Interesting article I found:
Today, when players are asked who the best player ever is, the politic, self effacing answer is Michael Jordan. But do they really feel that way in their hearts? I doubt it. After all, men like Mikan, Russell, Oscar, Wilt, Baylor, Magic, Kareem, Kobe, Bird and others played the game at the highest level imaginable. They could do things on the court as they wanted, when they wanted. Why would they really feel any player was as good as themselves, let alone better?
What do they really think when they are alone, out of camera and microphone range? When they can express their true feelings?
That scenario played out in a most interesting fashion back in 1992 during the Dream Team assault on the Olympics. And it involved two of the greatest players in NBA history-Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
Let me set the milieu for you so we can understand the context of this confrontation and what brought it about:
At the time of 92 Olympics, the NBA hierarchy was in a state of change. The Magic-Bird era had just ended, the Jordan ascendancy was blossoming. Magic had retired two years ago, involuntarily, because of the HIV virus. He had lost his last finals to Jordan in 90. Being the competitor that he was, no doubt Magic felt that if he could have continued to play, Jerry West would have made a few tweaks the Lakers and he (Magic) would have led them back to the mountaintop, winning more championships and taking his accustomed individual place at the top of NBA totem pole. In fact, Magic still had visions of this; he intended to come back to basketball after the Olympics, a revanchist strategy that would be spiked in no small part due to Dream Team teammate Karl Malone and Phoenix Sun GM Jerry CoAngelo. So at this point, Magic, who though no longer close to the player he was in his prime, still had very formidable skills, was a prideful and disillusioned man, feeling his career had not been fulfilled and ended as it should. He felt circumstance had given Jordan what should still be his. Neither Magic nor anyone else at this time knew just how great Jordan and his bulls would become. At the time of these Olympics, Magic had to feel he was the King in forced exile from his realm.
Jordan on the other had was rising the sun. He felt that Magic and Bird were the setting sun. He had played long and hard to get where he was and wanted recognition for his accomplishments. The Dream team was seen as a final exposition and good bye tour for the two seminal greats of the NBA: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Jordan understood this and did not begrudge the two fading legends as they received the lion’s share of the pre Olympic publicity. But in private, he wanted it understood in no uncertain terms that he was now the king of the league.
These dynamics came into play in a very intense and interesting series of events that took place during the 92 games.
One night, during a long conversation, the elephant in the room came alive. The participants where Magic, Jordan, Bird, Barkley, Ewing and erstwhile NFL pro bowl wide receiver Ahmad Rashad.
Bird posed a simple question: Which NBA team was the greatest ever?
Ewing said Russell’s Celtics with their 11 rings. Rashad countered by saying Bird’s 86 team had the greatest front line ever. Barkley agreed saying that that line was “Brutal.” Since he played against it, he should know.
Jordan replied, “You haven’t seen the greatest team of all time yet. I’m just getting started. I am going to win more championships than any of you guys. Let’s have this conversation after I am done playing.”
Magic shot back: “You are not winning five championships!”
Barkley said, “I am going to steal one from you, Michael.”
Magic became indignant, saying his 87 squad was by far the greatest in history. “Me, Kareem, Worthy, Scott and Coop would have dominated your Bulls.”
Barkley was about to speak when Bird piped up, “Quiet!! You haven’t won a thing. You have no say in this. Same with Patrick and Ahmad. Your all gone! You guys have no championships so just sit there and be quiet and maybe you will learn some things.” (As an aside, interesting comments from Bird for those who wonder why Lebron wants to win championships so bad)
At this point, Barkley, ashamed, sulked off. Ewing and Rashad stopped talking. Rashad found this conversation between Jordan, Bird and Magic fascinating and elected to stay as did Ewing.
Jordan continued to throw support to his Bull teams as the Lakers equals. Bird reminded Jordan that he used to torture Pippen till his back gave out on him the last few years.
The conversation then switched to who was the best one on one player. Jordan immediately became aggressive again. “Give it up. You got no chance on this one. Larry, you don’t have the speed to stay with me. Magic, I can guard you, you can’t guard me. Neither of you guys can play defense like me and you can’t score like me.”
“I don’t know about that,” retorted Magic. “I could have scored more if I had wanted to. It would have been a good one.”
