Hakeem Olajuwon’s five most impressive Ramadan performances The Hall of Famer played Jordan, Barkley, Robinson and Ewing while fasting, but how did he fare?

When sunset strikes, all around the world Muslims are dunking samosas in chutney like Giannis Antetokounmpo posterizing Aron Baynes. In fact, during this year’s holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, fasts are being broken and thirst quenched just in time for the Splash Brothers to tantalize us with how wet they are.

Despite the challenge of fasting this year during some of the longest days of summer, Ramadan continues to be a festive time for Muslims who sacrifice their appetites in hopes of becoming closer to the divine. Just as Stephen Curry battles through a knee injury to achieve his ultimate goal of another NBA championship, so too are Muslims pushing through this trying month.

For many Muslim fans of the NBA, Ramadan is also a reminder of when their two worlds collided in the shape of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. In the mid-1990s, Muslims in America were misunderstood in much the same way they are today, conflated in popular imagination with terrorists rather than seen as ordinary American citizens. But then Olajuwon challenged himself to observe fasts while playing during the month of Ramadan and raised awareness of another aspect of what a Muslim could be. He wasn’t just The Dream. To many Muslim-Americans, he was the epitome of the American Dream.

Olajuwon told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears last year, “As for fasting, it is a spiritual mindset that gives you the stamina required to play. Through Allah’s mercy, I always felt stronger and more energetic during Ramadan.”

Even his former teammates marveled at Olajuwon’s ability to play during the month. “There are 48 minutes to a game and for you to play 42 minutes of that 48 and not even be able to take a sip of water, that is just phenomenal,” Robert Horry once said.

But the story of Olajuwon’s greatness during Ramadan may not be so simple. A closer look through the archives of the Houston Chronicle shows that Olajuwon’s observance of Ramadan evolved during his time in the league.

During Ramadan in March 1992, Olajuwon was sidelined while being “embroiled in hostilities with the Rockets.” Things got so bad between the team and their star player that season, he at one point demanded a trade. At the time, Olajuwon was not fasting on game days, so he was grateful for the opportunity to complete his fasts despite being suspended from the team:

“They have suspended me, so I’m not making any money.

“But fasting is priceless.”

Islam’s lunar calendar means Ramadan shifts up about 11 days every year. This year it takes place through May and June, whereas when Olajuwon played the holy month took place between March (early on in his career) and November (by the end of his career). When Olajuwon began fasting for Ramadan during the 1993 season, he told reporters, “I cannot do it on game days. So what I have to do is make up for the days I miss after the season.”

Olajuwon’s decision to not fast during game days early in his career was not an abdication of his religious responsibility, as Muslims who are traveling, as Olajuwon often was, can choose to make up their fasts at a later time.

But Olajuwon’s perspective on fasting shifted after a conversation with fellow Muslim NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Olajuwon recalled the conversation with Abdul-Rauf to the Chronicle’s Michael Murphy: “We were discussing one day the excitement and the motivation to go all the way,” Olajuwon said. “When you are on the road, you are allowed to make it up. But to go all the way instead of delaying it to make it up [is exciting].”

So, beginning in February 1995, Olajuwon began fasting during game days. Incredibly, he was named NBA Player of the Month that month. He also fasted on game days during the holy month in 1996 and 1997. Olajuwon missed Ramadan in 1998 while recovering from knee surgery, and the lockout-shortened season in 1999 did not have any games during Ramadan. In 1999, Olajuwon did not return to the Rockets’ lineup until after Ramadan ended because of an injury.

In 2000, Olajuwon was playing significantly fewer minutes than in his prime, but he did fast during his last season with the Rockets. He also observed Ramadan the following year while playing limited minutes with the Toronto Raptors.

But not all of Olajuwon’s performances while fasting were created equal. Most of the games in which Olajuwon observed the fast tipped off after sunset, when he was allowed to break the fast. Which meant that at least during the game, he could drink water and have a light snack if necessary. With less food in his body, he claimed, he would experience less back pain. And rather than spending the day leading up to road games ordering room service, Olajuwon felt lighter and more energetic after a small snack to break the fast before tipoff of those night games. He once told the Los Angeles Times that other NBA stars should try it. “If they only knew,” he says, “they would be fasting.” Last summer, Celtics star Jaylen Brown, who “declined to share what religion he identifies with,” seemed to take his advice.

Spiritually centered, and sufficiently nourished, Olajuwon feasted on opposing teams at night after breaking his fast during the three Ramadans he observed between 1995-97. For example, after his first game-day fast on Feb. 2, 1995, Olajuwon dropped 41 points in a win over the Utah Jazz. On Jan. 30, 1997, Olajuwon tallied 48 points and 10 rebounds while playing 46 minutes in a close loss to the Denver Nuggets. When asked about how fasting on game days affected his performance, Olajuwon told the Houston Chronicle near the end of Ramadan in 1995: “But really, it doesn’t affect me except on day games.”

That wasn’t modesty. Indeed, his most impressive Ramadan performances were the handful of times he had to play in nationally televised games on Sunday afternoons while fasting. Playing against Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and David Robinson already posed enough of a challenge, but Olajuwon went head-to-head against his generation’s greatest players without even the opportunity to hydrate until hours after the final buzzer.

Olajuwon was not superhuman while battling the league’s best under these conditions, going 2-3 in the five Sunday afternoon games he played while fasting in his prime. But his resilience and determination did show millions of fans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, just how super a human could be.

’94-’95 stats Regular season Ramadan
Games played 72 15
Minutes 39.6 39.7
Points 27.8 29
Rebounds 10.8 10
Assists 3.5 3.9
Steals 1.8 1.7
Blocks 3.4 3.3
’95-’96 stats Regular season Ramadan
Games played 72 13
Minutes 38.8 40.5
Points 26.9 26.1
Rebounds 10.9 9.7
Assists 3.6 2.8
Steals 1.6 1.1
Blocks 2.9 2.8
’96-’97 stats Regular season Ramadan
Games played 78 14
Minutes 36.6 37.3
Points 23.2 25.4
Rebounds 9.2 8.3
Assists 3.0 3.4
Steals 1.5 2.1
Blocks 2.2 2.1

*LeBron James led the NBA in minutes per game in 2017-2018, averaging 36.9 minutes per game

Hakeem’s top five Ramadan performances

We ranked Olajuwon’s greatest performances while fasting in his prime. Whether it was bad luck or divine intervention, four of the five matchups came against future Hall of Famers. He put up some monster stat lines, but also suffered humbling defeats. I mean, he took an L to Rony Seikaly.

