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Michael Jordan and Woody Harrelson: Tales from the Kenny Rogers Classic Weekend



The Athletic

Kenny Rogers, the white in his beard matching the color of his jersey, took the pass at the left elbow. The famous country singer, playing on his home court at his farm near Athens, Ga., squared and looked at the basket. He saw what was coming.

A 25-year-old Michael Jordan leaped to block the shot, his right hand extended high. Rogers pulled back. “A fake!” famed broadcaster Chick Hearn said on the telecast. “Kenny Rogers puts Jordan in the popcorn machine.” Rogers took a step to his left and swished a 21-foot jumper.

The Gambler had just roasted MJ.

The crowd erupted. Rogers smiled. Teammate Dominique Wilkins rushed over to slap five. Thirty-six years later, this remains the most popular highlight from an event seldom duplicated.

For three years, Rogers hosted the “Kenny Rogers Classic Weekend” at Beaver Dam Farms. He invited 15 sports stars and television celebrities for a weekend competition of basketball, golf, tennis and bass fishing. And NBC televised it.

Jordan was there. Larry Bird was there. Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas and Charles Barkley participated at different times. Tennis legends John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Golf pros Raymond Floyd and Payne Stewart. Actors Mark Harmon and James Caan, as well as R&B and soul singer Smokey Robinson.

In 1989, Woody Harrelson, who played the affable bartender on the sitcom “Cheers,” skipped the Emmy’s — when he was nominated for best supporting actor in a comedy series (and won!) — to attend the Rogers event.

“There wasn’t a lot of thought that went into it,” Harrelson said at the time. “I wanted to play some hoops with my boys.”

Part of it was the setup. This was a first-class event with big sponsors. Rogers sent a helicopter to pick up the stars from the Atlanta airport. Everyone stayed on his 1,200-acre ranch, which featured an 18-hole golf course, two clay tennis courts and several stocked lakes.

Kenny Rogers with Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. (Courtesy of Kelly Junkermann)

And part of it was the camaraderie. A chance to hang with stars from different arenas. After competing during the day, everyone hung out at night. Rogers had a sit-down dinner. He performed. Robinson performed. Dolly Parton and Gladys Knight came in and performed. One year, Harrelson got on stage and sang “Jailhouse Rock.” McEnroe jammed on the guitar.

Pro athletes are used to big events. This was different.

“One morning I went up to Kenny’s house for breakfast and it was me, Michael Jordan and Smokey Robinson sitting there eating breakfast together,’’ golfer Tim Simpson said. “And I’m like, ‘This is pretty damn cool right here.’ ”

“One night, we went out to the golf range at 2 a.m. and watched Jerry Pate hit golf balls off beer bottles,” said tennis pro Mikael Pernfors, referring to the golfer who won the 1976 U.S. Open. “He cleaned those babies like you wouldn’t believe. There was not a bottle broken until the rest of us tried.”

Harrelson made a putt to clinch a victory for his team and called it “the single most exciting event in my entire life.”

Bird was no-nonsense, always intense. Or maybe annoyed. It was hard to tell.

“I had just won the British Open and I kind of thought I was a little bit of a big deal,” golfer Mark Calcavecchia said. “I was in the kitchen looking in the refrigerator for something to eat and Larry Bird walked around the corner. I’m a big fan of his. I said, ‘Hey, Larry. Mark Calcavecchia.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ and kind of pushed me out of the way. That was my first introduction to Larry Bird.”

And, of course, everyone was in awe of Jordan, not just for what he did in the basketball competition but also in the other sports (and the side bets he made with Barkley). MJ was just entering his prime.

“That was one of the cooler events I’ve done just because of the type of event it was,” said Wilkins, the nine-time NBA All-Star and basketball Hall of Famer. “To be there with stars in different professions, that was cool because you never saw anything like that. It was special.”

The idea sprouted not long after Rogers had moved from Southern California to Georgia. In addition to his singing and acting careers, Rogers, who died four years ago at 81, also had been a sports nut.

Rogers was so serious about tennis that he had a pro named Kelly Junkermann travel with him while he was on tour. At each stop, he and Junkermann would visit a club and play doubles against the club pro and his assistant. Eight times out of 10 they would win.

