BOSTON — On Aug. 12 in Chicago, the United States Olympic Hall of Fame held its ceremonies with its usual starry roster, and before a crowd of an estimated 3,600 people.
But even amid an induction class that included sprinter Michael Johnson, whose Atlanta ’96 performance sent shivers up my spine, and executive Peter Ueberroth, who is credited with saving the modern Olympic movement with his profit-turning ’84 L.A. Games, the glitteriest will be the ’92 men’s Olympic basketball team, better known as “The Dream Team.”
There has never been a basketball assemblage — possibly never a team in any sport — to rival both the talent and celebrity of that ’92 team. It started with basketball’s holy trinity of Michael, Magic and Larry — they who need no last names — along with a supporting cast of basketball Hall-of-Famers including Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler and David Robinson.
The ’92 Barcelona Games was the first Olympics at which basketball featured National Basketball Association stars. It was not, however, at the insistence of the United States, but rather at the urging of the rest of the basketball universe that believed an NBA showcase at the Olympics would help propel the growth of the game elsewhere.
Vancouver 2010 will be my 12th Olympics and I don’t remember another where an athlete or a group of athletes owned the city as that basketball team did in Barcelona. It was something like “Entourage” on steroids, where the Dream Teamers were not only the star actors, but the directors, producers and studio magnates too. On the court, the team delivered basketball wizardry. They opened with a 68-point rout of Somalia, averaged an almost unimaginable 117 points a game throughout the tourney and finally faced their toughest challenge in gold-medal game when they slipped past Croatia by only 32 points.
There was some concern expressed in journalistic circles that the team was not exemplifying good sportsmanship and Olympic values in running up the scores. But you didn’t hear that from opposition players or coaches. Perhaps you had to be there to fully appreciate how much the other teams wanted the Dream Team to hit them with its best shot — sometimes appearing to stand around to watch in awe and other times appearing to have to restrain themselves from breaking into applause.
The U.S. team delivered in the larger sense too, just as the international basketball establishment had dreamed. The NBA had been a visionary league well before Barcelona, proselytizing internationally and promoting its game in Europe, Asia and Africa. The Dream Team in effect sealed the deal, delivering a basketball clinic that demonstrated to the world that soccer was not the only beautiful game.
The “Dream Teams” that would follow at world championships and Olympics in years to come weren’t worthy of the name, pale imitations of the original (though, in fair, last year’s Beijing ballers came close). By the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the European, Latin American, Chinese and African kids that had gone to school on the ’92 team were giving America all it could handle. At the Sydney Olympics, the NBA stars kept the undefeated streak alive — but just barely, nipping Lithuania by two points in the semis, then slipping by France for the gold medal.
By 2002, the Dream Team had become something of a nightmare. At the world championships, held in Indianapolis, the American team was the one being schooled. On its home court, the Yanks lost to both Argentina and Yugoslavia and wound up finishing sixth behind teams from three different continents. That was just prelude to the embarrassment at the 2004 Olympics, where the Americans lost to Argentina, Lithuania and, most stunning of all, Puerto Rico — and had to rally to salvage a bronze medal.
Four years later in Beijing, a team led by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade re-established America’s basketball supremacy. But it wasn’t easy and it clearly never will be again. So kudos to that original ‘”Dream Team,” which not only delivered the gold, but with interest to boot. It is the gift that keeps on giving, in the form of dozens of players who back then were in their basketball infancy and today are NBA stars that have rejuvenated the league with their quality play and passion.
Those players — from Yao Ming to Dirk Nowitzki, from Tony Parker to Pau Gasol, from Hedo Turkoglu to Emaka Okafur, from Andrei Kirilenko to Andrew Bogut to Andrea Bargnani, from Nene to Manu Ginobili — represent an extraordinary legacy.