Hoop Dreams: The USA Basketball Team That May Have Been the Greatest of All Time | Olympic Games


“I don’t know anything about Angola. But Angola is in trouble. Charles Barkley’s words to the Palau Municipal d’Esports the day before the U.S. basketball team kicked off at the 1992 Olympics proved true on many levels, some more uplifting than others.

Barkley himself would go on to score 24 points against Angola in a landslide victory, elbowing an opponent in the neck to “show them what the NBA looks like”. He would also end up becoming the top scorer for this Dream Team, a man having fun, partying with the locals, playing cards all night with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, giving the advantage to a team playing with a kind from light. around. And in the process of becoming part of a different kind of story.

It’s exactly 30 years this week since the Dream Team won gold in Barcelona. Sports anniversaries are often pointless things. An event has taken place. Time is up. The end. This, however, is one of the good ones. Maybe even one of the best, if only because the Dream Team is that kind of entity, always about ultimate and greatness.

Not just because the team itself was extraordinarily good, arguably the greatest collection of sporting talent ever assembled. Not just because they performed like a team, winning their matches by an average of 44 points. Not even because there was a rare kind of joy in the way they did it. Look back and what stands out is the look of wonder shared in the crowd as Jordan not only leaps up but also forwards, maintaining altitude like a glider; or Magic Johnson throws passes so flat and clean that they draw a kind of collective gasp, the men moving in a different kind of gravity, a lighter air.

It was also one of those times when the sport seems to slip into something else. Even how this team was born was important. Four years earlier, an American Olympic team made up of amateurs and minor league players had been badly beaten by the USSR. A year later, a vote passed to allow NBA players to compete.

Politics got into that. The Soviet Union opposed this move to the end, but the Soviet Union was also dissolving. Historians – and AJP Taylor was very firm on this – may have decided that the key note in the fall of the Berlin Wall was David Hasselhoff in a studded leather jacket mimicking Looking For Freedom to a collection of Berliners from the Is perplexed carrying masses. But the Dream Team, as the February 1991 Sports Illustrated cover indicates, also felt like something was loosening, some kind of opening.

Michael Jordan (second from right) waves as he celebrates with teammates Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and Clyde Drexler after winning Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992. Photography: Ray Stubblebine/Reuters

Looking back through the loving, fuzzy sports glasses of a generation raised, even against your conscious will, to absorbing American culture, American food, American movies, American certainties, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say which the Dream Team felt, vaguely, as a kind of fanfare of the American century. It was a victory parade, a sporty version of Jack Kerouac eating an east coast apple pie, a chance to gorge on that sweetness.

A chimera perhaps; but attractive. Above all, it was an incredible team. Jordan, Johnson, Barkley, Pippen, Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing were all starters in a group so strong he could afford to ignore as his token college player a guy named Shaquille O’Neal from Louisiana State.

Fans show their support for the USA basketball team in the 117-85 victory over Croatia at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
Fans show their support for the USA basketball team in the 117-85 victory over Croatia at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Photograph: Ed Reinke/AP

The real glue of this project was Magic, who had retired the previous year after testing positive for HIV, and who most of his teammates assumed was on borrowed time. There would be protests against his inclusion, notably from the Australian team doctor, who suggested, based on zero evidence, that he would infect other athletes. Magic is still alive and well, 62 years old. He received the sweetest of welcomes in Barcelona, ​​danced during the opening parade in a silky blue Jimmy Cagney suit and led the team on and off the pitch.

And yet, for all the triumphalism, it was never a sure thing. The reviews said there would be too many stars. Jordan admitted (you have to love him) that he was there to study his NBA opponents in order to beat them more convincingly the following year. One early practice was so bad that Johnson ended up kicking a ball into the stands. On June 28, they played their first competitive game and everything clicked. As Cuba’s coach said afterwards: “You can’t cover the sun with your finger.”

And so on to Barcelona with an escort of military helicopters, a standoff of adoring fans and some sort of touching pre-globalization celebrity, those in attendance mildly shocked at how much people loved this team. Barcelona was the perfect stage, a city that is itself a work of art, a monument to the wonderful things humans can do. Players went to museums and swam in the sea. Opponents asked for autographs. Sometimes the local commentators were reduced to laughter as Magic faked it, faked it, crouched, faked it again, then blew a nice layer of velvet under the basket.

We tend to see a sort of tyrannical imperialism in the dominance of the American team, but that misses the fact that these are individual athletes, that their brilliance is hard-earned, that the sport is pushed to its physical and mental limits, and that the most vivid of impressions.

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This Olympic race is regularly credited with helping to make basketball a global game. But it was more than that. The world was dizzying in the early 90s. And in a way, this team felt like a crowning achievement, tangible proof that the world would now be fully open borders, Wendy’s in Red Square, Bill Clinton playing saxophone, end of story, removal of the constant threat of impending mega-nuclear. death.

And yes, of course it was just an illusion. That same year, race riots broke out in Los Angeles. History did not end, although the American century did. And looking back now, what’s left of that team is their ability to express something of those confused and confusing hopes; and beyond that, just the basic beauty, the grace of those phantom, floating, writhing white shirts in the analog air, dreamlike in the truest sense.


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