Getty Images; AP

No. 5: Rockets @ Magic (L, 90-103)
Feb. 2, 1997

Hakeem Olajuwon: 33 mins, 17 pts, 8 rebs, 4 asts, 3 blks; Rony Seikaly: 39 mins, 29 pts, 7 rebs, 1 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk

Olajuwon’s final game in which he fasted during his prime is definitely one he’d like to forget. Opposing center Seikaly was so dominant, he had the Chronicle’s Eddie Sefkoe writing: “If you didn’t know better, you would have sworn the Orlando Magic had Shaquille O’Neal again.” Seikaly, who is better known these days as a house music DJ than a basketball player, outscored Olajuwon by a dozen points. Although the Rockets were without an injured Barkley, they still expected better against a middle-of-the-road Orlando team that was dealing with injuries of its own.

If it’s any consolation, Seikaly would later refer to Olajuwon as his toughest matchup in the league: “He would shake you around and you were all shook up.”

As embarrassing as this loss was, a week later it was just a footnote in Olajuwon’s amazing career. On Sunday, Feb. 9, Olajuwon celebrated the Eid holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan, at the All-Star Game in Cleveland, where at halftime he was officially named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 4: Rockets @ Spurs (L, 79-93)
Feb. 18, 1996

Hakeem Olajuwon: 40 mins, 18 pts, 10 rebs, 2 asts, 1 stl, 7 blks; David Robinson: 42 mins, 25 pts, 12 rebs, 5 asts, 2 stls, 7 blks

A Rockets loss during Ramadan meant endless speculation as to how Olajuwon’s insistence on fasting affected his play and the team’s performance. After blowing a 15-point lead late in the third quarter against David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs in a nationally televised game on a Sunday afternoon, Clyde Drexler said after the game: “We all played like we had been fasting.”

Olajuwon led the Rockets with 18 points, along with 10 rebounds and 7 blocks in 40 minutes of playing time without so much as a sip of water. Robinson matched his seven blocks and added 25 points and 12 rebounds to give his team the edge.

After the game, the Chronicle’s Dale Robertson wrote that “to deny Ramadan depletes his strength and endurance is to ignore the obvious.” The next day, on the second game of a back-to-back, after playing 40 minutes while fasting on Sunday, Olajuwon broke his fast on the final day of Ramadan and laced up to battle the Sacramento Kings on Monday night. He played 46 minutes and scored 40 points, including the first six points of overtime, to lead his team to a victory.

Jed Jacobsohn/ALLSPORT

No. 3: Rockets @ Knicks (L, 117-122)
Feb. 19, 1995

Hakeem Olajuwon: 43 mins, 27 pts, 9 rebs, 3 asts, 3 stls, 4 blks; Patrick Ewing: 39 mins, 31 pts, 9 rebs, 5 asts, 2 stls

After losing to the Rockets in the NBA Finals in 1994, the New York Knicks were hungry for revenge. Olajuwon, on the other hand, was just hungry. During a nationally televised Sunday afternoon game in Madison Square Garden, Olajuwon lost the battle against Patrick Ewing. Despite being on the court for 43 minutes and contributing 23 points, Olajuwon was no match for Ewing, who scored 31. After the game, Olajuwon lamented: “I couldn’t challenge a lot of the shots. I had a burning in my chest all day from not being able to drink and didn’t play the kind of game that would allow us to win.”

Although Olajuwon admitted that fasting during daytime games can have a debilitating effect on his performance, he also stated: “I feel like the sacrifices I’m making now will make me stronger mentally when there is much more on the line.”

Maybe it is no coincidence, then, that the Rockets capped off this season with their second NBA championship in a row.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 2: Rockets @ Suns (W, 124-100)
Feb. 5, 1995

Hakeem Olajuwon: 39 mins, 28 pts, 11 rebs, 3 asts, 3 blks; Charles Barkley: 41 mins, 24 pts, 11 rebs, 7 asts, 2 stls

Olajuwon began fasting on game days during Ramadan in 1995. After breaking his second fast of Ramadan, Olajuwon played his first game of the holy month and dropped 41 points on Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz in a rout. He followed that game with a nationally televised showdown on Sunday afternoon against Barkley and the red-hot Phoenix Suns. Playing one of the NBA’s best teams, Olajuwon could not drink during the game, but that didn’t stop him. He led the Rockets with 28 points and 11 rebounds in 39 minutes. And despite Barkley’s 24 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, the Suns were no match for the Rockets.

Olajuwon followed up this performance with a third straight win, earning him NBA Player of the Week honors. An incredible feat for a player adjusting to fasting on game days for the first time.

Getty Images

No. 1: Rockets vs. Bulls (W, 102-86)
Jan. 19, 1997

Hakeem Olajuwon: 39 mins, 32 pts, 16 rebs, 4 asts, 4 stls, 5 blks; Michael Jordan: 43 mins, 26 pts, 14 rebs, 5 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk

On the second day of Ramadan in 1997, Olajuwon and the Rockets visited the Bulls in Chicago and got blown out in a night game against Michael Jordan and the defending NBA champions. Despite posting 29 points and 8 rebounds, no other Rocket scored in double digits, and the team then set its sights on a rematch between the last two NBA champions that was going to be nationally televised in the afternoon on Jan. 19. With Olajuwon fasting, you couldn’t blame many for thinking that Jordan was going to feast on the Rockets. Despite being without Barkley, the Rockets responded. Olajuwon played 39 minutes and led his team with 32 points and 16 rebounds. Although Jordan had 26 points and 14 rebounds, he could not find his shooting rhythm, and the Bulls collapsed after the Rockets went on a 19-0 run in the fourth quarter.

After the game, Rudy Tomjanovich said, “If this doesn’t quiet down the questions about it [Ramadan], I don’t know what will.”

What if LeBron’s career had started in the Western Conference? Or if the Miami Heat passed on Wade? These and other mind-bending what-ifs, 15 years after the 2003 NBA draft lottery

The 2018 NBA draft lottery takes place Tuesday night. It’s a loaded class. And while 15 years ago, the lottery wasn’t the grandiose event it is now, a season of draft positioning (also known as tanking) on the part of some teams made the May 22, 2003, NBA draft lottery must-see TV. What happened that night, in many ways, set in motion the NBA we enjoy today. But what could have been? If a single pingpong ball had gone this way, or a front office decision had gone that way? This is NBA’s equivalent of The Butterfly Effect.

Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke knew it was the kiss of death. Like any other NBA executive in 2003, Kroenke coveted 18-year-old high school demigod LeBron James. And the Nuggets, having gone 17-65 in the 2002-03 season, were very much in play for the man Sports Illustrated famously dubbed “The Chosen One.” The Nuggets won the draft lottery. They landed the No. 1 pick. Except there was a catch. This was the rehearsal that was filmed before the live show.

Kroenke, in Secaucus, New Jersey, was beside himself. There’s no way lightning would strike again, when the draft lottery went live later that night. And while Kroenke stewed in Jersey, LeBron James, Aaron Goodwin — James’ agent from 2003-05 — and a host of family and friends celebrated the impending reality of James’ professional career in a Cleveland Hilton.

Imagine a young LeBron learning under Hubie Brown in Memphis.

“We just waited to officially hear [who got the No. 1 pick] and kept partying,” said Goodwin 15 years later. “LeBron was in another room. I was on the phone. I don’t think there was any tension or worry about where he would go.” James was the belle of the ball. But he wasn’t the only future Hall of Fame name associated with the Class of 2003. Had things gone differently for two of his closest friends, the trophy case for the band of brothers affectionately known as the Banana Boat Crew would look very different.


What if the mock drafts held true, and the Miami Heat passed on Dwyane Wade?

Clippers. Wizards. Warriors. Bulls — these were the teams several mock drafts forecast for Dwyane Wade. Many thought the Heat would select a big man like Central Michigan’s Chris Kaman, or Maciej Lampe of Poland. Wade, despite one of the most memorable March Madness runs ever, was viewed as middle-of-the-pack talent. An undersized two-guard with an inconsistent shot — both assessments that ring true to this day. Very few, outside of Miami, saw the game-changing possibilities Wade would bring. And even fewer saw could foresee that the Marquette star would become the third greatest two of all time (behind Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant). There’s a Pandora’s box of possibilities — if Wade never lands in the 305.

Where does Shaquille O’Neal eventually land when he’s traded in the summer of 2004 if he doesn’t go to Miami? Where does Derrick Rose go in 2008 assuming the Bulls aren’t around with the No. 1 overall pick? Where does James go in 2010 if Wade’s not in Miami? Does he switch teams in his division, still join Wade and chase Jordan’s ghost while playing under the banners Jordan helped corral in Chicago? Or does he land in New York? Or does he never leave Cleveland in the first place? The questions we’ll never know the answer to are always the most fascinating.

How much differently is Carmelo Anthony’s career viewed if he goes No. 2 to Detroit?

This is, by far, the most-asked question from the 2003 draft. As it stands today, Carmelo Anthony is a future Hall of Famer. He has a national championship to his name and, with just one season at Syracuse is one of the more revered college players of all time. He’s Top 20 all-time in points scored — and the other 19 are all in Springfield or will eventually be. But the shortcomings of his career are unavoidable, and are capped off with a disappointing inaugural season in Oklahoma City. He’s only been to one conference finals (2009) and his era in New York was one filled with internal strife and just three playoff appearances in seven years.

Heading into the ‘03 draft, the top three was basically set in stone. James to Cleveland, Darko Milicic (who had the league captivated with his mysterious potential) to Detroit and Anthony to Denver. For a decade and a half, every basketball fan has wondered once or a million times: What if Joe Dumars and the Pistons went with Anthony instead of Milicic? It’s also one of the great regrets of Anthony‘s, too. “I was a little bit disappointed,” Anthony said. “I really wanted to go to Detroit. You had Chauncey, you had all those guys over there … Detroit, they had something going.”

A random 1997 trade featuring Otis Thorpe trade directly impacted the 2003 draft and where its most valuable piece landed.

Anthony around Detroit’s veteran leadership, on top of instantly being the best one-on-one player on the Pistons in 2003-04 makes for an interesting dynamic. Whatever defensive shortcomings he had would’ve been masked by bringing a devastating defensive force like Tayshaun Prince off the bench. The makings of a potential James-Carmelo rivalry, in the same division, would have produced a plethora of 2000s classic games. Not to mention: How would a young Anthony have influenced key series losses such as the 2005 Finals to San Antonio, 2006 Eastern Conference finals to Miami and the landscape-changing 2007 Eastern Conference finals to Cleveland? The Detroit what-ifs of Carmelo’s career remain infinite 15 years later.

How did Otis Thorpe play a role in two of the three biggest drafts in NBA history?

The Houston Rockets second consecutive title in 1995? (Partially) thank Otis Thorpe for that. The veteran power forward was traded by H-Town along with Tracy Murray to the Portland Trail Blazers in return for future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler.

Two years later, Thorpe was involved in another trade that, at the time, barely made headlines. Thorpe and Detroit Pistons head coach Doug Collins had a strained relationship during their time together in the mid-’90s. In August 1997, the then-Vancouver Grizzlies traded for the 35-year-old Thorpe, giving up a protected first-round pick between the years 1998 and 2003. The pick came with protections and stipulations. By 2003, the Grizzlies were between a proverbial rock and hard place. The only way they could keep their draft pick is if they somehow landed the No. 1 overall pick.

There’s heartbreak and then there’s having to experience it on national television. The legendary Jerry West joined the Grizzlies in 2002 as the team’s president of basketball operations — meaning he inherited the Thorpe trade. West landed Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles the summer of 1996. He was thisclose to drafting James in Memphis, had the pingpong balls fallen in his favor. Look at West’s face when he realizes his franchise missed James by a single pick. If “this is some bulls—” ever had a face, it’s Jerry West on the night of May 22, 2003. “I hate the lottery; I think it’s a terrible thing,” West said in 2013. “And I say that knowing it has worked reasonably well.” Can you really blame West for being salty?

On a related note, Thorpe played a role in two of the three most storied drafts in NBA history. He was selected ninth overall in 1984 in a draft that featured Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. And a random 1997 trade featuring Thorpe directly impacted the 2003 draft and so everything that’s happening in pro basketball today.

What if James began his career in the Western Conference?

