IT'S A RED, WHITE AND BLUE DREAM: the five players who grace this week's cover playing together, determined to restore America's lost basketball dignity, in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
What's the chance of this dream coming true?
Not bad. Not bad at all.
With Olympic basketball competition now open to pro players as a result of a ruling made in April 1989 by the sport's international governing organization and with the U.S. committed to a team drawn primarily from the NBA, SI has selected what it believes to be America's ideal starting five. And here's the dream-come-true part of it: Each of these players has said that he is at least strongly considering participating in the Games. Of course, a lot could happen between now and 1992, when the team will be selected by the Olympic subcommittee of USA Basketball, the body charged with running the American Olympic basketball effort.
February 18, 1991
The interest from NBA players has been, according to the league's commissioner, David Stern, "overwhelming," but commitments could soften as the day of decision draws closer. After all, the Olympic qualifying round will begin the last week of June, right after the conclusion of the 1991-92 NBA season. Any Olympian whose team makes the NBA finals will have been playing basketball continuously for 10 months by the time the Barcelona Games close on Aug. 9.
But that doesn't seem all that daunting a prospect to our starters. Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone has been enthusiastic about the Olympics for more than a year and has declared himself a candidate for the U.S. team. Ditto for Philadelphia 76er forward Charles Barkley, who told SI, "I positively, positively, positively want to play." Knick center Patrick Ewing, a gold medal winner in the 1984 Olympics, says he is definitely interested. And point guard Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers says, "I've got everything else so why not a gold medal? I want to play."
The iffiest member of our fivesome is the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan, a teammate of Ewing's on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Jordan has myriad summertime commitments (many of them involving a tee time) and was frankly disinterested when the subject of NBA players in the '92 Games first came up. But he changed his mind after visiting Europe last summer on a promotional tour. "I saw firsthand the interest in basketball over there, and it made me reconsider," says Jordan. "Nothing is final, but I'm certainly considering playing."
Cynics might say that Jordan's decision will have nothing to do with red, white and blue and quite a lot to do with green. That is, if he feels he can profit personally from the Olympics through added endorsements, he'll play. Well, let's not kid ourselves—of course that is part of his motivation, maybe the primary part. Business is never far from Magic's mind, either. He, too, toured Europe for a company last summer and even shot the ceremonial first basket in the Palau San Jordi, Barcelona's newly built Olympic basketball venue. Johnson has an endorsement contract with a Spanish meatpacking company that is tied to his participation in the Games. Yes, he can see the lure of the gold medal in front of him, but he can also hear the distant ring of the cash register. This is the 1990s, after all, and millionaire pro athletes cannot be expected to give up 2½ months of their free time to play for the Olympic stipend of zip, zilch, nada.
Though it has been widely reported that at least eight NBA players will be on the 12-man Olympic roster, the subcommittee actually has set no quota. Sources close to USA Basketball indicate, however, that the breakdown will probably be 9-3 or 10-2 in favor of the pros. SI's educated guess is 9-3.
We project that the reserves—and we apply that term most advisedly—will be San Antonio Spur center David Robinson, Detroit Piston guard Joe Dumars, Portland Trail Blazer guard Clyde Drexler and Golden State Warrior forward Chris Mullin.
What college players will be added? That's a real crapshoot because no one is sure who will leave school early to join the NBA for the 1991-92 season. USA Basketball would like to reward those collegians—Georgia Tech point guard Kenny Anderson comes most prominently to mind—who have played on pre-Olympic U.S. touring teams, but their chances of making the U.S. team would be severely reduced by coming out early. Here's one to book, though—if LSU sophomore Shaquille O'Neal stays in school, he'll play behind Ewing and Robinson.
Who will be the coach? Good question. According to the subcommittee rules, he must have at least eight years of head coaching experience and at least three of those must be in the NBA, where he has to have been coaching within three years of the Olympics. That final provision is known unofficially as the Riley Rule because it would allow for a respected coach who is not active at the time of his selection, perhaps someone like former Laker boss Pat Riley, to get the job. Sources in the subcommittee—USA Basketball officials met Monday in Charlotte—mention at least half a dozen prime possibilities. Riley, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Lenny Wilkens and the Phoenix Suns' Cotton Fitzsimmons reportedly are among them. But SI sees the decision coming down to San Antonio's Larry Brown, Detroit's Chuck Daly or Golden State's Don Nelson. All have indicated that they want the job badly.
Nelson has spent time the last two summers scouting European teams in Germany, Spain and Argentina, and he was also in Seattle last summer to do note-taking at the Goodwill Games. But though he is considered innovative and energetic, his lobbying for the job turned off several members of the subcommittee.
