After the Celtics defeated the Bulls in Game 1 of their opening-round playoff series in 1986, Boston guard Danny Ainge was contacted by Boston Herald sportswriter Mike Carey with an unusual offer: Michael Jordan wanted to play a round of golf, and they needed a fourth.
“Sounds fun,” Ainge said at the time.
Carey, who did side work organizing things like autograph appearances for NBA players, had been contacted by Chicago Sun-Times Bulls beat writer Mark Vancil about Jordan’s request.
There was plenty about this arrangement that was odd. Ainge and Jordan knew each other, but had never spent time together and were hardly friends. Now, this meeting would somehow be arranged by a pair of writers. And, most stunningly, it was in the middle of a playoff series.
“It was very, very rare,” Ainge said. “I don’t think I ever even met, or had dinner, or even a phone conversation with any other opponent in my whole career before a playoff game.”
The golf outing was mentioned during Sunday’s broadcast of "The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary on Jordan’s Bulls. The golfing was notable because Jordan followed it up by scoring 63 points in Chicago’s double-overtime Game 2 loss to the Celtics.
In a phone interview Monday, Ainge recounted those secretive 36 holes at Framingham Country Club.
“Michael was like me in that he didn’t want to really do other stuff that a lot of players did in those days,” Ainge said. ”He just wanted to play golf. And you had so much time on your hands.”
Ainge said they played each hole for money, and that he won more than he lost. It was clear that Jordan, ever the competitor, was not thrilled about it. When the round ended, Ainge said, Jordan made it clear that he wanted to play again for a chance at redemption. He might even have wanted to keep playing that day.
“I did beat him, and I did talk a little trash,” Ainge said. “I just remember it was a good time. He did say when I got dropped off, 'Tell your boy DJ I’ve got something for him tomorrow.’ Michael was so competitive. He really, really wanted to win.”
Jordan, of course, then erupted for 63 points in his team’s loss, with Celtics guard Dennis Johnson trying his best to stop him.
“He just put on a clinic,” Ainge said. “We just all left that series thinking, like, ‘This guy is the new kid on the block. This guy is the new best player in the NBA.’ ”
Ainge said he did not think anyone outside of their foursome knew about their golf outing. He acknowledged there probably would be a media firestorm if something similar happened today, but emphasized that it was exceedingly rare even then.
He even recalled that he once went golfing on an off day between playoff games with teammates Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Rick Robey. He said that when they arrived at practice the next afternoon, coach Bill Fitch said that they were each being fined $500.
Ainge, McHale, and Robey were a bit uneasy. Bird, for one, was not.
"There was a little bit of silence,” Ainge said, “and it took Larry about five seconds, and he goes, 'Well, boys, it looks like we’d better up the stakes [on the course] tomorrow.’ ”
Although Ainge’s day on the course with Jordan in 1986 was their first round together, it was certainly not their last. Ainge said the Bulls star looked for creative ways to reclaim the upper hand.
During one round in Phoenix, when Ainge played for the Suns, Jordan brought fellow North Carolina alumnus and former NBA player Al Wood, who was on Jordan’s side in the foursome. Jordan told Ainge that Wood was an 8-handicap, and Ainge nodded and the match began.
"And Al was anything but an 8,” Ainge said with a chuckle. “He played that day like he was a plus-2 handicap. He shot about 70 from the back tees. Michael was laughing all the way to the bank that day. He crushed us.”
In the summer of 1992, Team USA was in Portland to play in the Tournament of the Americas, an Olympic qualifying event. Ainge was not a member of the Dream Team, but he played for the Trail Blazers. And of course Jordan reached out and asked him to hit the links while he was there.
“I played 36 holes that day with Michael and it was a hot, sunny day,” Ainge said. “I dropped him off at the hotel and then I went home, showered, got dressed and went to this game. And I couldn’t believe how much energy he had after 36 holes in the hot sun. He was full-court pressuring and just dogging everybody. It was really impressive. His competitive drive is well-documented, but his stamina was just insane.”