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Slam Dunk
Phil Taylor
August 12, 1996
Rarely challenged, a joyless Dream Team cruised to the gold and reemphasized the still-yawning talent gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world
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August 12, 1996

Slam Dunk

Rarely challenged, a joyless Dream Team cruised to the gold and reemphasized the still-yawning talent gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world

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The Dream Team may have dominated men's Olympic basketball, but players from other countries shone, too. Here's a mythical eight-man rotation of international players that might have given the U.S. a run for its money.




Big (6'7") and physical with soft shooting touch; ready for breakthrough NBA year with the Heat


A smooth scorer reminiscent of Gail Goodrich; scored 27 points against the Dream Team


Shot 44% from three-point range while displaying stalwart team leadership


Won respect by going chest-to-chest with Charles Barkley; earned NBA tryout with the Timberwolves


Bulls' sixth man shot and passed well despite a broken left thumb

Puerto Rico

Former Oregon State star was the top rebounder and second-leading scorer in the Games


Passed brilliantly, as usual, and scored 30 in the bronze medal game


Even at age 30, the ultimate shooter, with unlimited range and no conscience

We will know that the rest of the world has reached the level of the U.S. in men's basketball when it becomes harder for the Dream Team to win a gold medal than to fight its way through the crowds on its way to the Hard Rock Cafe. We will know it when the Americans' most memorable Olympic moments are last-second shots and heroic defensive plays, not forward Charles Barkley's acting like an aerobics instructor and leading the crowd in arm gestures to the song Y.M.C.A. or gargantuan center Shaquille O'Neal's hefting tiny gymnast Dominique Moceanu during a photo opportunity. We will know it when the most intense battles occur on the court, not during the Penny Hardaway-Reggie Miller table tennis matches in a hotel recreation room.

Someday true competition for the gold medal will return to Olympic men's basketball, but in the meantime you may want to find a hobby to occupy yourself, because it's going to be awhile. Do not be taken in by the small scare Yugoslavia threw into the Dreamers in last Saturday night's gold medal game. If anything, it was a sign of the U.S. players' superiority that they could watch the Yugoslavs play their hearts out for 30 minutes, then brush them off like mosquitoes on the way to a 95-69 victory.

The Yugoslavs—particularly Zarko Paspalj, a clever forward who scored 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting, and hard-nosed point guard Aleksandar Djordjevic (13 points and six assists)—were gallant if overmatched opponents for the U.S. Their efforts should signify that the rest of the world is creeping closer to the Americans but not at a pace that should cause the U.S. any immediate worry. "It took a long time for the rest of the world to catch up to the U.S. college players, but it happened," says Australian forward Andrew Gaze, who played at Seton Hall. "We'll catch the American professionals, too. I just don't know if it will be in my lifetime."

The game against Yugoslavia added fuel to the U.S. players' contention that the competition wasn't as one-sided as it appeared, an argument that until Saturday night had seemed hollow indeed. For most of the tournament, even the compliments the U.S. players gave their victims accentuated how ludicrous this Olympic event is. "Give those guys a lot of credit," Barkley said after the U.S.'s 101-73 semifinal drubbing of Australia. "In the first half we actually had to play." More often the Dream Team performed the way sprinter Michael Johnson ran his preliminary heats, with a kind of controlled power, expending just enough energy to establish clear superiority, then cruising to the finish. In their eight games the Dreamers allowed their opponents to have occasional fleeting fantasies of an upset, but in the end the average margin of victory for the U.S. was a remarkable 31.8 points (12 points less, it is true, than Dream Team I's average margin in 1992).

