Were the Olympic basketball competition a one-on-one event, like that David and Goliath thing awhile back, some modern-day slingshotters would have a chance. If the gold medal were given for excellence in three-point shooting, Croatia's Drazen Petrovic might beat America's representative, say, Chris Mullin. If it were given for a one-on-one game between big men—make-it-take-it, call your own fouls—Lithuania's Arvidas Sabonis might outmuscle Patrick Ewing or David Robinson on a given evening. And perhaps Germany's Detlef Schrempf knows enough tricky shots to beat Michael Jordan or Larry Bird in a game of H-O-R-S-E.
But three-point-shooting contests, one-on-one and H-O-R-S-E have nothing to do with Olympic success. For the Davids of basketball to prevail in Barcelona, they'll have to beat the U.S.'s best professionals in standard five-man games played by international rules, and that's a tall order.
"All you can do is hope to play a close game with the U.S. and count it as a moral victory," says Hansi Gnad, a forward for Germany. "And everybody knows that moral victories don't matter in the Olympics."
"They should just give the U.S. the gold medal and get it over with," says Dino Radja, a forward for Croatia.
July 21, 1992
"The United States is going to win every game in the Olympics by 25 or 30 points," says Radja's teammate, guard Toni Kukoc, "and if the Americans have a bad day, maybe they'll win by only 15."
Hey, what happened to that game's-not-over-till-the-final-buzzer attitude that's supposed to reign, free and pure, over athletic competition? How about you, Bill Wennington, center for the Canadian national team? You played against the Dream Team in the Tournament of the Americas, the Olympic qualifying event in Portland, Ore., which the U.S. utterly dominated, and before that you played in the NBA. Do you agree there's absolutely no chance? "The world will end before the U.S. is beaten," says Wennington.
Yes, for unadulterated nonsuspense, there has rarely been an Olympic event like this year's men's basketball tournament, 99 parts coronation, one part competition. The U.S.'s performance in Portland seemed to remove any doubt that this first team of NBA stars to play in the Olympics can be challenged in any given game, let alone be defeated for the gold medal. "If you were hoping to sneak up on us, you can forget about it," says Dream Teamer Karl Malone. Most have, Karl. Any number of facts, including a 51.5 average margin of victory in six games in Portland, point to U.S. dominance, but let's focus on just two:
•Worrywart Dream Team coach Chuck Daly did not deem it necessary to call a timeout in any game. In fact, when informed that timeouts during one televised game had been increased from 1:20 to 1:50, Daly replied: "I can't think of anything to say now—what the hell do I do with an extra 30 seconds?"
•The prevailing theory that well-drilled opponents might bother the U.S. with zone defenses went out the window as soon as Magic Johnson & Co. started running—it simply became too difficult for teams to match up and cover the court in transition situations. The idea that man-to-man defense might be the best way to stop Michael Jordan and his pals is truly frightening, but that might be the case.
What else could produce an upset? How about the much-discussed international three-point line, which is more than three feet closer to the basket than the NBA line. Doesn't matter. Mullin, Jordan and Bird (if his back is healthy enough for him to play) can shoot it as well as any other players in the world, and the U.S.'s aggressive, run-at-the-shooter defenders, notably Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Scottie Pippen, will discombobulate the opposition's three-point shooting. Injuries? Maybe, but as Pip-pen says, "We could probably win the gold with five guys." Horrendous refereeing? Nah, the caliber of officiating has risen considerably over the past few years.
The opposition can't even count on an administrative screwup. One of Daly's assistants, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, is a former West Point coach who is quite familiar with those tricky 24-hour-clock times and won't be confused if an 1800 starting time is thrown at him. And another assistant, Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo, demonstrated his vigilance in Portland by visiting the scorer's table during virtually every timeout to ask questions about foul trouble and the like. (Then again, fearing that Daly might want him to come up with something for the coaches to say, P.J. probably just wanted to get out of the huddle.)
Still, sports revolves around the principle that no individual or team is invincible. The Prayin' Colonels of little Centre College beat Harvard 6-0 in 1921 in football. The lowly U.S. soccer team beat powerful England 1-0 in World Cup play in '50. Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson a couple of years ago. The Jets beat the Colts in Super Bowl III. Bob Beamon beat the heck out of 28 feet in '68. Do you believe in miracles? The '80 U.S. Olympic hockey team did.
And so, in the spirit of anything-can-happen-on-a-given-day, we present three scenarios in which the Dream Team does not win the gold.
•The Vallromanes Golf Club Scenario. As you have probably heard by now, the Dream Teamers found a little time for golf in Portland and, before that, during their "training camp" in La Jolla, Calif. Jordan played golf every day except one (and on that day he played tennis), and Bird, Drexler, Charles Barkley, Robinson and John Stockton (before he suffered a fracture in his right leg in the win over Canada) also took to the links frequently. Only Malone, to whom golf represents "a giant waste of pastureland," would not tee it up in any situation, and the Dream Teamers fully expect to whack the ball around in Barcelona. So...
