25 Years Later: THE ‘MYSTICAL’ DREAM TEAM SCRIMMAGE

25 Years Later: THE ‘MYSTICAL’ DREAM TEAM SCRIMMAGE

A recent piece on ESPN.com by Micah Adams reminded me that July 22 was the 25th anniversary of the famous Dream Team intrasquad scrimmage in Monte Carlo. I wrote about it in my 2012 book, Dream Team, and an excerpt from that chapter appeared in Sports Illustrated just before the book was published.

(You can buy the book here.

http://tinyurl.com/yb3r7onx)

A month hasn’t gone by in the intervening five years without my getting a query about that scrimmage game, which has taken on a mystical quality for two reasons: First, a tape of it has never been shown in its entirety (yes, I have it; more on that later), and, second, because some of the players, Michael Jordan in particular, speak so fondly of that game. An excellent documentary on NBA TV, which first appeared in 2012 and has been repeated often since then—make sure you see it—showed a snippet of the game but only added to the confusion because it mixed in clips from other Dream Team scrimmages.

I’ve told the story of the elusive game tape before, but here it is again in honor of the 25th anniversary.

For those of you too young to remember or have forgotten, the Dream Team decamped to Monte Carlo the week before the Barcelona Olympics for intense, grueling practice sessions. Okay, I made that up. You don’t go to Monte Carlo for intense and grueling; you go for the sights, the luxury, the elegance and the nocturnal entertainment. But the Dream Team did practice and, sometimes, even practiced hard. The players’ confidence was high, of course, but there was still that 1% doubt, particularly in the mind of coach Chuck Daly, that they could be the victim of a monumental, unprecedented upset, the basketball version of, say, the U.S. 4 x 100-meter relay team getting beat by Chad.

Daly’s fear was exacerbated after a desultory performance in an exhibition game against France’s national team, and the coach decided that one hard practice session was necessary before Barcelona. So on the morning of July 22, the day after the game against France and four days before the U.S.’s opening game, (a 116-48 win over Angola, by the way), Daly convened the scrimmage that I came to call The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw. You see, even though the NBA operated in a more open environment then, and Daly was a fairly accommodating coach who got along with the press, practice sessions at Stade Louis II, an all-purpose arena in the Fontvieille ward of Monaco, were closed. That was in keeping with Olympic rules. Reporters were allowed in for only the final minutes, generally as the players shot their end-of-practice free throws. So none of the group of reporters witnessed any of the scrimmage, nor did many others. Even some NBA p.r. types were ordered out of the gym.

When we were admitted after practice on that July 22 day there was a discernible edge in the air, particularly between Jordan and Magic Johnson, and the following-day stories alluded to a tense, competitive scrimmage, Jordan gloating, Magic gloomy. But it was a different time back then. No Internet, no social media. Newspaper folks pretty much wrote one story per day. There were great journalists covering that team—Bob Ryan from the Boston Globe, Jan Hubbard from Newsday, David Dupree from USA Today, Mark Heisler from the Los Angeles Times, Harvey Araton from the New York Times, Mike Wilbon from the Washington Post, and Ailene Voisin from the Sacramento Bee among them–but our access was limited. As for me, I had only the weekly magazine as an outlet, no SI.com. I never even got the chance to write about the scrimmage (until 20 years later) as the arrival of the Games overtook news from Monte Carlo.

But over time, the one element of the scrimmage that solidified into seeming fact was that no one had recorded it.

When I began the research for Dream Team I realized how lucky I was that the Internet hadn’t been around. There was much rich material that hadn’t been covered, or uncovered, as it would be now in the endless 24-hour spin cycle. Still, the scrimmage gnawed at me. Somebody had to have filmed it, I thought. A few calls led me to Pete Skorich, who worked for the Pistons, and was kind of Daly’s personal cinematographer.

“Do you think you filmed this scrimmage?” I asked Pete by phone.

“Probably,” Pete said, “Chuck wanted me to film everything. I got a pile of VCR tapes from the Olympics around my house, and you’re welcome to come up and go through them.”

When I arrived at his home in suburban Detroit, Pete indeed had a pile of them. There was no quick way to do it. Put in a tape, see if that was it, take a sip of beer, put in a tape, take a sip of beer …. After a half-hour, Pete said, “There it is!” But it wasn’t. All along, Pete thought I had been talking about another scrimmage, this one from the Dream Team’s first workouts together in San Diego when they were “defeated” by a team of college all-stars. It was, indeed, big news at the time, but I never paid that scrimmage much mind. The Dreamers were just getting used to each other, and in subsequent games they destroyed the college team, an excellent crew, by the way, led by Grant Hill, Chris Webber, Bobby Hurley and Penny Hardaway. (Dream Team assistant Mike Krzyzewski always insisted that Daly “threw” the game by keeping Jordan out of long stretches of it.)

Eventually, Pete put in a tape that began with the game against the French national team, and I said, “This could be it!” Sure enough, the game was followed by a practice session, which I sped through to make sure the intrasquad scrimmage was on there. It was. And so …

I had bagged the White Whale of basketball films.

As I’ve said before, the quality of the film isn’t great. That’s not Pete’s fault; he had to stand where he had to stand. As you can see from the screen grab picture above, the lighting in the drab gym was not great; it had the quality of an old black-and-white film, which I kind of appreciated. I converted the VCR to DVD and paid someone to bump up the audio because the trash-talking interplay was an important element. I listened to the audio at least a hundred times in an effort to pick up everything.

My favorite line of the scrimmage, the one that still sticks with me, came from Magic after what he perceived was a series of pro-Jordan calls from the referees, an unnamed zebra from Italy and Dream Team assistant P.J. Carlesimo, who, wisely, swallowed his whistle more times than a circus performer swallowed his sword.

“All they did was move Bulls Stadium right here,” Magic says. “That’s all they did. That’s all they did.” Krzyzewski agrees about that line and says he conjures it up now and again. “It just makes me smile,” says Coach K.

I brought along the CD to a few of my player interviews and showed them a few minutes of it if they were interested. Scottie Pippen and Chris Mullin were very interested. When Larry Bird made a steal and layup in a crucial part of the game, Chris 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.”)

Around the time I discovered the tape, the NBA TV crew was filming its documentary. When I was interviewed, I let slip the fact that I had the tape, a valuable archaeological find to anyone in the hoops world. When the NBA heard about it, they claimed ownership. Pete complied with their request to surrender the tape to the league, and, subsequently, when the documentary came out, snatches of it appeared.

I never intended to make any commercial use out of it—it wasn’t my property—but I thought that Skorich should’ve had control of it and maybe been able to market it.

“The agreement was that they were going to keep me in the loop and let me know when they were using it,” says Skorich, now the vice president of entertainment services for Olympia Entertainment and the Detroit Red Wings. “I’m okay with it. I shot the stuff for Chuck, and he would’ve probably wanted people to see it. It would have been nice to make a couple of dollars, but I never really felt like I owned it.”

To this day, the entire recording has never been shown publicly, and it’s not my place to show it. But, man, I love the fact that I have it in my bag.

 

 

 

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