THE SUMMER GAMES

SPECIAL FORCES

BOB LEVIN July 27 1992
THE SUMMER GAMES

SPECIAL FORCES

BOB LEVIN July 27 1992

SPECIAL FORCES

The place is any playground in any town in America. A boy—black, brown or white—dribbles a basketball, which springs obediently back to his fingers like a yo-yo. He fakes with his head, his shoulders, then drives by his defender, glancing left as he whizzes a no-look pass back to the right, hitting a startled teammate for an easy layup. “Magic Johnson, "he says in his best public address announcer’s voice. Later, switching gears, the boy simply glides by his man and into the air, seemingly flying, his tongue wagging as he rams the ball over the bent metal rim. “Michael Jordan, ” he intones, laughing, strutting, slapping high fives, tugging up his socks above his Air Jordan sneakers.

If baseball is America’s national pastime, the leisurely game of lazy summer days, basketball is an obsession of a different stripe. Never mind that it was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith, who nailed a peach basket to a YMCA wall in Springfield,

Mass., in 1891. Basketball grew into America’s game, a high-speed year-round calling in city streets and suburban driveways and farflung country courts. But when, two decades ago, U.S. college boys were stunned by the upstart Soviets at the Munich Olympics—and were bested again at Seoul four years ago—it was clear the world was catching up. Enter the Dream Team, 1992, the squeaky-sneakered defenders of the faith. They are a tall, talented collection of millionaires, Johnson and Jordan included, along with a token college star, and their mission is simple: to bring home the gold in such swaggering fashion that no one will doubt who is king of the court. If, in the process, they also make the world safe for National Basketball Association products that fill a 248-page catalogue, the NBA will not complain.

Call it Operation Hardwood Storm. Just as the Americans tried to exorcise the demons of Vietnam by sending an overwhelming force to vanquish Saddam Hussein in a Middle East desert, so the country’s basketball brain trust, taking advantage of the international federation’s decision to permit professionals at Barcelona, has assembled what it bills as the

greatest team ever—perhaps in any sport. And corporate sponsors, along with broadcaster NBC, are mounting a full-court press of hardsell patriotism. “Today the Americas, tomorrow the world,” proclaimed NBC announcer Marv Albert before the U.S. team completed its devastating sweep of the hemispheric qualifying round in Portland, Ore., early this month. Chest-thumping aside, no one is betting against the NBA stars. “If the Americans don’t get complacent, they’re formidable,” says Ken Shields, coach of the Canadian team that suffered a 44-point loss to the U.S. squad and was eventually eliminated from Olympic competition. “Even unmotivated—on sheer talent— they’re in another dimension.”

In Portland, America’s dream dozen, at times looking almost sheepish, dispatched their six opponents by an average margin of more than 50 points. Johnson, defying HIV, which forced him into retirement from pro basketball last year, was his old commanding and compel-

ling self. Jordan showed flashes of his unparalleled sky-walking brilliance. Centres Patrick Ewing and David Robinson swatted away opponents’ shots like flies, while beefy forwards Charles Barkley and Karl Malone provided points and muscle. The U.S. players were so dominant, and so intent on showing off their behind-the-back, in-your-face, rimrattling American hoops, that they resembled the touring Harlem Globetrotters toying with their paid patsies, the Washington Generals. The American coach, Chuck Daly, was reduced to mouthing sports platitudes that seemed to bear no relation to the game at hand. “If we keep our defensive intensity, we’ll be fine,” he said at halftime of the tournament final against Venezuela—a game the Americans were then leading 67-26.

Some commentators have complained that such mismatches seem at best uninteresting—at worst like bullying. But in Portland, many of the Americans’ opponents appeared honored just to share the same court with them—even posing for group photographs before games. “They were just happy to have us dunk on them,” said Johnson. The Americans should face stiffer competition in the Olympics themselves, particularly from Lithuania, Croatia and the Unified Team. “The beauty of this scenario,” says Rick o Traer, executive director of Baso ketball Canada, “is that it really ° is the first time the best athletes will take the floor at the same time.” Still, the political upheaval in Eastern Europe has splintered the two basketball powers that finished ahead of the Americans in 1988, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia—making the U.S. task that much easier.

Not coincidentally, the American effort will also spread the basketball gospel. Already, the international basketball federation, FIBA, has 176 members, and NBA commissioner David Stern has set an unabashed goal of helping basketball displace soccer as the most popular sport on the planet. The league is now playing a few games overseas and markets its team hats and T-shirts worldwide. Selling the American public on the competitiveness of this year’s Olympic basketball may prove considerably tougher—although many of the U.S. media seem bent on trying. When headline writers at the newspaper USA Today declare, “Next mission for Dream Team: Angola,” it is hard to tell whether they are joking.

BOB LEVIN