Dream team III, the latest edition of the long-running franchise helmed by the NBA, looks to be limping into international novelty. It still does boffo business everywhere it plays, but its appeal is less and less artistic and more and more transparently commercial. All serial productions lapse into self-parody, it's true (anybody remember Rocky III?), and eventually call upon some kind of gimmick (Jaws 3-D). But this onetime crowd pleaser is going the way of a Police Academy installment, still too profitable to inter but, at the same time, too embarrassing to really enjoy.
Oddly, it was still the toughest ticket at the Games. The crowd thronged the Dome and cheered wildly when the Americans stepped on the floor. But you wondered what exactly it was they were coming to see.
The answer used to be plain: International fans adored American arrogance, the kind of easy confidence that is promoted by 22-point margins of victory (the Dream Team's minimum in its first two Olympiads). That's something to be appreciated, examined, gawked at. Where else can you bask in such unmodified swagger? Even as U.S. promoters tried to dampen the level of cockiness that the original Dream Teamers brought to the game—manners were way up with this crew—there has always been that spectacular bravado, almost frightening to behold.
But in Sydney that confidence was getting creaky. For one thing, the team was not overpowering. Marquee names like Jordan and Barkley were gone, and the credits now listed guys like Ray Allen and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Are you scared yet? Well, was Lithuania?
On this Thursday night in the preliminary round, the Lithuanians threw the U.S what ought to have been cause for panic, losing by just nine points to basketball's rights-holders. It seemed anomalous at the time, the crowd not particularly excited, the NBA players not particularly humbled. The Dream Team's decline in dominance was starting to be a worthwhile subject of discussion, though; five of their eight games in this tournament would be decided by 15 points or less. And yet the players showed absolutely no alarm. Afterward, in sharp contrast to their European brethren, they talked mostly about contracts. "Until I get something in writing, FedExed...." said Tim Hardaway, explaining to a scribe...well, explaining why it's better to be from the U.S. than Lithuania.
It looked like the production would rumble on, maybe even forever. "The Dream Team will not be beat in my lifetime," said Donn Nelson, a Dallas Mavericks assistant and a volunteer coach for the Lithuanian national team. "A European team will produce a Divac or a Sabonis once every century. We pop 'em out every year."
A week later that same Lithuanian team, proving both Nelson's caginess and the fragility of any franchise that comes to depend on reputation, would nearly topple the U.S. in a rematch, coming within a buzzer-beating three-pointer of the Games' biggest upset. The pitiful part would be U.S. star Vince Carter's coming off the floor wagging his index finger in the air. Sure, Barkley would do that (and worse) after a 47-point win. But after a two-point win over Lithuania?
Nobody's going to pay to see that. That's just another basketball game, undistinguished by the artful arrogance that the world loved to hate. A clever producer ought to recognize the end at hand. And if he doesn't bill Dream Team IV as The Final Frontier, he's missed an opportunity. Remember: Even the Porky's franchise tumbled at the end.