David J. Neal: Dream Team documentary misses the point

Jun 18 2012 - 3:06pm

MIAMI - Little redeems as well as the polish of time. Damaging flaws become annoying quirks, abilities get exaggerated into superhuman powers, and it all seems so rosy.

Now, 20 years later, the original (and, to my mind, only) U.S. Olympic basketball Dream Team gets the treatment. A fantastic documentary on that 1992 rich concoction of NBA greatness debuted on NBA TV last week. The inevitable warmth of the past, which always seems simpler, oozes from the old video, especially contrasted with new interviews.

Yeah, the Dream Team, I thought with a smile. Then, I remembered.

The Dream Team struck me back then as an American whine, a punk-out. We had lost the 1987 Pan-American Games final, 120-115, when Brazil's Oscar Schmidt went off for 46 points. With Georgetown's John Thompson as coach for the 1988 Olympics, we chose a great team for winning the pound-it-inside Big East, but a lousy team for winning an international tournament.

So, allowed to bring NBA players in 1992, we didn't just bring out the big guns. We created the basketball equivalent of The Manhattan Project. It worked.

It worked as a last hurrah for Magic Johnson, who had announced the previous November he was HIV-positive, and Larry Bird, with his achy back. It worked as a demonstration that NBA superstars, each at the center of his NBA team's orbit, could be role players for a team cause. It worked as annihilation - they won games by cartoonish margins.

I understand the team's greatness. How many basketball folks' all-time starting fives don't include Magic and Jordan at the guards and Bird as one of the forwards?

Nostalgia's sheen hides the memory that some of us found it too made to order. Even some of the players referred to themselves as "hired guns," brought in to get back what we saw as rightly ours. The sledgehammer beat the mouse. Yea.

A poll of sports fans done near the end of the Barcelona Games ranked the Dream Team's victory as the greatest moment of that Olympics. How? I wondered. It was excellence, but excellence unchallenged. Opponents with no delusions of stopping the greats they worshipped via VCR famously concerned themselves more with positioning themselves for photos with their heroes. The team encountered more resistance getting out of their hotel (they didn't stay in the Olympic Village for security reasons).

While nobody questions if Dream Teamers felt the honor of playing for the Stars and Stripes, Olympic gold falls short of being an NBA players' Holy Grail as it is for a gymnast or a swimmer. Some Dream Teamers already possessed a gold medal from 1984. You think Patrick Ewing would rather have had one NBA title and one Olympic gold medal than a pair of golds?

Perhaps somewhere in NBC's exhaustive and exhausting Olympic coverage, they'll find time to recall Aug. 8, 1992.

Early on, Carl Lewis, the pre-eminent track star of the previous 12 years, supposedly too veteran to anchor the 400-meter relay, took the baton and accelerating in chase of his own cries of "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Lewis finished a world record relay moments after the United States' Gwen Torrence chased down the Unified Team's anchor in the women's 400-meter relay.

They ignited what still might be the greatest day in track history.

Dramatic finishes piled atop great performances. And it was in front of a raucous Barcelona crowd of 65,000 who knew exactly what they were watching. Track is like jazz - Americans do it best, Europeans appreciate it most.

After Lewis and Torrence, Algeria's Hassiba Boulmerka, harassed by followers of strict Islam in Algeria for competing bare-legged, kicked home to win the women's 1,500 meters. Spain's Fermin Cacho outkicked everyone on a frantic final lap of the men's 1,500 to score an upset almost as big as Germany's Dieter Baumann winning the 5,000 by slaloming by competitors in the homestretch.

The Unified Team (a collection of former Soviet republics) turned the tables on the U.S. women in the 1,600-meter relay and the U.S. men streaked to another stunning relay world record. But the crystallized image of that day was Lewis.

As described by Sports Illustrated's Kenny Moore, a tremendous track and field writer who finished fourth in the 1972 Olympic marathon, "Many who were there just sat and trembled and refused to leave. Who was eager to trudge back down the mountain to life as it would now be, forever flat?"

The Dream Team feels to those Games like their lodgings: luxurious, yet separate. That day of track, on the other hand, seemed a perfect bookend to the Games that began with an archer shooting a flaming arrow over the cauldron.

Wouldn't mind if somebody made a documentary about that. Even if it had subtitles.

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