With the Olympics underway and new version of the Dream Team fighting for its own place in history, there has been much talk about the original 92 Dream Team. This has in part been prompted by Kobe Bryant’s contention that the new version could have beaten the progenitor of all the teams that followed.
But what is forgotten today, especially by a younger generation of fans not yet born or too young to remember the events of 92 is the fact that the 92 team never faced the monster teams it was designed to deal with. To understand why this happened we need to look at world events that transpired between 1988 and 1992. Before 92, the USA had dominated men’s basketball, including with what many call the original Dream Team, without the name, the 1960 team that featured eventual NBA hall of famers Jerry Lucas, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson among others. This team ran through the Olympics with an average winning margin of 42.4 points and the closest game they played was decided by 24 points.
The only Olympics the USA failed to win the gold medal in was the Munich games of 72 where the USA, leading by a point was forced to replay the final few seconds three times by the referees until the Soviet Union put in the winning basket. The team was so upset by this gift to their opponents, they declined their silver medals which still are in the possession of the International Olympic committee.
But by 1988 things had changed. The Soviet block countries had learned the game and had a huge pool of young, athletic, experience players to stock their teams. The old Soviet Union was comprised of many countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia. The players from all these countries, ostensible part of the Soviet Union, like separate states are all part of the USA, all played for the team representing the Soviet Union. And the same held true for the communist country called Yugoslavia, composed of many separate states such as Croatia, Bosnia, Albania and Serbia. All these countries are now separate entities, but back then they all were part of the USSR or Yugoslavia.
These counties had no pro ball so the members of these teams never left the programs. They were in essence like professionals. They played with their national teams till they got old and were replaced. This accrual of talent, and the symmetry they developed by playing together all the time, all year long combined with better coaching began to produce two powerhouse teams: the Soviets and the Yugoslavs. And in 1988, it all combined to through a shock into USA basketball the likes of which were thought to be impossibility.
That year, on a team stocked with such college luminaries as Mitch Richmond, Danny Manning, David Robinson, Dan Majerle and Charles Barkely we didn’t win the gold, didn’t even take the silver. And this time our loss was no gift given by referees. The USA was soundly defeated and outplayed and had to settle for the bronze as they watched the Soviet Union defeat Yugoslavia for the gold.
The Soviet team featured such players as Arvidas Sabonis and Sarinas Marciulionis. Sabonis was not the old, fat player we remember who hobbled about on destroyed knees. This young Sabonis was fast, athletic, a master passer and scorer who had a great basketball mind. Back then, many GM’s here thought not only was he the best center in the all of basketball but perhaps the best player, period. The team was stocked with great players who never had a chance to display their wares in the NBA because by the time old Communist block players finally got permission to play in the NBA, they were too old and retired. Yugoslavia was also stocked with terrific hoopsters such as Stojko Vrankovic, Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja and Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc among others.
After the stunning loss of 88, USA basket knew we needed a change to complete with these European Dream Teams. So they petitioned the International Olympic committee to allow pro players into the games saying that in essence, our college kids were facing professional players who never graduated college, never moved on in life but played their whole basketball lives year round on the same teams. The committee ended up agreeing with this assessment and so was born the original US Dream Team. A Dream Team specifically built to take on its Dream Team Soviet block counterparts.
And so basketball fans the world over sat and waited for the titanic battle to come in 1992. A full on court war reckoning between our Dream Team and those of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. How much better could it get? But as often happens in life, world events ended up making mince meat of the best laid plans and expectations. For between 1988 and 1992, the Soviet Communist block fell apart and all those countries that were under the communist yoke and supplied their Dream Teams with that superb talent became the separate nations they were before being subsumed by the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. So instead of having these two super teams in the 92 games to take on the Dream Team, they had fractured into many smaller, far less talented teams representing many different nations. And so the real Dream, of seeing the USA pros take on our tormentors came to an abrupt, surprising end.
As a human being, I remember the joy and happiness I felt for all those millions of people who had finally overthrown totalitarian forced rule and found freedom for their own nations. It was a one of the seminal turning points in world history. My mother’s country, Latvia, which she fled after Soviet occupation was one of those newly freed countries, so it had a personal resonance with me.
But as a rabit basketball fan, fully aware of magnitude of facing those European teams in those great games to come, I have to admit there was disappointment thinking of those epic clashes that would never happen in 92.
Instead of facing those two basketball machines, instead of finding a real challenge with dangerous, veteran foes who were deep, smart, talented and knew how to play together with perfection from years of competing together, our own Dream team was relegated to blowing out a succession of weak teams that had no chance to even compete in what was really a boring exhibition. How much a letdown can you get after waiting for years to see a massive, climatic battle with hated opponents?
And so, while the Dream Team is considered the greatest of all time, they never got the chance at revenge, to test their metal against the juggernauts that was its very purpose to play because those teams simply did not exist anymore.
Would we have won? Yes, I think we would have. As great and synergistic as the two Soviet block giants were, how could you not pick our team? But man, what I wouldn’t have given to see those three teams go at it on the stage that was all set up for them to do it on. I still think of what we missed. Basketball fans are the poorer for it. Who knows what we all missed, what we may be talking about today when we discuss that special American team of 1992?
One final thought: Do you think the members of our Dream Team were disappointed they never got to test their mettle against the two teams they were built to face? Well, looking at that roster, you guys know that answer as well as I do. They had to have felt even more loss than the millions of basketball fans did in never going up against the very powerhouses they were designed to overcome.