AN AMERICAN VIEW

Sweet dreams of Desert Storm

Basketball may have been invented by a Canadian, but American fans rate that detail as minor, if they recall it at all

FRED BRUNING August 3 1992
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Sweet dreams of Desert Storm

Basketball may have been invented by a Canadian, but American fans rate that detail as minor, if they recall it at all

FRED BRUNING August 3 1992

Sweet dreams of Desert Storm

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Basketball may have been invented by a Canadian, but American fans rate that detail as minor, if they recall it at all

FRED BRUNING

If anyone cared about scope and scale, basketball would be outlawed just as trucks of certain heft are banned from highways and bulky parcels are rejected by the post office. But this is a sport that takes enormity for granted and makes no apologies. A “small forward” may be roughly the size of New Jersey. A player lacking the height of, say, Mount Rainier is apt to be described as a plucky “little” guy. Everything about the game—astronomical scores, convulsive slam dunks, behemoth practitioners—is crazily out of proportion. Now, with the U.S. Olympic basketball squad, comes the ultimate expression of screwball overabundance. Citizens of the world, we give you the Dream Team. Prepare to meet your doom.

Here is an accumulation of players so skilled, so formidable, so unparalleled in their mastery of the game that success is entirely taken for granted. Bookmakers will give odds only on the margin of victory—50 points, 70, 100?—and not a soul in the universe expects even one of the Olympic contests to be vaguely competitive by usual standards. It is as though the local parish had organized a neighborhood talent show pitting ventriloquists and tap-dancing children against the New York Philharmonic or Rolling Stones.

How did such an absurdity come to pass? Why would we send to Barcelona an assortment of superstars from the National Basketball Association—and one token collegiate whiz soon to turn pro—when the world offers no resistance? Resistance? At the socalled qualifying rounds in Portland, Ore., foreign teams were lining up for autographs and posing at every opportunity with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. In one case, an opponent from Argentina was guarding Johnson and turned suddenly to make sure a teammate on the bench had captured the moment on film. The advancing American army is at the gates and the ene-

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

my’s only thought is to heave aside the bolt and take snapshots of the rout.

But if the world makes haste to surrender itself, are we required to accommodate? Must we always throw our Bigness and Bestness around like packets of plastique? Is it necessary that we demonstrate again our groaning sense of Manifest Destiny? What do we prove by unleashing the basketball equivalent of Desert Storm when our best amateur players likely would decimate the field? What gives, anyway?

Sports analysts say that the NBA foresees a marketing bonanza by showcasing its “product” overseas but, get real, more than mere millions are in question. A familiar metaphysic attends our latest adventure in overkill. The Dream Team is this year’s cure for the blues—a reformulated feel-good pill guaranteed to provide temporary relief from all that ails us. Why the Dream Team? Oh, because George Bush is in the White House, because cut-and-run Ross Perot turned out to be precisely the “jug-eared martian” a New York City discjockey claimed that he was, because the recession rages on, because we don’t know any longer who to view as enemies, because we haven’t a pretty war to watch on CNN, because—let’s admit it—we are, by custom and inclination, lousy losers.

Inexplicably, our collegians blew the Olympic title in 1988, and now flabbergasted true believers want to make certain ignominy never strikes again. Basketball may have been invented by the Canadian James A. Naismith, but American fans rate that detail as minor, if they recall poor Naismith’s name at all. The game now is U.S. property and we will liquidate all who question our supremacy on the slatted floor. Foreign forces may box our ears in education and auto production but we will not countenance defeat in hoops. ‘We’ve got to regain our sense of pride, our dignity,” Jordan told Newsweek. “Some way, even if it’s just basketball. We can at least show the world that we can take control of something.”

The connection between big-time sports and national psyche is not easily described, but surely a connection exists. Soccer fiends on other continents regularly bash each other senseless to uphold the honor of their homeland, and when there still was a Soviet Union, leaders of that inscrutable empire apparently thought that they could preserve party discipline—and their weekend dachas—if only the state hockey team stayed healthy. Politicians are great for shmoozing with one set of champions or another, and why do you think the national anthem is tooted routinely before sporting events? Do they roll out the marine color guard prior to poetry contests or chess tournaments? Are we expected to stand at attention and place hands over hearts when the debating team prepares to do battle?

Not a chance. Only the so-called passion sports are heralded by fife-and-drum companies, heroic baritones and the occasional ardent soul singer. What makes the socking of a baseball 400 feet an act of national importance, or the gallant punt return, or the goalie’s splendid glove-hand save? On these small fields, perhaps, larger wars are being fought, and we should be grateful for the release of angst and emotion. But we should be wary, as well, of the attendant instincts. For citizens and governments, domination is fun—but dangerous.

Shall we try to keep matters in perspective? The U.S. Olympic Dream Team is mostly entertainment and comes armed with nothing more dangerous than a runaway offence and sufficient defensive might to have prevented Pearl Harbor. We will win every game by lopsided scores, and declare, with fingers jutting skyward, that we’re simply tops. We will, as Jordan says, recapture some measure of self-worth, at least in the sports world, and then the Dreameisters will come home and there will be a predictable splash of ultra-publicity and then, of course, we will awake.

As Desert Storm instructed, you can have yourself a stirring triumph and throw a fabulous party throughout the land. You can strut and swagger and proclaim that, after a long absence, destiny is back on your side. It may also happen, however, that you look up one day and discover that little has changed—that you put on a good show but accomplished not much more. Ah, Dream Team, comport yourself with humility and forgo extravagant claims. The world is a complicated place and big leads sometimes vanish in a wink.