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THE ORIGINAL DREAM TEAM: One & Only

Name's the Same, but Without Jordan, Magic and Bird, This Team Is Missing Something

July 17, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another team, another dream, another All-American marketing scheme. . . .

Those star-spangled, slam-dunking, scene-stealing, Angolan-elbowing NBA stars are back, billed as Dream Team III, for what that's worth.

Since the original Dream Team took over the Barcelona Olympics, it has been Dream this and Dream that. O.J. Simpson's lawyers were called the Dream Team. So were patent failures such as the negotiators for baseball owners, who failed to end the 1994 strike in time to preserve the World Series. The NBA's follow-up act, the so-called Dream Team II, embarrassed itself so badly at the '94 world championships, only two members made it to III.

The latest incarnation has conducted itself professionally, give or take a bar fight involving you-know-whom, but it didn't take long to see it wasn't the same.

They were outside Cleveland when the boredom hit. Having dispatched pathetically overmatched Brazil in their second exhibition, the U.S. players boarded their chartered flight for the next stop. As a nation, America seemed to stifle a yawn.

"Maybe it's just me," said Dan Patrick, narrating highlights on ESPN's "SportsCenter," "it's not really exciting to watch. We've been there. We've done that."

Said tag-team partner

Keith Olbermann: "It's not just you."

It's not just them either, although interest remains healthy.

The Brazil and Greece routs were the highest-rated national sports events of their weekends. Despite the tremendous promotional push the women's team got from corporate partners, NBC and the NBA, the 36,702 the men drew in the Hoosier Dome was bigger than the women's three biggest crowds combined.

But what could compare to the crazy days at Barcelona, where Cuban boxing great Teofilo Stevenson shouldered past an armed guard to get to Magic Johnson and fawning foreign reporters asked Michael Jordan, "Are you of this earth?" and "How does it feel to be called a god?"

The originals had the game's holy trinity, Michael, Magic and Larry Bird, and lived up to their galactic billing, thrilling opponents who asked to pose for pictures with them, before and after being routed.

"You will see another team of professionals," Coach Chuck Daly said after they toasted Croatia by 32, won the gold and scrambled for their jet home, "but I don't think you'll see another team like this."

Proving his point, the second Dream Team, also known as the Young Guns, shot itself in the foot at Toronto in 1994 with an exhibition of playground antics that sent USA Basketball scurrying back to the Old Guns. Only Shaquille O'Neal and Reggie Miller made it from Toronto to Atlanta, NBA officials suggesting it would be a cold day in the off-season before they'd trust Derrick Coleman, Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson on a sensitive public relations mission.

However, as Red Auerbach or someone once said, there are no second acts in American basketball. There could be no encore.

Jordan turned down his invitation, even reportedly spurning a proposal from his four main corporate partners to pay him $1 million each.

Bird is happy in retirement.

Johnson wanted to play but withdrew amid signals the selection committee wasn't interested. Ironically, NBA officials, distressed at Jordan's stance and keen on adding a personality to the team (it has a merchandise-moving mission too), talked wistfully of Johnson before making their last and most improbable selection--Charles Barkley.

Barkley, the lone problem child at Barcelona, is back in a new role, designated life of the party.

"Let's hope so," he says, grinning. "Hope they're not expecting me to play well."

This is the new Charlie, older and wiser if only a little more mellow. Before the Brazil game, he was involved in a fight in a bar. Against Australia, he bumped a guard named Shane Heal who was 75 pounds lighter.

Hope they're not counting on him to turn over a new leaf either.

*

Here's how great the original Dream Team was: It awed even its own members.

"I don't think you can really compare playing with Michael and Magic and Larry," says holdover David Robinson. "That particular group that we had, that one is different. I don't think there's anything I'll be able to compare that to."

Barkley calls it "the greatest basketball experience of my life," which, considering the Angolan he elbowed, his never-to-be-forgotten defense ("He might have had a spear"), his little stunts after that and the fans' whistling at him, is saying something.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "I mean, even though this is a dream team, it still can never recapture what happened in 1992. I think any of the players will tell you that."

Americans distressed by the collegians' 1988 loss to the Soviets cheered the NBA players' debut. International fans went wild for them. The foreign press all but attached itself to their ankles; Johnson kept getting questions like, "Oh, Magic, you are so wonderful, when will you come to my country?"

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