Conversations with Joel Meyers: Part 2 with ESPN's P.J. Carlesimo

Joel Meyers, the longtime TV voice of the New Orleans Pelicans and a veteran NBA broadcaster, will be sharing with Pelicans fans weekly conversations he has with friends and colleagues in the media and the NBA. Up next is P.J. Carlesimo, an NBA analyst for ESPN's TV and radio programs. This is the second of two parts of Joel's conversation with P.J.

Joel Meyers: Over to Michael Jordan now. The series, The Last Dance, Michael and the Bulls. But, long before "The Last Dance," you were with him, in 1992 at the Summer (Olympic) Games in Barcelona, and I was fortunate enough to be there because I called all eight games for NBC Radio with Billy Packer. But let’s go to the start of it all, and that summer, because you guys convened in La Hoya for a camp, correct? And then you had a college select team you matched up with, right?

P.J. Carlesimo: Yup. It was really four segments to that summer, as you said, we practiced at UCSD. We stayed at a hotel that sat right on Torrey Pines, the golf course. As you said, we had a college all-star team, they call them select teams nowadays. George Raveling and Roy Williams were the coaches, and I’ll forget, but it was Bobby Hurley, Penny Hardaway, Chris Webber, Grant (Hill), I can’t remember if he was there, but it was the best college players, and you know, most of them became NBA All-Stars later on, or really good players in the NBA, so that’s who we practiced against every day. Maybe we had a week of practices, and it was interesting, because Mike (Michael Jordan) tells a story that Chuck (Daly) threw him….we scrimmaged them, we had a scrimmage, we’d go through drills, go over our offense and our defense and then the college guys would come in for the last hour and we’d put time on the clock and we would scrimmage, and the first one, they are hanging with us, maybe even leading by a couple points, and as it wound down, and this is where I agree with Mike. Mike said from the beginning Chuck had decided to throw it, and I question that only because I don’t know if he could have anticipated good enough to get ahead of us, but he was smart enough when they were leading, the other guys were, I don’t want to say mailing it in, but they were playing like ‘big deal, we lost a scrimmage’ and Chuck didn’t put the best five players – I don’t know how he decided the best players on that team anyhow – but it wasn’t like you put Michael back in and somebody started pressing like ‘there’s no way we’re going to lose this.’ I think he let it take its course. He was not unhappy at all that we lost. I’m not sure the exact words he used but it was probably something along the lines of ‘hey guys, you know I don’t care how good you are, you never know,’ remember the (1972 Soviet Union Team upsetting the United States in the 1972 Olympics). It served its purpose, and there was not another time that summer where Chuck had to say to them ‘hey, let’s focus.’ There were a bunch of things that came together that year that a lot of people don’t appreciate. It was 1988, we lost in ’88, we did not win the gold medal in Korea in ’88, so we’re coming off a loss. The qualification process was different in those days, so we were not in the Olympics, so phase two, after those practices against those college (players), who by the way, the next time we played them we beat them by about 50 (points), was to go to Portland for the Tournament of the Americas to qualify (for the Olympics). It was the teams from North, South, Central America, and I forget the number, three were going to qualify or two were going to qualify, I forget. Obviously, we did (qualify) but in Portland, we had nothing but games. We had like six or seven games in eight days. We never practiced. We had shootarounds and we had games, nothing else. So we went through that process, played extremely well, and then we took a short break, we reconvened in Newark and flew from Newark to Monte Carlo, because we were going to practice in Monte Carlo for a week prior to going to Barcelona, get used to being in Europe, all the different things.

