BARCELONA -- Dream Team. L’Equipe du Reve. Equipo de Ensueno. Tim Snova.
A unit for a total of 49 days, from the first night in La Jolla till the MGM Grand charter touched down in the USA yesterday morning, the Dream Team created indelible memories for itself while doing what outside forces asked it to do. Winning the gold medal was never an issue to anyone but the United States. Showing the rest of the basketball world -- next to soccer/football, the second-largest sporting community on the planet -- exactly where it stood and where it needed to go was the Dream Team’s true mission.
Critics back in the States simply never understood that the rest of the world did not mind losing to The Greatest Team Ever Assembled by 40, 50 or even 60 points. The atmosphere in Barcelona was no different than the atmosphere in Portland for the Tournament of the Americas. The theme remained the same: Beat Me, Whip Me, Take My Picture.
Here is Brazil’s delightful Oscar Schmidt after his team has lost to the US by 44 points, and he has had five shots blocked: “I loved it. They are my idols. I will remember this game for the rest of my life.”
There was Lithuania’s Arturas Karnisovas sitting on the sideline, taking pictures while the game was in progress. There was Argentina’s Marcelo Milanesio, finding himself posted up by Magic Johnson, yelling for a teammate holding a movie camera to hurry up and get the picture.
To the world’s players, coaches and fans, the
American basketball stars were creatures from another planet who had come to demonstrate the beauty and scope of the game so they could learn and improve. They love basketball, and they want to get better. They dream of someday being at this level. Why is this basic, obvious and eminently laudable concept so difficult for so many Americans to grasp? Foreigners are truly puzzled when they hear that many people in the States objected to the Dream Team’s presence.
The 1992 Olympics were merely a first step. “For the world basketball to grow and learn to play at the American level,” says Schmidt, “they must send more teams like this to the World Cup and the Pan Am Games.”
See? Playing against someone better is the fastest way to improve. Anyone who has ever had a big brother or sister knows this.
Any random assortment of the top 50 American players could have accomplished this mission, of course, but what made this experience unique was the particular makeup of the American team. There will be an unstoppable USA entry in Atlanta four years hence, but there will never again be a Dream Team. That idea had a copyright, and it expired when the final buzzer sounded at the Palau d’Esports de Badalona Saturday.
Chuck Daly more than once likened being with his team to “traveling with 12 rock stars” -- the Spanish press was enraptured by the thought -- and he wasn’t just playing with words. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are more than just great basketball players. They are basketball royalty. These three have done more to put the NBA where it is today (nationally and globally) than all the previous players in league history put together, and it matters not even a little that of the three, only Jordan is in his prime. The presence of Bird and Magic gave true authenticity to the proceedings.
Daly recognized the Bird-Magic value immediately by appointing them cocaptains at the first practice in La Jolla. With eight championships, six MVP awards and a combined 22 All-Star Game appearances, who was going to argue?
The La Jolla week enabled these 12 mini-conglomerates to become a basketball team. Away from the court, they golfed. They played cards. They went out to dinner. They swapped stories. They talked trash. They discovered new things about each other. Who, for example, would ever have dreamed that Bird and Patrick Ewing would become blood brothers, or that the duo would become known as “Harry and Larry?”
It was like a high-class summer camp. As one player (who for perfectly obvious reasons shall remain nameless) observed, “The important thing was that there weren’t many women around. You didn’t have to worry about going shopping or what time you were going to dinner. It was just hanging out with the guys, and that enabled us to come together a lot quicker.”
In time the women and babies and mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and old college roommates would arrive, but by then the basic bond had been established. By the time the boys left La Jolla and headed to Portland for the Tournament of the Americas, the marketing concept known as the Dream Team was a true basketball team and was ready to get down to the American half of the agenda, which was to win back a gold medal lost to the the now-defunct USSR back in Seoul four years ago. Or, as Charles Barkley put it, “to bring the medal back where it belongs.”
Charles Barkley . . . where to begin?
On the court, Barkley proved to be the most dominant player of them all. Jordan chose to dole out occasional flashes of his brilliance (it was perfectly obvious, no matter what he said in the end, that he was more interested in playing exotic golf courses than anything else), but Barkley was relentless.