Early on Aug. 8, the morning of the gold medal game, Barkley, Drexler, Jordan and Robinson decide to play one of Catalonia's better courses, Vallromanes, which is located north of the municipal sports arena in Badalona, the site of the basketball competition. Though not a golfer himself, Magic joins them (as he did from time to time in Portland) to drive the cart, keep score and yell, "You the man!" Because of the day's significance, the Dream Teamers vow to play only 18 holes, though Jordan hopes to hit a bucket or two of practice balls after they're finished.
Jordan and Robinson against Barkley and Drexler, $1,000 Nassau, one down, automatic presses. There's also a giant skins game, greenies and other side bets, and it's all so complicated that only math wizard Robinson can keep track of it, on a calculator that he designed in fifth grade. Anyway, after 18 holes Robinson says that they're even, so Jordan suggests a sudden-death hole. They play numbers 1, 2 and 3 without breaking the deadlock and become so engrossed in the competition that they lose track of time.
Barkley finally chips in from the apron on 4 for the victory, and he's so happy that he proceeds to drive the cart all over the course, shouting, "We're Number One!" That kills another 30 minutes. Then the Dream Teamers jump into their car and—horror of horrors!—run into a monumental traffic jam on the A-19 highway that leads into Badalona. When Barkley tries to pass, an unsympathetic policeman who couldn't get tickets to the final directs them back into line.
In the arena, meanwhile, the rest of the American players, who might still have enough firepower to win, are panicking. Ewing is in foul trouble; Stockton, without much point-guard relief, is exhausted; Malone is angry that his teammates went out to waste pastureland on such an important day; and Daly has already been taken to a nearby hospital. The breathless golfers arrive just in time to watch, horrified, as Sarunas Marciulionis sinks two free throws to give Lithuania an 89-88 victory.
Barkley then reminds Jordan and Robinson that he will accept a check.
•The Blinding Flashbulb Scenario. One of the subplots—heck, it was a whole plot—of the qualifying tournament was the obsequiousness of the opposition. The opposing players begged for autographs and souvenirs (one player even asked for Magic's jersey as he guarded him at midcourt) and practically bowed with reverence when each rout was over. But the big thing was photos. Photos before the game, photos during the game, photos after the game. So...
The U.S. is playing Angola in its opening game, on July 26. The score is 91-3 with six minutes left when an Angolan player rises near the bench, runs over to the baseline and aims his camera directly into Pippen's face. Pippen blinks as the flashbulb goes off, and his Angolan opponent, a spunky 5'3" power forward, goes around him for a layup to cut the score to 91-5. Pippen laughs as Daly ponders calling a timeout. But up in the stands a clever scout from Lithuania elbows a colleague and says, "I think that we've got something here."
Come the gold medal game, every Lithuanian player smuggles a flash camera into the arena under his warmup suit. Each time a Dream Teamer drifts close to the Lithuanian bench, one of the players seated there rises and snaps a photo. Gradually the U.S. players see nothing but dark spots—afterimages, in the ophthalmological lexicon. They begin missing shots, throwing passes into the seats and, most embarrassingly, stumbling to the wrong bench during timeouts, where people are talking in a language they do not understand. With five minutes left in the game and the Dream Team trailing by six, Daly is taken to a nearby hospital. Gamely the U.S. battles to the end but can't overcome the plucky band of Lithuanian snapshooters.
After the game several of the Lithuanians ask for autographs, at which point Barkley bashes one of them over the head with a camera. "Ah," says Charles, "the mind of Minolta."
•The Up and Down Scenario. In this case Up and Down is not a ball-handling violation but an upscale disco in the Diagonal area of Barcelona, the kind of place where young, handsome millionaires (and soon-to-be millionaires like Christian Laettner, the former Duke star who was drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Timberwolves) are apt to spend some free time. So...
On the night before the gold medal game, Barkley decides to take young Mr. Laettner out for a night on the town. "You better come," Barkley tells him, "because once you join the Timberwolves, you won't be having fun." Bird, Ewing and Malone pile into the limo with them.
No one's looking for trouble, but unfortunately, sometime after midnight two drunken tourists who happen to be graduates of Villanova start riding Ewing about the 1985 NCAA championship game, in which Ewing's Georgetown team was upset by their alma mater. Bird, who became fast friends with Ewing during the Portland tournament, immediately intercedes. "Hey, Bird, if you were black, you'd be just another player," says someone from another table. Bird starts after the guy until Barkley pulls him away. "Hey, fatso!" someone shouts at Barkley from another table, "I'm from Milwaukee, and I think you stink." When Barkley starts toward that offender, Laettner grabs a chair and says, "The NBA. It's FAN-tastic!"
Well, one thing leads to another, and the next thing anybody knows, the five Olympians are behind bars. It turns out that the Barcelona chief of police is buddies with the member of San Juan's finest who mixed it up with U.S. coach Bobby Knight at the Pan Am Games several years ago. "American hoop guys," says the chief, shaking his head, "they are all loco." By the time Carlesimo rushes into the police station with bail money—"Let's get outta here," he says. "Last time I checked, Robinson had three fouls"—it's halftime, and by the time the Dream Teamers collect their belongings, sign autographs for the policía and get to the arena, there's only one minute left and the U.S. is down by five. With Daly having already been taken to a nearby hospital, assistant coach Lenny Wilkens rushes Barkley, Ewing and Malone into the game, but Lithuania hangs on to win by one.
"It's all Christian's fault," says Barkley.