Dream Team won’t have it easy
JULY 24 — Back in 1992, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and the incomparable Michael Jordan — all legends of the basketball court — came together to form the original “Dream Team”, wowing the Barcelona Olympics as they swept aside all opposition to claim a memorable gold medal for the United States.
Now, 20 years later, the all-new Dream Team is in town, with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant leading a star-studded crew less than a week before the London Olympics gets under way.
Tonight, the US and Spain will go head to head in Barcelona’s Palau Sant Jordi arena in the last warm-up game for both teams before the serious business gets under way — and it’s a meeting that could well be a preview for the gold medal match in London three weeks from now.
We’ll learn relatively little from tonight’s encounter — it’s only an exhibition match and both sets of teams and coaches will be making sure they leave plenty of tactical and physical resources in reserve for the Olympics.
But there could be a significant psychological swing: if Spain keep it close — less than a 10-point winning margin, say — it would give them confidence that they can compete with the stars of the NBA; if the US romp to a 20+ point blow-out, however, it could give them a sheen of invincibility as they head to London.
One of the most amusing and irritating habits of American sports — and a neat illustration of the narrow worldview held by many Americans — is their tendency to anoint American trophy-winning teams as “world champions” without considering it necessary for them to actually play against teams from any other countries.
In American football, that’s fair enough: no other team in the world would come close to even giving reigning Superbowl champions New York Giants a decent game, never mind beating them. But in the US’s two other national sports, baseball and basketball, it’s much less clear cut.
Baseball is hugely popular in many countries, especially in Latin America and Asia (a professional league has been running in Japan for nearly 80 years), and a good proportion of current Major League stars were imported from outside the US.
And basketball is increasingly popular away from the country of its birth — with much of that interest growing in the mid-Nineties thanks to the glitz and glamour of the 1992 Dream Team.
Europe, in particular, boasts a thriving basketball scene, with a plethora of strong domestic leagues and a high-quality, competitive continental tournament — Euroleague — which are all watched by millions of fans on “live” television every year.
So, although America’s NBA stars will rightly start the Olympics as overwhelming gold medal favourites, a number of European teams have a genuine opportunity to hope that they can catch their famous opponents off guard.
Current European champions Spain, in particular, boast a range of talented technicians, including five players who ply their trade in the NBA. Another man to watch is one of the European game’s most potent scorers, Barcelona’s shooting guard Juan Carlos Navarro — a dangerous three-point shooter who formerly played in the NBA for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Spain were defeated by the US in the final of the Beijing Olympics four years ago, and to go one better this time around they’ll be counting on the considerable talents of giant power forward Pau Gasol, a teammate of Bryant’s at the Los Angeles Lakers.
Medal hopes are also held by Russia, who boast two NBA players in Alexey Shved (a new signing for the Minnesota Timberwolves) and Timofey Mozgov (Denver Nuggets), and a roster otherwise based around players from the perennially successful CSKA Moscow side. Most notably, rebound machine and former NBA star Andrei Kirilenko is a player who can cause problems for any opponent.
As for the hosts, unfortunately I can’t see them going very far. Great Britain do possess a couple of very strong players in Luol Deng and Joel Freeland, but the roster depth is very weak and, like their footballing counterparts, a place in the quarter-finals is probably the best they can hope for.
In reality it will take an off day, injury problems or some other freak occurrence for the US to fail to win gold, but Spain and Russia are certainly powerful enough to take advantage of any opportunities that do come their way.
It should be a tournament worth keeping an eye on, especially in the latter stages. In 1992, the original US Dream Team won every game by at least 30 points; bank on them being given a much tougher test in London.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.