The international basketball set had never seen anything like this 6-foot- 4-inch, 255-pound marauder. He averaged a point a minute through 14 games and the exhibition against the French, and he dazzled crowds with his patented coast-to-coast perambulations, his monster dunks and his vicious rebounds.
Barkley was a daily story. Golfing with Payne Stewart. Attending other events. Strolling La Rambla at 3 a.m. Elbowing a semi-emaciated Angolan and refusing to apologize for it. Yelling at the crowd and getting a technical from an official who thought the verbiage had been directed at him. Waving to the crowd upon hearing the whistles (European boos) when he entered the game. Taking on USOC public relations director Mike Moran on not one, but two subjects (his USA Today daily as-told-to reflection and the Nike-Reebok medal stand controversy). Firing back at United States chef de mission Leroy Walker about athletes living in the village. Proclaiming daily how he is a “black millionaire” and that entitles him to this, that, the other thing, etc. Barkley finished up by saying his gold medal was going to his high school in Leeds, Ala., to prove that “if this fat black kid can make something of himself, another fat black kid from Leeds can, too.”
David Robinson summed up Barkley best by going Biblical on us. “It says in Scripture, ‘There is a way that seems right to a man,’ “ he said.
There isn’t much to analyze about the basketball this team played, other than to suggest that its best moments were actually hidden from the public. The average score from both Portland and Barcelona was 122-72. Michael hit a jumper, stole the ball and dunked. Barkley did whatever he wanted. Ewing and Robinson blocked shots and dunked. Scottie Pippen stole the ball, drove the floor and dunked. Clyde Drexler hit threes and, yes, dunked. Larry hit threes, made layups and threw touch passes we will not soon see again (regrettably, not all of them were caught). Chris Mullin spotted up for threes and scored layups off simple cuts.
Of the NBA Dreamers, only the Utah duo suffered professionally, John Stockton because he was not healthy and Karl Malone because he was dramatically overshadowed by Barkley. As for Christian Laettner, the longer the summer wore on, the more he became treated as the victory cigar. But he’ll have a lot to relate when the teacher asks for the annual “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay on the first day of school.
The most visible legacy of the team was its passing. There were moments when the ball sung arias as it passed from one set of marvelous hands to another. After watching the team beat Spain, assistant coach Mike Krzyzewski shook his head.
“People may say it’s overkill and all that,” said Coach K, “but there is no way anyone who professes to like basketball couldn’t appreciate that. Anyone who doesn’t is not a true basketball fan. You must understand what this team is doing, and its impact on the game. This is history -- and we’ll be seeing the benefit of it for the next decade.”
Croatia pushed the Dream Team a little, but the absence of real competition -- if any such thing exists -- prevented the squad from playing the Ultimate Game. Maybe there never was a chance. Schmidt, an NBA aficionado from afar, suggested that if the Dream Team played the next 12 best NBA players the Dream Team would win 10 games out of 10.
That’s why its finest moments were behind closed doors. On July 21, the Dreamers played the French National Team at Monte Carlo. It was a sloppy, dreary game. The next day Daly had an excuse to practice them hard for a good 45 minutes before making them scrimmage. He did the same a day later.
Those two scrimmages were, by all accounts, spellbinding. The first was a 2-pointer and the second ended in a tie when a concerned Daly, fearful that ‘’these guys might kill each other,” came running in, waving his hands and saying it was time to shoot free throws.
“The most fun we had on the trip was playing against each other in those scrimmages,” acknowledged Jordan. “It was a pickup atmosphere, with serious trash-talking.”
“The greatest basketball I’ve ever seen,” declared Magic.
And yet Bird, the third member of basketball’s Holy Trinity, disagrees. “I think our best basketball was against the college guys in San Diego,” he said.
The circumstance: In the first game, the college development team beats the Dreamers, 88-80. The Dreamers thought they had been trying. The next day they arrive with game faces on and get off to a 30-2 start, with the 2 being free throws.
“Those kids opened our eyes pretty good,” Bird recalls. “From that day on, we picked up.”
The Dream Team picked up in more ways than one. It picked up the gold medal. It picked up the sport and put it on display for the rest of the world to inspect and savor, and it picked up the momentum and flung it forward.
“It will be a little tough for them to live up to our expectations in ‘96,” Bird says. “There will never be anything like this again.”