James in the Eastern Conference — it’s all the basketball he knows. Depending on the decision he makes this summer, it may be all we ever know. But as mentioned, James nearly began out west. Two of the top three picks in the ‘03 draft were from Western Conference squads in Memphis and Denver. Both made the playoffs in James’ rookie year.

Can you really blame Jerry West for being salty?

How would The King have looked on the Grizzlies or Nuggets 15 years ago? Memphis would’ve paired him with a young Pau Gasol, his future teammates Shane Battier and Mike Miller, Bonzi Wells and Jason Williams. Also, imagine a young James learning under Hubie Brown in Memphis. Goodwin never really anticipated Memphis landing the first pick. “If that would’ve happened, we would’ve turned Memphis into a great market,” sadi Goodwin. “And they’d have at least two championships by now.”

Denver, on the other hand, boasted another future teammate in Chris Andersen, as well as Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard and Nene with current Houston Rockets assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik manning the sidelines.

James battling his way through a Western Conference with the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Rockets and Phoenix Suns are heavyweight parallel universe matchups. Perhaps most intriguing, though, is that we would have eventually landed a James vs. Kobe Bryant series — the one matchup a league filled with stars could never make happen on its biggest stages. It’s tough to imagine a series more anticipated, debated and fawned over than a seven-game Western Conference finals featuring its two most polarizing names.

How Michael Jordan’s original starting five — from Ray Allen to Michael Finley — became Team Jordan’s first stars Before Russ, Kawhi, Melo, CP3 and Jimmy Buckets, Jordan Brand got its start with All-Stars and future champions

Oct. 15, 1996, will forever be ingrained in Ray Allen’s memory. It was the night he met Michael Jordan for the first time. A young player like Allen viewed Jordan as a god in a league that had already deemed him the greatest of all time. As Jordan chased his fifth NBA title that year, he brought with him a $33 million contract, the richest in team sports history. Off the court, Jordan had brought in millions of dollars for Nike through the sale of his signature Air Jordans, the single most important line of sneakers to hit the market. Yet, as Jordan began looking toward life after basketball, he needed the help of Allen, and others, to continue to make his mark on the business world and the culture.

A 21-year-old rookie, and four months removed from being selected with the No. 4 overall pick in the NBA draft, Allen entered a matchup between his Milwaukee Bucks and Jordan’s Chicago Bulls at the United Center. He’d face his hero, the man from the posters Allen hung on his wall as a kid, in an exhibition game. “I’m intimidated,” recalled the future Hall of Famer, now 42, “because I’m not supposed to be in this moment. I’m supposed to be on the other side, watching and cheering for him. I’m like, ‘You know how many times I rooted for him to destroy whoever was on the other end of the floor? Now I gotta beat him? Now I gotta stop him?’ Now I’m this kid in this position … thinking, ‘Is this situation, this moment, too big for me?’ ”

Before tipoff, Allen and Jordan walked out onto the hardwood, met at half court and shook hands. “ ‘What’s up, Ray?’ Welcome to the NBA,’ ” Allen remembers Jordan saying. “I was like, ‘Man … Michael Jordan knows my name.’ ”

Jordan actually knew Allen quite well. He was the one who’d decided which shoes the rookie wore on his feet that night — and for most of his NBA career. Months before this pregame moment, Allen backed “out of a deal with FILA,” he said, to sign with Nike. The company planned on giving Jordan his own brand and imagined Allen as the young face of a fresh new line of products. So, in his first encounter with Jordan, Allen took the court in Team Jordan Jumpman Pros — the first sneakers designed outside of the Bulls superstar’s signature Air Jordan line.

“I was like, ‘Man … Michael Jordan knows my name.’ ”

“I was the one guy in the league who had Brand Jordans on my feet,” Allen said of his rookie season. “But I didn’t know how connected and linked in M.J. was with what was going on … if it was the company, or if he was making all the decisions. Not yet did I understand what the Brand Jordan meant, or what it was.”

M.J. had in fact selected Allen to be the first player to endorse Jordan Brand, which wouldn’t officially launch until September 1997. His Airness, however, imagined a whole squad of ambassadors representing his brand in the NBA. As a reflection of his own skills, style and swag, he wanted to build “Team Jordan” — and every team needs a starting five.


In 1997, before playing a single minute in the NBA, Derek Anderson traveled to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, ready to be pitched a potential endorsement deal. “I had no idea who I was meeting,” he says now. “I thought I was meeting with Nike itself, because I didn’t know anything about the Jordan Brand.” He finally got to a boardroom, “ … and there’s Michael Jordan. He says, ‘Hey, D.A., how’s it going?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, Michael Jordan actually knows who I am.’ ”

His Airness sat before the now-retired NCAA and NBA champion Anderson, having done his research on the 22-year-old prospect. Anderson played only 19 games during his senior year at the University of Kentucky before tearing the ACL in his right knee, so Jordan asked about the progress he’d made in his recovery, and Anderson informed him that he could, once again, throw down windmill dunks. The conversation soon turned into an offer from Jordan that Anderson couldn’t refuse.

Derek Anderson (right) of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 3, 1997, at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

“The way I worked hard, and how I fought back from the adversity of my injury, he really appreciated that, and wanted me to be a part of the Jordan Brand family,” said Anderson, who the Cleveland Cavaliers took with the 13th overall pick in the 1997 draft. “I gave him a, ‘Yes, sir, absolutely … I would be honored.’ It wasn’t even a thought process.” Anderson had previously met with Converse but turned down the opportunities discussed there. He also canceled the rest of his scheduled visits with other shoe companies.

Eddie Jones, then a third-year shooting guard with the Los Angeles Lakers, found himself up for endorsement renegotiation with Nike after rolling with the sneaker giant for the first few years of his NBA career. In hopes of luring the 1997 All-Star (the first of three such honors) who played in the glamorous Hollywood market, Reebok, Adidas, FILA and PUMA all went after Jones. Yet the bidding war came to a screeching halt once Jordan came calling.

“When the best player on the planet, the best player to have a basketball in his hand, really wants you to be a part of something, I mean, you jump onboard,” said Jones, now retired and living in Florida.

Allen’s All-Star Milwaukee Bucks teammate Vin Baker also joined the mix (Baker struggled with alcohol over the course of his All-NBA and Olympic gold medal-winning career, but now sober, he coached this summer at a Massachusetts summer camp). Michael Finley of the Dallas Mavericks began hearing rumors swirling around the league about a master plan that Nike and Jordan had cooking.

