Rarefied Air at pickup games
As far as we know, Achievements Unlimited is the only basketball camp that routinely featured the most popular NBA player of his generation playing an exhibition game against fellow pros for free.
Yes, Fred Whitfield’s camp scored a major assist from the Charlotte Hornets executive’s lifelong friend, and current boss, Michael Jordan.
Let’s pick up the story of the pickup games.
Whitfield wonders aloud at the audacity of what became routine for a decade or so starting in the mid-1980s. Every year, a who’s who of NBA and Atlantic Coast Conference players would get together soon after the NBA Finals ended, running and gunning in high-scoring battles played at the West Guilford High School gym and, later, at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro arena as part of the Achievements Unlimited camp.
Anyone lucky enough to get in would see the most famous player in the world — Jordan, often just days or weeks removed from winning an NBA championship — playing with and against the likes of Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry, Ron Harper and Rodney Rogers, among many others.
Jordan had a love-of-the-game clause in his contract allowing him to play whenever and wherever he wanted. Few others did.
So, Whitfield would fax the GMs of NBA teams seeking approval for various players to participate. In most cases, the answer was yes, returned with a signed note of permission.
“I wouldn’t sign for all the money in the world,” Whitfield said, referring to what his response would be if asked to do the same with a current Hornets player. (The pickup games occurred before Whitfield worked for a team.)
The game was the finale to each camp. Only the campers and their parents could attend the game, which, in true North Carolina fashion, used the ACC rivalry between North Carolina and Duke as its foundation. Jordan, a Tar Heels alum, would have past and present UNC players on his team, while several Duke players would be the focal point for the other team. Then the rosters would fill out from there.
“The notion that I was 10 feet away, seeing Michael in his prime [was cool],” said Ned Cohen, assistant general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers and a Greensboro native who grew up attending Whitfield’s camps. “Anything with Michael was competitive, even a pickup game.”
The pickup games faded out in the late 1990s, and the camp shifted to Charlotte in 2009, but Whitfield still brings in NBA players to speak. Carmelo Anthony and others have coached in the camp’s All-Star Game.
Curry, a Jordan contemporary and Hornets TV analyst, has been involved in Whitfield’s camp as a speaker, celebrity coach, golfer and, years ago, in the NBA pickup game. One year, Curry coached a group of campers against a team coached by son Steph, who was then in college at Davidson.
Curry praises the camp and Whitfield, but has one minor gripe about those long-ago pickup games: “Everybody always felt Michael stacked his side.”
Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.