In 1992 before the United States put the best basketball team in the world on the floor for the Barcelona Summer Olympics, USA basketball led by Dave Gavitt, panicked.
And before that, before the 1992 “Dream Team” came together, the USA had still had the best basketball team, it just didn’t have the best player in the Olympics. The Soviets had Arvydas Sabonis, who, behind Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, was the third-best player in the world. It took Sabonis to beat a bunch of amateurs from the United States, 82-76 in the semifinals.
But it didn’t take much more for the United States to freak out.
It was 25 years ago USA went to an all-pro format for the Olympic basketball team in what amounts to a twisted power grab. The result was predictable. A “Dream Team” in the 1992 games that featured Bird and Magic, Charles Barkley and others. It bore golden fruit, naturally, but it was unnecessary at best and jingoistic at worst.
The United States lost to a generational player in 1988 and responded with an over-the-top approach of “We won’t be pushed around anymore.” The reality of it is, the USA nearly won gold anyway back in 1988 with players like Jeff Grayer, David Robinson, Stacey Augmon, Danny Manning and Charles Smith of Georgetown, and certainly would have won it again in 1992 with an amateur lineup. Obviously, the pool of amateur players in 1992 wasn’t as good as Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and others who were established NBA greats, but Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd, Chris Webber, Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway and Bobby Hurley were much better than that 1988 bunch.
Sports is big business. There’s not a lot of purity and very little organic feel about it. But winning with amateurs when everyone else was playing with pros was special. It’s the ultimate in, “We’re better than you.” There’s no shame in losing with amateurs, the only shameful thing is desperately scrambling for a throne it only needed to slightly reach for. Perhaps instead of John Thompson coaching the 1988 team, USA basketball could have chosen Tark in Vegas or Tubbs in Norman? Maybe Denny Crum or Larry Brown could have done it. Who knows. But a six-point loss to the Russians doesn’t call for panic.
But the United States needed a version of a slam dunk, so it copied the rest of the world. Instead of winning with amateurs and showing the Soviets and everyone else, it could do things without an arms race approach, Gavitt and the American contingent escalated things.
The United States won the first seven gold basketball medals, starting in 1936. It took the Russians and some shady officiating to win gold in 1972. USA won gold again in Montreal in 1976, boycotted the Moscow 1980 games and won it again in 1984 with Jordan and Patrick Ewing, Wayman Tisdale and others. The empirical data shows the United States wasn’t having issues winning with amateurs. Then came the loss in 1988 and the change of strategy, going with pros. Since, the USA has won six of the next seven gold medals, including 2016 in Brazil. Everyone cheers for a bloodbath because everyone gets to hide behind the flag and blast some Lee Greenwood, while shouting, “Merica!” Yeah, sports.
Yet, that same approach of forming domestic “Dream Teams” in Miami or Golden State is looked upon as “weak” and “soft” and taking the “easy way” to a title. You know, doesn’t mean as much if all the best players are on the same team.
So, what gives? Well, simply, that kind of cheerleading is seen as OK when it’s patriotic in nature and Angola is on the business end of a Barkley dunk. But Golden State isn’t the United States. The Warriors don’t represent us all, so it’s harder to accept their “Dream Team”
The 1992 Olympic team was an amazing experience. The best in the world. Not even close. But amateurs could have won gold that year, too, and there never would have needed to be a ridiculous show of power.