“My agent called me,” Finley remembered, “and said, ‘Michael Jordan and his reps are starting their own Jordan Brand and want to know if you want to be a part of it.’ I was like, ‘C’mon, man. That’s a no-brainer. Of course.’ To have M.J. pick you as one of the originals, that’s an honor. It was just us five … our own little fraternity.” (These days, Finley, an assistant vice president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks, is something of a film producer.)

“The goal was to hopefully find athletes that had a little bit of Michael in them.”

Jordan, the alpha and omega of the basketball universe at the time, had handpicked and created an eclectic group of players in his own image to put on for the new brand. “The goal was to hopefully find athletes that had a little bit of Michael in them. In our mind, Michael was the greatest at what he did, and he was great because he did so many things really well,” said former Jordan Brand product director Gentry Humphrey, now vice president of Nike Golf footwear. “And while you may never find that one guy that has the complete package, you can find a little bit of some of those things in several athletes.”

A pure shooter in Allen, a high-flying, acrobatic athlete in Anderson, a Swiss army knife guard in Jones, a skilled stretch four in Baker, and a versatile swingman in Finley — together, they formed Team Jordan.

“Everyone brought something different, but everyone brought something from him. Everything from us was an entity of M.J.,” Derek Anderson said. “It’s almost like we were his kids. Like every kid has genes from his parents, we were a genetic build of him.”


On Sept. 9, 1997, Nike officially announced the launch of the Jordan Brand.

“A sub-brand of NIKE, Inc. the JORDAN brand is a pure, authentic basketball brand of premium, high-performance basketball footwear and apparel inspired by the performance legacy, vision and direct involvement of Michael Jordan,” reads the third paragraph of Nike’s press release from this historic day. “The brand will carry the Jumpman logo and will be packaged together to make its retail debut on November 1 for the Holiday ’97 season.”

Never before in the history of sports had a player, not to mention an African-American one, “entered into a solo venture on such a sweeping scale,” according to a Chicago Tribune report published the day the brand debuted in 1997.

“I have been involved in the design of everything I have worn from Nike since we began our relationship in 1984,” Jordan said at the introductory news conference in New York. “The launch of the Jordan Brand is simply an extension of that process.”

The Air Jordan logo is displayed at a Jordan promotional event July 31, 2001, in Harlem, New York.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

More than a decade had passed since Nike signed Jordan before his prolific rookie season and released his first signature sneaker, the timeless Air Jordan 1.

“I always felt like Jordan was its own brand, and I approached it that way,” said iconic Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, who believed the move that catapulted Jordan into his own stratosphere of the sportswear industry was long overdue. “Jordan’s shoes were as advanced as possible for the best player in the world, but also were a little more sophisticated and with … nicer materials,” continued Hatfield, who’s crafted some of Jordan’s most legendary shoes, starting with the Air Jordan 3s that dropped in 1988.

“I placed Jordan on a pedestal in my own mind, like it was its own separate brand. I was actually the one who thought up the Jordan Brand in the first place,” Hatfield makes clear, “and tried to pitch that numerous times over the years and didn’t get anywhere with it, until it finally did happen. I’m glad it did.”

Nike celebrated the momentous occasion with a huge launch party at NikeTown in New York. The guest list was loaded with stars from all walks of the culture. NBA Inside Stuff host Ahmad Rashad emceed the event, attended by everyone from Sheryl Swoopes, Kym Hampton and Dawn Staley, to rhythm and blues singer Kenny Lattimore, musical groups BLACKStreet and A Tribe Called Quest, and actors Kadeem Hardison and Damon Wayans. “It was like All-Star, Grammys and Emmys all mixed up into one,” Finley remembered.

From day one, everyone wanted a piece of Jordan Brand, which analysts projected to generate more than $300 million in worldwide revenue in the fiscal year 1998 (the Air Jordan line alone raked in $70 million in sales for Nike in fiscal 1997). On Nov. 1, 1997, the Air Jordan 13s, the first shoe under the Jordan Brand umbrella, were released at $150 a pair. The brand’s first Team Jordan sneakers, the Jumpman Pro Quicks and Jumpman Pro Strongs, wouldn’t hit until May 1998. Until then, Jordan entrusted only Allen, Anderson, Jones, Baker and Finley to wear them on the court, and to promote Jordan Brand in its inaugural NBA season.

“The brand was big before I even knew it,” Derek Anderson said. “It took off that way.”


At the end of the NBA calendar, when the season finally ends, players partake in the annual ritual of cleaning out their lockers at their home arenas. During his first season with Team Jordan, after the playoffs ended with Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz sweeping the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, Jones recalls arriving at The Forum in Los Angeles a little late.

By the time he got there, boxes of his Jordans were missing. And the ones that were left? Jones’ teammates were already calling dibs — and mustering up the courage to see if they could get Jones to come up off of his shoes. “I swear, every guy that wore a size 13, size 14, they were like, ‘Eddie, man, I gotta have these. I didn’t want to take them without you knowing, but can I have them?’ ” said Jones, one of two members of the original team to ever get his own signature Jordans: 1999’s Jumpman Quick 6 and 2000’s Jumpman Swift 6. The brand also gave Baker the Jumpman Vindicate in 1999. “I gave them so many sneakers that day, it was crazy. I had no sneakers by the time I left.”

To get a pair of even Jumpman sneakers in the early days of the brand, you had to go through one of the members of Team Jordan. “As original endorsees of the brand, we had exclusive rights to shoes that [other players] didn’t have, and shoes before they hit the market,” Finley said. “We had the ups on guys who considered themselves sneakerheads in the league, whether it was teammates or opponents. Even referees commented on my shoes at the jump ball.”

Eddie Jones (second from right) of the Los Angeles Lakers passes against the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals played on May 22, 1998, at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

This was the era before the brand diversified its color palette, so most Air Jordans released in a combination of red, black and white, the team colors of the Chicago Bulls. Yet, for Team Jordan’s Jumpman sneakers, the brand blessed its ambassadors with pairs in their own team colors. Lakers purple and gold for Jones; Cavs sky blue for Anderson and Mavs royal blue for Finley; Bucks purple and green for Allen; and white and black Pro Strongs, with SuperSonics green, red and yellow accent, for Baker, who was traded from Milwaukee to Seattle a few weeks after the brand launched.

