Memories of the Dream Team
There’s a cracker of a programme in the ESPN 30 for 30 series doing the rounds. I Hate Christian Laettner deals with the career of a brilliant college basketball player and why he faced so much vitriol.
The programme holds special interest for me because I recall Laettner from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
He was the 12th player on the roster of the famous American Dream Team, the NBA basketball rock stars who won the Olympic gold medal without raising a sweat.
It was the first time professional basketballers had played at the Olympics – the college players representing the United States in 1988 had finished only third.
Watching their matches I was always intrigued by Laettner. The 2.11 metre-tall (6ft 11in) white boy seemed out of place alongside legends like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Michael Johnson (who had announced he had the HIV virus), Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone.
He seemed just a token gesture. The Americans had decided they would pick their best 11 NBA players plus a college kid.
Laettner got the nod ahead of that year’s No 1 college draft pick, Shaquille O’Neal.
Having seen the ESPN programme, it’s obvious he was there on merit.
Memories of the Dream Team flooded back.
Even considering teams like Don Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles, the 1970 World Cup- winning Brazil football team and the 1987 All Black world champions, that 1992 American basketball team was surely the greatest combination of talent ever assembled.
Only Laettner is not in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
It was amazing watching them in Barcelona. They didn’t stay in the Olympic village, because of security issues, it was said. Instead they took over a floor of one of Barcelona’s swankiest hotels.
There was frenetic black market activity on tickets for their games and opponents seemed overawed and honoured to be sharing the court with them.
The Dream Team made their debut at an Olympic qualifying event in Portland and whipped Cuba 136– 57. Cuban coach Miguel Calderon Gomez said helplessly: ‘‘You can’t cover the sun with your finger.’’
At the Olympics, no team got within 30 points and coach Chuck Daly never called a timeout in the tournament. Daly said his team was like The Beatles and Elvis put together.
In their first match, the Americans beat Angola 116-48 and there was the comical sight of one Angolan player running alongside Jordan while motioning to teammates on the bench to get a photo.
When the Americans beat Puerto Rico 117- 77, the losers lined up to get their autographs.
Press conferences were massive international affairs, though I recall our own Paul Holmes aggressively questioning Jordan about being sponsored by Nike while the American team was wearing Reebok.
In the final, the Americans, jointly captained by Johnson and Bird, outplayed Croatia 117-85.
There have been several imitation Dream Teams since and in 2012 Kobe Bryant and LeBron James said their Olympic team that year would beat the 1992 combination.
‘‘They were a lot older, at the end of their careers,’’ Bryant explained.
Various stars of 1992 responded, but I liked Bird’s reply best: ‘‘ They probably could. I haven’t played in 20 years and we’re all old now.’’
Big day: Members of the Dream Team position themselves for a photograph during their induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Front, from left, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullen. Middle, from left, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Michael Johnson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone. Back, from left, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Christian Laettner.