Rogers also enjoyed golf and called himself “obsessive-compulsive.” Once he tried something, he couldn’t stop until reaching a respectable level. At Beaver Dam Farms, he had an 18-hole golf course built, making it as difficult as possible.

One day, Rogers asked Junkermann: “How well do you think a professional golfer would enjoy this course?”

“I don’t know,” Junkermann said, a scene captured in Rogers’ memoir, “Luck or Something Like It.”

Junkermann suggested having a “Gambler’s Invitational,” similar to what they had done when Rogers had lived in Beverly Hills.

For that tennis tournament event, Rogers invited talk show host Johnny Carson, who lived three houses down, musician/singer Lionel Richie, game-show host Bert Convy, actor Robert Duvall and former Olympian Bruce Jenner, along with their accompanying pros. Each person put up $500 in a winner-take-all format.

Junkermann said they could expand the concept at Beaver Dam Farms.

“Remember when we were all kids?” Junkermann said. “Every kid was good at something, right? One kid was good at basketball. One kid was good at tennis. One kid became a singer. So, I said, ‘What we’ll do, we’ll all be kids. But everybody has to play everybody else’s sport.’ ”

Let’s do it, Rogers said.

Steve Wynn, the casino mogul, put up $500,000. Prize money was set at $400,000. Ticket prices ranged from $40 to $75 with proceeds going to the construction of a homeless shelter.

Junkermann said the first call went to Jordan, hoping the golf aspect would appeal to him.

“Back then you could call an athlete and have an athlete call you back,” Junkermann said.

Jordan said he was in. The next call went to McEnroe. He said he was in. Bird, a big Rogers fan, said he would come.

“You know the only guy we didn’t get?” Junkermann said. “We had the big three, right? We had Jordan. We had Bird. We had Isiah Thomas, who had just won the NBA title. It was Magic (Johnson). Magic was the one guy — he was like too big.”

Once the stars and celebs arrived at Rogers’ ranch, they were floored. Beaver Dam Farms was incredible.

“I was absolutely gobsmacked,’’ tennis pro Kevin Curren said. “Kenny was obviously making a lot of money in those days. The place that we stayed, we thought it was a spectacular home. They said, ‘No, no. That’s just one of like three or four places on the estate.’ And the fact that he had this horse barn that was for very high-end horses, and he could put a basketball floor and the whole thing in there with stands, it was phenomenal.”

Especially the golf course.

“The first tee, when you stepped out of Kenny’s kitchen door, I mean, literally right beside his table, when you stepped out his door you stepped onto the first tee,’’ Simpson said. “I’m like, ‘Kenny, you could not have made this any more convenient.’ ’’

Kenny Roger Classic poster

A poster for Kenny Rogers’ 1989 event. (Courtesy of Kelly Junkermann)

Before the competitions began, the athletes and celebs — the 15 invitees along with Rogers — were divided into four teams. Outside of bass fishing, the other three sports were set up so that the star in that sport could not dominate. For example, in basketball, the pros could score only 12 points in a game to 22.

On the basketball court, tennis pro Roscoe Tanner was matched up against Calcavecchia. Tanner relaxed and thought: “He’s a golfer. I can handle this.”

But then the ball moved and the tennis pro found himself matched against Bird.

“He looks down at me and starts laughing,” said Tanner, who won the 1977 Australian Open. “I felt like a little kid guarding their dad.”

Tanner played off the Celtics legend and dared him to shoot.

“No, no. I’m waiting for you,” Bird said.

So Tanner rushed out, grabbed Bird’s gym shorts and said: “If you shoot, your shorts are coming down.”

“Not a problem,’’ Bird said.

“He stood dead still,” Tanner said. “Shot a 3-pointer, made it and looked at me like, ‘What an idiot.’ ’’

McEnroe, the tennis Hall of Famer, grew up in New York. He could hoop. Harrelson had game. Calcavecchia and fellow golfer Lanny Wadkins weren’t bad. Most everyone else was just trying to survive against NBA stars. It wasn’t easy.

Calcavecchia thought he would set a screen on Jordan — a legit basketball play. Jordan responded with an elbow to the golfer’s abdomen. “Right where it knocks the wind out of you,” Calcavecchia said. “On the old VHS I had of (the event), you could hear me go ‘WHOOYA,’ right when he elbowed me. The whole crowd heard it. I could barely move after that.”

