Team USA's allure based more on what it might not do than what it should
Posted: Friday August 13, 2004 11:39AM; Updated: Friday August 13, 2004 2:11PM
They were fashionably late, of course, caught in traffic so the story went, and considering the congestathon that is Athens these days, there is no reason to disbelieve it. The late arrival only increased the anticipation for the appearance of the United States men's basketball team Friday afternoon in Athens. The press-conference room was packed, the Olympic volunteers and many foreign journalists had their video cams and digitals at the ready, and an expectant buzz was in the air. Finally, the players and coaches arrived. First through the door was Allen Iverson and ... not much happened. A hum perhaps and an audible jostling for camera position, but not much else.
My thoughts returned to 1992 and a corresponding scene in Barcelona, where Dream Team I -- Dream Team Eternal -- sauntered into the hall for its first mass Olympic news conference. I'd like to tell you who was first in the door, but I don't remember. What I do recall is that with the first sign of the Dream Team the room burst into spontaneous applause. It was largely a congregation of journalists, remember, we theoretically objective chroniclers of world events. And it was like the Beatles had strode into a meeting of the Beatles Fan Club.
I bring this up now because of the contrast to the 2004 team, which, as captain and team leader Tim Duncan emphasized, should not be referred to as a Dream Team. ("That was the Dream Team," he said when somebody brought up '92. "There hasn't been one since.")
Still, the Americans are among the top draws in Athens. Players such as Duncan, Iverson and LeBron James are among the most acclaimed at the Games. Larry Brown will be considered, along with someone like longtime Cuban national boxing coach Alcides Sagarra, among the most guru-ish coaches at the Games.
But the U.S. team is in a perilous position. Once past the interest in personalities such as Iverson and James, the U.S. is a big story almost entirely because of its vulnerability. At the risk of oversimplifying, Athens is just waiting for them to lose.
In Barcelona, the sporting world was just waiting for the Dream Team to ... well, do anything. Smile, walk, talk, expel carbon dioxide -- ANYTHING! Every time I went to interview Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan or Larry Bird, some foreign journalist would stick his face behind the player and a friend of his would snap a photo. I'd express exasperation, then they'd ignore me and reverse positions.
Was there pressure on that Dream Team? Some. If it lost, it would have constituted -- and I don't think I'm exaggerating here -- literally the biggest upset in the history of sports. But it wasn't going to lose. It was a superb team, highly motivated and prepared, matched against a field that couldn't hope to compete against it.
That is not the case this time around. The U.S. is much weaker, the rest of the world is much stronger, and this American team is being probed and strobed more so its weak spots can be located, rather than so its image can be deified. In this ancient land where the Games began, how nice it would have been to be treated as gods. But it isn't 1992 anymore.