NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

It was a scorching hot Thursday afternoon on Broadway in New York City back in September 1995, just three months after the Houston Rockets bested the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. The teams’ two superstars, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal, were sitting atop a dais at a makeshift stage for a press conference at the partially-constructed All-Star Cafe.

In two days' time, the two 7-footers were set to pull off what Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson could not. They were going to be the leading men in a pay-per-view blockbuster extravaganza featuring multiple NBA stars playing each other in games of one-on-one. 

Shaq would later go on to win four NBA titles and three MVPs, but looking back now, Shaq felt he had something to prove.

“He kind of edged me out in the Finals, but it wasn’t a really fair edge out because when I got the ball, they doubled me and we didn’t double him,” Shaq says. “I wanted to show people that I’m unstoppable. Nobody can guard me on one-on-one.”

At that point, Shaq was known as a rim-wrecker, not a skilled iso player. But he was eager to remind people he was a guard in his early high school days.

“My NBA game was nothing like my one-on-one game,” Shaq says. “My one-on-one game was similar to Grant Hill. I could handle it, put it between the legs, do a lot of tricks and all that stuff. (Olajuwon) wouldn’t have been expecting that. He wouldn't have been ready for that. I wanted to be able to showcase a different game.”

 

This was big money. Shaq and Hakeem would duke it out for a $1 million purse, furnished by Taco Bell. The two giants were at the top of the NBA at the time, but the heavyweight bout, titled “War on the Floor,” needed a slick promoter and a grand venue. 

It got one. 

Next to O’Neal and Olajuwon on the dais was the event’s host and promoter: Donald J. Trump. On Saturday, the Shaq-Hakeem basketball bout would be set for Trump's Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, N.J.

“Shaq versus Hakeem in the Taco Bell One-on-One Championship will be the most fabulous event Atlantic City has ever seen, and only the Trump Taj Mahal could host such a mega-event,” Trump said that day according to multiple media reports. “Once again, the entire world will be focused on Atlantic City for what is sure to be an event that will go down in history.”

In the background, workmen in hard hats were still piecing together the trendy sports bar that called O’Neal an investor alongside Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, Ken Griffey Jr., Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. Behind the group, a banner read “Congratulations, Shaq and Hakeem.”

A scrawny 19-year-old Kevin Garnett was in attendance and so was No. 1 overall pick Joe Smith, fresh off the June draft. Garnett and Smith were billed as the middleweight undercard battle. Joining them was Kenny Anderson and Nick Van Exel, the so-called lightweight division.

This boxing-turned-basketball showdown was the brainchild of Leonard Armato, the former long-time agent for both O’Neal and Olajuwon, and it was months in the making. Shortly after the Finals, Armato struck a deal with Taco Bell to launch a calculated marketing blitz featuring the two star centers, eventually leading up to the Atlantic City battle.

A month after the Magic were swept by the Rockets, Armato took out a full-page ad in USA TODAY. Adorned on the page was Shaq’s typewritten and signed challenge to Olajuwon: “Hakeem- The series may be a done deal, but it ain’t over between you and me. Sure, you’re pretty good with your team behind you, but I want you one on one. -Shaq.”

Next, Armato signed Spike Lee to make Hakeem and Shaq household names in the same way he made Michael Jordan the coolest athlete in the world with Mars Blackmon and the “It’s gotta be the shoes” Nike spot. Lee directed and starred in the national TV commercial campaign for Taco Bell showing bitter rivals O’Neal and Olajuwon finally reconciling over Double Decker flour-and-corn tortilla tacos and becoming chummy pals.

 

They flew to New York City right after the Finals and taped the commercial in Central Park that summer. Spike put Shaq and Hakeem in suspenders and propeller hats and had them riding around Central Park on a tandem bike holding Taco Bell bags. In another scene, Shaq rowed Hakeem in a dingy.

“People were like, is that Hakeem? Is that Shaq? It was pretty funny,” Shaq recalled.

It turned out the 1995 NBA Finals wasn’t just a battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. It was a launchpad for a marketing tour de force.

And on that Thursday afternoon in the fall, it was all coming together. Armato launched a successful TV campaign hyping the two players, signed the other participants, booked the venue and promoted the heck out of the $19.95 PPV.

