for a jumper. Barkley misses a jumper, but Robinson, an aerial acrobat, a giant with a past as a gymnast, leaps high over Ewing and taps the ball in off the board.

Jordan's White Team 28, Johnson's Blue Team 26.

Jordan launches a jumper from the top of the key, outside the three-point line, as Mullin flies out to guard him. "Too late!" Jordan yells.

Jordan's White Team 31, Johnson's Blue Team 26.

Now mostly what you hear is Jordan exhorting his team, sensing the kill. Magic backs into the lane, Malone guarding him on a switch. The gentleman from Italy blows his whistle ... and the Mailman blows his top. "Oh, come on, man," he yells. "Stop calling this f------ bullsheet." Jordan comes over and steps between Malone and the ref. "Forget it, Karl," says Jordan. "Don't scare him. We might need him."

Magic shoots the first, which rolls around as Jordan, hands on shorts, yells to Ewing, "Knock it out!" Too late. Magic swishes the second.

Jordan's White Team 31, Johnson's Blue Team 28.

Pippen pops out from behind a Ewing screen and swishes a jumper. At the other end, Mullin loses the grip on a Magic pass, and Bird recovers. Jordan begins a break, motions Ewing to join him on the left side and watches in delight as Patrick takes a few pitty-pat steps and makes a jumper.

Jordan's White Team 35, Johnson's Blue Team 28.

Ewing is whistled for a foul on Robinson, who makes both. At the other end Jordan feeds Malone, who draws a foul on Barkley.

"One-and-one?" the Blue team asks.

"Two shots," says Jordan, who has taken over the whistle from Magic. Malone misses both. Robinson grabs the second miss and gives it to Barkley, who steams downcourt and passes to Laettner, who goes up and fails to connect but is fouled by Jordan. Dunk that s---, Chris.

"Every time!" yells Magic from the backcourt, desperately trying to regain the verbal momentum. "Every time!"

Laettner, who has been and will remain silent throughout the game, makes both free throws.

Jordan's White Team 35, Johnson's Blue Team 32.

Magic is called for a reach-in, and now he goes after the gentleman from Italy, trailing him across the lane. Magic lines up next to Ewing and pushes his arm away as Ewing leans in to box out on Jordan's free throws. Jordan makes both. Magic is steaming.

At the other end the gentleman from Italy calls an inexplicable moving screen on Robinson, which delights Jordan. "My man," he yells, clapping his hands. "My man, my man, my man." We might need him.

"Chicago Stadium," Magic yells. Malone backs Barkley down, and the whistle blows, and now it's Barkley attacking the gentleman from Italy. "Come on, man!" he yells. "That was clean!" For a moment it appears as if Barkley might strike him. Malone makes one of two.

Jordan's White Team 38, Johnson's Blue Team 32.

Laettner makes a weird twisting layup. On the sideline Daly is beginning to pace, hoping this thing will come to an end before a fistfight breaks out or one of his players assaults the gentleman from Italy. As Robinson lines up to shoot a free throw, Jordan and Magic begin jawing again. "All they did was move Bulls Stadium right here," Magic says. "That's all they did. That's all they did."

"Hey, it is the '90s," Jordan says, reaching for a towel.

Robinson makes both.

Jordan's White Team 38, Johnson's Blue Team 36.

Jordan dribbles out front, running down the shot clock, pissing off Magic all the while. Finally he drives left, goes up for a jumper and draws a foul on Laettner. Before Jordan shoots, Magic moves in for a few words. They are not altogether pleasant. Jordan makes the first. Magic keeps jawing. Jordan takes the ball from the gentleman from Italy, slaps him on the rump and says, "Good man." He makes the second.

Daly watches in relief as the clock hits 00:0. He waves his hands in a shooting motion at both baskets, the sign for players to do their postpractice routine, ending the Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw.

Jordan's White Team 40, Johnson's Blue Team 36.

Except that it isn't over. Not really.

"Way to work, White," Jordan yells, rubbing it in. He paces up and down, wiping himself with a towel, emperor of all he sees, as Magic, Barkley and Laettner disconsolately shoot free throws.

"It was all about Michael Jordan," says Magic. "That's all it was."

It's no joke. Magic is angry.

Jordan continues to pace the sideline. He grabs a cup of Gatorade and sings, "Sometimes I dream...." Jordan has recently signed a multimillion-dollar deal to endorse Gatorade, and the ads feature a song inspired by I Wan'na Be like You, the Monkey Song in the animated film The Jungle Book. The Gatorade version's lyrics are:

Sometimes I dream/That he is me/You've got to see that's how I dream to be/I dream I move, I dream I groove/Like Mike/If I could be like Mike.

As Magic looks on in this sticky-hot gym, sweat pouring off his body, towel around his neck, there is Jordan, captain of the winning team, singing a song written just for him, drinking a drink that's raking in millions, rubbing it in as only Jordan can do. And on the bus back to the hotel? Jordan keeps singing, Be like Mike.... Be like Mike. ...

The game would have reverberations in Barcelona as Michael and Magic relentlessly continued to try to get the verbal edge on each other. And in the years that followed, this intrasquad game became a part of basketball lore, "kind of like an urban legend," as Laettner describes it.

And not everybody loved it. "You have to look at who relishes that kind of thing," says Malone. "As they say, it's their geeeg." By their he means Jordan's and Magic's. (Last year I asked Malone if he wanted to watch few minutes of the video. "No," he said. "Doesn't interest me.")

But Krzyzewski, no fan of trash talk, looks back on the game fondly, remembering almost every detail. "Every once in while I'll be doing something and a line from that game will just flash into my head," he says. "They just moved Chicago Stadium to Monte Carlo. It just makes me smile.

"A lot of players talk trash because the TV cameras are on. But the doors on that day were closed. This was just you against me. This is what I got -- whatta you got? It taught me a lot about accepting personal challenges. You know, if somebody could've taped the sound track of the game, not necessarily recorded the basketball but just the sounds, it would be priceless."

Well, I got the original VHS tape, converted it to DVD and even got a specialist to make a CD of the sound track. It picked up almost everything. The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw was not about the hoops. It was about the passion those guys put into playing, the importance they placed on winning and on personal pride.

Years later Jordan brought up the game before I had a chance to ask him about it. "In many ways," he said, "it was the best game I was ever in. Because the gym was locked and it was just about basketball. You saw a lot about players' DNA, how much some guys want to win. Magic was mad about it for two days."

Magic, for his part, estimates that his anger lasted only a few hours. "Let me tell you something -- it would've been worse for everybody if he lost," says Johnson. "Because I could let something go after a while. But Michael? He'd never let it go. He never let anything go."

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