Without referring directly to Nelson, Brown has on several occasions made the point that he, unlike Nelson, has longtime international experience. "I don't think you need to campaign for the job," Brown has said. "I think the job should go to the most qualified coach. And to be honest, I know more about the international game than anybody." Brown played on the 1964 U.S. Olympic team, which won a gold medal in Tokyo, was an assistant coach to Dave Gavitt on the '80 team, which stayed home from the Moscow Games because of the American boycott, and has coached U.S. world junior teams that have played in Europe.
Daly, who will turn 62 on July 20, 1992, says he is interested in the Olympic job. He is in good health, he thrives on the limelight and pressure, and he would have nothing against making a fashion statement to a worldwide audience. It's not his style to stump for the job, but if he were to do so, he might say something like this: "I've won two NBA championships and kept a difficult team with a lot of egos playing together. Nobody is better at getting the most out of an NBA player than I am." And he would be correct.
Those just might be the abilities that get him the job. Daly has one significant shortcoming, a lack of familiarity with the international game, but he would have three assistants—one NBA head coach and two college head coaches—who could provide that expertise. The likes of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo would fit the bill.
Who's being left off our team? Well, two prominent NBA All-Stars, the Houston Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon and the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird, are eliminated right away. Olajuwon is a Nigerian citizen, and Bird, who will be 35 next December, says, candidly, that he will be too old. "The Olympics are for young guys," he says. "I'd hate to take something away from a young kid. The timing was never right for me to be on an Olympic team. I may regret it someday, but I don't think much about it now."
In selecting Magic as our only pure point guard, we've passed over a number of past and present All-Stars, including Detroit's Isiah Thomas, Phoenix's Kevin Johnson, Utah's John Stockton and Golden State's Tim Hardaway. The two most obvious shooting guards not on our team are the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller and Golden State's Mitch Richmond. The Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins and the Lakers' James Worthy are the most talented forwards who have been omitted, and we did not include the NBA's supreme role player, Detroit's rebounding defensive wizard Dennis Rodman. (If Daly is the coach, though, look for the Worm to be in Barcelona.) All of the above players would be excellent Olympians, but here's why we made our selections:
It begins with Magic. Yes, K.J. and Hardaway are much quicker, but the Laker quarterback is still one of the top five players in the world regardless of position, and he's the best choice—the only choice—to lead a group of NBA superstars. More than ever this season, Magic can be heard moving players around on the court (L.A. has the league's only voice-activated offense). And his grasp of floor spacing—even against the packed-in zone defenses the U.S. is likely to be facing—and his court vision are nonpareil.
There is a school of thought that says Jordan can't play on the same team as Magic. "You've got to build around one or the other but not both," says one NBA player, asking for anonymity. That doesn't wash here. Jordan doesn't particularly care for the responsibility of running the Bulls' offense, but frequently he feels it's necessary. Well, it won't be necessary in Barcelona. Get out on the break and find the seams in the defense, Michael, and Magic will get you 40.
Why Ewing over Robinson? Both shoot, rebound, block shots, run the floor and intimidate the opposition. SI likes Ewing's ferocity, his unquenchable thirst for the tough action. Let's give Ewing the starting role but divide the playing time equally between him and Robinson, the best second-stringer in the history of the planet.
Should Barkley, per our wishes, start at small forward, he will undoubtedly provoke some anxiety. What if he pats a foreign referee on the backside, as he so often does on home turf, and the ref misunderstands the import of the gesture? What if, during the player introductions, he suddenly pulls down his shorts to reveal a red, white and blue jockstrap? What if he off-handedly insults the mother-in-law of the assistant coach of the Brazilian national team? Dare we wheel a loose cannon onto the court?
Absolutely. Barkley will do just fine in Barcelona. He missed the Olympics in 1984, when he was clearly one of the top players at the trials. Unfortunately, he clearly was not a Bobby Knight kind of guy, and Knight was the coach of that team. Barkley wants to play, and he'll be as affected by the spirit of the occasion as anyone. That's just how he is.
Furthermore, Barkley's game is tailor-made for the Olympics. The international key is funnel-shaped, flaring out near the basket, and, consequently, post-up players find themselves farther away from the basket than in the American game. "Barkley is the perfect forward for the international game," says Roger Lyons, who over the past two years has had considerable success coaching World Basketball League teams in international tournaments. "You want forwards who are comfortable out on the floor and can drive the ball to the basket."
