The traveling superstar Caravan that is the United States men's basketball team rolled into Barcelona and immediately rewrote the Olympic code. When asked why the 12 Dream Teamers while away their hours in a luxury hotel just off the hot, hot, hot Ramblas instead of trading pins in the spartan accommodations of the Olympic Village, John Stockton said, "The Olympic spirit for me is to beat teams from other countries, not to live with them." His 11 Dream Teammates nodded in assent, as ancient Greeks turned 360s in their graves.
And what other matters held the interest of this team, whose collective celebrity and bank balance have threatened to overwhelm the Games? How about the responsibility of keeping the Dream Team's version of James Dean, one Charles Wade Barkley, from creating an international incident? Can't his peer group talk to him? "Wait a minute," said David Robinson, after Barkley had drawn a technical for elbowing a player from Angola during America's opening game—a 116-48 laugher—on Sunday afternoon. "You think his peers haven't talked to him?"
Most important, though, was the necessity of disposing of Croatia and its star player, guard Toni Kukoc, on Monday night in the most eagerly awaited matchup of the preliminary round. "Everyone is looking at this as a test for Kukoc," said Michael Jordan, "and we want to provide it."
And so they did. Kukoc scored only four points and committed seven turnovers as the Dream Team, as slowly and as surely as darkness falling, pulled away to win 103-70. That the Americans did not humiliate the Croats was due mainly to the game effort of New Jersey Net guard Drazen Petrovic, who finished with 19 points.
August 2, 1992
Kukoc's reputation as a creative passer was confirmed by a few behind-the-back and one-touch numbers, but so was his reputation as a soft player who would have trouble with the NBA's physicality. Remember this, though: Kukoc is only 23, about a year older than Christian Laettner. Put Laettner on the Croatian team and ask him to carry the banner against the U.S., and the results would not be pretty.
The 6'10" Kukoc exists as a kind of shadowy presence in the NBA, particularly in Chicago, where he has been relentlessly wooed by Bull general manager Jerry Krause. In 1990 Krause dangled an estimated $3.7 million a year in front of Kukoc, about $1 million more than Krause was offering as a contract extension to Scottie Pippen. Kukoc stayed in Europe—he now plays for Benetton Treviso of the Italian League for an estimated $3.3 million per year—but resentment toward Krause took root deep in the hearts of both Pippen and Jordan. "That was a terrible thing," said Jordan, referring to the contract offer. "I blame Jerry Krause for that."
Being a drama aficionado, U.S. coach Chuck Daly started Pippen opposite Kukoc, and Pippen stayed in Kukoc's face from the outset. Whenever Kukoc did penetrate, a David Robinson, a Patrick Ewing or a Karl Malone was planted in his path. The skinny kid from Split never had a chance.
In an effort to ward off boredom, the Dream Teamers have taken to magnifying challenges. "For us it was personal," said Malone. "You challenge one guy on this team, you challenge everyone." On this night Kukoc just happened to be the wrong opponent in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Perhaps Chicago will be the right place someday. After the game Kukoc said that he would be talking to Signore Benetton to discuss allowing him to get out of his Italian League contract and play for the Bulls in 1993-94. And though Pippen was far from gracious about Kukoc's talents—"Toni Kukoc could be a good player, but he's in the right league right now," said Pippen—Jordan extended a welcoming hand. "We want him if he wants to come," said Jordan.
But on this Monday night in Spain, he seemed a long way from being a Dream Teamer. Then again, so did everyone else.