|Thursday, August 8
Updated: August 12, 11:38 AM ET
How the Dream Team idea came about
By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com
Funny thing about these dream teams. They seem to get less and less dreamlike as the years go by.
There was, of course, only one Dream Team and the moniker should have been retired immediately after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. That may well have been the greatest basketball team ever assembled (old timers will counter with the 1960 Olympic team which featured Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Adrian Smith, 19-year-old Terry Dischinger and Walt Bellamy.)
The 1992 team was the NBA's best and brightest at the time. Sure, there were a couple of lifetime achievement members in the just-retired Magic Johnson and the crippled Larry Bird. There was the still-unfathomable inclusion of Christian Laettner, a bone to those who still believed that amateurs should comprise the team. But it was hard to argue with any of the other members, from Michael Jordan to Karl Malone to Charles Barkley.
USA Basketball, which chooses and supports the Olympic teams, would have been content to send Laettner, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Tom Gugliotta, Bobby Hurley, Chris Webber and any other celebrated collegian of the time to Barcelona and taken its chances with that group. But FIBA, basketball's international governing body, wanted our best. Maybe they had still-raw memories of the pompous John Thompson, whose poorly selected and poorly coached team of collegians and would-be collegians had been exposed and beaten in Seoul in 1988.
So FIBA decided it was time to allow real, wage-earning pros -- read: NBA players -- to participate in basketball's international events. A group of august basketball minds picked 10 NBA players right away and then added Laettner and Clyde Drexler to complete the squad. Chuck Daly, the perfect coach for such a team, was given the reins and told to bring back the gold.
You didn't hear about anyone not wanting to participate, even though a handful of the 1992 Olympians had already received gold medals as amateurs. You didn't hear about guys wanting down time or working on their recording or film careers. Bird already had decided to retire because of a bad back; he would make it public shortly after the gold medal was placed around his neck. But he viewed the Olympics as a must. Johnson was retired, although he would make a comeback three years later. He, too, would not have thought about doing anything else. Jordan, Drexler and Scottie Pippen had just finished competing in the 1992 NBA Finals two months earlier. They all went, too, although there are stories to this day that Jordan agreed to go only if Isiah Thomas, a deserving candidate for the team, was not chosen. Thomas stayed home. Jordan went. Oliver Stone is still looking into that one.
That team, as expected, easily rolled to the gold medal and the Rubicon was now officially crossed. The NBA would now be sending its players to both the Olympics and the quadrennial World Championships, the latter of which is viewed around the world as equally important, if not more so, than the Olympics. But with each NBA-dominated team -- this year's group in Indianapolis will be the fifth with NBA players in international competition -- there seemingly has been less and less allure. Maybe it's because the first team was matchless in its star power and, well, it was the first. It would also be the last time that the absolute elite of the NBA gathered together, on one team, for all the world to see.
Two years after the Barcelona Olympics, USA Basketball selected its second team of NBA players for the 1994 World Championships in Canada. It quickly was dubbed Dream Team II. Nightmare Team I would have been more appropriate. While the team easily won the gold, the antics of Derrick Coleman, Shawn Kemp and others created a public relations williwaw. From then on, talent alone would not be the sole criterion for selection. There had to be a decorum component as well.
The 1996 Olympic Team, which featured five holdovers from Barcelona, easily won in Atlanta, although one lasting memory from that team is Penny Hardaway's long face when he discovered that O'Neal, a teammate on the Olympic squad, had decided to leave Orlando for the Lakers. In 1998, USA Basketball had a team all prepared to go to Athens for the Worlds when the NBA intervened with its lockout. Although USA Basketball technically is not affiliated with the NBA, the players saw no difference and decided not to go. The result was not Dream Team IV, but Sleep Apnea Team I, a collection of CBA and college players hastily assembled. It managed to win a bronze medal.
The U.S. then found itself in the rare position of having to qualify for the Sydney Olympics because of its third-place finish in Athens. So, with the lockout over, a team dominated by NBA players (along with three soon-to-be NBA players) crushed the competition in the 1999 zone qualifier in Puerto Rico. That team, with many of the same players, then went on to win the gold medal at Sydney, but not without getting a scare from Lithuania in the semifinals. It then defeated France -- FRANCE! -- by only 10 points in the gold medal game. Words like "vulnerable" started to appear in game stories involving the U.S. team.
The next U.S. entry in world competition will be the World Championships team competing later this month. A Dream Team? Hardly. In the last decade, more and more NBA stars have declined to participate in the summer, global tournaments. The 2002 World Championship team has no one from the All-NBA first team (although original selectee Jason Kidd has withdrawn from the team due to injury.) It has no one from the All-NBA second team, either. It does have three players from the All-NBA third team: Ben Wallace, Paul Pierce and Jermaine O'Neal.
We're still waiting for Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to don the red, white and blue. Maybe USA Basketball officials might shy away from Iverson -- see: decorum issues -- but Bryant and McGrady would seem to be no-brainers. But they choose not to play. Webber, who has been on one of the All-NBA teams for the last four years, also has not participated.
In other words, we're no longer sending our best. We're sending our most accommodating. And that can be a slippery slope because, for the most part, the other countries are sending their best. That's why the U.S. folks who select these teams go into the upcoming World Championships with fingers crossed. They know that the world is catching up and, if FIBA ever went to some sort of Ryder Cup format, the Europeans would probably prevail. It still may be a reach to expect the U.S. team not to prevail at Indianapolis, but it won't be a seismic shock if they don't. We've seen enough of Dirk Nowtizki, Peja Stojakovic and Steve Nash to expect the unexpected.
And as long as other countries' stars care more than the United States' stars, there will always be the possibility of an upset. You can understand Kobe and Shaq wanting to chill in the summer -- in the last three years, they've played more than 100 games a season if you count exhibitions and playoff games -- but, let's face it, most of the elite players are back in the gym at this time of year anyway and they love competition. What could be more fun and more competitive than going against some real NBA competition on a daily basis in training camp, and then going out and doing the same against some very decent international competition?
But as long as our best decide to stay on the sidelines, the dream team concept will continue to die a slow death. We can't offer the 2002 team up as any kind of dream team without an accompanying laugh track. (Maybe we should call it the Power Nap Team.) But U.S. officials also can't make guys want to participate. They can only extend the invitation and hope for the best. That isn't going to change. Shaq already has his gold medal. Think he's starving for another? Kobe turns 24 in two weeks; how frightening is that? He'll be Olympic material both for Athens and Beijing. But he has to want to go.
They all have to want to go. They all have to understand that they are going as both ambassadors and basketball players. The 1992 team understood that. They knew they were the chosen few, a group selected as much as for their popularity as their ability.
But, since then, we haven't seen too many Lithuanians or Brazilians asking teammates to snap their picture when they're guarding Vin Baker or Gary Payton. No one from Yugoslavia is going to be asking Wallace or Pierce for their autographs later this month at Conseco Fieldhouse. The U.S. might still have the best team. But the world already has awakened and quashed the notion that this, or any succeeding entry, will qualify as some sort of dream team. There was only one. But what a one it was.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.