That time Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson almost played a pay-per-view one-on-one in Vegas

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Their career arcs were starting to cross. For most of the 1980s Magic Johnson had been as dominant a force as the NBA had seen in a generation (with all due respect to Larry Bird pushing him). But Johnson’s five rings, his MVPs were all in the rear view mirror — Michael Jordan was the star on the rise. He was 27, a scoring machine, but a guy without a ring as he had been taught hard lessons by the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons.

Who was the best player on the planet, Magic or Michael? Why not decide it in a one-on-one game played at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where it would be treated as a title fight — complete with pay-per-view and huge payouts.

It never happened, but Jonathan Abrams has written a brilliant piece about how it almost did for Bleacher Report. It’s a must read.

“There was a lot of talk about it, and both players seemed to be real interested,” recalled Rod Thorn, who drafted Jordan as Chicago’s general manager before becoming the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations. “Magic wouldn’t have been able to stop him.”…

Jordan against Johnson, though, was the best of the NBA’s best pitted singularly against each other. And several major media outlets had reported this sure bet as all but a done deal. At the very least, the two stars had been approached and the game’s payout had been negotiated. Both were intrigued, with Jordan even teasing the matchup on ESPN after the All-Star break.

It obviously didn’t happen. Why? Like everything in life, there are multiple reasons and a lot of gray areas. For one, the NBA hated it — it’s two biggest stars in a made for gambling event? That was not the image David Stern wanted for the league. They didn’t like the precedent it set.

But the players were hesitant, too. Jordan in particular, according to his agent David Falk.

Falk recalls Jordan saying: “If I win, people will say, ‘So, what do you expect? That’s what Michael is—he’s a one-on-one player.’ And if I lose, then I don’t have the rings or the title. So what’s the point of doing it?”

Jordan would go on to get those rings, but a lot of fans who mythologize Jordan now forget the years he wasn’t seen as someone who made his teammates better. He was painted as a guy who couldn’t win the big one. Obviously he had to grow into that role, and get the right players and coach around him to make it all work, but do we cut guys slack for that now?

As for the big who would win question, let me state my bias up front: Magic is my all-time favorite player. I could argue he is the greatest ever, but he is certainly in the conversation, and there has never been a player like him before or since. But one-on-one, Jordan wins. He’s more athletic, and Magic’s great passing skills don’t come into play in that setting. Magic could score on some post ups, he’d hang around, but that game would have been all Jordan.