Contained in the 1,200-Acre Ranch That As soon as Introduced Collectively the World’s Greatest Stars

by Christina S. Brown
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Kenny Rogers, the white in his beard matching the colour of his jersey, took the go on the left elbow. The well-known nation singer, enjoying on his dwelling court docket at his farm close to Athens, Ga., squared and appeared on the basket. He noticed what was coming.

A 25-year-old Michael Jordan leaped to dam the shot, his proper hand prolonged excessive. Rogers pulled again. “A faux!” famed broadcaster Chick Hearn mentioned on the telecast. “Kenny Rogers places Jordan within the popcorn machine.” Rogers took a step to his left and swished a 21-foot jumper.

The Gambler had simply roasted MJ.

The group erupted. Rogers smiled. Teammate Dominique Wilkins rushed over to slap 5. Thirty-six years later, this stays the preferred spotlight from an occasion seldom duplicated.

For 3 years, Rogers hosted the “Kenny Rogers Basic Weekend” at Beaver Dam Farms. He invited 15 sports activities stars and tv celebrities for a weekend competitors of basketball, golf, tennis and bass fishing. And NBC televised it.

Jordan was there. Larry Fowl was there. Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas and Charles Barkley participated at completely different instances. Tennis legends John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Golf execs Raymond Floyd and Payne Stewart. Actors Mark Harmon and James Caan, in addition to R&B and soul singer Smokey Robinson.

In 1989, Woody Harrelson, who performed the affable bartender on the sitcom “Cheers,” skipped the Emmy’s — when he was nominated for finest supporting actor in a comedy sequence (and gained!) — to attend the Rogers occasion.

“There wasn’t plenty of thought that went into it,” Harrelson mentioned on the time. “I wished to play some hoops with my boys.”

A part of it was the setup. This was a first-class occasion with massive sponsors. Rogers despatched a helicopter to select up the celebrities from the Atlanta airport. Everybody stayed on his 1,200-acre ranch, which featured an 18-hole golf course, two clay tennis courts and a number of other stocked lakes.

Kenny Rogers with Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

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

And a part of it was the camaraderie. An opportunity to hold with stars from completely different arenas. After competing in the course of the day, everybody frolicked at night time. Rogers had a sit-down dinner. He carried out. Robinson carried out. Dolly Parton and Gladys Knight got here in and carried out. One yr, Harrelson obtained on stage and sang “Jailhouse Rock.” McEnroe jammed on the guitar.

Professional athletes are used to massive occasions. This was completely different.

“One morning I went as much as Kenny’s home for breakfast and it was me, Michael Jordan and Smokey Robinson sitting there consuming breakfast collectively,’’ golfer Tim Simpson mentioned. “And I’m like, ‘That is fairly rattling cool proper right here.’ ”

“One night time, we went out to the golf vary at 2 a.m. and watched Jerry Pate hit golf balls off beer bottles,” mentioned tennis professional Mikael Pernfors, referring to the golfer who gained the 1976 U.S. Open. “He cleaned these infants such as you wouldn’t imagine. There was not a bottle damaged till the remainder of us tried.”

Harrelson made a putt to clinch a victory for his crew and known as it “the one most fun occasion in my whole life.”

Fowl was no-nonsense, at all times intense. Or perhaps irritated. It was arduous to inform.

“I had simply gained the British Open and I sort of thought I used to be a bit little bit of a giant deal,” golfer Mark Calcavecchia mentioned. “I used to be within the kitchen wanting within the fridge for one thing to eat and Larry Fowl walked across the nook. I’m a giant fan of his. I mentioned, ‘Hey, Larry. Mark Calcavecchia.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, no matter,’ and sort of pushed me out of the way in which. That was my first introduction to Larry Fowl.”

And, in fact, everybody was in awe of Jordan, not only for what he did within the basketball competitors but additionally within the different sports activities (and the aspect bets he made with Barkley). MJ was simply coming into his prime.

“That was one of many cooler occasions I’ve executed simply due to the kind of occasion it was,” mentioned Wilkins, the nine-time NBA All-Star and basketball Corridor of Famer. “To be there with stars in several professions, that was cool since you by no means noticed something like that. It was particular.”

The concept sprouted not lengthy after Rogers had moved from Southern California to Georgia. Along with his singing and appearing careers, Rogers, who died 4 years in the past at 81, additionally had been a sports activities nut.

Rogers was so critical about tennis that he had a professional named Kelly Junkermann journey with him whereas he was on tour. At every cease, he and Junkermann would go to a membership and play doubles in opposition to the membership professional and his assistant. Eight instances out of 10 they might win.

