The dream teams have turned Olympic basketball into their own
version of a demonstration sport, with each game more a
performance than a competition. Judges should be sitting
courtside, rating the U.S. teams on degree of difficulty,
technical merit and artistic impression. But the most remarkable
aspect of this dominance is that all three NBA-stocked U.S.
Olympic teams have maintained their competitive edge. They all
have played with a feral quality that may not suggest Game 7 of a
playoff series but certainly surpasses that of your basic
midwinter NBA matchup.
The American men have maintained their hunger largely because all
three teams have included at least one player who energized the
others. The original Dream Team, in 1992, with the
Michael-Magic-Larry trinity, had motivational leaders to spare.
The second incarnation four years later featured Charles Barkley,
who was always a threat to turn his lacerating wit on any
teammate who put his game on cruise control. On the current squad
the whip is in the hand of fiery point guard Gary Payton.
"Everybody on the team is geeked up to get the gold, but Gary's
the guy who makes sure we all turn it up even a little higher,"
says forward Kevin Garnett. "When he taps you on the knee before
a game and says, 'You ready to go?' you look in his eyes and you
know you better really be ready to go."
It was Payton who made sure that none of his teammates were
entertaining notions of skipping the opening ceremonies. "If
we're going to represent our country, we're going to do it
right," he said. He has set the same no-nonsense tone on the
floor. His constant pressure was one of the keys to the
Americans' predatory full-court press in their 119-72
opening-game victory over China. Payton was his usual talkative
self, exhorting his teammates and talking trash even though the
Chinese players surely understood little of it. His teammates
picked up on his intensity, with forward Vince Carter, for
instance, diving (and no doubt causing the Toronto Raptors to
clutch their chests) for a loose ball. "Our thing is to make sure
that none of these teams think they have a chance against us,"
Payton says. "We want to blow teams out, and if people want to
call us boring, then we'll gladly be boring."
The Americans can hardly be faulted for the lack of drama in
their games, nor is it exactly a crime that they are somewhat
more sedate than previous editions of the Dream Team. Instead of
Shawn Kemp's crotch-grabbing on-court theatrics (in Toronto at
the 1994 world championships), they have forward Vin Baker
whipping up a home-cooked meal of chicken and ribs for the
American basketball contingent, male and female. The team's press
conference the day before the China game set an Olympic record
for banality, with each of the 12 players and four coaches
answering a softball question from a USA Basketball
representative, leaving only a few minutes for queries from
journalists. The affair was more carefully scripted than Dennis
Miller's Monday Night Football jokes.
But the Dream Teamers can be forgiven. With Payton in charge,
it's likely to be the only weak performance they'll give.