July 16, 2012. Johnson Tee Yong Sern was taking a nap at the referees’ holding area at the Malawati Stadium, in Shah Alam ahead of the US Professional Basketball Alumni Association (PBAA) match against Kuala Lumpur Dragons.
“Suddenly I saw this man who looked like Dennis Rodman inches from me, asking me if he could borrow something. I can’t remember what he wanted but I answered ‘No’ and went back to sleep.
“Then I woke up again. I told myself it was no dream. Dennis Rodman was right in front of me and instead of talking to him, I went back to sleep instead. It’s hilarious … a wasted opportunity but an incident I will never forget,” said Tee.
Tee, 38, was one of three referees involved in the exhibition match at the venue just outside Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. The other two were Nelson Chan Owe Shiong and Eric Chang Yee Chuan.
The visiting team featured the likes of former Chicago Bulls stars like Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and other National Basketball Association (NBA) legends. PBAA visited Malaysia again the following year.
Tee was in primary school when Chicago Bulls started to dominate the NBA, marking the beginning of a dynasty that would be felt globally.
“I had to contain the fanboy in me throughout the match. We all grew up adoring Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. But as referees, we had to be professional. I didn’t even talk or take photographs with the players.”
Tee admitted he misses the Chicago Bulls team of that era – a team that won six NBA championships thanks to the likes of Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Steve Kerr, among others.
But the Chicago Bulls’ tale – which was recounted in a 10-episode series ‘The Last Dance’ on Netflix– is not about the sport alone.
Former national player K. Satyaseelan, who played against the legends in 2012, admitted it was a shame Jordan didn’t make the trip.
“Perhaps he was too expensive,” Satyaseelan quipped.
Jordan would have been surprised to see the impact he and the Bulls made on Malaysians. Satyaseelan said the star athlete was every kid’s idol.
“It wasn’t just me. Many others, including those who didn’t play basketball, admired him. Jordan was a talented player and so were others in the team.”
Basketball in Malaysia has always been predominantly played by the Chinese community.
“But Jordan changed that,” recalled Kenny Goh, the general manager of the Badminton Association of Malaysia.
“I grew up playing basketball and even softball,” revealed Goh who grew up in Kuantan, Pahang.
“Chicago Bulls’ success somehow united us. I had friends of different races but the bond further strengthened through basketball. I had Indian and Malay friends rushing to get the latest VHS (videos) of the Bulls in action. Some of them were really good players.
“We didn’t have cable television then and had to rely heavily on the newspapers for results or updates.”
Football and badminton are the most popular sports in Malaysia while the national basketball team often struggle to make an impression at the Southeast Asian region.
But throughout the 80s and 90s, the exploits of the Bulls touched the lives of many Malaysians – an era where the country was forced to dribble through two economic crisis (1985-1986 and 1997-1998) and somehow managed to rebound.
“I watched ‘The Last Dance’ and it jogged my memories of my younger days. The impact of that team was beyond basketball. There was also the cultural exchange.”
“People wore basketball shoes for leisure. They even wore the number 23 jersey when they were heading out to meet friends,” added Goh, referring to Jordan’s iconic jersey number.
“We always had that one friend who would own that expensive Air Jordan (shoes) and (NBA) jersey while most of us will be on the court in simple T-shirts, slippers or barefooted. Most of the time that friend would be the worst player on the court,” joked Goh.
Yaakub Hussaini, who is Kuala Lumpur Dragons general manager, echoed similar sentiments. He was at the Malawati Stadium in 2012.
“I’m a Magic Johnson fan but MJ was different. He was special,” said Yaakub.
“There was Kobe (Byrant), Lebron (James) but MJ was in his own league. What he could do, how we played the game and the way he marketed himself. His work ethics were amazing.
“If the 2012 match was promoted right, many more people would have turned up.”
Kuala Lumpur Dragons marketing manager Ken Yap, said Jordan and Chicago Bulls transformed the NBA into a lucrative global brand.
“There are many lessons to be learnt. How the league branded itself during the Jordan era. How the sports industry thrived significantly and how the USA market sports is something Malaysians must follow,” said Yap.
“Scripted or not, sports there is about talent and entertainment. Fans want that.”
One Malaysian who saw Jordan in action is the grandfather of Malaysian basketball, Datuk Yeoh Choo Hock.
Yeoh, then serving as the International Basketball Federation (FIBA)-Asia secretary-general, was part of the technical team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics that featured the Dream Team from the USA.
The Americans crushed Croatia 117-85 in the final to earn the gold medal.
“Before MJ it was about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Jordan and his Chicago Bulls team took the world by storm,” said Yeoh, who was made FIBA-Asia secretary-general emeritus after he suffered a stroke in 2012 – some five months before the PBAA-Kuala Lumpur Dragons match.
Yeoh is no stranger to the US basketball scene, having spent two weeks at the US Basketball Academy in the mid-90s. It was there he became close to the academy’s owner Bruce O’Neil, Louisiana State University coach Dale Brown and famous US basketball college coach John Wooden.
“It’s a pity MJ never came to Malaysia. I got to see him in action in Barcelona and to watch the Dream Team play Croatia in the final was a dream come true indeed,” said Yeoh.
“That was the beauty of Jordan and the Chicago team. They were ambassadors of the sport, American culture and the lifestyle. It is thanks to icons like them the status of the sport was raised to new heights.”