A look back at how USA Basketball (and the players) built the most incredible Dream Team ever, from the obvious picks of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan to ousting outcast Isiah Thomas. This article appeared in REVERSE #58.
The Dream Team roster is so perfect that we tend to think that its composition was obvious. Magic Johnson and Larry Birdthe two idols of America, both at the end of their careers, finally reunited under the same jersey (if we except a series of obscure friendly matches in their early youth).
Michael Jordan, THE undisputed star of world spectator sport. Eight NBA superstars who marked the 80s and/or 90s. And a contested academic a posterioricertainly, but which has the merit of providing an easy punchline to all those bored by such a magnificent squad.
But the first three could very well have, for different reasons, declined the invitation and deprived the planet of the most glorious trio imaginable at the time, and the other eight were far from obvious and unanimous choices.
The end of Olympic hypocrisy (well almost)
But let’s start at the beginning. Because if we talk so much about the Dream Team, if it was experienced at the time as a real revolution, it is thanks to a happy combination of circumstances.
If the United States had never assembled such a strong team before, it’s not because they had never had such a talent pool, it’s simply because NBA players always had been banned from international competitions by FIBA in the name of the sacrosanct (and formidably hypocritical) amateurism of the Olympic Games.
We will not deal here with the failings of this expert “institution” in the art of hiding corruption and greed behind a veil of “Olympic values” which go up in smoke as soon as they are examined a little too closely. The list is too long.
But it is this demand for amateurism that has forced the United States for decades to send selections of NCAA players (where amateurism is also a good excuse to fill their pockets, curious coincidence) to face the European mercenaries.
Russians and Yugoslavs, in particular, could therefore use their best elements, experienced in games at the highest European level, while the country of origin of basketball was “reduced” to choose among those who had not yet been able to prove their they belonged to the national elite.
And the Olympics taking place every four years, many prodigies have been missed, too young one year, freshly pros four years later. Like Magic. Like Bird. And like so many others.
The day the Dream Team fell
If this inequality of opportunity did not prevent the Americans from winning gold systematically (except in 1972 following a grotesque end to the match and in 1980 because of their boycott of the Moscow Games), the slow progress of the other nations have ended up showing the limits of teams of young university students facing men at the top of their game.
And for the first time in the history of the Games, in 1988, in Seoul, the United States, despite being led by david robinsonfail to reach the final of the tournament, taken out by the Russians in the semi.
From the following year, Boris Stankovićthe secretary general of FIBA, finally succeeded in passing the authorization for NBA players to participate in international competitions, during a vote in which the United States was one of the few nations to vote no.
Ironically, it is in Munich that this crucial event takes place for the rest of our story, where, 27 years earlier, the US selection had lost the gold in circumstances so suspicious that its members did not never accepted their silver medal…
“It was hypocrisy that got me,” Stankovic explains to Jack McCallum in his book Dream Team.
“And there was a practical side. My concern was to make basketball strong, to make it grow and, despite that, there was this separation. It has become impossible to tolerate. »
But opening the doors of the Games to “professionals” was not enough. The NBA would now have to convince the pro-amateur sect of USA Basketball (then called ABAUSA) that including its stars in the national team would not constitute the sacrifice of all the fine values that animate the exploitation of unpaid black athletes by wealthy whites profiting handsomely from the system the American amateur universe.
Mainly controlled by people from the NCAA community, USA Basketball rightly saw in this change of rules the end (or almost) of the participation of university students in major senior competitions, and therefore the probable end of its control over the selection process.
It was Dave Gavitt, president of the “amateur” institution, creator of the famous Big East and one of the most respected characters in college basketball, who succeeded in cementing the compromise that left the pundits of USA Basketball in control of organization and opens up new marketing opportunities for the NBA.
GM + GM = 10 stars for the Dream Team
It was he, who in 1990 became vice-president of the Celtics, who the following year was in charge of convincing the stars to participate.
“Dave was smart,” says Larry Bird in his second autobiography, Bird Watching.
“He first tackled Magic, because at that time he was ‘retired’ because he was HIV-positive, but he was still itching to play. Magic said yes immediately. Then Dave came up to me and said he was going to play and they wanted me on the team.
My first reaction was to say ”No way!”. I said, ‘Look, I’m too old for this. It should be a chance for younger guys. (…)
I wanted to make sure they wanted me because they thought I was still good enough, not for some kind of honorary role. »
For Magic, forced into retirement and who never had the chance to participate in the Games, the question does not even arise. It will be.
“Jordan feels like having so many NBA stars is like trying to settle a minor dispute with nuclear warheads. »David Falk
Jordan, on the other hand, is more difficult to convince, especially since he already had the chance to win Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984.
“Michael fears that we are reacting disproportionately to the fact that the rest of the world has caught up with us in basketball,” explains his agent David Falk in remarks relayed by Cameron Stauth in his book The Golden Boys.
“He feels like having so many NBA stars is a bit like trying to settle a minor conflict with nuclear warheads. »
Jordan’s endorsement of the project is important to the selection committee, since it would ensure him of the agreement of virtually all the other stars he would like to add to the workforce.
Who could really refuse to play with Magic, Michael and Larry in a Dream Team for the festival that this first international competition promises to be? The choice of Rod Thorn to try to convince Jordan is far from trivial, since it was him, when he was GM of the Bulls, who drafted him in 1984.
Officially, excuses rain down to explain why the best player in the league has not yet given his answer. Unofficially, Thorn knows the reason, which Jordan has expressed to him in the clearest possible way: he will only play ifIsiah Thomas get banned from the team.