The best thing about the best team I ever covered was that you didn't really have to pay attention during the games. The Dream Team ran onto the court and the players on the other team began shooting. Not basketballs. Cameras. They stopped their warmups and asked the Dream Team members to pose, which, with benevolent sighs, the Americans always did. Then the game began and maybe you jotted down what the starting lineup was and maybe you watched who made the first basket or two, but then you just hung out for a couple hours until the real assignment began. Which was:
Following Charles Barkley around Barcelona as he rambled Las Ramblas, "the only street in the world," as Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote, "I wish would never end." Las Ramblas was a 24/7 carnival, a place for the high and mighty and the low and lowdown. And during the 1992 Olympics Sir Charles positively owned it.
OK, I'm exaggerating a little. Maybe you watched the games for five minutes. And I wasn't out with Charles every night. But the major journalistic responsibility when you covered the Dream Team was to make sure you didn't miss the surrounding tapestry of the event. One of the dirty little secrets of journalism is that the less you have to write about the actual game, the more fun it is to write, and, chances are, the better the story is. I would know this since I just turned in 100,000 words to a publisher about the Dream Team, so down the road please look for it in fine bookstores everywhere. Jeez, has any SI.com project ever included such blatant self-promotion? But I can't help it. The Dream Team has consumed the majority of my waking hours over the last 18 months.
SI VAULT:Lords of the Rings (02.18.91), by Jack McCallum
There has never been a team that handed out beatings and drew only plaudits. In the Tournament of the Americas pre-Olympic qualifier in Portland, Cuba coach Miguel Calderon Gomez had this to say after a do-the-math 136-57 loss in the Dream Team's opener: "For us it was an elegant game, a historic game. We can take back to Cuba a beautiful photograph of us with them." That sounds like the cruise director making the best of a widespread epidemic of dysentery: Be sure to take with you that beautiful portrait of Captain and Tennille from Karaoke Night!
Barkley was out and about most nights, collecting crowds of anywhere from 10 to 50, stopping at this bar, this tavern, always chattering, always spreading around mucho dolares and a joyous diplomacy that helped ease the pain of the beatings. Even when Barkley caused them. He famously threw an elbow at a skinny Angolan in the first U.S. game in Barcelona but succeeded mainly in turning Hector Coimbra into the best-known basketball player in the world for a couple of days.
Now, I anticipate what will be the No. 1 complaint about the Dream Team's inclusion on this list -- that they were together for only six weeks and played only 14 games. But I asked my bosses (I'm a real mensch that way), and there were no stipulations that would prohibit their inclusion. The Dream Team was a team. Its record is in the books -- two books, in fact, the Tournament of the Americas pre-Olympic qualifier (where they beat six opponents by an average of 51.5 points) and the Barcelona Games (where they beat eight opponents by an average of 43.8).
Had the Dream Team played 40 games, it wouldn't have lost. Fifty? No loss. I'm pretty sure that the Dream Team would've lost eventually, though the only scenario by which I see that happening is a plague of injuries. That said, my guess is that they could've even absorbed the loss of their top three players, who at the time were Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Barkley, and still come out on top.
Their starting lineup in that extreme case would've been -- let's see -- a bunch of bums named Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler and either David Robinson or Patrick Ewing at center. That leaves a scruffy reserve crew of John Stockton (the NBA's all-time leader in assists and steals), Chris Mullin (immortal three-point shooter) and Christian Laettner (one of the top 20 college players of all-time). All except Laettner, by the way, are in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, and Laettner is in the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
I sense one more note of resistance. You're saying: They didn't play anybody. One response to that, of course, is that you can only beat the teams on your schedule. But while I concede that the competition at the qualifier (Canada, Argentina, Brazil etc.) wasn't that strong, in Barcelona the Dreamers pulverized a Lithuania team (127-76) that included NBA players Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis and twice beat a Croatian team (by 33 and 32) that included the late Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc, both NBA players.
Yes, they were an all-star team and all-star teams are subject to internal combustion. But not these guys. They were formed at the perfect nexus of talent and maturity, competitively honed, replete with natural leaders, chemically balanced, internally secure. They got along and respected each other, hurling out team-binding insults that never stopped. "Michael, you're so ugly," Barkley used to say to Jordan, "if you were a plumber instead of a guy who has 100 million dollars you couldn't get a date."
I understand that part of the enduring appeal of these guys is that we saw so little of them. But I guarantee you that they would've gotten better as they aged. With such an array of talent, the Dream Team could play fast and slow, big and small, rough or easy. There was simply no way to beat them, and, if that doesn't a great team make, I don't know what does.
SI VAULT:Dreamy (08.17.92), by Jack McCallum
I suppose there is some residual resentment even 20 years later about the puppy-kicking margin of the beatings that the Dream Team doled out. But the criticism did not come from opposing players or the people who covered them.
"The Dream Team was full of honorable competitors," says Spain's Juan Antonio Orenga, who played against them and is now an assistant coach on the national team. "We learned much from them."