Sports Illustrated Daily, July 20, 1996

Sports Illustrated Daily Feature Story

Dream's Team

In his debut on a U.S. national squad, Hakeem Olajuwon steps into the invaluable role of model citizen

by Phil Taylor

There is more truth in advertising than you might think. In a Visa commercial in which members of the men's U.S. Olympic basketball team are employed to plug the credit card, Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon takes the podium at a huge banquet for what are supposed to be Olympic basketball teams from around the world. Acting as host, Olajuwon announces that he and his U.S. teammates are going to "treat these guys for lunch." Mortified, one of Olajuwon's teammates, Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen, whispers to him that he was supposed to declare that the U.S. squad would "eat these guys for lunch."

Hakeem Olajuwon

The Nigerian-born Olajuwon hears "The Star-Spangled Banner" in his dreams.

photograph by
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBA Photos


Truth is, Olajuwon did not misspeak. The Dream Team, which begins its march to an almost certain gold medal tonight against Argentina at the Georgia Dome, is, in fact, on a dual mission in these Games: to demolish the competition and to do so in a gentlemanly manner -- in other words, to dominate but not celebrate, at least not in the unseemly fashion that some members of the 1994 edition of the Dream Team did. That squad won the gold medal at the world championships in Toronto but tarnished its achievement with taunts, crotch-grabbing and other demonstrations of boorish behavior. It was with that embarrassment in mind that C.M. Newton, president of USA Basketball and a former member of the Olympic selection committee, vowed that the Dream Team the U.S. sent to Atlanta would be a squad with "character, not characters."

The committee made good on Newton's promise. The 1994 Dream Team, particularly center Alonzo Mourning and forwards Derrick Coleman, Shawn Kemp and Larry Johnson, was a glaring, sneering bunch, so defiant that Johnson proudly declared them the All-Principal's Office team. The current edition, with such solid citizens as Olajuwon, forward Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons and center David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, is overwhelmingly populated with players so well-behaved they could be the Hall Monitor All-Stars. Membership on the '94 team was seen largely as an audition for this year's squad, but the only holdovers from two years ago are guard Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers and center Shaquille O'Neal, now of the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I think the message is clear that the NBA and USA Basketball want to win and win big, but they want to do it in a certain way," says Robinson, who was also a member (with current Dream Teamers Pippen, forward Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns and forward Karl Malone and guard John Stockton of the Utah Jazz) of the original Dream Team, at the 1992 Barcelona Games. "It's not for me to judge other teams or other players, but I think that some of the behavior that might be acceptable when you're playing pickup with your friends isn't acceptable when you're playing in international competition in front of the world."


The mild-mannered Robinson, heads a cast with character—not characters.

photograph by
David Liam Kyle


David Robinson

Those are exactly the kind of words officials from the NBA and USA Basketball want to hear. "People ask if we have talked to these players about avoiding the kind of behavior that drew criticism in '94," says Rod Thorn, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball operations and chairman of the Olympic selection committee. "But if you look at the roster, you realize that we have the kind of players who don't need to be cautioned about that."

This is the rare team whose standard of behavior may be set by a rookie, of sorts. The Nigerian-born Olajuwon, nicknamed Hakeem the Dream, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1993 and is representing his new country for the first time in international competition at the Atlanta Games. In a sense, this really is Dream's Team. "These are Hakeem's Olympics in a lot of ways," Miller says. "He's the best player in the league who hasn't had the chance yet to wear USA on his chest. Playing in the Olympics means a lot to all of us, but I'm not sure anybody appreciates it more than he does. I'm sure that, in a sense, we're all going to follow his lead."

For those who are concerned about the U.S. team's image, it helps that Olajuwon happens to be perhaps the most widely respected player among his peers for his dignity and sportsmanship. "Every team has a player or two who sets a tone," says U.S. Olympic coach Lenny Wilkens of the Atlanta Hawks. "If one of those players is Dream, as I expect it will be, then we'll be in excellent shape." If Olajuwon had not been held in such high regard, the NBA and USA Basketball might not have gone to the lengths they did to ensure his Olympic eligibility.

Olajuwon played for a Nigerian junior team in the All-Africa Games in 1980 before coming to the U.S. and enrolling at the University of Houston later that year, and FIBA, the governing body of international basketball, has a rule that prohibits players who have represented one country in international competition from switching to play for another country in the same sport. A second rule states that an athlete who changes nationalities must go through a three-year waiting period after he officially informs FIBA of the change before he can play in international competition. Although Olajuwon became a U.S. citizen on April 2, 1993, he did not inform FIBA of the change until September of that year, which means the Olympics will begin before that three-year period is over. But more than a year of lobbying by the NBA and USA Basketball persuaded FIBA officials to grant Olajuwon special permission to play.

