Excerpt: When The Game Was Ours

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from "When the Game was Ours," by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson with Jackie MacMullan.

It began as a friendly game of pool.

Magic Johnson awaited his turn while Michael Jordan, a premium Cuban stogie dangling from his mouth, lined up his shot in the game room of the Ambassador Hotel in Barcelona, Spain, a cordoned-off area on the second floor designated as a sanctuary for the members of the U.S. Olympic basketball team.

It was a welcome and needed hideaway. This traveling troupe of basketball legends, whom coach Chuck Daly likened to a band of rock stars, caused a near-stampede simply by arriving. Spectators grappled with one another for a glimpse of Michael and Magic and Larry as they exited the team bus and checked into the hotel. As fans clamored to photograph this historic sports moment, the unruly crowd surged forward. Bird, skittish in large gatherings since he was a child, held his breath. The mob made him anxious.

An arm's length away, Magic surveyed the maze of faces and also held his breath. He found their energy to be exciting, exhilarating.

"Isn't this amazing?" he said to Bird.

"Are you kidding me? I want to get the hell out of here," Bird answered.

The "Dream Team" needed buffers, for their privacy and their safety. During their 16 days in Barcelona, the Ambassador's game room served as an exclusive club where the players could shoot pool, play cards, enjoy a beer, and invent occasions to compete with one another.

By day the room was littered with books, toys, movies, and video games, a haven for the players' families. Earvin Johnson III, barely eight weeks old, sat wide-eyed in his bouncy seat, intently following the movements of the older children. Conner Bird, a toddler who kept his mother and father awake half the nights during the Olympic Games, loved to jump on the leather couches and throw balls from the pool table down the hotel's elegant marble steps.

On the night of August 7, little Conner and baby E.J. were already asleep. Their daddies were wide awake, embroiled in an emotional debate over a simple question posed by Bird: which NBA team was the greatest of all time?

"Obviously one of our Laker teams," answered Magic, leaning on his pool stick. "We won five championships. More than all of you."

"No, it's the great Celtics teams with my man Bill Russell," said center Patrick Ewing, who played for the New York Knicks but was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "He won 11 rings."

"You're forgetting the '86 Celtics, with the best front line in the history of basketball, including this guy right here," added NBC commentator Ahmad Rashad, pointing to Bird.

"That Celtics front line was brutal," agreed Charles Barkley.

Jordan, refusing to allow the chatter to disrupt his concentration, knocked his ball into the corner pocket and puffed on his cigar. He was 29 years old and had just won his second straight championship and his sixth consecutive scoring title. His counterparts in the room were decorated NBA veterans, yet their body of work was nearly complete. The maestro of the Bulls was only just beginning to add new strokes to his championship canvas.

"You haven't even seen the best NBA team of all time yet," Jordan announced. "I'm just getting started. I'm going to win more championships than all of you guys. Tell you what. Let's have this conversation after I'm done playing."

"You aren't winning five championships," Magic protested.

"Michael, I'm going to steal at least one of them from you," Barkley shot back.

The flurry of protests continued, with five of the greatest players in NBA history sparring over their own place in basketball history. Magic was indignant at the suggestion that the best team could be anyone other than his 1987 Lakers, the team he had determined was the finest of his title years.

"Put me with Kareem, James Worthy, Coop, and Byron Scott, and we'd dominate your Bulls team," Magic claimed.

Barkley was about to chime in again, but Bird, taking a slug of his beer, shot his hand up.

"Quiet," Bird said. "Charles, you ain't won nothing. You're out of this discussion. Ahmad, same thing. You're gone. Patrick, you don't have any championships either, so you need to shut up and sit down right here and learn some things."

Barkley, subdued by the unfortunate reality of his basketball résumé, wandered off. Ewing, who had once considered Bird a bitter adversary but would develop an unusual kinship with him during their Olympic experience, dutifully sat on the bench next to his new friend. Rashad lingered also, fascinated by the banter between these elite basketball stars, each of whom at some juncture of his career could have argued that he was the best player in the game.

Jordan insisted that his Chicago teams belonged in the conversation about the all-time greats; Bird reminded Jordan that he used to torture Scottie Pippen regularly before his back betrayed him.

"I feel sorry for you," Magic told Jordan. "You will never have what Larry and I had. We went two weeks without sleep knowing, if we made one mistake, the other guy was going to take it and use it to beat us. Who do you measure yourself against?"

The conversation lurched on with no resolution until the topic switched to the inevitable follow-up: who was the best 1-on-1 player of all time?

"Gentlemen," said Jordan, "give it up. You've got no chance on this one. Larry, you don't have the speed to stay with me. Magic, I can guard you, but you could never guard me. Neither one of you guys can play defense the way I can. And neither one of you can score like me."

"I don't know about that," Magic retorted. "I could have scored more if I wanted to. It would have been a good one."

Jordan's face darkened. He had been uncommonly conciliatory in Barcelona, stepping aside as Bird and Magic shared the title of captain and revered elder statesman. Jordan deferred to Magic, allowed him to become the face of the Dream Team, even though Jordan was the reigning back-to-back league MVP. He did so because he understood that Magic's career was at an end and this was his final basketball indulgence.

"I didn't want to burst his bubble," Jordan said.

But now Jordan expected Magic to acknowledge the obvious: that Michael Jordan was the best player in the world. He turned to Magic, plucked the cigar out of his mouth, and approached his fellow future Hall of Famer with his voice rising.

"You better give it up," Jordan told Magic. "I'll come into your gym and drop 60 on you. I've already done it to the Celtics. Ask your friend Larry. You and Bird were great players. You did some amazing things. But it's over. This is my game now."

"Michael, don't you forget," Magic said. "Larry and I turned this league around. We are the NBA."

"Well, I've taken it to a new level," Jordan replied. "And it's not your league anymore."

"You're not there yet," Magic insisted.

Bird watched silently as the debate between Magic and Michael escalated. He detected a swagger in Jordan that he hadn't seen before. Bird recognized that strain of confidence, bordering on arrogance. It was exactly how he had felt 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. "That night I knew in my heart it wasn't me anymore. And it wasn't Magic either."

Rashad, a friend to both Michael and Magic, tried to soften the increasingly heated rhetoric. He was unsuccessful. Jordan wanted concessions from Johnson that Magic stubbornly refused to provide, and His Airness remained relentless in pursuing them.

"I just think it's too bad we couldn't all have been young together," Magic said. "We could have all been the face of the NBA at the same time."

"Your time has passed," Jordan said. "C'mon, old man, give it up."

"I'm not sure about that," Magic persisted.

"Magic," Bird finally interjected, "stop. We had our moment. There was a period when nobody was better than you and me. But not anymore. Michael is the best now.

"Let's pass the torch and be on our way."

Excerpted from "When the Game Was Ours" by Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson with Jackie MacMullan. Copyright © 2009 by Magic Johnson Enterprises and Larry Bird. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.