“I always feel very humble about being having been with Jordan Brand since day one.”

“Most people were like, ‘I want THAT color right there.’ I had colors that were against what was normal in the market, and what people would see in shoe stores anywhere in America. It created a fervor for wanting those shoes,” Allen said. “The ball kid used to come in the locker room almost every game and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so wanted to know if you could send him your shoes.’ ”

The requests didn’t only come from hoopers.

“Fat Joe literally chased me down from the time I started. That dude, he would be on my heels for shoes,” Anderson said of the Terror Squad rapper from the Bronx, New York (who in 2016 opened up his own sneaker store, which was greenlit by Michael Jordan).

Jones has his own stories: “I remember Usher asking for some sneakers!”

When they weren’t rocking exclusive Jumpmans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Team Jordan members could be seen on the court in custom, player exclusive (PE) Air Jordans, especially after Jordan retired for the second time in 1999 and not many players were wearing his retros on the court. Jones, who landed with the Miami Heat in 2000 after a trade, received red and black Air Jordan 13s with “E. Jones” inscribed across the tongue.

Ray Allen (right) of the Boston Celtics dribbles down the court wearing a pair of green and gold Air Jordan 11s on Dec. 31, 2010, at the TD Garden in Boston.

Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Anderson loved playing in low tops, so he persuaded Jordan and the brand to make him low Air Jordan 11 Space Jams and Concords. Finley’s PE Air Jordan 16s, with “FIN 4” on the lace cover, became such a go-to shoe in his arsenal that players across the league thought they were his own signature Jordans. Baker also wore PE 16s, as well as PE Air Jordan 9s with his No. 42 on the heel. Allen’s extensive collection of PEs could fill a museum. His favorites? The green, white and gold, and red, white and gold Air Jordan 11s that the brand presented him to honor his two career NBA championships in 2008 with the Boston Celtics and 2013 with the Miami Heat.

“I gave him a, ‘Yes, sir, absolutely … I would be honored.’ It wasn’t even a thought process.”

Nowadays, there’s of course a new Team Jordan, featuring Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook, who all get the PE Air Jordan treatment like their predecessors. In the Oklahoma City Thunder’s opener to the 2017-18 NBA season, Westbrook took the floor in a pair of PE Air Jordan 32s, a little more than a month after signing a 10-year extension with Jordan Brand. The reigning NBA MVP struck the most lucrative deal in the company’s history on Sept. 13, almost 20 years to the day that Nike hosted the event to announce the launch of the Jordan Brand.

Westbrook is the new face of the now billion-dollar brand’s Team Jordan, which all began with Michael Jordan’s first pick in 1996, Ray Allen.

“I always feel very humble about being having been with Jordan Brand since day one,” said Allen. “For me, long term, it ended up being one of the best decisions I made in my career.”

The other original members would say the same. All five took a leap of faith when Jordan asked them to be a part of his vision. And the rest is history.

“We were young kids who admired M.J. so much. He was our mentor, and was putting this thing together,” Jones said. “We knew it was going to be big, only because it was him. Whatever he does, it kind of works out … it’s always big. And everybody wanted to wear Jordans.”

‘Playing While White’ examines privilege on and off the field New book says that sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters

Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field by Washington State University professor David J. Leonard shines a light on whiteness in sports culture and the ways in which white athletes are characterized compared with black athletes. Leonard wrote an adaptation from his book, released in July, for The Undefeated.


Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field explores the ways that white athletes are profiled as intelligent leaders, hard workers, underdogs and role models.

Exploring a spectrum of athletes from Tom Brady to Johnny Manziel, several teams, including Wisconsin basketball and the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as extreme sports, NASCAR and lacrosse, I look at the ways whiteness is imagined within America’s sporting cultures.

America’s sporting fields are not postracial promised lands; they are not places where race doesn’t matter because the only thing that counts is whether you can score touchdowns or make buckets. Sports is not the “colorblind mecca” that we are routinely promised each and every weekend.

Sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters. While writing about the NBA, USC professor Todd Boyd makes this clear, writing that sports “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse.”

It is a place where anti-black racism is ubiquitous, from the press box to the coach’s office, from the stands to the White House. It is also a place where the privileges of whiteness are commonplace.

After my book was published, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich highlighted the nature of white privilege, or what it means to be #PlayingWhileWhite inside and outside the sporting arena.

“It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash,” Popovich said during a recent news conference. “You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

The power of whiteness can be seen in the celebration of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow and countless white athletes as leaders and role models on and off the field. Praised as disciplined, hardworking and humble, while their black peers are consistently depicted as either “ungrateful millionaires” or “natural athletes,” the power of race can be seen in the descriptors afforded different athletes.

To be a white athlete is to be a scrappy and gritty player, whose motor never stops, whose “drive never relents” and whose determination is unmatched. To be a white athlete is to “play the right way,” to be unselfish, to be without ego and to always put winning and team first and foremost. These sorts of racially stratified descriptors are common in the sports media, from coaches and general managers, and from fans alike. As are the consistent attribution of hard work and intelligence to white athletes whose IQs, work ethic and intangibles are the source of constant celebration. To be a white athlete is to be cerebral, a student of the game, a throwback to a different era.

The power of whiteness is equally evident in the trash talk of John Stockton, Larry Bird, Brady and Manziel. Amid widespread nostalgia for greater sportsmanship and respect for the game, whereupon hip-hop and black athletes are blamed for the intrusion of toxic values, the trash-talking of white athletes is either ignored or celebrated as evidence of their passion for the game and competitiveness.

Brady is what #PlayingWhileWhite looks like inside and outside of sports. Despite coming from immense privilege and opportunity, earning a scholarship to the University of Michigan and being drafted into the NFL, Brady has been recast as an underdog, who through hard work, intelligence, dedication and unselfishness has become the league’s greatest quarterback. He’s a winner and a leader. Yet he also is a victim of being underestimated, and of those who “falsely” accused him of cheating. The story of Brady is the story of whiteness, of advantages and systematically produced opportunities.

White privilege is also the celebration of Bill Belichick’s hoodie as African-American youths are seen as criminals and “thugs” for their similar clothing choices. It is “Gronk being Gronk,” while any number of black athletes are denounced as selfish and out of control.

White privilege is the NASCAR CEO endorsing Donald Trump, while its fans historically waved the Confederate flag, all while it threatens consequences to anyone who protests during the national anthem.

