From the comfort of my couch I send a shout-out to Alex Wolff, my distinguished Sports Illustrated colleague who has been covering the Redeem Team. Alex's assignment was easier than mine was in 2004 (when covering Team Bad Vibe in Athens was about as pleasurable as getting a root canal) but more difficult than the task in 1992, when chronicling the Dream Team consisted mainly of ferreting out Charles Barkley's post-midnight agenda on Barcelona's famed Las Ramblas.
Like the veteran knuckleballer, I've been summoned from the bullpen to perform the obvious -- compare the Redeem Team to the Dream Team. Not in terms of global popularity (no matter how many times you've seen Kobe Bryant mobbed by Chinese fans, it doesn't compare to the Elvis-is-in-the-building treatment extended to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, et al.). And not in terms of public comportment during the Games (the '08 team has earned points by showing up at some athletic events, unlike the Dreamers, who, Barkley excepted, mostly stayed in and bonded at their luxury hotel). We're talking strictly basketball.
As the Food Network would put it: Whose cuisine would reign supreme? What we're examining here is a game between Team '92 in its prime against Team '08, which held off Spain 118-107 on Sunday to win the gold.
First of all, discount margin of victory, which was an astounding 43.8 for the Dream Team, compared to 27.9 for this year's team. NBA-caliber players on international teams were a rarity when Chuck Daly's team took the court 16 years ago, as opposed to the stacked rosters against which Mike Krzyzewski's charges had to compete.
The pressure, too, is a wash. Bird joked that if the '92 team lost, it "wouldn't be allowed back in the country," the very idea of NBA players losing to lesser lights being laughable at that point in time. But though the template of top European teams beating thrown-together Americans is now well established, the Redeem Teamers had just as heavy a burden on their collective back. Indeed, with USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo in charge, this year's quest to recapture the gold took on the form of a holy crusade ... and crusades aren't about silver and bronze medals.
But my feeling is that the '92 team would prevail. That's not merely old-school sentiment talking (though I can't deny there's some of that), but cold, hard facts. Here are a few of them:
• The best all-around player on the '08 team was LeBron James, with Kobe a close second. (During the NBA season, I reverse that order.) The best all-around player on the '92 team was Jordan. And Jordan, at that time, was a better player than either James or Bryant, offensively and defensively. To a large extent, teams draw their identity and their strength from their best player.
• The '08 team could not begin to match the Dreamers on the interior. Not only did the '92-ers have two classic centers in Patrick Ewing and David Robinson -- that's two more classic centers than the '08 team had -- but Barkley and Karl Malone could also supply post-ups and rebounding. Dwight Howard was a force at times in Beijing, but against the Dream Team, he'd have three fouls before Coach K could look around for a replacement. Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer would play their tails off, but they would get pounded inside.
• The '08 team is deeper at the point with a combination of Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Deron Williams, particularly since John Stockton was limited by a leg injury in Barcelona and could provide only minor backup help for Magic. But that's irrelevant. Any number of players besides Johnson (Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin and Clyde Drexler) could initiate the U.S. offense, which was more versatile than the Beijing team's.
• The '08 team played hard on defense (though it had few answers for Spain in the final), but the Dream Team was better at that end of the court. If you saw Jordan shut down Lithuania's Sarunas Marciulionis or Pippen put the clamps on Croatia's Toni Kukoc -- both of the international players were world-class at the time -- you would have to give the advantage to the '92 team in a close game. And that's not even to bring up how Robinson and Ewing would protect the paint.
Keep in mind that this is not in any way a condemnation of the '08 team, which comported itself splendidly both on and off the court. It is merely to say that it would not beat the once and future kings who set a standard that will probably never be matched.