Team sport has always enticed viewers with the notion of the perfect squad. The kind that ticked all the boxes on potential, performances, results, star-power, individual talent and legacy. What if Pelé played alongside Diego Maradona with Iker Casillas keeping goal? How would opposition batsmen fare if they had to face up to Wasim Akram and Malcolm Marshall bowling in tandem only for Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan to follow?
And so we’ve had Bradman’s all-time XI exist purely in the realm of fantasy. The mighty West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s caught our imagination, but couldn’t quite put it past Pakistan over six Tests, home and away. The Australian sides of the late ’90s and the early noughties followed the Caribbean team in deed, but often met their nemesis in the Indian cricket team of that time. The 1970 Brazilian side were, arguably, the best soccer team to win a World Cup, but not many of their players endure in public memory today. The Galácticos of Real Madrid ranked high on celebrity quotient, provided the odd hurrah, but disappointed in the overall analysis. Even Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve or Thirteen, as good as they were, existed only in the movies.
Which is why, “The Dream Team”, a 90-minute documentary that debuted Wednesday night on NBA TV, is a must watch. The brilliant production chronicles the tale of the 11 Hall of Famers – led by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan – who took the basketball world by storm en route to the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Even that is a euphemistic description of The Dream Team’s legacy for those 11 Hall of Famers, along with Christian Laettner, actually found the basketball universe in clay and left it 24-carat gold. Johnson, Bird, Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin did on the basketball court in Barcelona what Michelangelo, Modigliani, Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt and Van Gogh might have done, working in tandem on a life-sized canvas somewhere in pristine Europe in some imaginary time and space.
It wasn’t a cakewalk, though, as the documentary tells us. Even these basketball players, great as they were, had their egos check in before they the first practice session began. “Charles, yes he is a great talent. Do I think he is better than me? Hell no!” said Malone on the competitive nature simmering within each player when they went head-to-head with each other during the initial scrimmage sessions.
Yet, Chuck Daly, head coach of the team, forged together a winning unit notwithstanding the individual differences. By reaching out to the team’s biggest name, Jordan, despite having coached the ‘Bad Boys’ of Detroit, who regularly knocked Chicago out of the playoffs up until 1991, and “throwing” a game to a team of college players, Daly got his players’ attention and respect.
The results were phenomenal. The Dream Team won the Tournament of the Americas, an Olympic qualifying event in Portland, Oregon, by beating six other teams by an average margin of 50 points. They went on a 46-to-1 run in their opening game against Angola before annihilating their African opponents by 68 points in a 116-48 victory in their first game of the ’92 Olympics. They walloped Germany, Brazil and Spain by 43, 44 and 41 points respectively in the Group stage after which they steamrolled Lithuania by 51 points in the semi-final and thumped Croatia by 32 points in the final to win gold medal. To say they were the dominant team of the tournament was the understatement of that decade if not the entire 20th century.
More importantly, the Dream Team played basketball in a manner that would have done James Naismith, the inventor of the game, proud. There was showtime without any let up in intensity. It was a symphony that played itself out every alternate night for two weeks between July 26 and August 8, 1992 with 12 muscled men running the floors of the Pavelló Olímpic de Badalona in Barcelona, Spain. Their appeal, consequently, transcended their performances on court. “Workers were trying to get autographs, security people were trying to get autographs, all the athletes were standing on the side like a parade,” said Stockton of the hysteria that built up around the Dream Team. There is even footage of a player on the opposition bench who stopped to take a photograph as his team was getting whipped by Magic and co.
The reason the documentary does so well in reaching out to viewers is that it takes you behind the scenes to hitherto unseen footage of what it took to get this team together. From the candid discussion involving the controversial decision to leave All-Star guard Isiah Thomas off the Dream Team (“No, I [Pippen] did not want him on the team”), to giving us a good reason why Barkley (“I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola is in trouble.”) remains the game’s most colourful characters, to the struggle for the passing of the NBA mantle from Magic to Michael (“There is a new sheriff [Michael] in town”), the 90-minute production is 100 percent candid and absolutely riveting.
And yet, as Barkley alone summed it up, the Dream Team’s real legacy is the role it played in making basketball the global phenomenon we know it to be today. “We made the game a worldwide game,” said Barkley. “You know I talked to Tony Parker, I talked to [Manu] Ginobili, I talked to [Dirk] Nowitzki – those guys said their first love with basketball started with the Dream Team and I am really proud of that.”
Towards the end of the show, there is footage of Jordan visiting the Olympic Stadium in ’92 on the morning of the men’s basketball final, imagining all the athletes who had competed before in previous editions of the Olympics and thinking of the whole experience as something truly ‘amazing’. Jordan says, “I bet this is something that my kids are going to love one day.”
Not just your kids Michael. An entire generation and scores of generations to follow will remember the summer of 1992 for the exploits of the one and only Dream Team.
“The Dream Team” will re-air on NBA TV on June 15 at 10:30 p.m., June 16 at 12 a.m. and June 17: 4 p.m. (All times ET)