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What’s the highest grossing film about basketball in history? Ivan Reitman’s 1996 film, Space Jam, featuring the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan.

Where were the greatest pick-up basketball games of all time played? On the set of Space Jam in 1995, on a custom-made indoor-basketball court built on the location of the studio where Space Jam was shot.

Starring in the movie with 1992 Olympic gold medalist, Jordan, were his teammates on that Barcelona Dream Team, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley. Jordan had come out of retirement in 1995, but fell just short of taking his Chicago Bulls to the NBA Finals, which lost to the Orlando Magic in six games.

According to this great ESPN article, Jordan wanted to make sure he was able to train hard and gear up for the following NBA season while filming Space Jam, so he asked for and got the construction of the indoor basketball court, dubbed the Jordan Dome. Jordan put out the word that he was looking for people to play in pick-up games, and the stars made a beeline for LA. In addition to co-stars Ewing and Barkley, all stars like Grant Hill, Rod Strickland, Glen Rice, Dennis Rodman, Juwan Howard, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson and Reggie Miller came to play some of the most intense shirt-skins matches ever.

Tracy Murray, who played in these games, said “it was like an NBA all-star game every day.”

Michael Jordan, a man not satisfied with semi-final finishes, was determined to make sure these pick-up matches got him razor-sharp ready for the NBA season. According to the ESPN article, Don MacLean, a power forward for the Washington Bullets at the time, was being guarded by Jordan. MacLean got hot and scored the majority of his team’s points to help his team to victory one evening. MacLean had to leave town after that match, and Jordan came up to him and said, “Thanks for coming, make sure you come back.” MacLean thought that was cool of Jordan to say that, so he looked forward to coming back a couple of weeks later. Here’s how ESPN explained Jordan’s revenge.

When MacLean did show up a couple of weeks later, he played in the first game of the night. “[Jordan] walks on the court, says, ‘I got MacLean,’ and did not let me touch the ball for the entire game,” MacLean said. “And I was trying. And he was not letting me touch the ball. “Right then and there, I was like, ‘My God.’ For a pickup game in the summer that means nothing, two weeks later, he remembers that. I couldn’t believe it.”

No one was more competitive, or more skilled than Michael Jordan in his prime. And therefore, no was better.

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NCAA-March-Madness

It’s March Madness in the United States, which means that basketball fans all over the country have filled in their brackets, and are moaning over the college teams that let them down, or the ones who have won to live another day.

While high school superstars at times skip college and go straight to the pros (ie: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James), many great ones make their mark at the university level, and a few go on to win an NCAA championship. Both my neighborhood college, St John’s, and my alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, have made it to the famed Final Four, but neither has won an NCAA championship.

After all, only one team can be champion….which makes this list absolutely amazing. Only seven people in history have won championships at the NCAA level, the NBA level, and at the international level, i.e. The Olympics.

  • Quinn Buckner: Olympic Champion: 1976, NCAA Champion: 1976 (Indiana University), NBA Champion: 1984 (Boston Celtics)
  • Magic Johnson: Olympic Champion: 1992, NCAA Champion: 1979 (Michigan State University), NBA Champion: 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88 (Los Angeles Lakers)
  • K. C. Jones: Olympic Champion: 1956, NCAA Champion: 1955-56 (University of San Francisco), NBA Champion: 1959-66 (Boston Celtics)
  • Michael Jordan: Olympic Champion: 1984, 1992, NCAA Champion: 1982 (University of North Carolina), NBA Champion: 1991-93, 1996-98 (Chicago Bulls)
  • Clyde Lovellette: Olympic Champion: 1952, NCAA Champion: 1952 (University of Kansas), NBA Champion: 1954 (Minneapolis Lakers), 1963-64 (Boston Celtics)
  • Jerry Lucas: Olympic Champion: 1960, NCAA Champion: 1960 (The Ohio State University), NBA Champion: 1973 (New York Knicks)
  • Bill Russell: Olympic Champion: 1956, NCAA Champion: 1955-56 (University of San Francisco), NBA Champion: 1957, 1959-66, 1968-69 (Boston Celtics)

And if you look closely, you’ll see that K. C. Jones and Bill Russell played together on championships teams with the University of San Francisco, the US Men’s Olympic squad in Melbourne, as well as 8 championship seasons with the Boston Celtics. On top of that both won two championships each with the Celtics as a coach.