“It was moving toward a great success,” Armato says now over the phone. “until it got derailed.”

The evening before the event, Armato got a call. It was from Olajuwon’s teammate Clyde Drexler. It wasn’t good news.

“I want to talk to you about something,” Drexler said, according to Armato. “Hakeem. He’s not feeling well. His back.”

Apparently, Olajuwon had hurt his back working out earlier that week. He’d hoped it would feel better by the weekend, but it wasn’t improving. After having Olajuwon examined by a physician, Armato decided to cancel late Friday night, the day before the showdown. There would be no “War on the Floor” or undercard matchups. 

Later that night, a disappointed Shaq flew back to Orlando on Trump’s private jet. At the time, when asked whether Olajuwon’s injury was legitimate, he said he didn’t know, perhaps playing into the soap opera. But now, he claims everything was on the up-and-up.

“When Leonard called me and told me Hakeem can’t do it, I was like, ‘Cool.’ Hakeem’s not the guy who I'd say, ‘Aw, he’s scared!’,” O’Neal told NBC Sports. “One, I know he’s not scared. Two, I know if he could do it, he would do it. But if it was Christian Laettner, I would have said he’s scared.”

Back in 1995, Trump, of course, didn’t pass up an opportunity to turn up the controversy.

“There’s a rumor out there that the NBA had something to do with it,” Trump told the Associated Press. “But it’s just a rumor.”

Twenty-five years later, Armato laughs at the suggestion.

“That did not happen,” Armato says. “That 100 percent did not happen. I know that for a fact.”

Refunds were issued. Money was lost. But Armato nearly pulled it off, and not because of his relationship with NBA commissioner David Stern. It was because Armato had something his predecessors did not -- a loophole created by opportunity.

* * * 

O’Neal and Olajuwon were not the first superstars to try and attempt a one-on-one special. In 1990, there was a proposal for Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to face off at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The idea hit all corners of the basketball universe and ended up being squashed by Stern under the guidelines of the collective bargaining agreement, but not before the disagreement moved from conference rooms to courtrooms. 

 

According to B/R’s Jonathan Abrams, dealings between the league, the players’ union and agents related to the MJ-Magic one-one-one concept got so contentious that it resulted in an antitrust lawsuit filed by Jordan’s former agency and the event promoter. The suit accused the league of paying the players’ union a seven-figure settlement to effectively put an end to any offseason competitions like one-on-one exhibitions involving NBA players.

In 1990, National Basketball Players Association president Isiah Thomas, who had a famously icy relationship with Jordan, was against the one-on-one idea, saying, “I believe that this sets a bad precedent.”

Jordan didn’t take too kindly to that.

"I wonder what Isiah's position would be if he were playing Magic," Jordan told the San Francisco Chronicle. "But, of course, if he were playing Magic, no one would want to see it."

Luckily for Armato and those interested in the one-on-one format, in the summer of 1995, the NBA was in the midst of a lockout. Without CBA rules blocking players from participating, Armato threw the door wide open by announcing a one-on-one event that no longer needed to be sanctioned by the league. 

Still, he wanted to run it by the powers that be.

“I went to David Stern and I said, ‘Look, there’s no collective bargaining agreement so I’m going to go ahead and do this one-on-one,’” Armato says.

Stern’s response?

“Well, technically I could stop you. But you know what, I’m going to pretend like I don’t know you’re doing this,” Armato recalls Stern telling him.

Armato described the deal with Stern as a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” agreement between the two friends. For the league, it could have been something of a trial balloon, allowing it to gauge fan interest from afar and later assessing the merits of bringing such a competition in-house.

All along, Armato felt it was destined to become an annual tentpole event on the NBA calendar. A quarter of a century later, Armato believes it’s time to do it for real.

“Just imagine if you had a global pay-per-view event of LeBron James versus the Greek Freak (Giannis Antetokounmpo),” Armato says. “It’s probably bigger than (Manny) Pacquiao vs. (Floyd) Mayweather. It might be way bigger. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars off that one event.”

