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Yes, It Was a Joke

Dream Team II, as expected, won the world championships in a real laugher

Shaquille O'Neal's body makes for interesting reading. O'Neal, the Orlando Magic center who last year had a Superman emblem tattooed on his massive left biceps, apparently felt the need to balance it with something equally humble on his right. So he recently had a drawing of a fist gripping a globe emblazoned on his arm, along with a simple declaration. "The World," reads 22-year-old Shaq's new artwork, "is Mine."

That message served two purposes at the World Championship of Basketball in Toronto, which O'Neal and his NBA teammates on the U.S. squad won with expected ease, wrapping it up with a 137-91 victory over Russia in the gold medal game on Sunday. The tattoo was an intimidating reminder to any foreign player with the temerity to venture into the lane close enough to read it, and it summed up the attitude that the brash U.S. players, otherwise known as Dream Team II, brought with them into the tournament.

It was easy to understand their confidence. In a basketball sense, they do own the world, as they proved by administering a thrashing to every team they played in the eight-game, 11-day tournament. Dream Team II won by an average of 37.8 points, and the closest anyone came was Spain, a 115-100 loser in a game that wasn't as tight as the score indicated. "We're basically taking a lot of countries to school," U.S. forward Larry Johnson said after a 134-83 victory over Puerto Rico. The U.S. players all took turns being the teacher. O'Neal and Shawn Kemp dunked, Reggie Miller and Dan Majerle tossed in three-pointers, Derrick Coleman and Alonzo Mourning blocked shots, Kevin Johnson went coast-to-coast for layups, and the classy Joe Dumars did a little of everything.

But while they were giving the rest of the world basketball lessons, the U.S. players might have learned a thing or two themselves. At least they should have. The NBA is depending on its young stars, many of whom populated Dream Team II, to fill the vacuum created by the retirements of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who led the original Dream Team to the 1992 Olympic gold medal. The world championships may have made the league's new generation of stars fully understand the immensity of that task. This year's Dream Teamers were constantly compared with their predecessors and found wanting, not because they couldn't match the originals' 43.8 average margin of victory but because they could not duplicate their mystique. Where the first Dream Team had an aura, the second had mostly attitude.

That cockiness showed in the way several Dream Team II players, including Miller and Mourning, declared that they would beat Jordan & Co. if the two teams ever played. Then there was the typical NBA trash talk, which the U.S. players seemed to save for opponents who could understand it. "They had a lot to say," said Australian guard Andrew Gaze. "We were taken a little off guard by the way they were treating us. I don't think it was anything against us, though. It's just part and parcel of their normal behavior. Some of it was humorous, some of it you wouldn't want to repeat." Although the talking was nothing out of the ordinary for NBA players, it only heightened some of the criticism the U.S. team was already drawing.

"It seems like we can't win," Mourning said. "If we don't win by a ton of points, everybody says we're not as good as the Dream Team. And if we do win by a lot, people say, 'Yeah, but it was more fun when the Dream Team did it.' "

It's true that no team could have measured up to the first Dream Team, in part because of the circumstances that surrounded the original. It featured three legends, two of whom, Magic and Bird, were putting the finishing touches on their careers. The attention focused on them was part adulation, part farewell tribute. And because it was the first team of its kind, no one could be quite sure of the results. Dream Team II suffered the way many sequels do. None of the original stars returned, and the show was basically a rehash of the same plot: U.S. domination.

But more than that, the original Dream Team had stars, Magic and Jordan in particular, who were ambassadors of the game. They realized that there is more to being a superstar than scoring averages, fat contracts and endorsement deals, that statistics don't guarantee stature. In addition to their estimable professional achievements—members of Dream Team I had accumulated a total of 12 NBA championship rings and nine MVPs, as opposed to two rings and 0 MVPs for this year's model—they understood the importance of cultivating their relationships with the public. That was largely why the first Dream Team created a sense of awe in fans and opponents that was lacking with their successors. Opposing teams asked to have their pictures taken with the original Dream Team; with Dream Team II, they were too busy figuring out ways to beat Dominique Wilkins off the dribble.

USA Basketball and the NBA might have learned something, as well—that simply attaching the Dream Team label to a team does not ensure popularity. In fact, the name caused so many negative comparisons to the first Dream Team that there is a strong possibility the league will drop the name for the NBA All-Star team that represents the U.S. in the 1996 Olympics.

Several members of Dream Team II will probably play in those Games, including O'Neal, the 7'1", 303-pound center whose 18.0 average led the team in scoring in Toronto. And while O'Neal was clearly the most popular American player, Miller, the Indiana Pacer shooting guard, probably gained the most new fans. His three-point shooting was sensational at times, especially in the win over Puerto Rico, when he outscored the Puerto Ricans 26-25 in the first half by draining eight three-pointers (the international three-point arc is 20'7" out, 3'2" closer than the NBA trey).

