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Original Issue

Remember, It's Only a Dream

Even as the U.S. Olympic basketball team routed its opponents, harsh realities loomed

It didn't take long for much of the charm to go out of the Tournament of the Americas in Portland, Ore. Even Magic Johnson, the ultimate we-are-the-world warrior, sounded a little grumpy last Friday night when, after the U.S. Olympic basketball team's fifth consecutive rout—a 119-81 laugher over Puerto Rico—he said, "We need some competition. Most of these teams have just been happy to have us dunk on them."

Some didn't even need that. During America's 128-87 victory over Argentina on July 1, Karl Malone was taken aback when he noticed that one of the Argentine players was more or less posing for a photo, even as Magic had the willing victim posted up near the basket. "He was looking at a teammate on the bench who was taking the picture," said Malone, shaking his head. "That's a bit much, don't you think?"

Yes, we do. The U.S.'s six-game, Shermanesque march through this Olympic qualifying tournament—America's average margin of victory was 51.5 points, including the 127-80 plunder of Venezuela in Sunday's final—was not unexpected, nor could much have been done to prevent it given the guns-versus-roses nature of the competition. But the repercussions should not be ignored.

First, a distinct possibility exists that Barcelona will be another Portland, minus some of the huggy-kissy, photo-op warmth. The two teams that would have had the best chance of giving the Americans a battle, Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, have been torn apart by revolution, while other teams have shot themselves in the foot. Spain, for example, might not accept its automatic bid into the Olympic field as the host country because of a strike by the Spanish national team over a non-Olympic issue—possibly an alltime nadir in labor relations timing. And a Croatian team that might have been formidable even without its Serbian stars has been beset by internal bickering and played erratically in qualifying last week for Barcelona.

Beyond that, how will the summer's competitive strain (such as it is) affect the 1992-93 NBA season? What is the proper on-the-court comportment for players involved in a rout? And is it any less noble for the victors to celebrate their superiority than for the vanquished to wallow in their abject inferiority?

In the long run, there is virtually no chance that this Olympic experience will be repeated, either. There was such monumental interest in this historic team that no NBA owners or general managers uttered a public complaint about the impact that the Dream Team might have upon their own teams come the harsh reality of November. But expect NBA team executives to take a harder look at the impact that the additional Olympic burden has on players in 1996, when the glitter is off the gold.

Still, one did not have to be wrapped in the flag to have enjoyed America's 79-point win over Cuba (SI, July 6) in the Tournament of the Americas opener on June 28. The level to which the Dream Team has taken the art of passing is one that can be appreciated by any hoop purist, regardless of the competitive imbalance. The highest compliment that can be given coach Chuck Daly's immortals is that they're better than advertised.

However, the events in Portland have also reminded us that these players are of women born. John Stockton's broken leg, Larry Bird's aching back, Patrick Ewing's dislocated thumb, Clyde Drexler's throbbing knee and even Charles Barkley's one-stitch run-in with a courtside camera are stark testimony to the fact that the hopes and dreams of NBA franchises hang on Olympic moments.

The specter of injury, in fact, has left the US. team with somewhat of a split personality. The enthusiasm of Johnson, who has a season's worth of NBA inactivity raging inside him, and the singular brilliance of Jordan ("Once you put on that uniform, you just can't half-ass it," he said last week) have assured the patrons of a good show. But Malone admitted that he has "put on the brakes" from time to time. "I don't want to go crazy trying to block a shot or something when we're way ahead," said Malone. "That's when freaky things happen. There's no need for that. My real job is with the Utah Jazz." If the hired help is thinking like that, consider how many NBA employers hold stronger feelings on the subject.

Even Jordan, he of the boundless energy, said last week that he has no intention of showing up for the beginning of training camp in October and might, in fact, miss most of the Chicago Bulls' preseason games. "I'm going to try to create that hunger again," he said, "but it's going to be difficult."

As for America's opponents, cast in the role of the Washington Generals to the Dream Team's Harlem Globetrotters, keep this in mind: Red Klotz is one thing, Red Klutz is something else. "I think some of the teams are here just to say they played us," said Bird. "We need to play teams that want to win the game, somebody to challenge us a little."

Perhaps the Olympics, where the U.S. could confront battle-hardened NBA types like Sarunas Marciulionis of Lithuania and Detlef Schrempf of Germany, will take care of that. But it probably won't, and we will have to settle for appreciating the mastery of this once-in-a-lifetime team. In short, don't think for a moment that the Olympic crusade is always going to be this problem-free.