Jordan’s face darkened. He had not minded letting Bird and Magic get their media retirement props in the Barcelona circus tour, but in private, he wanted acknowledgement from his peers for what he was: the best in the league.
“You better give it up,” he told Magic. “I will come in your gym and drop 60 on you. Ask your friend Larry about it. You guys were great players. You did amazing things. But it is over. This is my game now.”
“Michael, don’t forget, me and Larry turned the NBA around. We ARE the NBA,” countered Magic.
“I have taken it to a new level,“ retorted Jordan. “And it is not your league anymore. It’s mine!”
“You’re not there yet,” said Magic.
Bird watched this exchange silently. He detected a swagger in Jordan he had never seen before. He recognized the strain of confidence, bordering on arrogance. It was how he used to feel when he was on top of the basketball world. “There were plenty of years when I knew in my heart I was the best guy in the room,” Bird said, years later. “That night I knew in my heart it wasn’t me anymore. And it wasn’t Magic either.”
Rashad, a friend to both Magic and Michael tried to soften the ever heating rhetoric. But he could not. The conversation was becoming ugly, bordering on out of control. Jordan wanted concessions from Magic that Johnson would not provide.
“You time has passed, old man, give it up,” needled Jordan.
Finally, Bird decided to step in to stop the escalation. “Magic, stop! We had our moment. There was a time when nobody was better than you and me. But not anymore. Michael is the best now. Let’s just pass the torch and be on our way.”
That conversation was over, but not the competition.
During scrimmages, Coach Chuck Daly would always have Magic and Michael on different teams. In Magic’s view, he would stock Jordan’s crew with the superior players. He thought Daly was doing this to challenge Magic; to show him that he did not consider his HIV as a factor in his play or a reason to give him mercy or pamper him. Magic rose to the occasion, frequently leading his team to victory over Jordan’s. He loved challenges like that and the fact that Daly treated him as just a player, not a sick person.
Trash talk was long and loud during the scrimmages. But one time, Magic just couldn’t resist taking a dig at Jordan who rose to the bait. During a scrimmage, Magic’s (Drexler, Robinson, Malone, Barkley) team had taken a 14-2 lead over Jordan’s (Bird, Pippen, Ewing, Mullin, Laettner) with a dizzying array of Johnson passes leading to the advantage. As he jogged back up court, Magic detoured past Jordan and said, according to sources either, “You’re getting busted,” or “Hey MJ, you better get with it.”
Jordan’s fists clinched and his face got dark. He called for the ball, drove to the basket for a dunk. “That good enough for you?” he asked.
Pippen immediately perked up when he recognized the signs on Jordan’s face and his demeanor.
“Y’all have done it now!” said Pippen.
Jordan went on a defensive tear, swarming the west with traps and full court pressure. He jumped passing lanes, knocked down one handed slams, pushed Magic off the block and hit fadeaways. Within minutes, the score was tied and Magic was complaining about no calls. ”It’s like I’m in Chicago stadium,” he complained.
“Welcome to the 90s,” Jordan said cold-bloodedly. Ouch!
At the end of regulation, the game was tied. But Jordan and Magic would not let it end. “We’re going again!” said Jordan. “No,” replied Coach Daly, worried about injury. He was ignored as the overtime started.
The over time was brutal, with all the players fighting at the top of their ability to secure the win and the bragging rights. Robinson grinding in the post, Malone and Barkley fighting for boards, Bird hitting parameter shots, Magic controlling the tempo. But it was Jordan with the last word with transcendent play and wizardry that assistant Dave Gavitt would call the most amazing five minutes of basketball he had ever seen.
I can just imagine what that scrimmage and overtime must have been like. It is true shame for basketball aficionados and fans that a film does not exist of that game. Would any of you want to see that ‘scrimmage’ of Magic vs Michael, populated by teams of all time greats, as much as I would?
At the end, Jordan and Bird strutted and skipped off the court, gloating shamelessly about the win. Magic left the floor demanding a new officiating crew. “Magic was cursing at the refs, his teammates and his coaches,” Jordan recalled. “He couldn’t stand that we beat them. It was the most fun I have ever had playing basketball.”
And that’s it. That is a rare, inside look of what really happens, what these truly rare players really feel, when it is just them, devoid of the cameras, the public spotlight, the politic responses; just them, their egos, their careers and their incredible games to back them up. It is what makes them who they are.