Armato is no stranger to big events, having served as Oscar De La Hoya’s agent during his ascent into boxing’s “Golden Boy” in the 1990s. In fact, the Olajuwon-O’Neal showdown was Armato’s second attempt at a one-on-one basketball showdown. In 1992, Armato put together a pay-per-view event called “Clash of the Legends” featuring 44-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 41-year-old Julius Erving, with a tuxedo-clad Jim Gray providing sideline commentary. The two basketball icons were recently retired, putting them in the clear with respect to NBA rules.

 

With thousands in attendance at the Trump Taj Mahal, including Magic Johnson and Trump himself, the one-on-one affair between Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J proceeded without a hitch from a production standpoint.

“When they came onto the court, there was a tremendous amount of excitement, like a heavyweight championship fight,” Armato says. “And I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”

But then the basketball started. 

“For the first minute, they were going at it really hard and there was screaming and yelling and all of a sudden they started getting tired and they started leaning on each other.”

“And it just started getting really boring.”

Brent Musberger and John Saunders provided commentary courtside, trying to keep the audience, who had paid $19.95 to watch, engaged in the action. But it was a painfully one-sided affair, with Abdul-Jabbar leading 11-0 after the first of four five-minute quarters. The 7-foot-3 Abdul-Jabbar was simply too big, eventually winning 41-23. By the end of the match, Abdul-Jabbar and Erving were so exhausted they could barely stand on their own two feet.

The event wasn’t a total wash. There were wagers at the casino. There was a camera in the floor inside the paint that provided a different, if awkward, angle looking up from the hardwood. 

There was also a charity element that could prove prescient in today’s global pandemic. With Johnson recently diagnosed with HIV, a portion of the proceeds from the telecast was donated to The American Foundation for AIDS Research as well as the Magic Johnson Foundation. At the “halftime” intermission, Gray interviewed Johnson, who was sitting courtside for the competition. The Lakers star joked that he would need $30 million to participate in a one-on-one game. 

After the third quarter, the crowd chanted “Magic! Magic! Magic!” and Johnson finally got up out of his seat and walked onto the court, asking for the ball. The crowd roared. In what became a microcosm of the night, Johnson trotted over to the basket, missed a layup and quietly sat back down at his courtside seat. 

“It was just a complete slaughter,” Armato remembers. “But more than that, I noticed that that format wasn’t the kind of thing that could capture people’s interest for any length of time.”

Armato went back to the drawing board and later came up with the blueprint for “The War on the Floor.”

Using retired players wasn’t going to work; that much was clear. More importantly, he reformatted the competition so that it would align more closely with boxing. There would be 10 rounds lasting two minutes each with a one-minute break in between. To promote quick play, there would be a 12-second shot clock with alternating possessions. The winner of each round would win $100,000. If a round ended in a tie, the prize would roll over into the next round. The winner would receive $1 million in addition to his round winnings.

 

“It’s just a great format that does a number of things,” Amarto says. “One, it’s high intensity so the action is always really, really intense. Two, it’s really quick results. You get a result at the end of every round and you have people clinging for the next round.”

And here’s the kicker.

“Three, you can bet on every round.”

In 1995, betting was still considered an unsavory practice on a national level. Only fans in Atlantic City could wager on the event. But times, and gambling legislation, have changed, and suddenly, Armato’s pie-in-the-sky stunt could offer the NBA some much-needed extra income in a post-COVID-19 world.

* * * 

In an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in late March, NBA commissioner Adam Silver mentioned that one of the many options that the league is considering is a charity competition where “a group of players could compete -- maybe it’s a giant fundraiser or just the collective good of the people -- where you take a subset of players and they could compete against one another.”

Sound familiar? 

“In this pandemic, this might be the easiest way to bring back some super exciting basketball with the least amount of moving parts and difficulty in terms of (health) protocol,” Armato says.

A league office spokesman told NBC Sports that the concept of league-authorized one-on-one competitions has not been internally discussed at this time. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s off the mind of players. During a Monday Instagram Live session, former Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving said he wanted to play Celtics point guard Kemba Walker one-on-one as something of a New York-New Jersey showdown.

“Me and K-Walk. I want that matchup,” Irving said. “I want K-Walk. That’s my big bro. Everybody wants to see it out of New York and New Jersey. He gave us 40. I gave him 40, back-and-forth.”