When we were there, it was the first time, we did drills, we’re going to scrimmage, but guess who we’re going to scrimmage, each other. For the first time these guys are scrimmaging five-on-five against each other. It’s not against the college team, and it’s not against the teams from North, South and Central America, it’s us, let’s line up. Patrick Ewing is going to guard David Robinson, Karl Malone is going to guard Charles Barkley, down the list to Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler. It was unbelievable, that’s who’s going to play, and two guys were a little dinged up injury-wise, Larry Bird and John Stockton, they were both not able to practice every day because they were coming off injuries, so some practices we only had 10 guys. So, Magic (Johnson) would be the point guard for one team, MJ would be the point guard for the other team, and then you’d line up after that. It was the matchups after that, it didn’t matter if it was Chris Mullin or Clyde Drexler or Scottie Pippen, take your pick. The matchups were unbelievable, and the competition was unbelievable and remember, it was the people talking to James Worthy during the specials on Sunday night, you know, how Michael was at practice, and it was the same way there. He wasn’t the lone ranger on that team. When it got to game point, it was like when we were growing up on a playground and it was game point and guys got a layup, you just pushed them in the back and you say ‘you take it out of bounds I’m not going to let you score that way.’ I mean, it got so physical, when it was game point over there you got two guys who just didn’t want to lose [Magic] is the captain of one team and MJ is the captain of the other team, and the guys that were on the floor, and the pride factor and the competitiveness, they would go…even in drills…at that point, we’re getting ready to go to Barcelona for the Olympics. I mean, it’s a box-out drill and you’ve got Patrick (Ewing), David Robinson, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and poor Christian Laettner, these five guys, any combination of two-on-two, or a two-on-one box-out drill. You’ve got guys killing each other, but again, that was the competitiveness that we were talking about when you and I were talking about how competitive Kevin Durant is, these guys were amazing, and, the other thing, to put the Olympic thing to bed, people forget that David Robinson had lost, and we had lost in ’88, it was the first time the NBA players were representing the United States in the Olympics. You had three guys, Michael (Jordan), Patrick (Ewing) and Chris (Mullin), who played on the ’84 team. They had already won a gold medal; they had already been in the Olympics. You had David who played in ’88 and lost in Korea, and then you had a bunch of other guys who had never been in the Olympics before and thought this was really special, including Charles Barkley and John Stockton, who were virtually the last cuts on some of these other Olympic teams, and you had other guys who just happened to be juniors or seniors in college and it didn’t line up with the fourth year, so they never got a chance to play in the Olympics. So you had some guys, for them it was a big deal. It wasn’t just ‘okay, what are we doing this summer?’ it was ‘hey, I’m getting a chance to play in the Olympics, I’m not going to whiff on that opportunity,’ and you had other teams pay for that. You saw what they did, how they defended, how they rebounded, how unselfish…if anything, we over-passed. That Olympic experience was a lot more meaningful to these guys individually than some people may have realized from the outside, because of the history, what they had been through. You know, some of these guys, they lost opportunities to get into the Olympics, so they relished that opportunity.

Joel Meyers: Well, I remember Michael Jordan saying after he was on the team that lost in Monaco, Michael Jordan said it was the best game he was ever in. The five-on-five that you’re referring to. So now, you go to Barcelona and it’s barely competitive. You’re up close to Michael Jordan, who you matched up with. You’re three-plus years in Portland were after he came back from baseball, so the last two full seasons in Portland, you had to see him twice a year. So you watched him as a competitor, but now, you’re coaching him as an assistant for Chuck Daly. Was he one of the most competitive guys you’ve ever been around in basketball?

P.J. Carlesimo: Without question. It wasn't just basketball; I mean I was lucky, Michael was in college at (North) Carolina while I'm at Seton Hall. We’d go on a lot of Nike coaches trips as the Nike company took a lot of college and pro – mostly college but some pro coaches every year away on a 4-5, day trip with their families and four or five pro players would come. Charles (Barkley), Michael (Jordan), David Robinson, Danny Roundfield. Different guys over the years. So, Michael came every year, and we'd golf. You'd golf in the morning, and then you'd play cards starting about 10-11 at night and play till like two in the morning. It was like going away to camp when you were young. So, I knew Michael very, very well, but had never been, prior to 1992, coaching. Unfortunately, I was sitting against him. You'd talked about the years at Portland and Golden State when you had to try and guard him, and it was impossible. Again, it's funny because so many of the younger generation - more generations - people literally haven't seen him play. I grew up and I knew Michael since he was in college so, I think I knew him very, very well. These guys don't even know who he is. Really, they haven't seen him play, they've seen Youtube, they haven’t watched games, and I'm sure a lot of them were blown away watching what he was like. He remembered vividly – he remembers everything, but Game 3 of his rookie year, that game against Milwaukee.  Then they had the great quotes from Sidney Moncrief about what he was like. I mean, that was Michael, and he was that same way there. I mean we could be playing – it was Panama in Portland, I'm trying to think of who the worst team was. Was it Uganda that Chuck (Charles Barkley) got in trouble, or Angola for elbowing the guy?  I mean we're getting ready to play Angola, and there's no question we’re 50 or 90 points better than them. These guys are dialed in. One of my responsibilities was the scouting. We'd put, Pete Skorich and I, who at the time he was the Detroit video coordinator…he and I would use NBC's facility after it would shut down at night. After they had signed off the air we were allowed to go in and use the editing machines and everything. We'd put together the scout tapes for the next game, and we'd go in there, and guys would be asking – they didn't know guy's names but number 11 what is he?  He likes to go left? And I remember Magic (Johnson) grabs me at one time out because I told him this guy couldn't shoot the ball and the guy made two threes. His numbers were terrible he was like a 17 percent 3-point shooter. I said you can play off of him; he's not a good shooter. He comes over at the timeout he goes, ‘Yo coach! You told me this guy couldn't shoot, and he made two.’ They were dialed in, they just went after people.

