About three minutes before the tip-off of Sunday's Tournament of the Americas game, the Cuban players mounted what turned out to be their best attack of the afternoon. They jostled aggressively for position next to Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, seeking the honor of becoming footnotes to history. Cuba wanted one thing out of its game against the U.S. Olympic team, a.k.a. The Dream Team, a.k.a. The Team You Absolutely Don't Want to Play Even if One of Its Best Players Isn't in Uniform—a Kodak moment.
"Yeah, that was a new one on me," said Chris Mullin. "Team photo before the center jump."
This was a new one on Mullin too: With about 12 minutes left in the game and the U.S. ahead by 66 points, U.S. coach Chuck Daly had to do something to stop the rout, so he put in a sorry bench-warming lot: Michael, Magic, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen. When the afternoon's bloodletting had blessedly ended, the margin was 79, the final score 136-57. Good thing these international games are only 40 minutes, eh?
"I kept looking up at the scoreboard, and, yes, it was a logical result," said Cuban center Felix Morales, who, at 6'6", also had to look up at America's Point Guard, Magic.
July 5, 1992
Logical, maybe, when your opponent is so strong that its best player, Jordan, scores only six points and later suggests that he is his team's "defensive specialist." But was it competition? Judging from Team America's frighteningly potent display in its debut, at the Coliseum in Portland, Ore., the entire U.S. Olympic basketball experience might well have to be assessed as theater, like a star-studded Broadway play. Was Magic up to par in this matinee? How well did Jordan and Bird feed off each other in the opening act? Did the supporting cast (which consists of only one man, Christian Laettner) measure up to the headliners?
The opening-night reviews didn't seem to matter as Team Photo Album compliantly played the role of doormat, and the audience was treated to a show that somehow exceeded everyone's very excessive expectations. And more of the same can be expected for the remainder of this selection tournament, which will conclude on July 5 with four teams emerging from the 10-team field as qualifiers for Barcelona. After all, Brazil's Oscar Schmidt, the most famous and talented non-NBA player in the tournament, said following last Saturday's opening ceremonies, "I want all the American team's autographs if possible. Larry Bird is my idol. If I could play against him, it would be a great satisfaction." Not exactly a Beat America battle cry.
But if Team USA sustains its scorched-earth excellence, will we get bored long before the gold medal game in Barcelona on Aug. 8? And how well will 79-point routs play at a venue where most of the spectators won't be red-white-and-blue? "I'm not embarrassed by the team we're taking into this thing," said Magic before facing Cuba. "That would be like asking Europeans bringing over an all-star soccer team if they were embarrassed. That's their game. This is our game."
And make no mistake about it—all of Team America brought a Dirty Harry attitude to Portland. Magic awakened at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, so eager was he to greet the day's experience. And the bus ride from the hotel to the Coliseum was taken in silence, "like a ride to an NBA Finals game," said Clyde Drexler. There was no talk of the daily golf outings that had taken place during the prior week at the team's five-day training camp in La Jolla, Calif. (David Robinson had earned from Barkley the nickname Long and Wrong, for his prodigious but misguided drives.) Nor any recounting of the nightly poker games, in which stakes were anything but penny-ante. (One player had been down $5,000 one evening and had ended up winning $13,000, so maybe this wasn't the game for you.) Nor even any ragging on Laettner, who, as Team America's lone rookie, had been the fall guy in La Jolla. (One evening Barkley had hollered, "Hey, Christian, we can't find any cards. Run out to 7-Eleven and get us a deck, will you?")
Earlier in the week Barkley—who has emerged, not surprisingly, as the team's Most Quotable American—had said, "Cuba? That's where Fidel Castro is from, isn't it? That's all I know about Cuba." And, indeed, Daly's approach was to get his players in sync rather than to analyze the opposition. But in the locker room before the game, Daly actually ran a few minutes of tape from Cuba's 79-78 victory over Canada the night before and then went over the Cubans' starting lineup, and nobody even snickered. "I'll tell you what I was thinking," said Karl Ma-lone. "If this was a Utah Jazz playoff game and we lost, then the Jazz fans would be upset. But if we lost this game, the whole country would be upset, and they'd be throwing things."
