“I I don’t know anything about Angola. But Angola is in trouble. Charles Barkley’s words at Palau Municipal Sports the day before the US basketball team began their 1992 Olympics career, have proven on several levels, some more uplifting than others.
Barkley himself scored 24 points in a stunning win over Angola, injuring an opponent in the process to “show him what the NBA looks like”. He’d also be the dream team’s top scorer, a guy who spends the time of his life hanging out with the locals, playing cards all night with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and a team that plays with a kind of light, razor-edge rim around him. And you become part of a different kind of story.
This week marks exactly 30 years since the Dream Team won the gold medal in Barcelona. Sports anniversaries are often pointless things. event occurred. time passed. the end. However, this is one of the good things. Probably one of the best teams, although with a dream team being such a unit, it’s always a question of ultimate value and size.
Not only is the team itself exceptionally good, it is arguably the largest pool of sports talent ever assembled. Not just because they actually performed as a team and won their matches with an average of 44 points. Not even because there was a rare kind of joy in the way they did it. Look back and what catches the eye is the common dread in the crowd as Jordan not only jumps but somehow forwards, maintaining altitude like a glider. Or Magic Johnson throws passes so flat and crisp that they evoke a kind of group moment, the guys moving through a different kind of gravity, lighter air.
This was also one of those moments when the sport seemed to slip into something else. Even the way this team came about felt meaningful. Four years ago, an American Olympic team, made up of amateurs and junior league players, was severely defeated by the Soviet Union. A year later, a vote was passed to allow NBA players to enter.
Politics came into play. The Soviet Union was against him to the end, but the Soviet Union was also in the process of disintegration. Historians—and A.J.P. Taylor was quite certain—may have determined that the main observation of the fall of the Berlin Wall was David Hasselhoff in a studded leather jacket imitating a “search for freedom” in front of a crowd of confused East Berliners with heavy hammers. But even the Dream Team, as it appeared on the February 1991 cover of Sports Illustrated, felt like a loosening, and an opening of sorts.
Looking back through the sporty, ambiguous spectacles of a generation that grew up, even against its conscious will, to soaking up American culture, American food, American movies, and American certainty, it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to say that the Dream Team is feeling ambiguous, like some kind of fanfare for the American century. This Victory Parade, a sporting version of Jack Kerouac eating an East Coast apple pie, was a chance to feast on this sweetness.
Maybe delusion. But it is alluring. Basically, this was just a great team. Jordan, Johnson, Barkley, Pippen, Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing were all starters in a group so powerful they could overlook a guy named Shaquille O’Neal of Louisiana as a symbolic college player.
The real glue on this project was Magic, who retired the previous year after testing positive for HIV and which most of his colleagues assumed was on loan. There will be protests against its inclusion, particularly from the Australian team doctor who, based on a lack of evidence, has indicated it is contagious to other athletes. Magic is still alive and well, at the age of 62. He was greeted warmly in Barcelona, where he danced during the opening show in Jimmy Cagney’s blue silk suit and led the team on and off the field.
However, despite all this victory, that was never certain. Critics said that there are a lot of stars. Jordan (you have to love him) admitted that he was there to study his NBA opponents in order to beat them more convincingly the following year. The early training session was so bad that Johnson kicked a ball into the stands. They played their first competitive match on June 28 and it worked. As Cuba’s coach said afterwards, “You can’t cover the sun with your finger.”
And so to Barcelona with a military helicopter escort, a traffic jam of loving fans and a touching kind of pre-global glory. The attendees were a little shocked when they realized how much people loved this team. Barcelona was the perfect theater, and the city itself is a work of art, and a monument to the great things that people can do. Players went to museums and swam in the sea. Opponents asked for signatures. Sometimes local commentators would laugh because Magic is fake, fake, cheating, fake again, then conjuring a nice velvet touch from under the basket.
There is a tendency to see some kind of imperial bullying in the US team’s dominance, but that is to overlook the fact that these are individual athletes, their brilliance is painstakingly done, sports pushed to their physical and mental limits will leave the most vivid of all impressions.
This Olympic race is regularly credited with helping make basketball a global game. But it felt like more than that. In the early 1990s, the world was dizzy. And somehow this team felt like a crowning glory, solid proof that the world would now be an open frontier, Wendy in Red Square, Bill Clinton playing the saxophone, the story ends, the ongoing threat being eliminated by massive nuclear power and impending doom.
And yes, that was of course an illusion. That same year, race riots broke out in Los Angeles. History is not over even though the American century is. Looking back now, what’s left of this team is its ability to articulate some of those muddled and confused hopes; Moreover, only basic beauty, the beauty of those air-chasing white shirts analog, floating, choppy, dream-like in the truest sense.