When I heard an Australian TV reporter this week refer to the USA men’s basketball outfit currently preparing for their first game of the Tokyo Olympics as ‘the Dream Team’ I nearly fell off my chair.
I covered the original Dream Team at the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics, and to put this current side in their league is, quite frankly, an insult.
The 1992 Dream Team featured the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley. It was unquestionably the greatest side ever assembled.
The USA’s 1992 team oozed star quality with Michael Jordan (left) and Scottie Pippen (right)
However, the class of 2021 suffered two chastening warm-up losses before playing in Tokyo
Four years later Jordan, Magic and Bird were gone, but with the addition of such players as Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Penny Hardaway, Hakeem Olajuwon and Gary Payton, the side was still very much deserving of the Dream Team label.
But the 2021 version? Not on their best day.
In their four practice games in Las Vegas in the last two weeks, they lost to Australia and Nigeria – an experience described by their two-time gold medallist Kevin Durant as ‘a punch in the mouth’ – before scratching out unconvincing wins over Argentina and Spain.
To make things worse, two key players in Bradley Beal and Kevin Love have pulled out due to Covid and injury concerns.
Add in the fact that their preparation has overlapped the NBA finals, meaning that some players only joined the squad a few days ago, plus the overall strangeness of the Covid-affected Games placing all competing athletes into unknown territory mentally, and you have a side ripe for the plucking.
Former Australian captain Shane Heal played at the Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens Olympics and has seen first-hand the gradual disintegration of the perception of Team USA invincibility.
Heal made a name for himself on the international stage by engaging in a running battle with Dream Team enforcer Charles Barkley during a warm-up match before the Atlanta Olympics and was signed by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA largely on the strength of it soon after the Games.
By the time he played for Australia against Team USA in Athens eight years later, the Americans were a shadow of that Atlanta gold-medal winning team.
‘We led them until the final quarter and that was the weakest Australian team I played in,’ he said yesterday from his Sydney home.
Bradley Beal and Kevin Love (pictured) have pulled out just before the tournament kicks off
‘You’d have to say they started losing their aura after Atlanta. Up until then they looked down their noses at everyone else. When I went over to the NBA they figured if you weren’t American you couldn’t play.
‘Now it’s different because there are so many international players over there and there is not that mystique about the US players anymore. The overseas players play with and against them every day.
‘It’s not the same now, but the aura they had in 1992 and 1996 was unbelievable.’
He’s got that right. I’ll never forget the media conference the Dream Team held in Barcelona on the morning of the Opening Ceremony.
As coach, Chuck Daly led Jordan, Johnson, Bird, Barkley and co onto the stage at the jam-packed auditorium, supposedly professional journalists from all over the world began to applaud. Some even rose to their feet in a standing ovation.
It is something I have never experienced before or since.
Shane Heal believes the team’s aura of invincibility has continued to wane since Atlanta
The players were so sure of claiming the gold medal that they spent more time on the golf course than the practice court. As for studying tapes of the other teams in their pool, forget it.
When Barkley was asked by a reporter what he knew about their first-up opponent Angola he quipped, ‘I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola’s in trouble.’
Twelve years later in Athens it was a different story. I was covering an event elsewhere in the city when Team USA played in the semi-final.
They had already lost pool games to Puerto Rico and Lithuania and needed to beat Argentina to make it to the gold medal match. They lost 89-81.
I remember crowding around a TV screen with a large group of international journalists watching as the horror show unfolded and it became increasingly obvious that the US would be going home without the gold medal for the first time in the professional era.
The Americans might have swept into Athens boasting such players as LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, but they would be skulking out in disgrace – and the ones throwing the most derogatory comments at the TV screen that day were the US reporters.
The current crop won’t be fazed by having to play in front of no crowds in Japan’s capital
Fast forward 17 years and Team USA has overcome that glitch and won gold at every subsequent Olympic tournament, but with their first game against France on Sunday night, there is little doubt that the so-called Dream Team are a long way from where they’d like to be.
‘They are vulnerable, that’s for sure,’ Heal said. ‘They haven’t had a big lead-up. They lost those two games, and they haven’t had a lot of time together to get things right.
‘The big thing for them is that the game is so different at the Olympics. There are different rules, they’ll have less space than they are used to.
‘I’m not sure they will automatically adjust to all of that like some of the other teams will.
‘Some of the other countries have had the nucleus of their teams together for a long time.
‘They’ve been building up to this event for maybe the past two Olympics. They are used to their team-mates and to playing under international rules.’
Heal thinks coach Gregg Popovich’s biggest task might be to stop arrogance from setting in
Heal says that given the NBA was played in a crowd-free bubble in Orlando last year the US players will not be too badly affected by the lack of spectators in Tokyo, but their lack of respect for opponents might be another matter.
‘I’m sure when their coach Gregg Popovich got them together for the first time, he would have given them the speech about how tough it was going to be, and how good some of the other teams are.
‘They’d all nod, but I think internally there would be some eye-rolling going on because they’re all NBA players and they are used to being told they are the best in the world.
‘Individually the quality is there and they’ve gone for a smaller, more athletic team, not just bigs lumbering up the court.
‘I think Draymond Green will play a big part as a role player and Jrue Holiday is coming off winning a championship with the Bucks so he should be pumped.
‘The big question is how quickly they come together as a team and how well they adjust to the different style of play.’
Jrue Holiday has been tipped to shine after guiding the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title
And if they don’t, Heal says there will be other teams ready to pounce.
‘Spain is the main threat. They are an ageing side but I’m sure they have some good young talent coming through and it will be interesting to see how they handle the step up.
‘France is an enigma. They’ve got the talent and the experience, but they don’t always put it together. If they can, they will be dangerous.
‘And I really like Australia’s chances. We’ve got the NBA players in Ingles, Mills, Dellavedova and Baynes but I’m so impressed with the defence of Matisse Thybulle. When it comes to dexterity and athleticism, we haven’t seen anyone as good for a long time.
‘We haven’t got a lot of depth in the bigs with the loss of Andrew Bogut, but if we’re going to knock off the USA, this is our best chance.
‘Forget all that Dream Team stuff. That ended after Atlanta.’