There's nothing quite so delicious as a Dream Team—a big plate of presumption, a smorgasbord of arrogance, a whole cafeteria of conceit. Oh, man, do we love us some gall. Huge portions of it, with heaping sides of self-satisfaction and vanity. Pardon the extended metaphor (Thanksgiving hangover, perhaps), but there's simply nothing more appetizing than a buffet of boorishness, a spread of superiority. This is a table we can never push away from.
I am talking, most immediately, of the Philadelphia Eagles, who somehow perverted a normally healthy preseason anticipation into a kind of dead pool. Ever since Vince Young, a backup quarterback, agreed that a series of off-season acquisitions made his team a favorite, perhaps even a "Dream Team" (there, he said it), there's been a morbid interest in that franchise's destruction. Loss by loss—and there have been eight of them, a lot for a Dream Team—a nation has exulted in the Eagles' comeuppance. Just desserts, one might say.
To be fair, somebody eventually would have anointed the Eagles a Dream Team, Vince Young or not. Ever since Michael Jordan and his band of future Hall of Famers popularized the term back in 1992, it's been part of our sports vernacular, a signifier for overwrought ambition. SI's first usage, in fact, goes all the way back to 1955, when the Brooklyn Dodgers opened the season with a 10-game winning streak. The phrase no longer is limited to sports but also crops up now in the workplace, where almost any assemblage of overvalued talent can be a Dream Team. O.J.'s lawyers. Reggie Lewis's cardiologists.
Not that the Eagles even belonged in that kind of definition. It's true, desperate for a first Lombardi trophy, the organization had embarked on an unprecedented flurry of acquisition (Young, Ronnie Brown and four-time All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha, among others, to go along with Michael Vick and Company.) Eyebrows were raised, but hardly anything more. The Eagles were mindful that they were creating high expectations—We're all in, said management—but that's what teams do, right? Dream Team? Because they'd signed a cornerback? Hadn't come up. But just as there is a fine line between clever and stupid, so is there a fine line between self-improvement and entitlement. Young—the same guy who threw four interceptions in last Thursday's loss to Seattle—and his fellow dreamers crossed it. (Coach Andy Reid, for his part, did his best to quash the talk, warning, "If you're dreaming in this league you end up ... with a concussion.")
At the very least this was an alarming failure of short-term memory. When Young first copped to the Dream Team question, the phrase was mostly being circulated in the context of schadenfreude, a nation still gloating over the Miami Heat's failure to win the NBA championship. How could he have forgotten the hatred LeBron James had stirred up with his own preseason proclamations—"Not two, not three," stopping just shy of predicting eight championships.
What might have been seen as a charming cockiness had transformed into unforgivable vulgarity. However pure their intentions—superstars like James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade banding together for a title, taking pay cuts to do it—the team was suddenly a symbol of unearned confidence, a bunch of braggarts whose parents had bought them a fog machine. Oh, to see them fail so miserably. Eastern Conference champions, nothing more? Oh, my!
It has been a tradition of sorts to reward recognition after the fact. It's not that we don't love winners, it's just that we like to decide who they are. Greatness reveals itself over the course of a season or a lifetime (or, in the case of SI's Sportsman award, a calendar year). We like to tease achievement out of a body of work, to watch it bloom before our eyes. That's the fun of sports, the surprise of it all. Glory, in any case, is not announced in preseason camp.
This is not a lesson so easily learned, overconfidence being the default mode of today's athletes. Their predisposition to celebrate can make for big fun, harmless antics of self-assurance, a reminder of how juvenile our pastimes really are. But done prematurely it invites more mockery than cheering. Done poorly it invites suspicion of privilege, not something you want in a country divided between one-percenters and the rest of us. Only the most brazen should flaunt their advantages these days.
Keep in mind that Jordan's Dream Teamers, those battle-hardened millionaires who corrupted the amateur ideal, were as reviled during the Barcelona Games as any to come. They were condemned internationally, their store-bought talent an affront to competition everywhere. Who did they think they were? Of course, all these years later, we don't remember it that way—the guys restoring our national dominance, cutting a pretty fun swath at that, finally forgivable.
That's something I meant to point out much earlier: There's no margin for error for a real Dream Team. Certainly they don't lose to the Seahawks.