A World of Their Own

With Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson heading a starry NBA cast, the U.S. basketball team should dominate the '92 Olympics
September 29, 1991

In about 10 months Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson will have a date in Barcelona to carve up the world. The 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, the first Olympic team ever introduced to America on a national television special, will open more eyes and more checkbooks than any other sporting team in history.

So jump a little higher, Michael. Smile a little wider, Magic. There are rich new worlds and television markets to conquer. The Games are expected to attract about 2.5 billion viewers in 170 countries, and somewhere out there, there may just be a multimillion-dollar conglomerate that hasn't seen, or has not fully appreciated. your commercial possibilities.

With stakes like those, it's not surprising that the long selection process did not go as smoothly as executives from the NBA, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Basketball—the sport's governing body in this country—would have liked. The process included backstabbing, backroom politicking, cries of "I'm not coming if he's coming," a resignation, insulting missives, finger pointing, juicy rumors, a letter-writing campaign and even the threat of legal action. Good thing they opened up Olympic basketball to the pros, eh?

The whole thing seemed like a giant sweet-16 party at Ridgemont High. Among the 10 players announced last Saturday on NBC were, of course, all the cool guys in school: Jordan, of the Chicago Bulls, and Johnson, of the Los Angeles Lakers, who will surely be the starting guards; forwards Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz; and centers David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs and Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks. Three relatively new members of the in-crowd also made the team: Utah guard John Stockton, forward Chris Mullin of the Golden State Warriors and Chicago forward Scottie Pippen. Rounding out the Terrific 10 was the player voted most likely to moon the principal, forward Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers. More than a few grown-ups had doubts about Barkley, but in the end his talent won them over. The 13-man selection committee will announce the team's final two members, at least one of whom must be a college player, after the NCAA tournament next spring.

As you might have heard by now, among those not invited to the party was Isiah Thomas, the Detroit Piston point guard, who, unlike anybody with the exception of Magic, has been MVP of a Final Four, MVP of the NBA Finals and MVP of an NBA All-Star Game. Those are what you call credentials. Other stay-at-homes were: Joe Dumars, Thomas's backcourt partner in three NBA Finals; Laker forward James Worthy, who was probably doomed when Bird agreed to play; and the versatile Clyde Drexler of the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland, by the way, is where this collection of the best and brightest will first be loosed upon the world, in an Olympic qualifier, the Basketball Tournament of the Americas, to be held from June 27 to July 5. One of these four players will most likely be named to the team, and the best bet is Drexler. Loyal Trail Blazer fans have already begun a letter-writing campaign in his behalf, and he would undoubtedly be an added draw.

If the U.S. can somehow finish among the top four in that 10-team round-robin event—and coach Chuck Daly is already thinking of ways to make Uruguay seem All-Universe—it will be on to Barcelona and almost-certain Olympic gold. Still, Thomas's omission may have repercussions for the Pistons. "Can I guarantee that this will not affect them during the NBA season?" said Daly, who coaches Detroit. "I don't think so. I know Isiah is hurt. That's not going to go away."

Daly hopes that Dumars—who keeps his own counsel, whether in suffering or celebration—is not too upset about not being selected, but he knows that a third Piston who merited consideration, defensive specialist Dennis Rodman, is. "With Rodman's sensitivity," said Daly, "he could be as hurt as anybody."

What's more, according to a Piston official, Detroit center Bill Laimbeer was so incensed about the exclusion of his good friend Thomas that he talked about seeking an injunction to stop Saturday's announcement on the grounds that players weren't given an opportunity to try out for the team. Another of Thomas's buddies, Mike Ornstein, an NFL marketing executive, wrote all 13 committee members—on NFL stationery—to tell them what he thought of their not choosing Isiah. In his letter to committee member Wayne Embry, who is also the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ornstein wrote: "I think you made a big mistake, and judging by your record as a general manager, it's not your first."

While Thomas has turned a few stomachs in his day—most recently when he and Laimbeer petulantly led their teammates off the floor seconds before the Bulls completed their sweep of the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals last spring—he has also turned in as many big-game performances as any guard in history. To argue that his emotional unpredictability would upset team chemistry, as some Thomas critics suggested, is to underestimate the leadership abilities of the veterans—primarily Magic and Bird—and the proven stewardship of Daly. Stockton, who has led the NBA four straight years in assists, is a brilliant quarterback, but he simply does not belong on the Olympic team ahead of Thomas.

So why wasn't Thomas selected? There are two theories: the Michael-didn't-want-him theory and the Chuck-and-Jack-didn't-push-hard-enough-for-him theory. Every indication suggests that both are true.

Jordan denies that he had anything to do with Isiah's being iced, and a few members of the selection committee back him up. However, just because Jordan did not go before the entire body and issue an ultimatum—if Thomas plays, I won't—does not mean that he didn't make his feelings known to certain key members.

Some arm-twisting was involved in getting Jordan to sign up—"The last thing on his mind in June was playing in the Olympics," says one Chicago official—and one of his conditions was that Thomas not be a teammate. Sources on both the selection committee and the Bulls confirm that behind-the-scenes scenario. It's almost impossible to overstate the animosity that exists between the Bulls and the Pistons in general and between Jordan and Thomas in particular. Remember the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, in which Jordan was reportedly miffed that Thomas didn't get him the ball enough? Jordan did not want Thomas on the Olympic team—period.

