Hoop dreams: the US basketball team that may have been the greatest of all time
“I don’t know anything about Angola. But Angola’s in trouble.” The words of Charles Barkley at the Palau Municipal d’Esports the day before the US basketball team kicked off its run at the 1992 Olympic Games turned out to be true on several levels, some more uplifting than others.
Barkley himself would go on to score 24 points against Angola in an overwhelming victory, in the process elbowing an opponent in the neck to “show him what the NBA is like”. He would also end up leading scorer in that Dream Team, a man having the time of his life, carousing with the locals, playing cards all night with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, providing the razor edge in a team playing with a kind of light around it. And in the process becoming a part of another kind of history.
It is exactly 30 years this week since the Dream Team took gold in Barcelona. Sporting anniversaries are often pointless things. An event took place. Time passed. The end. This, though, is one of the good ones. Perhaps even one of the best, if only because the Dream Team is that kind of entity, a matter always of ultimacy and greatness.
Not just because the team itself was extraordinarily good, arguably the greatest collection of sporting talent ever assembled. Not just because they actually performed like a team, winning their games by an average of 44 points. Not even because there was a rare kind of joy in the way they did it. Look back and what stands out is the look of shared wonder in the crowd as Jordan leaps not just up but somehow forward too, maintaining altitude like a glider; or Magic Johnson flips out passes so flat and crisp they draw a kind of collective gasp, men moving though a different kind of gravity, lighter air.
This was also one of those moments where sport seems to elide into something else. Even the way that team came about felt significant. Four years earlier a US Olympic team made up of amateurs and minor league players had been beaten badly by the USSR. A year after that a vote was passed to allow NBA players to compete.
Politics came into this. The Soviet Union opposed that move right to the end, but the Soviet Union was also in the process of dissolving. Historians – and AJP Taylor was very firm on this – may have decided the key note in the fall of the Berlin Wall was David Hasselhoff in a studded leather jacket miming Looking For Freedom to a collection of bemused East Berliners carrying sledgehammers. But the Dream Team, as labelled by the cover of the February 1991 Sports Illustrated, also felt like something being loosened, a kind of opening up.
Looking back through the fond, blurred sporting goggles of a generation raised, even against your conscious will, to absorb American culture, American food, American movies, American certainties, it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say the Dream Team felt, dimly, like a kind of fanfare for the American century. This was a victory parade, a sporting version of Jack Kerouac eating apple pie from the east coast, the chance to gorge yourself on that sweetness.
A chimera perhaps; but a seductive one. Mainly this was just an incredible team. Jordan, Johnson, Barkley, Pippen, Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing were all starters in a group so strong it could afford to overlook as its token college player a chap called Shaquille O’Neal from Louisiana State.
The real glue in this project was Magic, who had retired the year before after testing positive for HIV, and who was assumed by most of his teammates to be on borrowed time. There would be protests at his inclusion, notably from Australia’s team doctor, who suggested, based on zero evidence, that he would infect other athletes. Magic is still alive and in good health, aged 62. He received the most adoring of welcomes in Barcelona, danced though the opening parade in silky blue Jimmy Cagney suit, and led the team on and off court.
And yet for all the triumphalism, this was never a sure thing. Critics said there would be too many stars. Jordan admitted (you have to love him) he was there to study his NBA opponents in order to beat them more convincingly the following year. One early practice was so bad Johnson ended up kicking a ball into the stands. On 28 June they played their first competitive game and it all clicked. As Cuba’s coach said afterwards: “You can’t cover the sun with your finger.”
And so on to Barcelona with a military helicopter escort, a gridlock of adoring fans and a touching kind of pre-globalisation fame, those present slightly shocked to find how much people loved this team. Barcelona was the perfect stage, a city that is itself a work of art, a monument to the splendid things humans can do. The players went to museums and swam in the sea. Opponents asked for autographs. At times the local commentators were reduced to laughter as Magic faked, feinted, crouched, faked again, then whiffled a lovely velvet-touch layup from under the basket.
There is a tendency to see a kind of bullying imperialism in the US team’s dominance, but this is to miss the fact that these are individual athletes, that their brilliance is hard-earned, sport pushed to its physical and mental limits, and leaving the most vivid of impressions.
That Olympic run is routinely credited with helping to make basketball a global game. But it felt like more than just that. The world was giddy place in the early 90s. And in a way this team felt like a coronation, hard evidence of the fact the world would now be all open borders, Wendy’s in Red Square, Bill Clinton playing the saxophone, history ending, the removal of the constant threat of imminent nuclear mega-death.
And yes this was of course an illusion. The same year there were race riots in Los Angeles. History didn’t end, although the American century did. And looking back now what remains of that team is its ability to express something of those confused and confusing hopes; and beyond that just the basic beauty, the grace of those white shirts ghosting, floating, twisting through the analogue air, dream-like in the truest sense.