Armato has studied the concept of a one-on-one extravaganza for years and recently administered a survey to over 12,000 NBA fans. According to the study, 87 percent of NBA fans indicated they would watch one-on-one games in addition to in-season games, with 68 percent saying they would pay extra to watch either on League Pass or pay-per-view. Even more compelling, 61 percent of NBA fans indicated that they’d find one-on-one games more exciting than in-season games.

“I think it would be huge for the league to do this,” Armato says. “It could be a massive revenue stream. Think of it a little like Phil vs. Tiger.”

 

Following the 2018 head-to-head golf showdown between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods that came with a $9 million purse, Turner Sports will present a live golf match on May 24 between Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. 

Shaq wants it, too.

“I don’t want to speak for Adam Silver, he’s a great man, but I don’t think it would hurt (to launch one-on-one competitions),” Shaq says. “If we pulled it off successfully (in 1995), we would have done it every year.”

When asked about potential matchups in today’s NBA, Armato says Irving-Walker would be a compelling duel in the lightweight division, not unlike Van Exel and Anderson the 1995 event, but he’d prefer seeing Irving versus Stephen Curry after their 2016 Finals showdown.

As for filling out the card? Armato suggests a heavyweight matchup of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid against Los Angeles Lakers center Anthony Davis. In the middleweight division (if you could call it that), LeBron James versus Giannis Antetokounmpo, which would be the main event. The lightweight division could feature Irving versus Curry or perhaps Damian Lillard versus Russell Westbrook. You could also have a battle of teammates in Curry and Klay Thompson or Lillard and C.J McCollum.  

Shaq has other ideas.

“Give me Joel Embiid and Giannis,” Shaq says.

Not Giannis and LeBron?

“I need something that’s even (size),” Shaq says. “That’s what made me and Hakeem good is that we were 6-11 and 6-10. Giannis is 7-foot and LeBron is 6-9. I want to see Steph versus Kyrie. KD and LeBron. Westbrook and Harden.”

Regional matchups like Carmelo Anthony versus Kevin Durant (Baltimore/D.C.), Chris Paul versus John Wall (North Carolina) or Ja Morant versus Zion Williamson (South Carolina) could bring the bragging rights to another level. 

Shaq also wants to see the top high schoolers go against a pro. LaMelo Ball versus his older brother Lonzo, anyone?

“There are so many facets you can add to it,” Shaq says.

When asked whom he’d like to go against in the non-Hakeem division, Shaq named Tim Duncan. And said he’d also like to see Michael Jordan versus Dominique Wilkins.

“Then,” Shaq says, “since it’s come up and there’s a lot of bad blood, Isiah (Thomas) and Mike (Jordan).”

There are obstacles to the idea of one-on-one competitions. League owners might be timid about signing off their own players to participate in non-team events like a one-on-one showdown. What if they get injured? To Armato, that’s a non-issue considering there is risk in every basketball activity. In his opinion, the reward far outpaces the small chance of injury.

“They’re playing one-on-one in practice anyway,” Armato says. “This is no different.”

Secondly, fans may see this as a gimmick rather than a legitimate basketball product. But fans held similar concerns about the reformed All-Star Game format this season and that turned out to be a thrilling success in no small part due to the one-on-one showdown between James and Antetokounmpo. Why not capitalize on that brewing rivalry?

 

It’s early to be discussing this on a serious level. The pandemic shutdown is forcing the league and its players to answer some difficult questions about the economics of the league going forward. As the league tosses around ideas to recoup revenues in the short and long term, a one-on-one showdown might have legs. Earlier this week, Shaq ruffled some feathers by suggesting the league cancel the season and still sees fanless games as an issue.

“Basically my point is, as an athlete, how do you perform at a high, high level without fans?” Shaq says. “Fans make you do stuff that you didn’t know you could do. I’ve never done it before, but it’s safe to say I couldn’t do it. It’s just practice. I’d be super weird.”

Even if the league resumes this summer or fall, Armato still envisions a one-on-one showdown in Vegas at the end of Summer League at a time when NBA stars like LeBron and Antetokounmpo already pop in regularly.

For now, the league and the players are focusing its efforts on resuming the season -- regular season or playoffs. But as we approach the 25-year anniversary of the “War on the Floor” amid an economic disruption, it might be the perfect time to bring the concept back. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.