Theory No. 2 was equally pivotal. Thomas did not get strong support from either Daly or Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey, who was a member of the committee until he resigned last week to protest what he called the "ridiculous decision" to exclude Thomas. McCloskey said he was "disappointed that he couldn't convince" the committee to find a spot for Thomas, a statement that, according to sources on the committee, left other members flabbergasted because they knew that McCloskey did not speak up for Thomas at the outset of the process. When he eventually did bring up Thomas's name, the sources say, it was only in response to rumblings of discontent in Detroit. "A smoke screen to protect himself," said one source.

The party line on Daly is that he had no input into the selection process. This is absolute balderdash. Daly made his feelings clear about personnel and even gave the committee a wish list early in the process—one from which Thomas was excluded. Had he gone to the committee, banged his fist on the table and said, "I've got to have Isiah," he probably would have gotten Isiah. But Daly didn't. Why not? There are several possibilities: He didn't want to risk losing Jordan; he was still peeved at Thomas for having ignored his pleas not to walk off the court in the Bulls series; he remembered all too clearly the comments Thomas made last season about Daly's devoting too much time to Olympic matters and not enough to coaching the Pistons; he knew he couldn't get both Thomas and Dumars and didn't want to risk antagonizing the one who was passed over; or, like many NBA coaches, he would rather tire out someone else's players in the summer than his own.

Thomas said that he was "taking the high road" and refused to comment on the prevailing theories. But he did express his disappointment—friends described him as "devastated"—to SI last Saturday night. "I've never felt such a mix of emotions that I feel right now," said Thomas. "It's not the most disappointing moment of my life, but it's close. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and I just want to get the taste out of my mouth as soon as I can.

"All my career I've done nothing but win. I've always adapted to change, I thought, almost as well as anyone, and I would've adapted for this team. I'd still be honored to be chosen, but if I'm not, I'll still be rooting for us to win the gold medal."

You probably won't have to do much rooting, Isiah. With the U.S. not having won a gold medal in international basketball competition since the 1986 world championships, the selection committee was determined to build the strongest team possible. According to committee sources, Daly had seven players on his wish list: Ewing, Jordan, Magic, Malone, Mullin, Pippen and Robinson. Mullin was needed, Daly felt, for his outside shooting. Pippen, perhaps the biggest surprise, was on the list because he can defend three or four positions and, unlike Rodman, can contribute offensively as well.

Barkley was not included because Daly was worried about his comportment (over the last two seasons he has been fined $80,000, including an NBA-record $57,000 for his involvement in a brawl in a game against the Pistons on April 19, 1990). Bird was left off primarily because of his repeated insistence that he didn't want to play. But at the urging of Celtics executive Dave Gavitt, the president of USA Basketball, the decision was made to go after Bird. Finally, when no one pushed for Thomas, Stockton was anointed as Magic's backup. Invitations were extended only to those 10 players, and only Jordan and Bird hedged.

A variety of factors—no Isiah, the likelihood of no two-a-day practices, no limit to endorsement opportunities—contributed to Jordan's decision to become an Olympian. Bird had to be convinced that he would be more than a token presence, and a loose coalition of Gavitt, Celtics president Red Auerbach, Bird's wife, Dinah, and Magic did exactly that. Because his rehabilitation from back surgery in June had gone better than expected, Bird thought he would be ready.

But is the world ready for U.S. pros? Although Puerto Rico, which won the Pan-American Games this summer, and running-and-gunning Brazil have intimidated American collegians in the past, they may well fall apart at the sight of a soaring Jordan or at the sight—and sting—of a Ewing elbow.

In truth, only two countries, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, had a chance of giving the Americans a game, but neither one figures to do so now that both may be passing from existence. At full strength, Yugoslavia—with Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and a full bench of solid role players—would have been formidable. The Yugoslavians are much more comfortable with international rules and one another than their American counterparts and are unintimidated by the wattage of multimillionaire superstars because, well, a few of them are multimillionaire superstars. But with Croatia under assault by Yugoslavian federal troops as a result of its declaration of independence, we'll probably see two Balkan teams in Barcelona.

Many of the Soviet Union's best players are from Lithuania, which expects to field its own Olympic team in '92. Led by Rimas Kurtinaitis, Valdemaras Khomichus and Golden State's Sarunas Marciulionis, three of the top outside players on the U.S.S.R.'s '88 Olympic gold medal-winning team, Lithuania promises to have plenty of shooting, speed and ball handling. Nonetheless, after 7-foot Arvidas Sabonis, the Lithuanians won't have frontcourt depth.

What's more, the U.S. players will be so focused on winning the gold medal to avoid humiliation ("If we lose, it would be the biggest upset in basketball history," says Barkley) that they will not allow themselves to be destroyed by petty jealousies. "We're going to Barcelona fully loaded," Jordan said last week.

Then, too, there is the lure of lucrative foreign endorsements and more worldwide fame. Jordan says the companies that are already paying him millions did not pressure him to play. "Magic said he'd give me $1 million to play, and so did Charles, so I figured that's $2 million right there," said Jordan jokingly. Perhaps only he and Magic truly understand the earning potential that a spectacular Olympic performance would guarantee.

Yes, but the saddest thing for all those who were not selected—and Isiah realizes this—is that they will not be missed.

ILLUSTRATIONVICTOR JUHASZThe Games will put Michael and Magic in position to go global. ILLUSTRATIONVICTOR JUHASZThe U.S. team has inspired lofty expectations, and Daly hopes he will be up to the task. ILLUSTRATIONVICTOR JUHASZA Daly nightmare: having to coach Olympic rejects Thomas (left) and Rodman in Detroit.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)