You'll remember well because I think we played them twice, what Pip (Scottie Pippen) and M.J. did to Toni Kukoč was virtually criminal. Again, that played into the whole Jerry Krause (thing). I forget the circumstances, Joel. You may know them. I don't think it was when they got rid of Oak (Charles Oakley). I think Oak was for (Bill) Cartwright. For whatever reason Jerry was bringing Toni Kukoč over, it was a good move. Toni Kukoč was a great international player. He played very well, in fact he had an assist in the tape on Sunday night, a behind the back lefty pass to Michael in transition for a dunk. But Toni was coming over, he had yet to play for the Bulls. He's coming over and he was going to be their new teammate, but Michael and Pip were upset because it was Jerry's decision and I don't know who they had gotten rid of, but he must have had to move somebody to create some space. So they, it was not ‘welcome to the league’ or ‘welcome to a new teammate’. They did not let Toni catch the ball. They overplayed him. They denied him the ball. If he caught it, they didn't let him bounce it. If he somehow got a bounce off, they didn't let him get a shot off. It was unbelievable how they embarrassed literally one of the maybe two or three best players in the world at that point outside the NBA, and it was just unbelievable. They were just like frothing at the mouth, making sure he wasn't going to score and get a shot off, much less score. That was his welcome to the Chicago Bulls, and here's two of your teammates. And you see M.J. yelling at him in a practice. The one practice he's getting all over Harp (Ron Harper), and he's getting all over Toni Kukoč. He said, ‘So I’ve got to yell at you every day to play hard?’ So, I mean it was unbelievable. That was the only way he knew how to play. He played the same way when we were golfing. He would be golfing with – he talked about golfing with Danny Ainge before Game 2 of that Boston series. He would play with Payne (Stewart) all through Barcelona. We played with Payne Stewart the first day we were in Barcelona before we'd even played a game. Payne was there with his agent, who unfortunately the two of them died together in that horrible plane crash. Payne was going to stay only a couple of days and then he was like what the heck I'll go to the games, I'll stay. He and Michael must have played six times during Barcelona. But he's the exact same way on the golf course or anything you do with him. You talk about competitive, forget about it. It was interesting to see it. It's a lot more fun when he's on your team, and he's just getting on his teammates, and he's so competitive. But, when you were sitting on that bench, you couldn't stop him in transition when he or Pip would overplay or get a steal for the Bulls. Then that half-court offense, they ran that triangle so well it was great to see Tex (Winter) and Johnny Bach sitting on the bench. And then the worst thing that would happen, you try and play 24 seconds of defense, you can always use that as a selling point in the NBA. ‘Hey guys, we only have to defend for 24 seconds come on. It's not that hard.’ If you happen to play good defense for 18 or 20 seconds, then they just give him the ball in ISO and get out of his way, and you had no chance in the last four seconds of the clock. So, I mean no, sitting on the bench trying to beat the Bulls was a nightmare. It was no accident that they would win six times in eight years. I think the only time they didn't win was when he was out playing baseball. I'm not trying to take anything away from Houston, but it was good. It was a lot better playing when he wasn't paying for the Bulls. That’s a little bit of a different basketball team.