"It is the most wonderful feeling," Olajuwon said after he was declared eligible. "It makes me feel like I have completed my journey. I try to imagine what it is going to feel like the first time I walk onto the floor wearing this uniform. I close my eyes and try to hear the music when they play the U.S. national anthem at the Olympics."

Olajuwon's desire to play in the Olympics is the kind of story NBA and USA Basketball officials hope will humanize the Dream Team a bit and convince the public that they are not just a group of multimillionaires who interrupted their off-season golf schedules to mop up the court with the rest of the basketball world. The Games do mean far more than that to many of the players, especially guard Mitch Richmond of the Sacramento Kings, who as a collegian (along with Robinson) settled for a bronze medal as a member of the 1988 team that lost to the Soviet Union; Stockton, who played very little in Barcelona because of a broken right leg suffered a month before the start of the Games; and Hill, who had hoped to play in the 1992 Games as a collegian before the decision was made to turn the Games over to the pros.

Still, it won't be easy for the players to avoid being seen as pampered prima donnas. They are housed at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta instead of in the Olympic Village with most of the other athletes, which USA Basketball officials insist is more of a necessity than a privilege. "The simple fact is that the Angolan runner can function in the Olympic Village better than the NBA player," says Craig Miller, USA Basketball's assistant executive director for media relations. "Sometimes that gets interpreted as elitism or pampering, but it's not. These players are such stars that they cause a major scene with autograph seekers and hangers-on wherever they go. Having the players stay outside the Village makes things run more smoothly for all involved." The players will be gently encouraged, however, to attend other Olympic events and to occasionally make themselves visible in and around the Village.

Barkley

The fun-loving Barkley, sneaking up on a TV reporter in Chicago, is still incident-prone.

photograph by
John Biever


Olajuwon will have more than enough help in setting a sportsmanlike tone for the Dream Team, not only from some of his teammates but also from Wilkens, the low-key but highly respected coach who holds the NBA record for most lifetime wins (1,014). "Lenny's not the kind of coach who has to yell at you to get you to play hard," says Malone. "He's more like a father figure. He makes guys want to behave themselves so he won't be disappointed in them."

In the past some current Dream Teamers have demonstrated disappointing comportment. Miller, for instance, is a master of trash talk and the trash gesture. His placing of his two hands around his throat in a choke sign to film director and New York Knicks fan Spike Lee in the 1994 playoffs is legendary. Pippen is notorious for refusing to reenter a tied playoff game with 1.8 seconds left because the final play was not designed for him to take the shot, and he once threw a chair onto the court in a dispute with a referee.

And then, of course, there is Barkley, the hands-down favorite as the U.S. player most likely to create an international incident. In one of the more memorable moments in Barcelona, the muscular, 252-pound Barkley elbowed slender Angolan forward Herlander Coimbra for no discernible reason. The bad news for Coimbra, who is again on the Angolan team (which plays the U.S. on Monday night), is that Barkley hasn't mellowed. "I'd hit him again, just like last time," says Sir Charles with a smile. "My way of saying, 'Welcome to the States.'"

But Barkley realizes that such mayhem is less objectionable when it is done with a twinkle in the eye rather than a sneer on the lips. That is a subtlety some members of the 1994 Dream Team apparently never grasped. It was Kemp who grabbed himself following a dunk, and Coleman, Johnson and Mourning kept up a steady stream of trash talk while humiliating their opponents. Several teams didn't take kindly to the behavior of some U.S. stars. Johnson and guard Orlando Vega of Puerto Rico nearly came to blows in one game, and after a loss to the U.S., Australian forward Andrew Gaze expressed what undoubtedly were the sentiments of many teams. "I don't know if vile is the right word, or disgusting," said Gaze, who had been a standout at Seton Hall. "There should be at least some pleasure in playing the game, some dignity."

But the U.S. players were unapologetic. "I didn't come here to make friends," Johnson said during the tournament. "I've got enough friends. We came here to kick some behind, and that's what we're doing. We're basically taking a lot of countries to school."

But the rest of the NBA players may have learned the most important lesson: The Olympic selection committee has such a vast pool of stars to choose from that the troublesome ones need not apply. It is a foregone conclusion that every Dream Team's medal is expected to be made of gold. From now on, the members of those teams will be the players who treat the U.S. image as something equally precious.

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