That doesn't mean that everything came easily to the U.S. team. "This has been grueling," Barkley said, referring not so much to the games as to the Dreamers' Olympic experience. The American players had to deal not only with the backlash from observers who felt their dominance wasn't good for the Games but also with the security concerns that came with being the highest-profile athletes in Atlanta. "Walking into the Omni [the team hotel] is like walking into the CIA," forward Grant Hill said during the first week. And that was before the explosion in Centennial Olympic Park and the subsequent bomb scare at the Omni that forced the Dreamers to evacuate the hotel for half an hour on the morning of July 30. By that time forward Karl Malone had sent his family home largely because he feared for their safety. "When this team came here, we thought we were doing something for our country, but it's turned into something we didn't expect," Malone said last Friday. "We're taking heat for either being too good or for not winning by enough, and then we have to look over our shoulders and have bodyguards with us wherever we go. I think players in the future may look at what we went through, and it might be hard to convince them to play in the Olympics. I would tell them that representing your country is worth all the hassles, but don't be surprised if some guys start to turn down the invitation."

Such refusals might be the only way to force a rethinking of the Dream Team concept. Despite the criticism, there seems to be no wavering in the resolve of the NBA or USA Basketball to continue using top pro players, and the International Olympic Committee likes the idea of NBA stars participating in the Games so much that there is sentiment to include major leaguers on the U.S. baseball squad in the 2000 Games. Without doubt there's an audience for these blowouts; capacity crowds flocked to the Georgia Dome for each Dream Team game. But after the initial thrill of seeing such a breathtaking collection of talent take the floor, neither the fans in attendance nor anyone else remained terribly interested. Except for the gold medal game, which it telecast virtually uninterrupted, NBC gave viewers just brief glimpses of the Dreamers. And even though the games were sellouts, several fans reportedly exchanged their Dream Team tickets for ones to everything from women's basketball to team handball. All of this was because the games were like junk food—nicely packaged but ultimately unsatisfying. Nothing the U.S. players did could erase the Globetrotter-like feel. Noted Hardaway the day before the gold medal game, "It's almost like we're on stage, giving a performance."

That is exactly why the Dream Team, in its present form, has no business at the Olympics. It is not so much that no other team can stay within 20 points; the U.S. players should not have to apologize for excellence. It's that the players are as out of place as rock stars at a symphony. One of the best arguments against the Dream Team idea is that not even this exemplary group of NBA stars seemed quite at home in the Olympic setting. U.S. coach Lenny Wilkens set a classy tone, ensuring there was none of the showboating or clowning that could have made a mockery of the competition; the players were affable and as accessible as could be expected given the tight security restrictions; and the team became almost a charitable foundation. Eleven of the 12 players agreed to donate the $15,000 bonus each U.S. gold medal winner receives to a fund to help rebuild black churches recently destroyed by arson, and the 12th, center Hakeem Olajuwon, a Muslim, pledged his bonus to the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. The team also brought 14-year-old Fallon Stubbs, whose mother, Alice Hawthorne, was killed in the Centennial Park bombing and who was herself wounded by shrapnel, to the Omni Hotel to meet all the players.

As admirable as those deeds were, they couldn't completely erase the impression that the Dream Teamers were marking the days on the calendar until they could go home and resume their golf games. Their every utterance was examined for signs of arrogance, and sometimes they weren't hard to find. "People make it sound like we're staying at the Ritz-Carlton," Miller said in response to criticism of the team's staying at the Omni instead of in the Olympic Village. "We're staying at a one-star hotel. Nothing against the Omni, but the room service stinks."

"Don't say that," Barkley admonished. "We've got to stay there one more week."

Part of the reason the Dream Team appeared out of place was that it lacked the youthful enthusiasm of previous U.S. Olympic basketball teams. Eight of its players were more than 30 years old, and five—Barkley, Malone, forward Scottie Pippen, center David Robinson and guard John Stockton—already had gold medals in their trophy cases. That's why if the U.S. insists on continuing to send NBA stars, it would be better to combine them with college players and perhaps impose an age limit and a no-repeat rule. Imagine a 25-and-under U.S. team: This year it might have included such pros as Hardaway, Hill, O'Neal, Jason Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks and Jerry Stackhouse of the Philadelphia 76ers, as well as college stars and recent draftees like Marcus Camby, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. That kind of squad would have high-profile stars and entertaining players, but it also would restore an element of uncertainty to the competition.

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