Team USA Arrives in London, Still Not Better Than The Original 1992 Jordan, Magic and Bird “Dream Team”
Michael Wilbon on the 1992 Gold Medal Winning Team USA “Dream Team”, without a doubt the best basketball team ever assembled.
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 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.