White privilege is fights in hockey, among NASCAR pit crews and in baseball being recast as tradition, as fun and as part of the game, while the shoving matches in the NBA prompt national panics.

White privilege is silence about drug use in extreme sports and in those white-dominated collegiate sports amid headlines about NFL and NBA marijuana arrests and a war on drugs waged in black and Latino communities.

To #PlayWhileWhite is to be seen as smart, scrappy, determined and a leader. #PlayingWhileWhite is to win, to be celebrated in victory, redeemed in defeat, lifted up when down and sympathized with by others as a real or imagined victim. It is to be innocent and a repository of excuses for failure. It is being empowered to be silent; it is being seen as a person and not just as an athlete, as a commodity, as someone who dunks or makes spectacular catches. And that privilege is bigger than any contract, any commercial and any award, one that extends beyond the playing field.

What if it wasn’t all a Dream (Team)? Five 1992 Olympic what-if scenarios — 25 years later Dominique Wilkins’ injury, Jordan sticking to his word and Shaq over Laettner. What if?

Want to feel nostalgic? Great. Better yet, want to feel old? Twenty-five years ago today, the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team won Olympic gold. Canonized as “The Dream Team,” the squad curb-stomped an entire world of competition, and its international impact is eternal.

The Dream Team opened the NBA’s door into China — and the world’s love affair with the game of basketball. Their Olympic tuneups weren’t as much games as they were red carpet ceremonies as they laughed, galloped and, in Toni Kukoc’s case, smothered the life out of opponents, beating them by 44.3 points per game — second only to the 53.2-point margin of the 1956 squad anchored by Bill Russell. The Dream Team’s song is one to which the entire world knows the lyrics — thanks to the documentaries, features and books in the quarter-century since their summer excursion. But even a crew with some of the game’s most iconic names — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — isn’t immune to the “what if” game. It makes for a psychedelic voyage into a parallel universe.

What if Team USA had taken gold in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea?

This is, by far, the most important question involving The Dream Team. America winning bronze in the ’88 Games was a watershed moment. The Soviet Union defeated the United States 82-76 in the semifinals (there’s a Russia/America-beating-us-at-our-own-game joke that will not be told right now). Up until 1988, only collegiate players were allowed in Olympic play. That talk soon shifted. “Personally, I would like more of a chance to compete,” Team USA and then-Georgetown head coach John Thompson said. “I’m also an advocate of professionals playing in the Olympics.”

Not everyone was for the change. Bill Wall, executive director of the United States Amateur Basketball Association, touched on philosophical issues: “Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. In Munich, on April 7, 1989, FIBA voted 56-13 to allow pro players to participate.

Many, like Boris Stankovic, FIBA’s secretary general, saw it as Olympic basketball’s “triumphant entry into the 21st century.” Stankovic was a chief proponent of allowing NBA players access, as they were the only professionals barred worldwide. One of its most vocal critics, however, turned out to be the United States Amateur Basketball Association, which took the stance that pro players’ involvement eliminated its opportunity to participate.

So, did America’s bronze medal showing in the ’88 Games lead directly to the introduction of NBA players? Perhaps not 100 percent, but it undeniably aided a process already in motion. Put it this way: If anything defines Big Sean’s Last night I took an L, but tonight I bounce back, it’s Team USA basketball 1988-92. It’s also fair to say that if America had won gold in 1988, the push for NBA stars may never have happened.

NBA players in the Olympics are the norm these days, but in the immediate aftermath of the decision, the desire to play was slightly better than 50-50. Superstars such as Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Karl Malone didn’t hide their excitement. “[I’d] go in a heartbeat and pay my own ticket,” Malone said. But a 1989 poll revealed only 58 percent of NBA players would play if afforded the opportunity. The biggest one to say no? Jordan. Which brings us to the next point …

What if Michael Jordan had stuck to his word and not played in the 1992 Olympics?

Let’s get the elephant out of the room. The Isiah Thomas/Jordan factor was a real issue — a beef with origins in the 1985 All-Star Game, known in hoops circles as the “freeze-out game.” How do we know Jordan didn’t want anything to do with Thomas as a teammate? He said it himself. “That was one of the stipulations put to me [on the team] — that Isiah wasn’t part of the team,” he said in a 2012 Dream Team documentary. The Thomas exclusion remains a thrilling subplot of ’90s basketball because of how the selection committee did whatever it had to do to get Jordan while sacrificing Thomas.

The Detroit Pistons’ floor general wasn’t one of the first 10 players selected. The Olympic selection committee began choosing players shortly after the 1991 playoffs ended. It was in those same playoffs that the Pistons, swept by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, infamously walked off the court before time expired in Game 4. Thomas was seen as the linchpin in one of the most infamous examples of pettiness in sports history. But even with Thomas on the outside looking in, Jordan still wasn’t a lock. Peep the timeline:

April 1989 Jordan says he’s not interested in playing in the Olympics again (he won gold in 1984). The thought of giving up another summer didn’t appeal to him.

May 1991 In one of the more revealing yet often forgotten interviews of his career, the ’91 MVP once again states his hesitation to Pat Riley. The season was long enough, and adding the Olympics would only shorten recovery time. But he doesn’t slam the casket shut either. “The only reason that I would wanna go is,” he says, only semi-joking, “if we feel that we certainly can’t win with the team we put out there.”

“Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes.

July 30, 1991 — Agent David Falk denies that both of his clients, Jordan and Patrick Ewing, are undecided about what to do the next summer.

Aug. 1, 1991 — Playing in his first competitive golf tournament at the Western Amateur in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jordan seemingly deadens any hope of Olympic dreams. “There are a lot of professionals who want to play and, being that there are a lot of professionals that haven’t played — and I’ve played — I don’t mind giving the other guys an opportunity,” he says. “Right now it’s a closed door for me.” For the golf aficionados wondering, he shot an 85 that day.

Aug. 10, 1991 — “I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson says. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it. But so far he hasn’t changed his mind.”

Aug. 25, 1991 — Few remember the attacks on Jordan’s patriotism because of his reluctance to play in the Olympics. Three weeks after his statement about sitting out, Jordan reconsiders, promising to make the decision in a few days but saying it would be his and his alone. “Not one forced on me by what somebody else says or wants,” he said.

