Friday, August 15, 2008

A Dream Team Deferred...

In 1989, international basketball's governing body, FIBA, allowed NBA players to compete in the olympics for the first time. European and South American pros had competed, and finally, not only would America's best be able to compete for the gold, they could utterly annihilate the world. The NBA was experiencing a golden age of popularity and talent. The initial team assembled after the rule change would boast ten of the fifty greatest all-time NBA stars. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, and Christian Laetner made up the original Dream Team, the greatest basketball team of all time.

They assembled for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and put on a display of American basketball dominance that would not be soon forgotten. After defeating Angola, Croatia, Germany, Spain, Puerto Rico, and Lithuania, Team U.S.A. once again beat Croatia (with five current or future NBA players in Dražen Petrović, Toni Kukoč, Dino Radja, Stojko Vranković, and Žan Tabak) in the Gold Medal Game by a score of 117-85. This was the closest game that the Dream Team would play, winning by an average of 43.8 points and never using a time out, not one. "Sir" Charles Barkley led the team with an average of 18.0 points per game and a field goal percentage of 71.1%.

Over the next few Olympics and Basketball World Championships, the team would have success, but the watering down process, which began immediately, would wear down their aire of invincibility. The '96 team that competed in the Atlanta Olympics had five original stars Barkley, Malone, Pippen, Robinson, and Stockton, new all-time greats like Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal, and stars Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond, Anfernee Hardaway, Grant Hill, and Gary Payton. The team would again win the gold undefeated, beating Yugoslavia 95-69, but this team only won every game by an average of 32.3 points a game.

By the 2000 games in Sydney, Team U.S.A. was a whole new generation of players. Steve Smith, Gary Payton, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Vin Baker, Kevin Garnett, Tim Hardaway, Allan Houston, Jason Kidd, Antonio McDyess, Alonzo Mourning, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim would again go undefeated to gold, but beat Lituania in the semi-final match by only two, thanks to Lithuaninan star Šarūnas Jasikevičius choking on a buzzer-bearter three pointer. They defeated France for gold 85-75. This surely was no Dream Team. This year did boast what is sometimes called the greatest slam-dunk of all time, Vince Carter over a 7'2" Frenchman!

Perhaps had Allan Iverson been there, America could have been better represented. Or not. The 2004 team that went to Athens looked good on paper. Featuring Allan Iverson, Tim Duncan, Emeka Okafur, Carmello Anthony, Richard Jefferson, Carlos Boozer, Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudamire, LeBron James, Stephan Marbury and Dwayne Wade, it seemed the team was on par with most of its predecessors. Even with coach Larry Brown, the team mentality was virtually nil, signifying the prima donna aspect that had/has dominated the NBA. The youthful squad was not ready to win, and suffered three losses, to Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and Spain. These were the first defeats of Team U.S.A. basketball since professionals entered the equation. What's more, in the long history of the Olympics, Team U.S.A. only had two previous losses, even with amateurs. This team disgraced America and the NBA on their way to a measly bronze medal.

Now taking the court in Beijing, Team U.S.A. has been christened the "Redeem Team", focusing more of team effort, defense, and fundamentals, the roster doesn't read exactly like an All-Star line-up, it's better. Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Carmello Anthony, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd, Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Michael Redd, Chris Bosh, and Tayshaun Prince have been selected to reassert the U.S. domination on the game we invented. So far, so good, the revamped team has gone three wins and no losses, most recently defeating nemesis Greece, who shamed the U.S. in the 2006 World Championships. We take on defending World Champions Spain this Saturday at 10:15 am, Wilmington time.

Sure, this team is talented, smart, and ready to win, and will probably destroy the world like the original Dream Team, but it'll never be the same. The Dream Team was a virtual parthenon of b-ball deities who were, let's face it, playing for a better America. That team represented us at our absolute best, on the court and off. It really did seem like a dream.

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