Dream Team set bar at Olympics

LONDON -- It's been a full 20 years now since the Dream Team made its Olympic debut on July 26, 1992, taking out Angola by 68 points and starting a 13-day athletic and cultural journey that would change the direction of Olympic competition, change the course of professional basketball worldwide (and pro hockey too), change even how the world defines greatness in sports.

For generations of Americans, it was the 1927 Yankees, Murderers' Row. What Ruth and Gehrig needed a season to do, the Dream Team did in eight games: Angola, Croatia, Germany, Brazil, Spain, Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Croatia again. World domination. No one, no team, not anything will impact these London Olympics to the degree the Dream Team did in the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Because this is its 20th anniversary, the Dream Team has been examined over the past two months from every imaginable angle, yet looms over the London Olympics as the standard of comparison in team sports. Twenty years later, we've never seen anything like it; and with all due respect to Kobe Bryant, one of the 10 greatest players ever, we'll go another 20 years, maybe more, without seeing a team that has anything approaching the impact of that '92 team. At a time when almost nothing in sports has staying power, a Nielsen poll found that the average N-score, which tries to capture name recognition and likability, for the '92 players is four times higher than that of the current team. (On a walk one night last week in Paris, I encountered an enormous backlit ad hyping a retrospective commemorating the Dream Team ... in a French newspaper.)

Of all the things said about the team that summer -- and I covered it for The Washington Post beginning at the Tournament of the Americas in Portland through training camp in Monte Carlo and the Games themselves -- the one sentence which best captured the team's brilliance and the awe in which it was regarded, was uttered by Miguel Calderon Gomez of Cuba after his team was trampled 136-57 in Portland: "You can't cover the sun with your finger."

It's only in retrospect that we can even consider the Dream Team was significantly beyond great. It was as close as we've seen to perfect. It had the two men who invented the modern game as we have come to know it since 1979, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. It had the greatest showman in sports since Ali in Jordan. It had a personality, a force of nature that people who weren't even basketball fans found irresistible in Charles Barkley.

It's funny to hear the remaining defenders of Kobe's position that the 2012 team could beat the Dream Team, ask, "Well, who could guard LeBron?" -- as if anybody on this team, including LeBron, would step in front of an in-his-prime Barkley, whose freakish athleticism confounded defenses nearly as much as LeBron's. Who on this London team could guard a 29-year-old Jordan? Who could go down on the low block and trade hips and elbows with Karl Malone? Would Tyson Chandler, yet to make an All-Star team, have any chance at stopping David Robinson or Patrick Ewing? Could anyone on this team shoot it as well as Chris Mullin or dish it and swipe it as prolifically as John Stockton?

And they were coached by a man, Chuck Daly, who at that moment understood the historical importance of bringing pros to the Olympics and the need to guide the process with the lightest touch possible. There was a school of thought that Daly and Jordan could never coexist, not with Daly still coaching the Detroit Pistons, the team Jordan and Scottie Pippen positively despised as members of the Chicago Bulls during an ongoing rivalry of particular contentiousness. Yet, there were Jordan and Daly playing golf every morning before practice, Daly dutifully reporting scores on his way to the gym.

The 2012 team very likely will return home with gold medals and by any responsible measure be remembered as a fine team, one forced to play without the likes of Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose. But to favorably compare this year's team, even with those players healthy, to the '92 team would be, to quote the great Bill Russell, "in error." There isn't a single phase of the game where the 2012 team matches up to the Dream Team, which puts today's team in pretty good company because no other team does either.

It's surprising it took 20 years to thoroughly examine the 1992 team, which Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum did in his book "Dream Team." One big reason, unfortunately, is because Olympic beat writers of the day at the biggest newspapers in America held entirely too much sway with their editors. A half-dozen or so weren't shy about expressing how much they hated the very existence of the Dream Team, of having NBA players in the Olympics, of having attention taken away from gymnasts and swimmers and rowers. Those writers fixated on the fact that the most famous athletes in the world at the time (Jordan, Magic, Barkley and Bird, at the very least) were going to stay in a luxury hotel with security and not in minimal dorm rooms in the athletes' village, as was Olympic tradition.

Though the Dream Team had the greatest appeal to readers/viewers/listeners going into the Barcelona Olympics and remained the biggest story at the beginning of the Games, the beat writers bragged openly about never once seeing the team practice or play, which should have been embarrassing behavior for any journalist if only for the alarmingly poor news judgment it displayed. This, remember, was before 24/7 coverage and the Twitter age, before many cities had viable sports talk radio, before any alternative sources for Olympic news other than big city newspapers.

The reality was, at the time, the Dream Team was relatively ignored even though the basketball writers covering the squad were staying in the same hotel during training camp and often had unchecked access to every player and coach. Barkley, who had none of the, um, swing issues we know now, was actually available for golf himself, and McCallum, if memory serves, teed it up with him at least once. Yet, the greatest team ever assembled was back-burner stuff to the people. The rest of the world, nevertheless, was paying attention, sometimes fanatic attention.

Barkley, at one point, noted that at any one moment, the team would be surrounded by a "girl in a bikini, then a guy with an Uzi." Stockton might have been able to slip away and walk right down Las Ramblas without being spotted (he now famously videotaped his escape with his family), but he would have probably been the only one. In any case, "The Ringheads," as other sportswriters and editors dubbed the Olympic beat writers, were happily missing an extraordinary phenomenon that was quickly changing the Olympic movement. On the heels of the NBA's new involvement, the NHL began sending its players to the Winter Games in 1998.

To be fair, there is backlash now. Mark Cuban was the first owner, but not the last, to wonder openly whether it's in the NBA's best interests to make Olympic participation a priority when injuries from year-round wear and tear put players at risk and their teams at risk financially. No doubt, as the league searches for ways to satisfy both the owners' concerns and the league's desire to stay atop such a huge international stage, it triggered NBA commissioner David Stern's thought that a 23-and-under Olympic competition might be the answer.

But Bryant's most important utterance on Olympic basketball in recent days was his flat-out put-down of Stern's idea. Cuban's concerns are not only understandable, but legitimate; still, it's just as true that the league has benefited from its Olympic experience to an unthinkable degree since 1992. The summer of Barcelona led directly to a global explosion that now enables fans in the U.S. to rattle off the starting lineup for Spain's Olympic team as confidently as they can the U.S. roster.

Like most of us, Bryant can't see the wisdom in the NBA leaving the world's greatest players at home to watch what would surely be a minor league tournament. If we've learned anything about professional soccer in America, it's that U.S. audiences will indeed watch in big numbers, but only the best players in the world, wherever they play, whatever their nationalities. No basketball player, other than Magic Johnson, has been the best in the world at 23 or under. An under-23 tournament, given our expectations since the Dream Team, would be inferior by definition.

After the Americans rebounded to win gold at the 2008 Games, it's once again unthinkable that they will lose in London. Yet, they've been in close exhibition games, and the world's best international players would rather express their admiration for American play by beating the U.S. team, not posing pregame for pictures with their opponents like they did in 1992. We've seen the best team ever assembled and we've grown accustomed, ever since, to having the best tournament possible, as if the competition pays homage to that team.

That September day in 1991 when the first 10 members of the team were named set a standard from which professional basketball, the NBA specifically, should never retreat. There will never be another team like it, perhaps not in any sport; it's a rare occasion where "once-in-a-lifetime" really fit. And it's in that tradition that Olympic basketball knows exactly where the bar is set and who put it there.