It has been 20 years since Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and a squad of NBA stars descended on Barcelona as the first professional basketball players to play in the Olympics. Nicknamed the “Dream Team,” the players received a reception akin to the Beatles in “Hard Day’s Night,” chased around by media and fans alike. They easily cruised to the gold medal, but in doing so inspired the rest of the world to raise the level of their game. Though America still rules international basketball, the rest of the world has closed the gap significantly over the last two decades.
In Barcelona, the US team had no peer and trounced the competition, winning games by an average of 44 points. Several contests were essentially over before they started, with competitors asking for autographs from MJ and other players before the game. Featuring 11 future NBA Hall of Famers, many consider the “Dream Team” the greatest collection of talent ever assembled in any sport. It appeared the United States, which had lost the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, would easily win for years to come.
The world caught up to the US much faster than expected. Though its successors were strong, the 1996 and 2000 teams could not match the quality of the original team. After nearly losing to Lithuania in the 2000 Sydney Games, the U.S. pros lost three games in Athens in 2004, twice during the preliminary round and then to Argentina in the semifinals, and were forced to settle for a bronze medal as a consolation prize. Though some of the top US players skipped Athens, the defeats were a sign of the world’s rapid ascent.
In the interim, the number of international players in the NBA increased dramatically and several made a profound impact on the league. The San Antonio Spurs won three NBA titles in ’03, ’05, and ’07, with Argentina’s Manu Ginobli, who led his native Argentina to a gold medal in ’04, and France’s Tony Parker, serving as linchpin of their teams. Kobe Bryant did not win a championship without Shaquille O’Neal until the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Spanish big man Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008, with titles following in ’09 and ’10. Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki became one the top ten players in the league, winning the MVP award for the Dallas Mavericks in 2007 and then leading them to a championship with an all-time great playoff performance in 2011.
Following the ’04 loss, USA Basketball changed its formula, hiring Duke University’s Mike Kryzewski, the top coach in college basketball, to helm the team. With a win no longer taken for granted, a gold medal seemed to become a more valuable commodity to US players. Angered by the loss in Athens, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony returned as older and wiser players to combine with Bryant to lead the “Redeem Team” to victory in Beijing in 2008.
As the 2012 tournament has proceeded, some of the current Team USA players have claimed they could have beaten the original “Dream Team.” While I don’t believe that would have been the case, the US has had a relatively easy path to this weekend’s gold medal game. As a result, some have urged that the rules be changed to only allow players under the age of 23 to participate in the competition to level the playing field. While I understand the motivation behind such proposals, I believe they are unnecessary. More and more countries have multiple NBA players, like championship game opponent Spain, which features two NBA All-Stars (Marc and Pau Gasol) as well as the leagues’ leading shot blocker (Serge Ibaka). Eventually, the tournament matchups may become comparable to the terrific games fans are treated to every four years in the Winter Olympics’ hockey competition, which includes NHL professionals. This global parity may turn out to be the “Dream Team’s” greatest legacy.