BOSTON — “The Dream Team” is such a quintessentially American notion — high-school hardwood on a fast break through Hollywood — that it is easy to forget that it wasn’t an American dream in the first place.
The National Basketball Association, a visionary league regarding its international potential, had been carefully nurturing the game in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. It was dismayed at the prospect of sending a team of NBA superstars to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where it would certainly dismantle — quite possibly in unseemly fashion — and perhaps discourage teams from the game’s nascent outposts.
Rather it was the international basketball community that demanded that the United States send its best to Barcelona. It believed that only by witnessing a shining example could the rest of the world find both instruction and inspiration that would, ultimately, enable it to take aim at the game’s greatest heights. Their notion was simple: that which does not kill us will only make us stronger.
On Friday, in testament to just how right those folks proved to be, the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, aka “The Dream Team,” will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. In the city where the game was launched with a ball and a peach basket, fans can contemplate the extraordinary revolution that the Dream Team ushered into the basketball universe.
The 1992 Dream Team, was the real deal, led by the three players who had dominated the NBA — Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan — for more than a decade. Bird and Johnson had arrived on opposite coasts — with the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers respectively — back in 1979 and Jordan would come along six years later. In the 13 years between the debuts of Larry and Magic and the duo’s swan song in Barcelona, those three players won 10 NBA championships (and Jordan would go on to claim four more).
The Dream Team stormed Barcelona in a fashion that recalled how the Beatles took New York three decades earlier. Think Bird as Lennon, the cerebral one (in a basketball sense only), Magic with his megawatt smile as popular Paul and MJ as George, the hidden genius. If you insist on a comic turn a la Ringo, well Charles Barkley was along for the ride.
Maybe there weren’t teenage girls fainting at the sight of the American ballers. But there was a frenzy of boys and young men following the players every step of the way and the gawk quotient was extraordinary. Even opposition players sometimes seemed content to stand on the court and stare; at times it was all they could do to stop themselves from applauding the basketball magic being woven at their expense.
The Dream Team played its role to perfection. It treated its opponents as worthy by playing hard and playing well. In the opening game, the U.S. beat Angola by 68 points and Barkley threw a vicious elbow at a scrawny Angolan forward. American reporters decried the gratuitous cheap shot in the middle of a runaway game, but the Angolan players as well as foreign sportswriters embraced the thuggery as emblematic of newfound respect.
The Americans averaged 117 points a game and weren’t remotely challenged until the gold-medal contest when Croatia managed to lose by just 32 points. It was “Showtime” ramped to the rafters and it demonstrated to eager kids around the world — imagine 15-year-old Manu Ginobli watching in Argentina, 13-year-old Hedo Turkoglu in Turkey, 12-year-old Pau Gasol in Spain, 12-year-old Dirk Nowitzki in Germany, 11-year-old Yao Ming in China, 10-year-old Tony Parker in France — that soccer was not the only beautiful game.
The so-called “Dream Teams” that America sent to subsequent world championships and Olympics were imposters, pale shadows of the original. And it didn’t take long for effort to take on a nightmarish hue. Only a decade after Barcelona, foreign teams were schooling the cocky Yanks in the virtues of basketball played with a firm grasp on fundamentals and the concepts of team play.
At the 2002 world championships, on a U.S. home court in Indianapolis, the NBA aggregate finished a mortifying sixth. Two years later, at the Athens Olympics, the American team lost to Lithuania, Argentina and Puerto Rico before scrambling to salvage a bronze medal. And four years later, it required the most talented team since Barcelona — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony — to outlast Spain and reclaim America’s perch at the top of medal podium.
Now the Dream Teamers will take their rightful — and lofty — perch in the Hall of Fame, where so many of them are already enshrined for their individual achievements. Thanks in no small part to their performances, basketball today is that other of the world’s games. So when MJ finally soared his last, leaving behind a talent and charisma chasm, it was foreign players as much as any that reinvigorated the league with their talent and passion. That’s the Dream Team’s gift to the game and it has the added virtue of being eternal.