When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, the Olympics was a personal nuisance. All it meant at the time was, for more than two weeks every four years, one of the four channels in my household was going to be covered up with sports I mostly didn't understand. Got favorite prime time shows on that channel? Tough luck. Gymnastics or track and field was going to be on the air waves, The Cosby Show be darned.
No matter the "insignificance" of the sport in the narrow mind of a pre-teen boy from rural Tennessee who grew up believing there was only football, baseball and basketball, the Olympics would be dominating our one household TV as long as it was on. Yes, when it came time for the Olympics, it was met with a resounding "Yuck" from the two Shepard children.
Until 1992, that is.
That's when, after a decision by FIBA in 1989, the Olympics were opened to professional players, starting with the '92 games in Barcelona, Spain. That meant a NBA loaded with some of the greatest players the sport will ever see would fill out Team USA. All of a sudden, a world full of athletes whose names were unfamiliar and who played sports I didn't care about was about to get a healthy dose of star power.
It was the dawn of the Dream Team. And though the rest of the Olympic basketball competitors would suffer a rout of historic proportions, a generation of indifferent kids like a 12-year-old San Antonio Spurs fan from Vanntown, Tenn., was about to really be introduced to the worldwide competition. I would learn to appreciate much of the other sports by osmosis as I intently waited for the basketball team to play.
If the first few paragraphs sound like I hate the Olympics, that isn't entirely accurate. I think the word until that summer of 1992 to describe how I felt is "indifferent." There were moments of which I was vaguely aware such as the Carl Lewis-Ben Johnson battle in 1988, the feats of Mark Spitz, and, of course the [reproduced stories of] the Miracle on Ice from the Winter games of '80 when I was all of 1 year old.
But the Dream Team marked the first time I actually watched with purpose, actually cared, and actually became excited about anything the Olympics had to offer. A basketball team that once featured unknown or little-known college players barely on the periphery of young basketball fans everywhere would now include our heroes. Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, my personal favorite David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullen, Clyde Drexler and college representative Christian Laettner of Duke ... all on one team, playing for our country, playing for one goal -- the gold medal.
If you're a little bit younger or considerably older than my generation, and you don't quite get the romanticism of this elite force of super heroes normally reserved for comic books, let me give you a brief synopsis of this time for us:
For many around my age, 1992 was a magical basketball time. Bird and Magic were at the twilight of careers that brought professional basketball to the mainstream like never before. I still vividly remember going to my Uncle Billy's house throughout the playoffs and especially the Finals to watch the Celtics play the hated Lakers. Those epic battles transitioned directly into the Bad Boys of Detroit having their reign and flowed smoothly into the thick of Jordan's transcendent period from superstar to The Greatest of All-Time.
It was quite simply the greatest era of basketball, and we grew up in it. There was a time for a span of about 15 years where NBA basketball was America's game. Everybody cared. It didn't matter if you were a die-hard fan of the Atlanta Hawks or a season ticket holder for the Sacramento Kings ... you chose sides when it came to the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers. You loved Michael Jordan or you hated him. You were stunned when Charles Barkley left the Philadelphia 76ers for the Phoenix Suns. Names like "Thunder Dan" and "Hakeem the Dream" meant something to you. You absolutely had to be home on the night of the NBA Draft and especially the Slam Dunk competition.
The vast majority of boys at my rural elementary school wore basketball jerseys, collected cards, talked about NBA games from the night before. The sport was firmly entrenched in the spotlight, and it was happening in the impressionable years of our fandom. It's part of the reason why so many of us soured on the NBA during the next generation of "Me-First," street ball players. It hurt us personally because the torch was there to be passed on, and the Allen Iverson generation dropped it.
With the recent, brilliant documentary on the Dream Team, we've all learned the warts behind the scenes, but none of that mattered to a 12-year-old. All I cared about was watching the greatest team ever assembled plow through the rest of the best to the tune of a 44-point margin of victory. The hot ticket that year -- especially for somebody so into the hobby of card collecting as I was -- was trying to get the whole set of Team USA basketball cards.
The Dream Team was everywhere, from commercials to cereal boxes. When it came time to step onto the court for real, they did not disappoint, throttling Angola by 68 in the opening game and and eventually annihilating everything in its path on its way to a 117-85 whipping of Croatia in the gold medal game. Head coach Chuck Daly noted the compilation of the NBA's greatest players of that time -- and of all-time -- was "like Elvis and the Beatles put together."
Indeed, 11 of the 12 players on the roster, everybody but college representative Laettner [who was chosen over Shaquille O'Neal, who also will be a Hall of Famer] has been enshrined in the basketball Hall of Fame. Also, Daly, Lenny Wilkens and Mike Krzyzewski are all in the Hall. The only coach of that team who isn't is P.J. Carlesimo.
With basketball being an American sport and the game just catching on around the world, it really wasn't supposed to be close, and it wasn't. But the United States team consisting of college players in 1988 had finished a disappointing third in Seoul, South Korea, so it also was nice to prove that our best was still much better than everyone else's. The Dream Team proved that resoundingly. And the world had front-row seats.
The memories don't just stop with the incredible players playing incredibly on their way to a historic run, either. It was the way they did it. Every player to a man seemed ecstatic to have that "USA" across his chest. When the intensity and competitive beginnings to games gave way to massive leads, Team USA members loosened up and had fun without really goofing off. Perhaps nobody showed more enthusiasm than Magic, who personified the genuine excitement of the players, balancing that with a genuine respect of the game and the privilege of representing his country.
Quite simply put, it was the greatest players ever playing great and acting like overwhelmed kids doing it. That is what made it so thrilling, so mesmerizing to us all. It was even exciting to the opponents who, in some instances, had teammates take pictures of them guarding Jordan or Magic.
The Olympics has been fun for me ever since, and while I probably would have grown to care regardless, the Dream Team really helped speed along that process. Since then, I've watched -- excitedly, at times, and disappointed in others -- the basketball, baseball and soccer teams alternately succeed and fail. I've watched Kerri Strug and the Magnificent Seven in Atlanta in 1996, watched former Tennessee Volunteers standout Justin Gatlin win a gold medal in 2004, watched Michael Phelps eclipse Spitz's gold medals in Beijing in 2008. I've seen nearly every significant Olympic moment since those '92 games.
I still get excited. I get dejected. I feel pride for my country and root openly against other countries. I appreciate the Olympics now -- all of the Olympics -- with the same zeal as I do watching the Big Three sports. But I've never approached the excitement that I felt for the team that started it all, the year that our heroes -- and villains -- from the NBA all wore the red, white and blue and became the movie stars of sports' biggest stage.
It was the single biggest personal moment of the Olympics in my lifetime, and seeing them on that stand to accept the gold medal -- pumping fists, hugging one another, genuinely caught in the moment -- will forever be entrenched in my mind.
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