And so out they came—proud, focused and ready to rumble for Old Glory. Daly started Magic and Jordan in the backcourt, Bird and Barkley at forward and Robinson at center. (Probable starting center Patrick Ewing, who dislocated his right thumb in La Jolla and was expected to miss at least three games, thus earned the distinction of being the least-missed All-Star in basketball history.) And almost before you had the chance to marvel at the moment, Magic found Bird cutting down the middle and Bird hit a fallaway jumper. One of Daly's first decisions had been to name Magic and Bird co-captains, so it was natural that the two legends jump-started The Dream Team. Said Bird, "I just wanted to make the first two points, in case I didn't score the rest of the tournament."
Sublime moment followed sublime moment. There was Magic racing down-court, with Jordan on one side and Barkley on the other, and suddenly flipping the ball over his right shoulder to Robinson, the 7'1" trailer. (How we've missed Magic's expressive face when he steams downcourt on the dribble! Incidentally, he puts his chances of returning to the Los Angeles Lakers for the 1992-93 NBA season at 50-50.) There was the newly goateed Jordan ("My wife loves it," he said) saving a ball on the sidelines near mid-court and wrapping it around his back and to Bird at the baseline, whence Bird buried a jumper. There was Barkley smiling as he took a no-look pass from Magic for an easy layup. There was Drexler back-handing a pass to John Stockton for a breakaway score. There was Malone finding Stockton—not vice versa!—on a give-and-go. And there was Drexler, again, putting a punctuation mark on the whole thing with a ferocious buzzer-beating slam dunk. Unlike Dan, these guys didn't pass on any height. And, indeed, what can a team do to stem the tide when its 12th man, Laettner, is a much better player than anyone on the opposition's roster and when a 30-second clock mandates action? The U.S. did play some 1-2-2 zone late in the game to ease the defensive pressure, but it was hardly a break for Cuba, which couldn't have gotten inside with anything less than a court order.
"I think we owe it to ourselves and the other team to keep playing and not let up," said Stockton. That was the diplomatic explanation of the rout.
"I don't know how you can tell players not to play," said Daly. That was the coach's explanation of the rout.
"I'm representing my country, and I sure as hell don't feel sorry for anybody," said Malone. "I always wanted to be in the army; this is the closest I'll get." That was the Rambo explanation of the rout.
Funny, but in La Jolla it seemed at least reasonable to suggest several potential problems for The Dream Team in international competition. What about unfamiliar zone defenses, such as the 1-3-1 employed by Cuba? Well, when your speed, athleticism and skills enable you to run on almost every possession—as the U.S. did on Sunday, shooting 72% from the field for the game—it doesn't make much difference what basic defense your opponent chooses to play. What about guarding players attempting the less challenging international three-point shot (the line is 20'6[1/10]" from the basket, as opposed to 23'9" in the NBA), particularly since NBA players are accustomed to dropping back and doubling the post? Well, when guards like Jordan, Drexler and Stockton are able to discombobulate the opposition into committing 26 turnovers, as they did on Sunday, the nuances of perimeter defense don't mean much either. And what about that great chemistry question, about the difficulties that Daly might have getting each of these stars to, as he put it, "step down their games just a little bit?" Well, when such players get together, their tendency is to overpass rather than to overshoot. On Sunday, The Dream Team had 41 assists on 48 field goals.
It's unlikely that the U.S. will put forth the kind of effort in the remainder of its qualifying tournament games that it displayed in its history-making debut. But one thing has been obvious from the moment the players gathered in La Jolla on June 21: They are aware of being a part of something special and will thus continue to seek a special level of performance. With 3:46 left against Cuba and the US. leading by 70, Drexler walked over to Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice-president of operations, who had much to do with adding Drexler to the roster. "Thank you, Rod," Drexler said. "I appreciate it."
Cuba, strangely, appreciated it too. "For us it was an elegant game, a historic game," said coach Miguels Calderon Gomez. "We can take back to Cuba a beautiful photograph of us with them."
As for the frightful imbalance, well, Gomez described it as irrelevant. "As we say in Cuba," he said, "you can't cover the sun with your finger."