When I heard an Australian TV reporter this week refer to the American men’s basketball outfit currently preparing for their first game of the Tokyo Olympics as “The Dream Team,” I nearly fell off my chair.
I covered the original Dream Team at the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics, and to put this current squad in their league is frankly an insult.
The 1992 Dream Team consisted of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley. It was without a doubt the best batch ever put together.
Four years later, Jordan, Magic and Bird were gone, but with the addition of players like Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Penny Hardaway, Hakeem Olajuwon and Gary Payton, the side still earned the Dream Team label.
The 1992 Dream Team consisted of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley. It was without a doubt the best batch ever put together
Zach LaVine #5, Bradley Beal #4, Damian Lillard #6, Kevin Durant #7 and Jayson Tatum #10 look dejected as they lose to Nigeria in a warm-up match earlier this month
But the 2021 version? Not on their best day.
In their four friendlies in Las Vegas over the past two weeks, they lost to Australia and Nigeria – an experience described by their two-time gold medalist Kevin Durant as ‘a slap in the mouth’ – before taking inconclusive victories over Argentina and Spain.
To make matters worse, two protagonists in Bradley Beal and Kevin Love have pulled out due to Covid and injury issues.
Add to that the fact that their preparation overlaps the NBA Finals, meaning some players only joined the squad a few days ago, plus the general strangeness of the Covid-stricken Games that mentally puts all competing athletes in uncharted territory, and you have a side ripe for the plucking.
Former Australian captain Shane Heal has played in the Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens Olympics and has seen firsthand the gradual disintegration of Team USA’s perception of invincibility.
Heal made a name for himself on the international stage by entering a footrace with Dream Team enforcer Charles Barkley during a warm-up game for the Atlanta Olympics and was signed by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA, largely on his strength shortly after the games.
The 1992 players were so confident in the gold medal that they spent more time on the golf course than on the practice field. They won gold
Michael Jordan played all-time best in the all-conquering, best-ever team (left) and four years later Jordan, Magic and Bird were gone, but the side still earned the Dream Team label (picture destroyed Australia right))
By the time he played for Australia against Team USA in Athens eight years later, the Americans were a shadow of that gold team that won the gold medal in Atlanta.
“We led them into the last quarter and that was the weakest Australian team I played in,” he said from his home in Sydney yesterday.
“You’d have to say they started losing their aura after Atlanta. Until then they looked straight at everyone else. When I went to the NBA, they thought if you weren’t American, you couldn’t play.
“Now it’s different because there are so many international players there and there’s not such a mystique about the American players anymore. The foreign players play with and against them on a daily basis.
“It’s not the same now, but the look they had in 1992 and 1996 was incredible.”
He got that right. I will never forget the media conference that the Dream Team held in Barcelona on the morning of the opening ceremony.
As coach Chuck Daly Jordan, Johnson, Bird, Barkley and co took the stage in the packed room, supposedly professional journalists from all over the world began to applaud. Some even got up to a standing ovation.
It’s something I’ve never experienced before or since.
Former Australian captain Shane Heal thinks the Boomers have a shot at gold after beating Team USA in a warm-up in Las Vegas two weeks ago (pictured) – more evidence the Americans are in trouble
The players were so confident about the gold medal that they spent more time on the golf course than on the practice field. As for studying the other teams’ tires in their pool, forget it.
When asked by a reporter what he knew about their first opponent Angola, Barkley joked, “I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola is in trouble.”
Twelve years later it was a different story in Athens. I was covering an event elsewhere in town when Team USA played in the semifinals.
They had already lost pool matches to Puerto Rico and Lithuania and had to beat Argentina to make it to the gold medal match. They lost 89-81.
I remember crowding around a TV screen with a large group of international journalists watching as the horror show unfolded and it became increasingly clear that for the first time in the professional era, the US would go home without the gold medal.
The Americans might have invaded Athens with the likes of LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, but they would sneak out in disgrace — and the ones throwing the most derogatory comments on the TV screen that day were the American reporters.
In Athens in 2004, the US had already lost pool matches to Puerto Rico and Lithuania and had to beat Argentina to make it to the gold medal match. They lost 89-81.
Fast forward 17 years and Team USA has overcome that glitch and won gold at every subsequent Olympic tournament, but with their first game against France on Sunday night, there is little doubt that the so-called Dream Team is a long way from where it would like to be.
“They’re vulnerable, that’s for sure,” Heal said. “They haven’t had a big lead. They lost those two games and they haven’t had much time together to make up for it.
“The big thing for them is that the game at the Olympics is so different. There are other rules, they have less space than they are used to. I’m not sure if they will automatically adapt to that like some other teams.
“Some of the other countries have their core teams together for a long time. They may have worked their way up to this event over the past two Olympics. They are used to their teammates and to playing under international rules.”
Allen Iverson looks dejected as Team USA lose the men’s basketball semifinal against Argentina on August 27, 2004 during the Athens Olympics
Heal said that given that the NBA was played in a crowd-free bubble in Orlando last year, US players won’t be too affected by the lack of spectators in Tokyo, but their lack of respect for opponents may be another matter. .
“I’m sure if their coach Gregg Popovich got them together for the first time, he would have given them the talk about how hard it was going to be and how good some of the other teams are,” he said.
“They would all nod, but I think there would be something dazzling going on internally because they’re all NBA players and they’re used to being told they’re the best in the world.
“Individually, the quality is there and they have opted for a smaller, more athletic team, not just big ones trudging onto the pitch.
“I think Draymond Green will be a big part of a role player and Jrue Holiday is going to win a championship with the Bucks, so he should be pumped.
“The big question is how quickly they come together as a team and how well they adapt to the different playing styles.”
In their four exhibition games in Las Vegas over the past two weeks, Team USA lost to Australia and Nigeria (pictured) – an experience described by their two-time gold medalist Kevin Durant as ‘a slap in the mouth’
And if they don’t, Heal said there would be other teams ready to strike.
“Spain is the biggest threat. They are an aging side but I’m sure they have some good young talent coming through and it will be interesting to see how they cope with the step up,” he said.
France is a mystery. They have the talent and the experience, but they don’t always bring it together. If they can, they are dangerous.
“And I really like Australia’s opportunities. We have the NBA players in Ingles, Mills, Dellavedova and Baynes, but I am so impressed with Matisse Thybulle’s defense.
“When it comes to agility and athleticism, we haven’t seen anyone this good in a long time.
“We don’t have a lot of depth in the big ones with the loss of Andrew Bogut, but if we’re going to beat the US, this is our best chance.
‘Forget all that Dream Team stuff. That ended after Atlanta.’