Take heart, Angola.
O.K., maybe it's too soon for folks to start doing the
hokey-pokey through the streets of Luanda, but much of the globe
should find hope in Dream Team III's apparent mortality. The
United States 22 & Under Select Team--a bunch of college boys,
for heaven's sake--nearly staged a coup at The Palace of Auburn
Hills on Saturday, leading the Dream Team by 17 points at
halftime and eventually losing by only 96-90. Sanity was
restored the next day at Cleveland's Gund Arena when the
energized Dream Team thumped Brazil 109-68. But Saturday's near
upset was by far the closest shave for an American squad since,
oh, way back in '88 when they called these guys the United
States Olympic men's basketball team.
Suffice it to say, we weren't expecting this. Last week we were
dispatched to Chicago to scout Dream Team III's five-day
training camp, which led into its five-game exhibition schedule.
We were sent to determine whether the squad is indeed the
greatest basketball team in the world or, as the locals were
suggesting, nothing more than the second-best team in the Windy
The Dream Team's week began with a roster move. Seattle
SuperSonics guard Gary Payton replaced Milwaukee Bucks forward
Glenn Robinson, who was suffering from inflammation in his right
Achilles tendon. Dream Team (and Atlanta Hawks) coach Lenny
Wilkens explained that he chose Payton because he desperately
needed a guard who could play full-court pressure defense. We
thought: Get serious, Lenny. You could have added Pauly Shore
and your team would still eat South Korea for lunch. After all,
Wilkens's troops had made a combined 68 NBA All-Star teams. Plus
they sounded pretty confident. "We [the United States] might not
make the best cars in the world," said Phoenix Suns forward
Charles Barkley, which made him exceedingly popular in the Motor
City, "but as far as basketball, that's something that I and we
We learned that the Dream Team has only three plays. We asked
what they are. Security was summoned. But as best as we can
figure, the offensive options are as follows:
Play 1. Shaq dunks.
Play 2. Somebody else shoots.
Play 3. Shaq dunks.
We thought this was sound. After all, we weren't aware of
anybody in the world who could guard Orlando Magic center
Shaquille O'Neal, listed at 7'1" and 301 pounds (that's 216
centimeters and 137 kilograms for our Croatian readers). And
Wilkens was even plotting a way to play all three of his 7-foot
centers--O'Neal, the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon and the
San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson--at the same time, which must
be considered some sort of violation of international law.
We attended practice at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute on July
3 and searched for weaknesses. Finding none, we sought a more
discerning eye--specifically that of movie critic (and Chicago
Bulls season-ticket holder) Gene Siskel, who just happened to be
loitering around. "Well, they don't have Michael Jordan, but
they still get a thumbs-up from me," said Siskel. "I'd say this
Dream Team is like a low-budget thriller. Let's call it
Bulldozer. It would star Charles Barkley as the
construction-crew chief and [Utah Jazz forward] Karl Malone as
the shop steward. Of course, Shaquille O'Neal"--he of the woeful
free throw percentage--"would play the bricklayer." Good one,
We noticed that O'Neal, Payton, Indiana Pacers guard Reggie
Miller and Jazz guard John Stockton kept fielding questions
about their free agency. We wondered what all this had to do
with winning a gold medal. We checked the Olympic schedule and
discovered that the U.S. team's first game is on July 20 against
Argentina, a nation that hasn't even participated in Olympic
men's basketball since 1952. The game starts at 10 p.m., so we
joked with Bulls forward Scottie Pippen about how it should be
over at roughly 10:06. Security was summoned again.
We figured that the Dream Team's stiffest competition would come
in its own scrimmages and from the ghosts of the past. Dating
back to 1936, the U.S. has an overall record of 93-2 (.979) in
Olympic play. In winning the 1992 gold medal, Dream Team I
defeated its foes by an average margin of nearly 44 points. We
have been led to believe that all Dream Team outings might as
well be accompanied by Sweet Georgia Brown. So before Saturday's
contest we asked Select Team coach Mike Montgomery about his
game plan. Said he, "I just hope we don't get shut out."
Lucky for him the Dream Team was in Dream Land, playing
listlessly and falling behind by 12 in the first six minutes.
When the collegians shifted into a zone defense late in the
first half, the Dream Teamers appeared befuddled and found
themselves on the embarrassing end of a 20-2 run to close the
half. It was the first time any Dream Team had ever trailed at
halftime. We hadn't seen anything like this since Ralph Sampson
met the Chaminade Silverswords.
The Dream Team did rally in the second half but didn't take the
lead for good until Robinson sank two free throws with 6:28
left. When it ended Wilkens looked like Apollo Creed at the end
of Rocky. Ain't gonna be no rematch. Afterward Tulsa guard Shea
Seals, who led the Select team with 20 points, wandered around
the Dream Team locker room getting his sneaker autographed. "In
warmups a lot of our guys were big-eyed and awed," said Seals,
still somewhat big-eyed as O'Neal inscribed his sole. "But once
the game started, you could see the surprised looks on the
[Dream Team] faces."
"Today we weren't the Dream Team," said Malone. "In fact, for a
while we were the Nightmare Team. We got our wake-up call, and
now it's time to start making a statement. It's time to teach
Brazil a lesson."
That they did, employing a harassing defense that provoked 30
points off turnovers. "There was a sense of urgency today," said
Magic guard Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway afterward. "We had to show
that we still had it."
So let's not get mental about this. We know the Dream Team is
still the best hoops outfit on the planet, right? We know these
guys are a cinch to wear golden necklaces in Atlanta, right? So
we only have one final question: Is it too late to get Jordan?
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Hakeem the Dream Teamer helped fend off the Selects with 16 points and five blocks. [Hakeem Olajuwon blocking shot]