After the last Patsy had been pasted, the last flashbulb exploded and the last contretemps resolved with American flags and unfastened zippers, the millionaire members of the Dream Team winged their way home from Barcelona on Sunday morning, gold medals around their gold-chained necks. The question for the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team had not been if, but when; not how, but how much. The 117-85 victim for the gold medal on Saturday was Croatia, a team with an intriguing story of its own but doomed to be the most overshadowed silver medalist in Olympic basketball history.
Now for the real question: Will the 1996 Atlanta Games bring a Dream Team II? Or was the combination of factors that brought together 12 of the world's best players in a harmonic hoop convergence a once-in-a-lifetime whirl? Bet on the latter.
"You could call it unbelievable timing," said Chris Mullin after the gold medal game. "All these scenarios coming together. How badly we wanted to get back the gold. A number of top players in their prime, and a couple of others [Magic Johnson and Larry Bird] at the end of their careers. And everybody willing to throw egos, individual statistics and all that other stuff out the window to prepare to be the best team ever." He shook his head. "Nope, it won't happen again."
Said Magic to the press: "When will there be another Olympic team as good as this one? Well, you guys won't be around, and neither will we."
Actually, Croatia was around a little longer than anyone had expected in the final, longer, at least, than had been any of the Americans' seven previous victims, one of which was Croatia. The Dream Team trailed 25-23 midway through the first half, larger) because of the efforts of Toni Kukoc, a 6'10" bundle of talent who had been nearly invisible in the U.S.'s 103-70 victory over Croatia on July 27. But on Saturday the Dream Team pulled away steadily from that point on, thus sparing the basketball world the equivalent of a thermonuclear explosion.
"We weren't worried," said Michael Jordan, who led the Dreamers with 22 points. "When you hire 12 Clint Eastwoods to come over and do a job, you don't tell them which bullets to put in their guns."
You don't tell them what to wear to the medal ceremony, either. Jordan and Charles Barkley both wrapped themselves in the American flag to cover the small Reebok label that appeared on the jacket of the official U.S. medal-ceremony warmup suit. Magic, whose endorsement status has been in limbo since he recently announced a split with Converse, did likewise. And the other nine Dreamers all partially unzipped their jackets, so that the company name was at least partially obscured.
Jordan had been the most outspoken about not displaying the Reebok name—he tossed his award suit to NBA public relations director Brian McIntyre after the ceremony and said, "I certainly don't want it"—but fellow Nike endorser John Stockton didn't waste any time taking off his suit either. "Oops, I'm not supposed to be wearing this," said Stockton, as he peeled off the top and bottom during a postgame interview.
It was unfortunate, though probably inevitable, that such peripheral issues trailed in the wake of the Dream Team, because its play was magnificent. It is no small feat to come into a tournament expected to win every game by 30 points—and then to go out and win every game by 30 points. (The actual average margin of victory over eight opponents was 43.8.) The Dreamers did turn their intensity on and off like water from a spigot, but they constantly needed to invent challenges to keep themselves interested. For the most part, they succeeded. Ultimately, the only standard by which they could judge their play was their own level of expectation, and that's a tough way to compete. All expectations, however, were met, including those of U.S. coach Chuck Daly, who concluded, "This was a majestic team."
Kudos to the Losers