Sept. 4, 1991 — Thomas says if he’s not invited to the ’92 Games later that month he will not blame Jordan. “While I cannot speak for Michael,” Thomas says, “I can say that such a feud does not exist.”

Sept. 24, 1991 — The selection committee releases the names of 10 players invited to form the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Ewing, Johnson, Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, John Stockton and, yes, Jordan. Jack McCloskey resigned from the selection committee over Thomas’ snub, calling the omission “ridiculous.” As for Jordan’s response? “If I had anything to do with the selection, I would’ve selected my mother and my sister. I didn’t have anything to do with it.” Riiiight.

March 18, 1992 — By now, Jordan is openly stating he wants to play. But not until the money ceases looking funny. Jordan’s camp was unhappy about marketing rights — in particular, the official Olympic T-shirt that bore semblances of all team members. He had no issue with USA Basketball, a nonprofit organization, making money. He did, however, have beef with the NBA making coin. It was a subtle but undeniable example of what The New York Times at the time called a “deteriorating relationship with the NBA over the issue.” Jordan was adamant that money wasn’t the motivation for holding out. However, “This is a business,” he says. “This is what happens when you let professional players in.”

March 20, 1992 — Turns out that headache lasts only 48 hours. Jordan’s agent, David Falk, confirms that a compromise will be reached, and Jordan will be in Barcelona, Spain, that summer. USA Basketball had secured the face it so desperately coveted. Without Jordan, Team USA likely still wins gold. But it begs the question, is the NBA the global international force it is now if Jordan stayed stateside in the summer of 1992?

What if Shaquille O’Neal had been chosen over Christian Laettner as the Dream Team’s college player?

Love him or hate him — and many did both — Laettner’s star power was undeniable heading into the Summer Games. His resume at Duke was drunk with achievement: back-to-back national championships in ’91 and ’92, a three-time All-American, Final Four MVP and National Player of the Year in ’92. Combine all that with one of the most iconic plays in college basketball history, and Laettner’s stock was sky-high. Surrounded by elite talent that trumped his, it’s beyond understandable why he barely got much tick in the ’92 Games. That said, if you ever want to win a bar bet, ask who averaged the fewest points on the Dream Team. Chances are most will say Laettner (4.8), who went on to have a solid NBA career, averaging 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds over 13 seasons. The correct answer, though, is Stockton (2.8), as the future Hall of Famer missed the first four games with a broken leg.

“I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson said. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it.”

But let’s keep it a buck. This is Shaq we’re talking about. In 1992, the feeling was post-up centers would have difficulties in the trapezoid-shaped lane of the international game. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s violent to envision what a 20-year-old O’Neal would have done to the likes of Angola or Germany. Seriously, picture this: Johnson leading the break, with Jordan and Pippen on the wings and a young, nimble 20-year-old O’Neal as the trailer:

It’s fun to imagine young O’Neal running fast breaks in Barcelona, because we already know how destructively poetic young O’Neal was running fast breaks in Orlando with Penny Hardaway. O’Neal would later receive his own gold medal at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, but the four-time NBA champion didn’t like his ’92 omission. “I was pissed off. I was jealous,” O’Neal said in 2012. “But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player. Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was.”

What if Dominique Wilkins never ruptured his Achilles?

The Original ATLien was one of the more entertaining and beloved players in the ’80s and into the ’90s. His 47 points in Game 7 in Boston Garden vs. Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1988 remains one of the all-time great playoff performances (despite being in a loss). He won two dunk contests, in 1985 and 1990. Even Jordan admits Wilkins was robbed in 1988 when he lost in Chicago. “I probably would’ve given it to [Dominique],” Jordan said years later. “But being that it was on my turf, it wasn’t meant to be.”

Wilkins is also one of five non-centers in NBA history to average at least 26 points for a decade — the other four being Jerry West, Jordan, Allen Iverson and LeBron James. In layman’s terms, Wilkins was that deal. The issue with Wilkins’ legacy, however, is what plagues Chris Paul today — his teams never advanced past the second round. But by the start of 1992, there seemed to be momentum building for Wilkins to become the 11th professional player to be added to the Dream Team. Unfortunately, Wilkins ruptured his Achilles tendon against the Philadelphia 76ers in January 1992, ending his season and whatever shot he had at making the Olympic squad. At the time of his injury, he was putting up 28.1 points per night.

How the story played out: Portland’s Clyde Drexler was announced as the final NBA player to make the squad in May 1992. Wilkins eventually played on the second iteration of the Dream Team two years later, a dominant squad in its own right. But we’re all left to wonder how differently Wilkins’ Hall of Fame career might have been remembered. What an acrobatic light show the fast break of Johnson, Jordan and “The Human Highlight Reel” would’ve produced in Barcelona! It’s the second time we missed out on a Magic and Dominique tag team — the Los Angeles Lakers had the chance to select Wilkins No. 1 overall in the 1982 draft, opting instead for James Worthy (a selection that worked out extremely well for the Lakers in the ’80s).

What if Magic Johnson had been unable to play?

For context, only 263 days had passed between Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV (Nov. 7, 1991) and Team USA’s first Olympic game (July 26, 1992). In the immediate aftermath of his announcement, America began to emotionally distance itself from Johnson. Advertisers and marketing agencies ceased using him in their campaigns. How sick was he? Would he wither away in front of our eyes? And should he even be allowed to play basketball? The debate became one of the most polarizing of its day.

“If Magic Johnson is prohibited from participating in the Olympics,” a New York Times response to the editor ran in February 1992, “then the accepted risk factor for all sports should be re-evaluated.”

“Americans have always regarded our Olympic athletes as role models for our boys and girls, which Magic is not,” another stated. “Let him use his energies and money setting up a trust fund of a few million dollars to pay the medical bills of the women he may have infected.”

On Feb. 3, 1992, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that athletes with HIV were eligible to participate. Later that same week, Johnson not only participated in the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, Florida, but he also took home MVP honors with 25 points, nine assists and a spine-tingling 3-pointer that has since transcended sports. Johnson, of course, went on to become one of the faces of The Dream Team and a beloved executive, broadcaster and ambassador of the league.

But what if history were different, and the IOC had ruled differently? Not only would that have been tragically inhumane, but athletes with HIV being ruled ineligible means no Magic Johnson. No Magic Johnson means no Larry Bird and no Michael Jordan. No Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan means no Dream Team. One decision quite literally changed the world.