For that reason, the choice of Malone as the other forward is questioned by some NBA observers. Can Malone and Ewing—both are confirmed low-post players—coexist? Malone, after all, is accustomed to playing with a center, Mark Eaton, who knows his place in the Utah offense: out by the three-point line where he rarely touches the ball. Some observers feel that Bird, bad back and all, would be the ideal U.S. power forward because of his shooting ability. Those observers include one William Laimbeer, who has never been quick to praise Bird. "You need that forward with real perimeter shooting ability in the Olympics," says Laimbeer, the Pistons' center. "Bird would be perfect."
Well, Bird won't be playing, but there's no need to worry. Don't forget Malone has other strengths. He can run the floor, which is a must on a team that has Magic, and he's a bulldog of a rebounder. And if things get rough, as they often do in international competition, who wouldn't feel more comfortable with The Mailman around?
The reserves must be team players willing to accept their lesser status. With the exception of Robinson, whose situation as backup center is clear, the subs need to be versatile two-position types, to maximize lineup flexibility, and each must be uniquely proficient in one major aspect of the game, so he can serve, in effect, as a role player extraordinaire.
Dumars can replace Magic at the point or Jordan at two-guard, but his trump card is defense. He does an excellent job of containing Jordan, after all, so he should be even more effective against any other guard. That gives Dumars the advantage over Piston teammate Thomas and the other talented backcourtmen left off our team.
Drexler can swing between guard and small forward, but, more important, his height (6'7") and agility enable him to contain bigger people. Thus the team would not need Rodman, whose offensive skills are anything but Olympian. That, of course, is not the case with Drexler, who might well be able to win both the NBA slam-dunk and three-point shooting contests.
Mullin, like Drexler, can swing between shooting guard and small forward, but he would have one clear role on this team—to be that perimeter shooter from the forward spot that Laimbeer talked about. Mullin's presence would obviate the need to include on the team a stand-still three-point shooter, the type of limited-role player that some observers say is a necessity.
The Olympic three-point line is 20'6" from the basket, 3'3" closer than the NBA's and well within the range of almost any NBA guard or forward, much less the players on this team. Heck, Ewing can hit the 20-foot fadeaway.
So, there they are. Three-point shooters, rebounders, fast-breakers, defenders, ball handlers, dunkers. The richest and best-known basketball players in the world. Isn't it just plain common sense to believe that this outfit—or one similar in composition to it—will turn the tide of America's recent international basketball embarrassments, which include a third-place finish in the 1988 Olympics and another third-place finish in last year's world championships?
Absolutely not, says Al McGuire, the NBC commentator and former college coach: "An NBA all-star team will not win an Olympic gold medal."
Says Lyons, "You cannot overestimate the value of team chemistry and how strong these foreign national teams are simply because they play together a lot. Sure, our talent might win out ultimately, but not necessarily."
And even Larry Joe Bird, who over the years has evinced a rather low opinion of European basketball, says, "The reason a team of superstars doesn't always win is because the game isn't always played at the highest level. Sometimes a less talented team brings the better team down to its level. It happens a lot, especially in the Olympics."
Maybe so. But never in the history of international basketball will such a talented group of players be assembled on one team, and that talent alone will get the Americans past every team in the world save two: Yugoslavia, the gold medalist at the Seoul Games, which might itself be stocked with NBA or NBA-caliber players like Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja; and the Soviet Union, which might—depending on the political situation—have those two worthy Lithuanians, Sarunas Marciulionis, who plays in the NBA for Golden State, and the highly rated center, Arvidas Sabonis. The U.S. will have to perform as a unit, not like a bunch of superstars, to beat those teams.
Will the NBA stars be willing to do that? And even if the spirit is willing, is there enough time to forge them into such a unit? "Before I coached in the All-Star Game, I wondered how much superstars would be willing to sacrifice for the good of the team," said Daly. "And the answer is a lot. I couldn't believe how focused they were on a team effort. And an Olympic gold medal should give them even more focus."
Says Magic: "The timetable isn't perfect, but it's good enough. I think a team like ours will only need a little while, maybe a week or so, to start playing together. And we'll get better and better as the competition goes on."
If Daly and Johnson are correct, there is simply no way that the U.S. can lose. That is clearly the opinion of the Celtics' Kevin McHale. "At some point, this becomes simple math," says McHale. "If guys like Michael, Charles and Patrick are getting 35 over here, against this competition, then they can get 50 points in the Olympics. I know it's not simply a matter of scoring, but I think the top five NBA teams would beat the top European teams. It'll be no contest."
That's the way it looks from this perspective, too. But what if the Americans do assemble NBA superstar talent and still come up short?
"I know this," says Bird, "I wouldn't want to be on a team that loses. They probably wouldn't be allowed back in the country."