Joel Meyers: Last thing on Michael (Jordan) and because everybody is fascinated and really they did a great job. ESPN did a phenomenal job with “The Last Dance,” the first two hours and every Sunday night we’re all going to be glued to it because we love the game. But, as competitive as Michael is and was and then you got Magic (Johnson) and (Larry) Bird went at each other in the '80s and those were incredible battles. We were the fortunate ones that the Celtics and the Lakers went at it the way they did. Then Chuck Daily’s Pistons ‘The Bad Boys’ back-to-back. So, you have all these ultra-competitive guys. You got Scottie (Pippen) and Michael from the Bulls. You’ve got (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone from the Jazz. Did they all get along? Did they all hang out together or did they go their separate ways? What was the interaction like when you’ve got 12 on the roster and 11, all 11 NBA guys are in the Hall of Fame?

P.J. Carlesimo: They really, really enjoyed each other, and it was really special, honestly. First of all, you had the family element. Not in San Diego, not in Portland, but yes in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona. You had wives and children there. You had some guys that were already good friends. Like I mentioned, the Nike trip. Charles was very close with David and with Michael from the trip. Patrick (Ewing) and Mully (Chris Mullin) had played against each other in college, and they were teammates with M.J. on the 1984 team. You had other guys that had only played against each other, and you know from the league, guys say hello to each other but they really don't know each other. Particularly when you are in different conferences, and you only play twice a year or if they haven't played a whole bunch of times in the playoffs. I was that way. I felt at that point I was really close with Michael and Charles, Chris, Patrick. I knew about half the team. I had never met Stock (John Stockton) or 'The Mail Man' (Karl Malone). I never met those guys. I hardly knew Larry Bird and got to be very friendly with him. That was the same dynamic with the team. Guys were enjoying getting to know each other. One of the best combinations, it was really funny because I think they weren't close before it started. If anything they were arch-rivals from the East: Birdy and Patrick Ewing. We used to call it the ‘Harry and Larry Show’. I don't know why they named Patrick ‘Harry’, but they even put T-shirts up. Those two guys were inseparable. Like if you walked in to the breakfast room or lunch after practice or something like that those two were always sitting together and that was really the way it was. Charles kind of took Christian (Laettner) under his wing if you can believe that. I mean, if you're Christian, who else would you want to show you the ropes than Charles? But, Charles kind of befriended Christian and included him in thing because Christian obviously was the outlier because he was the lone college player that was on that team. It had come down to him or Shaq (Shaquille O'Neal) for that spot, and you could make the case if you look at Christian's body of work, you can make the case that he's the best college basketball player. What he's done for the four years he played college basketball was incredible, but clearly, on that team, he was the college player. The only reason he was on it was because he was the best player in college, that's why he was on the team. But no, there was really, really good camaraderie on that team. We did so many things together. There were so many unique experiences, particularly when we got to Monte Carlo. We went and had dinner at the palace with Prince Rainier and his son. I mean, there were so many things we did. So many people that wanted to touch that team and be a part of that team and the security and what it was like…I mean, it was like the Beatles. You had a little bit of it in that show on Sunday. But remember when the Bulls were playing in Paris, and everybody was going crazy for the team? It was 10 times worse than that in Barcelona. These guys were absolute superstars.

Joel Meyers: P.J. I'll jump in on this, and you can add on it. We stayed at Le Meridien on the Ramblas – Carol and I and the boys – and you guys were right around the corner from us. So, we walked down the street just to look around the corner, and there were literally thousands of people outside of your hotel, P.J.

P.J. Carlesimo: We couldn't go – when we went anywhere it was with police. I'm not talking a couple, like 10 cars. Every time we would go under an underpass on the way to the gym there would be military guys or policemen on the bridge with like the bullets crossed on the front of their blouses. I mean it was unbelievable and it was because they were really concerned. Terrorism at that point was pretty high around the world and they felt if anyone wanted to make a statement during that Olympics, what was the most high visibility team? So, the security that we had to deal with…when a player went out, when I went out – I mean nobody knew who I was. But if you went out, you never went out by yourself. You took security people with you. The players like Charles – one of my other jobs was to go out in Ramblas at 3-4 in the morning and locate Charles. If you had to go and try to go and find him, he had 3-4 security guys with him too because he would be up and down Ramblas visiting and being friendly in the middle of big crowds of people. But no, it was amazing what those guys had to deal with, and I really think they've all stayed very close. We've only gotten together a few times when they put the entire team in the Hall of Fame together as a group. They put the team in. It was the first team I think they put in there. There were some really good friendships started there. There were friendships that were already in place. But, there are a lot of friendships that started in Barcelona and still exist today.