I'm going to be honest here: I'm not a huge fan of the Olympics. Never have been, probably because only a handful of the sports represented sustain my interest. Just doesn't get my motor running like a Saturday afternoon in October. You might be ready to impugn either my lack of patriotism or cosmopolitanism by now. If so, I should say that there is one part of Olympic history that I find quite memorable: the Dream Team's dominance in 1992 in Barcelona. Yes, I did just take the easy way out and pick the moment most familiar to the crass, uninitiated observer of my generation. But I do think this was a really cool thing, mainly because it represents a better time for the NBA, a time when I really appreciated the league.
Growing up, I loved basketball. It was my favorite sport. Maybe this was because, as a tall, lanky young fellow, it was the sport I was best at. (I still wasn't very good.) However, it was also likely because the NBA was really fun to watch at the time. The league had tons of great players. It also had many teams that were great on the whole, with the best being Michael Jordan's Bulls, who were in the early stages of their historic run of dominance in the 90s. These teams were really a joy to watch, combining great individual stars with great team chemistry. And the players were likeable. Fans appreciated that the rivalries were mostly friendly, that the players were loyal to their franchises and fans, and that they played stylishly while still keeping teamwork and the finer points of the game in mind. In short, the NBA of this period featured the best basketball in the world, perhaps ever.
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The Dream Team pointed all of these attributes up. It was composed of a true Whos Who of the greatest basketball players of all time. You had Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to represent the old guard of great players from the 80s. Then, you had the young stars of the 90s, led by Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone, and others. Some of these players can easily be argued to be the best of all time at their positions. The only player who isn't a member of the Hall of Fame is Christian Laettner, who was not yet a professional and was included to give a nod to the best college talent. (Shaq was the other collegian considered; it's too bad he didn't get the nod, because he'll soon be elected to the Hall and would have had the team batting 100% on that metric.) The results were predictable: The Dream Team won its games by an average of 43.8 points per game en route to the Gold.
Since then, things haven't always gone as well for Team USA, and the failure of subsequent squads to match the Dream Team's success has been well documented. The reasons are myriad, and they include the fact that international play has improved since 1992, perhaps because foreign players were inspired by the fanfare that surrounded the Dream Team. However, despite the infusion of many of the best foreign players into the league, a big part of the problem is that the level of play has deteriorated in the NBA. The national rosters simply haven't been as impressive, and the teams haven't come together as effectively to support their country. Maybe that's because the Dream Team set an impossible standard, but I can't help speculating that it's because the individualistic, salary-obsessed athletes of the age of free agency simply lack the devotion to the game of the members of the original group. In any event, the team's declining fortunes are part of what makes the Dream Team special for me. I've soured a bit on pro basketball since 1992, and the memory of the Dream Team reminds me of a time when I really enjoyed it.
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