“They took it pretty seriously,’’ said former University of Georgia basketball coach Hugh Durham, who officiated the basketball games. “Michael drove in one time and he says, ‘That guy fouled me.’ I said, ‘You’re the best player in the world. Just think what that guy’s got to think for the rest of his life.’ And Michael said, ‘We’re playing for a lot of money!’ ’’

On the tennis court, Jordan made up for his inexperience with athletic ability. (And confidence. One year, Curren, the tennis pro, remembered Jordan and Barkley arguing over who was the better athlete. They decided to play a set of tennis for $10,000. Jordan won easily.)

“It was the absolute dream to play basketball with Jordan, and then I played tennis with him,” said Curren, who won doubles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. “That was even more fascinating to witness his movement on the court.

“As a tennis player, you can see when a shot is hit, before it’s hit, how it’s developing. They would do a drop shot and I would have like a two-step start on him. Next thing I would see this guy coming past me and his steps are like three times the size of my steps.”

The only place Jordan’s explosiveness didn’t translate — the fishing competition. Each team had a bass boat along with a fishing guide. Jordan had no interest. The water made him nervous. However, golfer Raymond Floyd put the basketball star’s mind at ease.

“Michael, if you fall overboard, just stand up,’’ he said. “It’s only 5-feet deep. You’ll be fine.”

As it turned out, Jordan caught the biggest bass his first year, which netted him $5,000. According to Rogers’ memoir, the world’s greatest basketball player offered Floyd half of the prize money to take the fish off the hook.

The 1989 event came down to Harrelson. Instead of attending the 41st Primetime Emmy Awards, the “Cheers” star stood over a 5-foot putt, needing to sink it to give his team, which included Jordan, the event championship.

Through the years, the Rogers weekend featured light moments. In his memoir, Rogers wrote about shooting dice with Thomas and losing $1,000 in about three minutes. Simpson said his 8-year-old son Chris slipped a frog inside the pocket of Barkley’s workout pants.

“And I tell you what, Charles lost it,” Simpson said. “I mean, you would’ve thought he put a rattlesnake in his pocket. It was hilarious.”

One year, Tanner missed a putt, costing his team $10,000, and then-wife Charlotte stormed over and hurled his putter into a nearby lake.

But this was serious.

Simpson watched Harrelson line up the putt. It was all wrong.

“He’s lining up a foot and a half to the right, and it’s a dead straight putt,’’ Simpson said. “And I said, ‘Ho, ho, ho.’ I squatted down behind him and said, ‘I’m going to line up the putter’. And it was just like the movie “Caddyshack.” Larry Bird and my buddy Payne Stewart are over there saying, ‘Miss it! Miss it! Miss it!’ I told Woody: ‘Now take one look and hit it.’ ”

With his blue hat pulled backward, Harrelson holed the putt. He raised his arms and yelled. Jordan, Calcavecchia and Curren rushed over and embraced him.

“They’re jumping around like they had just won the NBA championship,” Junkermann said.

To this day, Simpson has a photo of the Harrelson putt displayed in his basement. Curren still has the miniature trophies he won. Tanner said it was one of the best weekends he’s ever had. Which begs the question:  Could something like this happen today?

Celebrity golf tournaments are common, but events like the Rogers Weekend are not. Years ago, Junkermann considered a similar event with country star Garth Brooks but the idea didn’t get far. Without Beaver Dam Farms, which Rogers sold in 2003, location was an issue.

“Yeah, there’s probably no way,’’ Wadkins said. “The money has gone up so high. They probably wouldn’t do something like this and in a lot of ways jeopardize their career by doing something out of the norm for a pretty small amount of money compared to what people get paid today.”

Others disagree.

“Basketball players, I know they have contracts and things that kind of prohibit them from doing things where they might get hurt,” Calcavecchia said. “But a little half-court game and golf, fishing and tennis, the odds of getting hurt are pretty slim, quite honestly. Basketball’s probably the most risky of the four. But you could even throw bowling in there. I know (basketball star) Chris Paul loves to bowl and he has a celebrity tournament.”

Maybe someday everything will line up again. The timing. The host. The celebs. The location. Until then, the Rogers event will live on through memories.

“It was a blast,” Wadkins said. “It really was. Just a one-of-a-kind thing.”

(Photo illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos courtesy Kelly Junkermann)