Rogers additionally loved golf and known as himself “obsessive-compulsive.” As soon as he tried one thing, he couldn’t cease till reaching a decent stage. At Beaver Dam Farms, he had an 18-hole golf course constructed, making it as tough as doable.

Someday, Rogers requested Junkermann: “How properly do you suppose an expert golfer would get pleasure from this course?”

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

Junkermann urged having a “Gambler’s Invitational,” much like what that they had executed when Rogers had lived in Beverly Hills.

For that tennis match occasion, Rogers invited speak present host Johnny Carson, who lived three homes down, musician/singer Lionel Richie, game-show host Bert Convy, actor Robert Duvall and former Olympian Bruce Jenner, together with their accompanying execs. Every particular person put up $500 in a winner-take-all format.

Junkermann mentioned they may broaden the idea at Beaver Dam Farms.

“Keep in mind once we had been all youngsters?” Junkermann mentioned. “Each child was good at one thing, proper? One child was good at basketball. One child was good at tennis. One child turned a singer. So, I mentioned, ‘What we’ll do, we’ll all be youngsters. However all people has to play all people else’s sport.’ ”

Let’s do it, Rogers mentioned.

Steve Wynn, the on line casino mogul, put up $500,000. Prize cash was set at $400,000. Ticket costs ranged from $40 to $75 with proceeds going to the development of a homeless shelter.

Junkermann mentioned the primary name went to Jordan, hoping the golf facet would enchantment to him.

“Again then you possibly can name an athlete and have an athlete name you again,” Junkermann mentioned.

Jordan mentioned he was in. The subsequent name went to McEnroe. He mentioned he was in. Fowl, a giant Rogers fan, mentioned he would come.

“ the one man we didn’t get?” Junkermann mentioned. “We had the large three, proper? We had Jordan. We had Fowl. We had Isiah Thomas, who had simply gained the NBA title. It was Magic (Johnson). Magic was the one man — he was like too massive.”

As soon as the celebrities and celebs arrived at Rogers’ ranch, they had been floored. Beaver Dam Farms was unimaginable.

“I used to be completely gobsmacked,’’ tennis professional Kevin Curren mentioned. “Kenny was clearly making some huge cash in these days. The place that we stayed, we thought it was a spectacular dwelling. They mentioned, ‘No, no. That’s simply considered one of like three or 4 locations on the property.’ And the truth that he had this horse barn that was for very high-end horses, and he might put a basketball ground and the entire thing in there with stands, it was phenomenal.”

Particularly the golf course.

“The primary tee, if you stepped out of Kenny’s kitchen door, I imply, actually proper beside his desk, if you stepped out his door you stepped onto the primary tee,’’ Simpson mentioned. “I’m like, ‘Kenny, you possibly can not have made this any extra handy.’ ’’

Kenny Roger Classic poster

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

Earlier than the competitions started, the athletes and celebs — the 15 invitees together with Rogers — had been divided into 4 groups. Exterior of bass fishing, the opposite three sports activities had been arrange in order that the star in that sport couldn’t dominate. For instance, in basketball, the professionals might rating solely 12 factors in a sport to 22.

On the basketball court docket, tennis professional Roscoe Tanner was matched up in opposition to Calcavecchia. Tanner relaxed and thought: “He’s a golfer. I can deal with this.”

However then the ball moved and the tennis professional discovered himself matched in opposition to Fowl.

“He seems down at me and begins laughing,” mentioned Tanner, who gained the 1977 Australian Open. “I felt like a bit child guarding their dad.”

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

“No, no. I’m ready for you,” Fowl mentioned.

So Tanner rushed out, grabbed Fowl’s fitness center shorts and mentioned: “If you happen to shoot, your shorts are coming down.”

“Not an issue,’’ Fowl mentioned.

“He stood lifeless nonetheless,” Tanner mentioned. “Shot a 3-pointer, made it and checked out me like, ‘What an fool.’ ’’

McEnroe, the tennis Corridor of Famer, grew up in New York. He might hoop. Harrelson had sport. Calcavecchia and fellow golfer Lanny Wadkins weren’t dangerous. Most everybody else was simply attempting to outlive in opposition to NBA stars. It wasn’t simple.

Calcavecchia thought he would set a display on Jordan — a legit basketball play. Jordan responded with an elbow to the golfer’s stomach. “Proper the place it knocks the wind out of you,” Calcavecchia mentioned. “On the previous VHS I had of (the occasion), you possibly can hear me go ‘WHOOYA,’ proper when he elbowed me. The entire crowd heard it. I might barely transfer after that.”

