Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dream Shakers

The Dream Team put together for the 1992 Olympics has acquired a veneer of invincibility and been venerated as the greatest collection of basketball talent ever.

You can start poking holes into those claims by pointing out that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were well past their primes; that the best point guard in the game wasn’t included because of backchannel efforts; that the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union eliminated any real competition; and that the inclusion of Christian Laettner seems laughably anachronistic in hindsight.

As everyone knows, the team romped through its overmatched international competition. But its toughest matchup came in La Jolla, Calif., in late June.

USA Basketball brought in a collection of college talent to prep the Dream Teamers. George Raveling and Roy Williams coached this Developmental Team that included Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Allan Houston, Jamal Mashburn, Rodney Rogers, Chris Webber and Eric Montross. If the U.S. had not opted to use professionals for the first time, those kids would have challenged the world’s best.

“You take that team, they’d all be No. 1 picks,” Karl Malone said at the time. “Those guys are great. They’d be in the top five this year. They could go over there and win the gold this year.”

The NBA stars were primed for a reality check. After their grinding season, most of them were more concerned with hitting the sun-spackled golf courses of La Jolla than preparing for some scrimmage that wouldn’t even be open to the public.

Charles Barkley hadn’t touched a basketball since his season ended in April. Johnson had retired because of HIV and had been playing only in posh health clubs in Los Angeles. Bird could barely move with a bad back that would never allow him to play in the NBA again. David Robinson was still recovering from wrist surgery in March. Patrick Ewing had already hurt his thumb in practice. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Clyde Drexler were physically spent after wrapping up the NBA Finals only a few weeks earlier.

Dream Team coach Chuck Daly wanted the collegians to push the tempo and bomb away on three-pointers, which would be the drive-and-kick strategy employed by most of the foreign teams later in the summer.

By most accounts, Houston and Hurley did the most damage against the NBA guys. Houston drained 10 three-pointers and Hurley’s quickness caused trouble for Johnson and John Stockton.

The scrimmage wasn’t taped and was held behind closed doors. There was no official scoring, so accounts widely differ. Michael Wilbon reported in The Washington Post that the collegians won, 88-80. David Halberstam has the score as 58-52 in “Playing For Keeps.” Johnson and Bird recall losing the 20-minute scrimmage 62-54 in “When The Game Was Ours.”

While the details are fuzzy, the college kids certainly made an impression. They reinforced the victory with some vociferous trash talking, so much so that Williams apologized to Jordan on the golf course.

The next day, Jordan and the other Dream Teamers made their rebuttal, blowing the college kids out of the gym. Jordan took special delight in shutting down Houston.

In their book, Bird and Johnson said it was the wake-up call that the team needed. The Dream Team’s average margin of victory was 51.5 in the Tournament of Americas and 43.8 during its eight games in the Olympics.

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