At some point in the last decade or so, the US Olympic men’s basketball team seems to have ceased being referred to as the “Dream Team.’’ It’s a term that still pops up from time to time, such as when LeBron James compared his 2008 Olympic squad with the iconic 1992 gold medalists, or, in NBA circles, when a couple of superstars manipulate free agency to try to form a super-team.
But one doesn’t hear it much anymore, and that’s a good thing. The gradual abandonment of that term is appropriate and probably overdue, for as an upcoming film reminds us, the only team worthy of that designation was the very first one.
NBA TV’s much-anticipated documentary, “The Dream Team,’’ premieres on the network next Wednesday at 9 p.m., marking the 20-year anniversary of the most talented and transcendent basketball team ever assembled, and possibly the greatest team ever in any sport.
Narrated by Ed Burns and running 90 minutes, it features candid interviews with all 12 players (11 future Hall of Famers and amateur selection Christian Laettner, whom Michael Jordan refers to as “the college guy’’) and mesmerizing behind-the-scenes footage, capturing the frenzy in Barcelona as the first US team to use professionals became a phenomenon that accelerated the growth of the sport worldwide.
“It’s a watershed moment in the history of sports,’’ Michael Wilbon says with perfect perspective during the film. “Not just the Olympics. Not just basketball. It moved the culture along.’’
Producer Zak Levitt said the documentary took approximately two years to make, though the extensive footage shot of the team in 1992 “set the bar in the field,’’ making this project essentially an inevitability.
“We knew we had this footage in our archives, but were just waiting for the right time,’’ Levitt said. “Twenty years seemed right.
“It’s a story that’s so near and dear to their hearts, and to fans’ hearts, and the fondness has grown over the years. In all these years, these guys have done countless interviews, and yet they all remember this trip, even small details, like it was yesterday.
“They were all very willing and, I think, excited to talk about it, and once the cameras started rolling, all 12 of the guys gave us some really incredible stuff.’’
That’s not the exaggeration of someone blinded by intimate involvement in a project. It’s the truth. Having seen a rough cut, I can confirm it’s a nostalgic reminiscence and celebration of a compelling team and time that can never be duplicated.
The most incredible stuff is footage of two scrimmages so legendary and mysterious that it was fair to wonder whether they were apocryphal. Footage provided by USA Basketball, some of it from Chuck Daly’s coach’s tape, proves the stories to be true. Levitt said that, to his knowledge, the footage has never been made public.
One scrimmage features the only team to defeat the Dream Team. A group of college stars including Grant Hill and Chris Webber was brought in presumably as sacrificial lambs during early practice sessions, only to beat the US team by 8 points.
The film reveals that the victory might not have been on the level, and the Dream Team crushed them in the next meeting. But an impression was made.
Said Larry Bird, “Chris Webber was a man. I thought, ‘Boy, if he’s coming into this league, I’ve got to get out of here.’ ’’
The second scrimmage features two players long established in the league who were battling to become the team’s alpha dog. After a sloppy performance in a pre-Olympic game against France, Daly knew what would get his team focused: playing against each other.
So he put Jordan on one side, Magic Johnson on the other, threw the ball out there, and knew that nothing more would be required to stoke their competitive fires. What was perhaps the most star-studded and competitive basketball game ever played was held in a staid college gym in front of empty yellow seats.
To this day, Jordan remembers who was on his side: “Me, Scottie [Pippen], [Chris] Mullin, Bird, Patrick [Ewing], and Magic had his five. I said, ‘You can have the college guy [Laettner]. The college kid couldn’t help either one of the teams.’ ’’
By most accounts, Jordan exerted his dominance.
“When you see that look,’’ said Pippen, “just give him the damn ball and get out of the way.’’
Another fascinating angle concerns a legend of the era who wasn’t on the team. Isiah Thomas, the great Pistons point guard, was a notable exclusion, and the suspicion through the years is that Jordan, whose Bulls were bitter rivals with the Bad Boy Pistons, gave a him-or-me ultimatum.
Jordan eludes the question, but Pippen, among the most engaging players in the documentary, offers a window into how Thomas was perceived.
“I despised the way that he played the game,’’ said Pippen. “No, I did not want him on the team.’’
Pippen is asked whether Jordan wanted him on the team. A smile slowly creases his face.
“Well, I can’t speak for Michael,’’ he says, then pauses a beat. “But I don’t think he wanted him on the team.’’
Perhaps I’ve already tipped off too much, but trust me when I say there are countless other wonderful, compelling scenes and anecdotes: from the great friendship between Bird and Ewing (“I got a white guy from Indiana and a brother from Jamaica,’’ surmises Charles Barkley, a riot as always); footage of the relentless adulation of the fans in Barcelona; and poignant comments from Bird and Johnson on why it meant so much to them to be part of the one and only Dream Team, the coolest fraternity imaginable.
“I think that they did realize going into it that they were going to be making history,’’ Levitt said. “But I think what came out of it was somewhat a surprise to all of them. And that was the friendships that were formed - very unique friendships that probably never would have been established had this never taken place.
“And for all of us, it’s a phenomenon I don’t think can ever be duplicated. The Dream Team took basketball to another level. This was really the beginning of global icons of sport, the way they were marketed.
“With social media now, it would be a very different experience. You had this one moment in time with some of greatest players ever to play the game showing the world how to play basketball.’’