Patrick Reusse: Dream Team now a memory, always a dream

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 30, 2012 - 9:32 AM

The Dream Team that ran through the Barcelona Olympics field was then and is now the greatest athletic team ever assembled.

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Michael Jordan, left, and Magic Johnson made a pretty solid pair of starting guards on the Dream Team, so good that they were already out of the game when the gold medal celebration began.

Photo: John Gaps, Associated Press

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The hair on my arms stood and turned to bristles. It has happened once in over four decades as a sportswriter, and that occurred 20 years ago in Portland's Memorial Coliseum.

The Dream Team was about to make its competitive debut against Cuba in the Tournament of Americas. There were four Olympic berths available for the 10 teams in the Western Hemisphere's qualifying tournament.

There wasn't much drama as to whether the Dream Team would secure its place in the Barcelona Olympics. There wasn't much drama over the outcome of this opening game against Cuba on June 28, 1992.

Yet, when the lineup was announced -- Charles Barkley and David Robinson, then Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson -- there they were: bristles.

They came from the realization that here, inside this old arena in Portland, Ore., we were about to see the official debut of what might be the greatest athletic team assembled in the history of the universe.

After the first 7 1/2 minutes, coach Chuck Daly's starters went to the bench accompanied by a roof-rattling roar, and there was no "might" left in the proposition about greatness.

It was an amazing opening shift, played at the speed of Ferrari, with marksmanship and energetic defending, with no-look passing and alley-ooping, and then here came the second five: Karl Malone, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin and Scottie Pippen.

On that day, Patrick Ewing still was recovering from a dislocated thumb, and the college kid, Christian Laettner, was waiting his turn -- as he would throughout the crushing run to the Olympic gold medal.

The final was Dream Team 136, Cuba 57. The 79-point drubbing did have its reward. The Cubans were able to corral the Dream Team for a mass photo and coach Miguels Calderon Gomez said: "We can take back to Cuba a beautiful photograph of us with them taken before the game."

The Dream Team won six games in Portland by an average of 51.5 points, took a 12-day break, then flew with their families to Monte Carlo on July 18 for a final week of preparation before arriving in Barcelona.

For four days, there was much golf, gambling, beach prowling and pool sitting, and widespread disinterest in basketball practices. For instance:

Vacationing young ladies had a tendency to not wear the tops of their swimwear, causing Barkley to say he had spent most of his time in Monte Carlo at the pool "sightseeing."

On July 22, Daly decided he had to put some fire back in the troops and split up the side between the Michaels (Jordan, Pippen, Bird, Ewing and Malone) and the Magics (Johnson, Mullin, Laettner, Robinson and Barkley).

Stockton and Drexler were both injured -- so it was 5-on-5, to the death on the scoreboard.

Jack McCallum from Sports Illustrated has dubbed it the "Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw" and has 20 pages of print devoted to it in this week's issue. The fierce intersquad match also gets attention on the "Dream Team" documentary that has been running on NBA TV.

Those covering the Dream Team in Barcelona only heard anecdotal reports of the Michaels' victory over the Magics, but what Daly conjured up that day in Monte Carlo -- the capital of European hedonism -- served its purpose.

The United States played eight games in Barcelona and won by an average of 43.8 points. The closest games were a 33-point victory over Croatia in the preliminary round and a 32-point victory over Croatia in the gold medal game.

There were complaints that the NBA and USA Basketball had engaged in overkill in putting together this machine. LeRoy Walker, the U.S. Olympic Committee's head of athletes delegation, kept making moronic statements that the basketball players should have stayed in Olympic Village housing and not a very expensive hotel.

Janet Evans, the 20-year-old star swimmer for the U.S. team, sat next to Walker at a closing news conference, listened to one of his naïve outbursts and said:

"Charles Barkley came to the athletes village one day. It was a mob scene. It was wild. It would have been impossible for them to stay at the village ... They would have lost. They would never have slept."

Jordan laid it for Walker and the USOC officials that had whined about the Dream Team's accommodations, chartered commercial jets and incredible level of attention-getting.

"The USOC should learn from this," Jordan said. "If you're going to hire 12 Clint Eastwoods to go get a gold medal, don't tell 'em what bullets to use."

The Dream Team did more than reclaim the gold in this American game, and it did more than put basketball at the peak of international sports. The presence of Magic Johnson as the emotional leader of the greatest athletic team ever assembled taught the United States and much of the world more about AIDS.

Remember the fear on Nov. 7, 1991, when Magic announced he was HIV positive? Some players were afraid to play against him -- afraid of his blood, even his sweat.

Nine months later, he was standing with his fellow Dream Teamers on the victory podium inside the Palau d' Esports in Barcelona, hearing cheers from a largely European crowd, gold medal around his neck, smiling the Magic smile, and waving away much of the crazed mythology of his disease.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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