Miller calmly stroked three-pointers throughout the tournament, but he had momentarily lost that cool before the game against Puerto Rico when a mouse—"a rat," he insists—scampered across his feet in the locker room at Maple Leaf Gardens. "Reggie jumped up like a little old woman," Larry Johnson said. "Jumped so high he scared the devil out of Shawn Kemp. And I was just starting to think Reg was tough."

The rodent incident aside, Miller was a model of composure. No NBA player has enjoyed greater gains in the public's consciousness in the past few months than he has. With his superb playoff series against the New York Knicks on national television and his performance on an international stage during the world championships, Miller has made the jump from a good shooter in a small market to a major star. More important for Dream Team II, he emerged as a leader—coach Don Nelson chose him as one of his three captains, along with Dumars and Larry Johnson.

Even though Miller wasn't among the 10 players originally named to Dream Team II, he wound up leading the team in minutes played, a statistic that Nelson quickly learned was carefully monitored by many people, especially the players. "When Nellie first got the job, I was asked what advice I'd give him," said Chuck Daly, who coached the original Dream Team. "All I'd do is give him a stopwatch, because that's the biggest problem you have as coach of a team like this."

After a few tense moments early in the tournament—first when Wilkins played only at garbage time against Spain, then when Coleman played just three minutes against Brazil—Nelson spread the minutes around fairly evenly, with each of the 12 players starting at least one game. But there was still enough behind-the-scenes grumbling about playing time that Dumars volunteered to sit out the game against Puerto Rico to give Nelson more minutes to spread around. "Egos get a little bruised when you have this many talented guys who want to play," Dumars said. But he also wanted to send a message to some of his sulking teammates—that if he, as one of the captains and the only player on the team with an NBA championship ring, was willing to spend the night on the bench without complaint, no one else had any right to moan. Did they get the point? "It's like that tree falling in the forest," said Dumars. "It's hard to tell if anyone really heard it."

Playing time was about the only thing the U.S. players had to complain about, since they were otherwise pampered in every way. They were squired to and from their suites at the luxurious Four Seasons hotel, where USA Basketball had set up a private rec room complete with video games and a Ping-Pong table. That was a marked contrast to some of the other teams; the Chinese squad, for instance, came out of the arena after an overtime win over Brazil to find that their bus had already left, leaving them to bum rides back to their hotel. There was no such shabby treatment for the Americans, who had their every individual need attended to. O'Neal has an endorsement contract with Pepsi, whose officials would not have been pleased to see him drinking from the red Coke cups provided for the players on the bench. So USA Basketball representatives made sure that there were clear plastic cups available for Shaq only.

The entire tournament bore the unmistakable imprint of the NBA, at times seeming more like a Phoenix Sun-Charlotte Hornet game than an international competition. There was rock and rap music during breaks in the action; there was the Gorilla, the Suns' mascot, doing trampoline dunks and the Phoenix dance team performing during timeouts; there was a giant inflatable Grandmama, Larry Johnson's sneaker-commercial alter ego, looming outside each of the tournament's three venues. And FIBA, the international governing body of the sport, suspended its prohibition of alley-oop passes for the world championships only. It's safe to assume that was done with a specific team in mind, and it wasn't Egypt.

Not that the Americans needed any help. They were so clearly the class of the field that at times their biggest problem was acting interested. They often appeared to be more involved in needling one another than in what their opponents were doing. The 34-year-old Wilkins took a lot of good-natured teasing about his age: "If I'm Grandmama, you must be Grandpapa," said Johnson. And if O'Neal and Mourning have as bitter a rivalry as had been reported in the past, they did a terrific job of hiding it, with each acting as the other's biggest cheerleader throughout the tournament.

The U.S. players had even more fun away from the court, sampling the Toronto nightlife extensively. "Look at how bloodshot my eyes are," said Larry Johnson. "The guys on this team will keep you up until four or five in the morning." But by the time they reached the gold medal game, the players were ready to resume their summer vacations.

"Next time, I wish we could send one of our college teams up here for the first few games and we would just come for the last couple," Johnson said. There seems to be little chance of that. Although they may never again catch the lightning in a bottle that was the original Dream Team, the NBA likes the global exposure that comes with having a team in international competition, and FIBA enjoys the added attention that NBA involvement brings. There may never be another squad worthy of the Dream Team name, but anyone who thinks the U.S. will tire anytime soon of having its stars demolish the rest of the basketball world is surely dreaming.



Shaq (below) and the Dream Teamers had a ball at the expense of their overmatched opponents.



Miller, who drained 30 three-pointers in the tournament, saw his status continue to rise.



Dumars did it all on the court, but he made his biggest statement by volunteering to sit on the bench.