The Dream Team
Sports fans know that there is no such thing as a perfect team. It can’t happen. Payrolls and salary caps prevent it from happening. And in the event that salaries are managed into a tidy bundle, the egos tend to get in the way. Sometimes awards seek to create a perfect team, but those teams – the NFL All-Pro team, the NBA All League team – never actually get to play together. Even All Star games only bring half of the league’s best players together on a side.
You may be able to shape a nearly perfect system, but it’s impossible to have the best players in the right positions using the right system. It’s impossible, I tell you.
But fifteen years ago today, we came damned close.
It was the 1992 Summer Olympics. It was the gold medal ceremony for basketball. It was the Dream Team. A nearly perfect team. A one-time deal that played out the way it was supposed to – not by just winning it all, but by completely destroying the opposition.
When professional players were allowed to enter into the Olympics, USA Basketball had a chance to create a perfect team. Unlike other sports, where internationality had created a global sports market, the best basketball players in the world in 1992 were primarily American. It wasn’t like soccer or baseball, where the best players are strewn across the world, littering several continents, never able to join together in one place. It wasn’t even like today’s basketball, where the United States struggles with success. In the mid 90s basketball climate, save one or two players, most of the top 20 players were all firmly American.
Put that aside – even more importantly, basketball was at its peak. During the Jordan era, we saw players that transcended the game’s historic greats and have yet to find a successor. Michael Jordan. Larry Bird. Magic Johnson. All on one team? Could you believe that we could possibly have three of the top ten players of all time available for the squad?
As a 13-year-old boy who was in love with basketball – an ardent Bulls Supporter and avid basketball card collector – I was in rapture. Thankfully, the Dream Team didn’t disappoint – they simply dominated, tearing through opposing teams like a waterfall through tissue paper, leaving other countries lying in their wake.
Look at other Olympic teams since then. At most, there were four or five Hall of Fame-caliber players on the team. But the Dream Team? If Chris Mullin makes the Hall, all eleven pros (remember, Christian Laettner was chosen for the team as well) will be Hall of Fame players. Has that ever been done before?
Look at this list. It’s a who’s who of mid-80’s, early-90’s professional basketball. Jordan, Bird, Magic, Ewing, Stockton, The Mailman, Barkley, Drexler, Robinson, Pippen. Mullin, though borderline, was one of the best shooters in the league – a must for the team. And Laettner had just finished a dominating year at Duke and was considered a top-5 all time college basketball player.
The team was nearly perfect. Trade Mullin, Pippen and Laettner for Hakeem Olajuwon, Dominique Wilkins and Isiah Thomas and you’ve got the best you could come up with. Use some selective time travel and bring back the 1988 version of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, not the aging, nearly retired stars they had become, and you’d have sheer perfection.
But that’s beside the point. To my young eyes, they were perfect. So sitting there, Shasta soda in one hand, remote control in the other, basking in the warmth of my grandparents’ brown shag carpeting and ignoring the increasingly beautiful day outside, I gawked at the television, watching my sports idols run up and down the court, joined together unlike any NBA All-Star Team, playing their hearts out, without egos, for my country. I stared at the odd trapezoid shaped zone. I marveled at the tie-died Lithuanian uniforms. Most of all, I reveled in win after blow-out win.
Forgive me for sounding trite, but it was one of my most patriotic moments. For the first time, I gazed upon perfection – upon a team that none of us could even have dreamed of occurring – a team that was effectively barnstorming throughout the world, showing all of Barcelona what basketball was really supposed to be about.
It was a team that couldn’t be stopped. And it was as close to perfect as any team will ever get.