Their celebrity is immense. So are their wealth, their talent,
their size. They have, some of them, very large personalities.
What's hard to remember is that they're human beings. That's
correct. Shaquille O'Neal, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and
the nine other men who make up the U.S. men's basketball team
are human beings. Put them in a game in which the only thing
they can do is fail and they will fail. For opponents, give them
a team that can only succeed and the opponents will succeed.
That's what happened at the Georgia Dome last night, when the
U.S. played Yugoslavia for the gold medal. The U.S. failed and
Yugoslavia succeeded. Yugoslavia played the entire first half
with the intensity NBA teams usually reserve for the final two
minutes of a tight game. At the half the U.S. lead was a mere
five points. That was a success for the Yugoslavians and a
failure for the Americans.
Between the halves, Muhammad Ali was presented at half-court
with a gold medal to replace his missing medal from the 1960
Rome Games, and the American basketball players gawked at the
great man from the sidelines, plainly awed. Reggie Miller
motioned to Karl Malone as if to say, Can we approach him?
Malone nodded, and the basketball players encircled Ali, pressed
up against him.
Dreams end. The first wake-up call for the Yugoslavians came
when Vlade Divac, the biggest man and the spiritual center of
their team, fouled out with 15:20 left in the second half.
Predrag Danilovic, the Yugoslavian guard--and, with Divac, the
only other Yugoslavian in the NBA--began to tire. With Divac
gone and Danilovic flagging, Aleksandar Djordjevic, the
Yugoslavian point guard who can run the floor with just about
anybody, suddenly found fewer shooting opportunities.
August 3, 1996
When Divac fouled out, the U.S. lead was only three. For a brief
while it fell to one. Then the U.S. started seizing
opportunities. David Robinson made back-to-back dunks in the
middle of the half that left the crowd roaring. The U.S. lead
was only seven points after the second of those dunks, which
came with 10:57 left, but the game was over. The final
score--U.S. 95, Yugoslavia 69--is practically meaningless.
Naturally the Americans won. They couldn't not score more points
than the Yugoslavians. But they did something better than win:
They showed their humanity and their imperfection. In so doing,
they allowed the Yugoslavians to reveal their greatness.
Earlier, when the U.S. players started warming up for the second
half, Ali left the house in a green golf cart, his hands
trembling, the tails of his red shirt flapping around his khaki
pants. The ears of the players were filled with the applause for
Ali. They know why the man is beloved--for his humanity, for his
successes and for his failures. The 12 men on the 1996 U.S.
Olympic basketball team are more human now, better, more like
Ali. In a single night they knew failure and success. They lost
and they won.