Shaquille O'Neal's body makes for interesting reading. O'Neal, the Orlando Magic center who last year had a Superman emblem tattooed on his massive left biceps, apparently felt the need to balance it with something equally humble on his right. So he recently had a drawing of a fist gripping a globe emblazoned on his arm, along with a simple declaration. "The World," reads 22-year-old Shaq's new artwork, "is Mine."
That message served two purposes at the World Championship of Basketball in Toronto, which O'Neal and his NBA teammates on the U.S. squad won with expected ease, wrapping it up with a 137-91 victory over Russia in the gold medal game on Sunday. The tattoo was an intimidating reminder to any foreign player with the temerity to venture into the lane close enough to read it, and it summed up the attitude that the brash U.S. players, otherwise known as Dream Team II, brought with them into the tournament.
It was easy to understand their confidence. In a basketball sense, they do own the world, as they proved by administering a thrashing to every team they played in the eight-game, 11-day tournament. Dream Team II won by an average of 37.8 points, and the closest anyone came was Spain, a 115-100 loser in a game that wasn't as tight as the score indicated. "We're basically taking a lot of countries to school," U.S. forward Larry Johnson said after a 134-83 victory over Puerto Rico. The U.S. players all took turns being the teacher. O'Neal and Shawn Kemp dunked, Reggie Miller and Dan Majerle tossed in three-pointers, Derrick Coleman and Alonzo Mourning blocked shots, Kevin Johnson went coast-to-coast for layups, and the classy Joe Dumars did a little of everything.
But while they were giving the rest of the world basketball lessons, the U.S. players might have learned a thing or two themselves. At least they should have. The NBA is depending on its young stars, many of whom populated Dream Team II, to fill the vacuum created by the retirements of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who led the original Dream Team to the 1992 Olympic gold medal. The world championships may have made the league's new generation of stars fully understand the immensity of that task. This year's Dream Teamers were constantly compared with their predecessors and found wanting, not because they couldn't match the originals' 43.8 average margin of victory but because they could not duplicate their mystique. Where the first Dream Team had an aura, the second had mostly attitude.
That cockiness showed in the way several Dream Team II players, including Miller and Mourning, declared that they would beat Jordan & Co. if the two teams ever played. Then there was the typical NBA trash talk, which the U.S. players seemed to save for opponents who could understand it. "They had a lot to say," said Australian guard Andrew Gaze. "We were taken a little off guard by the way they were treating us. I don't think it was anything against us, though. It's just part and parcel of their normal behavior. Some of it was humorous, some of it you wouldn't want to repeat." Although the talking was nothing out of the ordinary for NBA players, it only heightened some of the criticism the U.S. team was already drawing.
"It seems like we can't win," Mourning said. "If we don't win by a ton of points, everybody says we're not as good as the Dream Team. And if we do win by a lot, people say, 'Yeah, but it was more fun when the Dream Team did it.' "
It's true that no team could have measured up to the first Dream Team, in part because of the circumstances that surrounded the original. It featured three legends, two of whom, Magic and Bird, were putting the finishing touches on their careers. The attention focused on them was part adulation, part farewell tribute. And because it was the first team of its kind, no one could be quite sure of the results. Dream Team II suffered the way many sequels do. None of the original stars returned, and the show was basically a rehash of the same plot: U.S. domination.
But more than that, the original Dream Team had stars, Magic and Jordan in particular, who were ambassadors of the game. They realized that there is more to being a superstar than scoring averages, fat contracts and endorsement deals, that statistics don't guarantee stature. In addition to their estimable professional achievements—members of Dream Team I had accumulated a total of 12 NBA championship rings and nine MVPs, as opposed to two rings and 0 MVPs for this year's model—they understood the importance of cultivating their relationships with the public. That was largely why the first Dream Team created a sense of awe in fans and opponents that was lacking with their successors. Opposing teams asked to have their pictures taken with the original Dream Team; with Dream Team II, they were too busy figuring out ways to beat Dominique Wilkins off the dribble.
USA Basketball and the NBA might have learned something, as well—that simply attaching the Dream Team label to a team does not ensure popularity. In fact, the name caused so many negative comparisons to the first Dream Team that there is a strong possibility the league will drop the name for the NBA All-Star team that represents the U.S. in the 1996 Olympics.
Several members of Dream Team II will probably play in those Games, including O'Neal, the 7'1", 303-pound center whose 18.0 average led the team in scoring in Toronto. And while O'Neal was clearly the most popular American player, Miller, the Indiana Pacer shooting guard, probably gained the most new fans. His three-point shooting was sensational at times, especially in the win over Puerto Rico, when he outscored the Puerto Ricans 26-25 in the first half by draining eight three-pointers (the international three-point arc is 20'7" out, 3'2" closer than the NBA trey).