20 years ago today, the Greatest Team Of All Time stood on top of the podium in Barcelona. Their impact lives on.
I don’t remember much about Seoul 1988. Certainly nothing about hoops. Yeah, I know the Soviet Union took gold with one of the best teams ever assembled in Europe, men like Arvydas Sabonis and Aleksander Volkov leading the Red Empire to glory.
But when I did a poll earlier this year of the favourite Olympic memories of Britain’s top players, one occasion came out time and time and time again.
The Dream Team.
That was more remarkable, given that some of the respondents were probably still in nappies at that point. It illustrates just how huge the impact was: not just on basketball, but on the world at large.
Then, and now.
“There’s been a lot of talk and reminiscing about the original Dream Team,” admits Chris Mullin, one of that dynamic dozen. “Those are such incredible memories. It was an incredible summer.
“In so many ways, there was a lot of firsts. It was the first time NBA players had participate in the Olympics so that was groundbreaking. And it was fascinating at the time.”
The old divide between pros and supposed amateurs was gone for good. For the first time, the very best were on show. Coached by Chuck Daly, the United States were, quite simply, a class above.
Charles Barkley was the leading scorer. Michael Jordan, for once, was happy to be just one of the guys. Everyone had his role. Even Christian Laettner, the token collegian and the subject now of ‘who was the other guy?’ trivia questions, averaged 4.8 points per game.
In the qualification tournament, the USA walloped Cuba by 79 points. Castro must have cried into his beer. In the opening game of the Olympics, Angola were pummelled by 48. The mercy rule should have been applied.
Even in the final, against Croatia, the USA pulled out a 117-85 victory. That was as close as anyone could come. It all looked so easy.
“Coach did a lot of chucking, I mean Chuck did a lot of coaching,” laughs Clyde Drexler. “As did Lenny Wilkens and Coach K and PJ Carlesimo.” In truth, it may be the easiest coaching job any of the four could ever have imagined. “When you get great players together, you only have to have one practice. Everyone knows the chemistry is there.“
They were no ordinary team. Theirs was an extraordinary experience. Death threats kept them inside their hotel, guarded by men with automatic weapons on the roof. The crowds gathered outside, chanting the names of Magic and Larry as if they were gods.
“It was like Elvis and the Beatles put together,” Daly remarked. It was, says Mullin, like being around rock stars.
The great NBA writer Jack McCallum, whose new book Dream Team chronicles the madness from his time in its peripherary, recalls how “helicopters dotted the bleached Spanish sky like fireflies to protect the millionaire play- ers; when snipers sat on the roof of their hotel in Barcelona to take down potential assassins wanting to enter the history books; when adoring fans congregated around the clock just to catch a fleeting glimpse of the twelve Americans who were in the process of storming to the gold medal and rewriting basketball history.”
20 years and five Olympics later, the USA is still sending its stars but they are no longer the object of blind devotion. Wariness has been replaced by mutual respect from the rest of the basketball world who no longer view American victory as an automatic conclusion.
“Other countries have definitely caught up,” Drexler concedes. “The fear factor isn’t there. They get to play with NBA guys during the season. So in international competition, there’s not that intimidation at all.”
There was in Barcelona, in abundance. The Dream Team, the one and only Dream Team, still carries weight. They were installed in unison in the Hall of Fame. No-one will ever match their complete dominance again.
For those involved, the simple joy of that golden summer remains. You would hope that moves from the NBA to withdraw its biggest and brightest from subsequent Olympics prove doomed.
Mullin, even now, can take himself back in time, standing on the podium, the medal hanging from his neck, the Star Spangled Banner played out as the Stars and Stripes was raised aloft.
“That’s why you put the time in,” he says. “To represent your country is the biggest thrill I ever had in sports. It was my greatest and most cherished moment in basketball.”
For him – and for so many others.
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