SPRINGFIELD, Mass. --You may have seen on NBA-TV's Friday night broadcast a portion of the playful banter that went on between the 1960 and 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball teams during enshrinement weekend at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. (Then again, NBA-TV isn't exactly a Nielsen leader.) The televised gotcha line -- Larry Bird getting in a dig at the '60-ers with his comment about stagecoaches and swimming to the Coliseum in Rome -- was only the half of it. And playful wouldn't always be the correct word to describe it.
The competiveness of the players on the '92 Dream Team has been well chronicled, but unless you're an older basketball follower (somebody like, say, myself) it might not be clear that a couple of the '60 players invented competitiveness. They were on stage Friday night and I watched the reactions of '60 co-captains Oscar Robertson and Jerry West after Bird had his laugh line.
They weren't laughing.
But that's what made them great. I loved the fact that the '60 players -- West and Robertson plus Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy in particular -- gave it right back to the Dream Teamers, even though the older guys were competing on an uneven court. The weekend belonged, without a doubt, to the Dreamers, who two decades after their triumph in Barcelona are still alive in the public's collective imagination. Try being relevant five decades later.
That televised segment also revealed another truth: Bird has become a funnyman. Sure, Charles Barkley was everywhere in Springfield this past weekend and seldom failed to deliver when somebody stuck a microphone in his face. But you expect that. Bird, never a jokester in public, is something else again. One night before the broadcast Bird got off a couple better ones at the expense of the '60 team during a roundtable at the Hall of Fame. After Barkley and Bellamy talked about staging a prove-it game between the two teams, Bird said, "What baskets we gonna use? OK, we'll take ours and you'll use the one down there." As he did, he pointed to the display of baskets through the ages behind him. The one "down there" was a wooden relic, one step up from Naismith's peach basket.
Herewith a few more snapshots from enshrinement weekend:
• On separate occasions Bird and Magic, the Dream Team co-captains, went out of their way to single out Barkley's play during the '92 Games. Magic called him the team's "best player" on Friday night, and earlier that afternoon at a private roundtable Bird had called Charles "our most dominant player." Bird's comment is the one that rings true, not Magic's. At that venue and at that point in his career -- he would win the NBA's MVP the following season -- Barkley was unstoppable as a back-to-the-basket operator. But Michael Jordan was clearly the best of the Dream Teamers, and it's not even close. And all his teammates know it.
• The fact that Barkley and two other Dream Teamers, Karl Malone and John Stockton, had been cut from the Bob Knight-coached 1984 Olympic team came up several times during the weekend. C.M. Newton, an assistant to Knight on that team and later one of the USA Basketball Committee members who picked the Dream Team, mentioned it on Thursday night. "Charles could've been on that team, but he wanted to go back to Leeds and eat fried chicken or whatever they do back there," said Newton.
He probably regretted it the moment he said it, but no one took it as racist, which it wasn't. (Barkley has talked about eating fried chicken himself.) Barkley didn't miss a beat. "What you really wanted to say, C.M., was that Bobby Knight was a prick," said Charles. The room roared but it will probably be edited out of the official Hall of Fame video.
• Strangest sight of the weekend? Rick Barry trolling around trying to get the Dream Teamers to sign a poster. I mean, the guy's in the Hall of Fame himself and is one of the 10 best all-around players ever. It was kind of like watching, say, Elvis Costello bug the Stones for autographs, which I'm not suggesting ever happened.
• Overheard from a Hall of Fame official before the long-delayed Friday morning news conference: "We're waiting to see if we can get Michael and Dr. [Jerry] Buss away from the tables." Both Jordan and Buss were staying at the Mohegan Sun Casino, about 60 miles south of the Hall of Fame. Neither showed, though they were there for their only mandated appearance on Friday night, Buss to be inducted, Jordan to stand for Scottie Pippen.
• On Friday morning, Dream Teamer David Robinson stood in front of a display in the USA basketball room at the Hall of Fame, staring at the basketball that used in the 1960 gold medal game. He shook his head in disbelief. "Can you believe they played with that thing?" Robinson said.
The ball looks like a misshapen volleyball that your middle school phys-ed teacher would throw in the scrap heap. It would've been more grist for the these-guys-are-old humor mill, but, in truth, the ball-handling skills of the '60 team had to be superior to work with that thing.
• Anyone who knew Dennis Johnson -- an honest soul, a funny man, an unbelievable clutch player -- couldn't help be saddened by the fact that he didn't live long enough to be at his induction. "D.J. was the best defensive guard I ever played against," said Magic. "And he was one of the smartest players I ever played against. He kept you off balance. He kept you guessing. That's what made me so mad. He was already anticipating my moves before I made them."
• Bird has long called D.J. his favorite teammate of all time. But he was honest enough to admit D.J.'s one shortcoming, if you can call it that: He wasn't exactly a model practice player. "If D.J. had played 40 minutes the night before, we'd tell him to go sit down the next day at practice," said Bird. "Why? Because he wouldn't go hard. So he sat down."
• The two Celtic teammates are forever linked, of course, by the play that occurred in the 1987 Eastern playoffs when Bird stole Isiah Thomas's inbounds pass and zipped a feed to a cutting D.J., whose layup won the game. The play showed up on the big screen during the induction ceremonies, and Brian McIntyre, the NBA's retiring public relations chief, nudged me when it came on. "Watch what D.J. does after he makes the layup," McIntyre says.
Here's what he didn't do. He didn't jump in the air or pump his fist. Here's what he did: He immediately turned to guard the inbounds pass. The man was a stone-cold killer in big games.
• Among the most vivid memories of the Dream Team in Barcelona was what's known as "the Kukoc game." That was the game in which Jordan and Pippen vowed to shut down Tony Kukoc, the Croatia star who had been offered a big contract by the Chicago Bulls at the same time management had refused to extend Pippen. In a Friday morning roundtable the Dream Teamers had joked about how all of them had vowed to shut down Kukoc on behalf of Pippen. Which is exactly what happened.
So several hours later it was jarring to see Kukoc featured so prominently and saying nice things about Scottie in the taped segment that preceded Pippen's induction.
In truth, though, Pippen always felt a little guilty -- emphasis on little -- about "the Kukoc game." For after the tall and talented Croatian joined the Bulls, he became one of Jordan's and Pippen's favorite teammates for his versatility.
• There were several great moments of speechmaking on Friday night -- I loved coach BobHurley's self-deprecating comment that he had turned a speech he expected to be "short and disjointed into one that was long and disjointed" -- but it was hard to top the one offered by Perry Johnson, brother of Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson, who, like D.J., died too young to enjoy the moment. It was utterly sincere, utterly engaging, utterly without pretense. He mentioned that he asked Pat Riley what he remembered about his brother and Riley said, "He broke my nose." It was at that point that Perry must've realized he had been going on a little long, so he abruptly ended the speech. Concluding with a he-broke-my-nose story? Priceless.