And one more amazing fact: On that 1963-64 Boston Celtic team – the one that defeated the San Francisco Warriors in 5 games – three of these seven immortals played together: K. C. Jones, Bill Russell, and Clyde Lovelette.

1964 Boston Celtics

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Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in 1977. Both Leonard (1976) and Ali (1960), won gold medals in their respective Olympics before going on to glory at the professional ranks.
In 1988, when tennis debuted at the Seoul Olympic Games, allowing professionals to enter the competition, the gold medalist in individual play was Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia. While he defeated Stefan Edberg, whom Mecir had lost to at Wimbledon that year, the Olympic tournament was missing quite a few stars of the time: Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Boris Becker for example. As I understand it, the Olympics provided no ranking points or remuneration so many of the pro stars were not motivated to be an Olympian.

In 1992, when FIBA allowed professionals to participate in the Olympics, many of the teams were transformed with players from the NBA and other international professional leagues excited to be Olympians. With Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird headlining a team of unprecedented talent, Team USA swept through the competition with ease to win gold.

In May, 2016, the International Boxing Organization (IBO) will vote whether to allow professionals to compete in the Olympic Games going forward. Presumably, the reason is the same for every other international sports governing body – the very best in their sport should compete at the Olympics.

So if the IBO gives pro boxers the thumbs up for the Olympics, will the reaction by the pros be like tennis in 1988, or like basketball in 1992?

The Philippines have never won a gold medal in the Olympics. So why not Manny Pacquiao? Even though he was prepared to hang up his gloves after his next fight with Timothy Bradley in April, he has publicly said that he would step up if asked. “It would be my honor to represent the country in the Olympics,” Pacquiao told Agence France-Presse. “If I would be asked to represent boxing, why not? I would do everything for my country.”

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Manny Pacquiao thinking about Rio.
Will others pros step up into the ring in Rio?

This isn’t clear yet – some will be bothered by the lack of financial incentives, and others may be enticed by the national glory. But one thing is clear – boxing is a brutal sport. And as pointed out in this discussion board devoted to boxing, people don’t just lose in boxing matches…they can get beat up. And if you’re a pro, you’re sacrificing potentially lucrative but limited paydays to possible injury. If you’re an amateur, you may end up getting battered way more than what a fellow amateur could do to you.

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Picture of Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson with the American flag draped over their shoulders to cover the Reebok logos on their jacket. Barkley and Johnson had agreements with other footwear brands. John Stockton and Chris Mullin, 1992 Dream Team teammates, look on.

Here’s a fascinating article from Yahoo Sports about the sports footwear industry and the NBA, and a few facts:

Fact #1: Only 10 NBA players currently have their own “signature shoe” with a US-based brand. In case you’re interested, they are: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving at Nike; Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony at Jordan Brand; Derrick Rose and Damian Lillard at adidas (James Harden’s shoe will launch in 2017); and Stephen Curry at Under Armour.

Fact #2: A shoe deal for an NBA lottery pick (a person who is in the top 5 or 10 of the NBA draft of high school, college or available international players) could mean earning from USD200 to 700K per year. The article points out that Andrew Wiggins, who signed a 3-year contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers for over USD17million, also signed a 5-year agreement with adidas for another USD11 million.)

Fact #3: Every player in the NBA has a relationship with a sneaker brand; even the benchwarmers, players looking just to make a training camp roster, can get what is called a “merch” deal. Such an agreement with a footwear marketer gets them a free allotment of footwear for practices and games.

Fact #4: Sneaker brands scout out basketball prospects at the college and high school levels, just like basketball scouts do

Fact #5: Nike has dominant share of the NBA player market, as 68% of the 300+ players wear the Swoosh. Adidas is number 2 at 15.6% with about 70 players wearing the three stripes.

For past stories in “The Sneaker Wars” series, see below: