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Lords of the Rings
Jack McCallum
February 18, 1991
With NBA players eligible for Olympic action in '92, SI picks a powerhouse five: from left, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley
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February 18, 1991

Lords Of The Rings

With NBA players eligible for Olympic action in '92, SI picks a powerhouse five: from left, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley

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What college players will be added? That's a real crapshoot because no one is sure who will leave school early to join the NBA for the 1991-92 season. USA Basketball would like to reward those collegians—Georgia Tech point guard Kenny Anderson comes most prominently to mind—who have played on pre-Olympic U.S. touring teams, but their chances of making the U.S. team would be severely reduced by coming out early. Here's one to book, though—if LSU sophomore Shaquille O'Neal stays in school, he'll play behind Ewing and Robinson.

Who will be the coach? Good question. According to the subcommittee rules, he must have at least eight years of head coaching experience and at least three of those must be in the NBA, where he has to have been coaching within three years of the Olympics. That final provision is known unofficially as the Riley Rule because it would allow for a respected coach who is not active at the time of his selection, perhaps someone like former Laker boss Pat Riley, to get the job. Sources in the subcommittee—USA Basketball officials met Monday in Charlotte—mention at least half a dozen prime possibilities. Riley, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Lenny Wilkens and the Phoenix Suns' Cotton Fitzsimmons reportedly are among them. But SI sees the decision coming down to San Antonio's Larry Brown, Detroit's Chuck Daly or Golden State's Don Nelson. All have indicated that they want the job badly.

Nelson has spent time the last two summers scouting European teams in Germany, Spain and Argentina, and he was also in Seattle last summer to do note-taking at the Goodwill Games. But though he is considered innovative and energetic, his lobbying for the job turned off several members of the subcommittee.

Without referring directly to Nelson, Brown has on several occasions made the point that he, unlike Nelson, has longtime international experience. "I don't think you need to campaign for the job," Brown has said. "I think the job should go to the most qualified coach. And to be honest, I know more about the international game than anybody." Brown played on the 1964 U.S. Olympic team, which won a gold medal in Tokyo, was an assistant coach to Dave Gavitt on the '80 team, which stayed home from the Moscow Games because of the American boycott, and has coached U.S. world junior teams that have played in Europe.

Daly, who will turn 62 on July 20, 1992, says he is interested in the Olympic job. He is in good health, he thrives on the limelight and pressure, and he would have nothing against making a fashion statement to a worldwide audience. It's not his style to stump for the job, but if he were to do so, he might say something like this: "I've won two NBA championships and kept a difficult team with a lot of egos playing together. Nobody is better at getting the most out of an NBA player than I am." And he would be correct.

Those just might be the abilities that get him the job. Daly has one significant shortcoming, a lack of familiarity with the international game, but he would have three assistants—one NBA head coach and two college head coaches—who could provide that expertise. The likes of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo would fit the bill.

Who's being left off our team? Well, two prominent NBA All-Stars, the Houston Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon and the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird, are eliminated right away. Olajuwon is a Nigerian citizen, and Bird, who will be 35 next December, says, candidly, that he will be too old. "The Olympics are for young guys," he says. "I'd hate to take something away from a young kid. The timing was never right for me to be on an Olympic team. I may regret it someday, but I don't think much about it now."

In selecting Magic as our only pure point guard, we've passed over a number of past and present All-Stars, including Detroit's Isiah Thomas, Phoenix's Kevin Johnson, Utah's John Stockton and Golden State's Tim Hardaway. The two most obvious shooting guards not on our team are the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller and Golden State's Mitch Richmond. The Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins and the Lakers' James Worthy are the most talented forwards who have been omitted, and we did not include the NBA's supreme role player, Detroit's rebounding defensive wizard Dennis Rodman. (If Daly is the coach, though, look for the Worm to be in Barcelona.) All of the above players would be excellent Olympians, but here's why we made our selections:

It begins with Magic. Yes, K.J. and Hardaway are much quicker, but the Laker quarterback is still one of the top five players in the world regardless of position, and he's the best choice—the only choice—to lead a group of NBA superstars. More than ever this season, Magic can be heard moving players around on the court (L.A. has the league's only voice-activated offense). And his grasp of floor spacing—even against the packed-in zone defenses the U.S. is likely to be facing—and his court vision are nonpareil.

There is a school of thought that says Jordan can't play on the same team as Magic. "You've got to build around one or the other but not both," says one NBA player, asking for anonymity. That doesn't wash here. Jordan doesn't particularly care for the responsibility of running the Bulls' offense, but frequently he feels it's necessary. Well, it won't be necessary in Barcelona. Get out on the break and find the seams in the defense, Michael, and Magic will get you 40.

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