The dream teams have turned Olympic basketball into their own version of a demonstration sport, with each game more a performance than a competition. Judges should be sitting courtside, rating the U.S. teams on degree of difficulty, technical merit and artistic impression. But the most remarkable aspect of this dominance is that all three NBA-stocked U.S. Olympic teams have maintained their competitive edge. They all have played with a feral quality that may not suggest Game 7 of a playoff series but certainly surpasses that of your basic midwinter NBA matchup.
The American men have maintained their hunger largely because all three teams have included at least one player who energized the others. The original Dream Team, in 1992, with the Michael-Magic-Larry trinity, had motivational leaders to spare. The second incarnation four years later featured Charles Barkley, who was always a threat to turn his lacerating wit on any teammate who put his game on cruise control. On the current squad the whip is in the hand of fiery point guard Gary Payton.
"Everybody on the team is geeked up to get the gold, but Gary's the guy who makes sure we all turn it up even a little higher," says forward Kevin Garnett. "When he taps you on the knee before a game and says, 'You ready to go?' you look in his eyes and you know you better really be ready to go."
It was Payton who made sure that none of his teammates were entertaining notions of skipping the opening ceremonies. "If we're going to represent our country, we're going to do it right," he said. He has set the same no-nonsense tone on the floor. His constant pressure was one of the keys to the Americans' predatory full-court press in their 119-72 opening-game victory over China. Payton was his usual talkative self, exhorting his teammates and talking trash even though the Chinese players surely understood little of it. His teammates picked up on his intensity, with forward Vince Carter, for instance, diving (and no doubt causing the Toronto Raptors to clutch their chests) for a loose ball. "Our thing is to make sure that none of these teams think they have a chance against us," Payton says. "We want to blow teams out, and if people want to call us boring, then we'll gladly be boring."
The Americans can hardly be faulted for the lack of drama in their games, nor is it exactly a crime that they are somewhat more sedate than previous editions of the Dream Team. Instead of Shawn Kemp's crotch-grabbing on-court theatrics (in Toronto at the 1994 world championships), they have forward Vin Baker whipping up a home-cooked meal of chicken and ribs for the American basketball contingent, male and female. The team's press conference the day before the China game set an Olympic record for banality, with each of the 12 players and four coaches answering a softball question from a USA Basketball representative, leaving only a few minutes for queries from journalists. The affair was more carefully scripted than Dennis Miller's Monday Night Football jokes.
But the Dream Teamers can be forgiven. With Payton in charge, it's likely to be the only weak performance they'll give.