“They took it fairly severely,’’ mentioned former College of Georgia basketball coach Hugh Durham, who officiated the basketball video games. “Michael drove in a single time and he says, ‘That man fouled me.’ I mentioned, ‘You’re the most effective participant on the earth. Simply suppose what that man’s obtained to suppose for the remainder of his life.’ And Michael mentioned, ‘We’re enjoying for some huge cash!’ ’’

On the tennis court docket, Jordan made up for his inexperience with athletic capacity. (And confidence. One yr, Curren, the tennis professional, remembered Jordan and Barkley arguing over who was the higher athlete. They determined to play a set of tennis for $10,000. Jordan gained simply.)

“It was absolutely the dream to play basketball with Jordan, after which I performed tennis with him,” mentioned Curren, who gained doubles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. “That was much more fascinating to witness his motion on the court docket.

“As a tennis participant, you may see when a shot is hit, earlier than it’s hit, the way it’s creating. They might do a drop shot and I might have like a two-step begin on him. Subsequent factor I might see this man coming previous me and his steps are like thrice the dimensions of my steps.”

The one place Jordan’s explosiveness didn’t translate — the fishing competitors. Every crew had a bass boat together with a fishing information. Jordan had no curiosity. The water made him nervous. Nonetheless, golfer Raymond Floyd put the basketball star’s thoughts relaxed.

“Michael, when you fall overboard, simply arise,’’ he mentioned. “It’s solely 5-feet deep. You’ll be high quality.”

Because it turned out, Jordan caught the most important bass his first yr, which netted him $5,000. Based on Rogers’ memoir, the world’s best basketball participant provided Floyd half of the prize cash to take the fish off the hook.

The 1989 occasion got here right down to Harrelson. As a substitute of attending the forty first Primetime Emmy Awards, the “Cheers” star stood over a 5-foot putt, needing to sink it to present his crew, which included Jordan, the occasion championship.

By way of the years, the Rogers weekend featured mild moments. In his memoir, Rogers wrote about taking pictures cube with Thomas and dropping $1,000 in about three minutes. Simpson mentioned his 8-year-old son Chris slipped a frog contained in the pocket of Barkley’s exercise pants.

“And I inform you what, Charles misplaced it,” Simpson mentioned. “I imply, you’d’ve thought he put a rattlesnake in his pocket. It was hilarious.”

One yr, Tanner missed a putt, costing his crew $10,000, and then-wife Charlotte stormed over and hurled his putter into a close-by lake.

However this was critical.

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

“He’s lining up a foot and a half to the best, and it’s a lifeless straight putt,’’ Simpson mentioned. “And I mentioned, ‘Ho, ho, ho.’ I squatted down behind him and mentioned, ‘I’m going to line up the putter’. And it was similar to the film “Caddyshack.” Larry Fowl and my buddy Payne Stewart are over there saying, ‘Miss it! Miss it! Miss it!’ I informed Woody: ‘Now take one look and hit it.’ ”

Along 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 leaping round like that they had simply gained the NBA championship,” Junkermann mentioned.

To at the present time, Simpson has a photograph of the Harrelson putt displayed in his basement. Curren nonetheless has the miniature trophies he gained. Tanner mentioned it was among the best weekends he’s ever had. Which begs the query:  Might one thing like this occur right now?

Celeb golf tournaments are frequent, however occasions just like the Rogers Weekend will not be. Years in the past, Junkermann thought of an analogous occasion with nation star Garth Brooks however the thought didn’t get far. With out Beaver Dam Farms, which Rogers bought in 2003, location was a difficulty.

“Yeah, there’s most likely no method,’’ Wadkins mentioned. “The cash has gone up so excessive. They most likely wouldn’t do one thing like this and in plenty of methods jeopardize their profession by doing one thing out of the norm for a reasonably small amount of cash in comparison with what individuals receives a commission right now.”

Others disagree.

“Basketball gamers, I do know they’ve contracts and issues that sort of prohibit them from doing issues the place they could get damage,” Calcavecchia mentioned. “However a bit half-court sport and golf, fishing and tennis, the chances of getting damage are fairly slim, fairly truthfully. Basketball’s most likely probably the most dangerous of the 4. However you possibly can even throw bowling in there. I do know (basketball star) Chris Paul likes to bowl and he has a star match.”

Possibly sometime all the things will line up once more. The timing. The host. The celebs. The situation. Till then, the Rogers occasion will dwell on by means of reminiscences.

“It was a blast,” Wadkins mentioned. “It actually was. Only a one-of-a-kind factor.”

(Picture illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; images courtesy Kelly Junkermann)

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