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KJ and Dan Majerle in the World Championships of Basketball
Golden Summer
By Jim Brewer

WAS THERE EVER ANY DOUBT?


For Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle and their "Dream Team II" teammates, the 1994 World Championships of Basketball provided the perfect opportunity for the United States (and the NBA) to prove to the rest of the world that, while they might be gaining on us, there's still a wide gulf in talent to cross.


KJ and Dan Majerle celebrate their gold medal-winning performance as members of "Dream Team II," which won the 1994 World Championship of Basketball.
Romping through Spain, crashing like a herd of bulls through China's shop, throwing Australia on the barbie, solving Greece's formula and, finally, beating Russia like a rented yak - the U.S. squad simply made the world its own personal playground for 10 days in August.

After whisking through the preliminary round and semifinals, the Dreamers met Russia on August 14 in the gold medal game. It was over almost as it began. The USA Basketball troupe made 16 of its first 17 shots to take a 42-16 lead after 9:19 - on their way to grabbing the gold with a 137-91 win before a record crowd of 32,616 at SkyDome in Toronto and a global television audience.

For KJ and Dan, who each gave the world a heaping helping of their individual talents, winning the WCOB gold was certainly special. But, even in this post-Cold War era, beating the Russians to do so added a little dash of revenge - especially for Majerle, who played on the U.S. team that lost to Russia in the 1988 Olympics.

"KJ told me I could forget about '88 now and he's right," Dan said.

For Johnson, the memory of the United States' controversial loss to the Soviet Union in the 1972 Olympics was fresh in his mind as he took the court in this gold medal game.

"I remember sitting on the floor in front of the TV and watching that '72 game - it's my earliest memory of basketball," KJ recalled. "I remember celebrating the win and then having it taken away from us. I was really young and didn't understand. This time, I don't think it's anything political that motivated us. The Cold War and communism are dead. But Russia did beat our '88 Olympic team and they had just beaten our Goodwill Games team."

Triumphing over Russia was frosting on an eight-game cake that saw the U.S. team post some eye-popping stats:

Average margin of victory: 37.6 points.
Shooting percentage of .576 compared to opponents' .438.
43.3 to 28.1 average rebounding advantage.

In a word, Dream Team II's performance was - dominating.
"I've never been on a team with that much talent," KJ said with a bit of understatement.

And it was the talent that truly separated the United States from the best of the rest of the globe. Without a doubt, the international teams are beginning to show great strides in reaching a higher level of overall play. But imagine you are the coach of Spain or Brazil or Puerto Rico and you scrape and claw through most of the first half against the starting squad of the United States. The Dream Teamers are beginning to tire and you think to yourself, "Great, they'll have to go to the second string."

And then into the game walk Shaquille O'Neal, Dominique Wilkinsand Larry Johnson. Sure, second string.

"There are maybe two or three players in the European leagues who could play in the NBA, but as far as teams, there'll never be one that'll match up to the NBA because of the talent and the interest in basketball in the United States," Majerle said.

Actually, there were a few other players from the NBA who did play for their home country's team. Dino Radja (Celtics) and Toni Kukoc (Bulls) led Croatia to a bronze medal, while Rick Fox (Celtics) and William Njoku (1994 Pacers draftee) played for Canada.

But it was the NBA stars on Dream Team II that captured most of the attention of the hundreds of media and a tournament-record 280,042 total fans.

"I think we did everything we were expected to do," said KJ, who personally did his best to live up to expectations after being twice passed over for a Dream Team II nomination before nabbing a spot due to an injury to Isiah Thomas.

It may have taken an injury to finally get KJ's name on the roster, but Dream Team II coach Don Nelson is thrilled that he was there.

"I really like having KJ on the court," Nelson said. "The thing that stood out is how he sacrificed his scoring to be a distributor of the ball and make his team win. We didn't need his offense on this team. We did need his defense, penetration and assists. He gave us all three."

Johnson led the squad in assists with 3.9 per game, and his unmatched "there he his, there he goes" speed up the court turned more than a few international heads - possibly proving once and for all that he is the premier point man in basketball.

Meanwhile, Suns mate Majerle was putting on a long-distance shooting exhibition befitting the new NBA record-holder for three-pointers in a season. Along with sharp-shooting teammates Mark Price, Joe Dumars and Reggie Miller, Thunder Dan proved that if the NBA ever moved the three-point line in a few feet to the international arc of 20 feet, 7 inches - treys would rain down like a Burmese typhoon.

Of course, Dream Team II proved that whether they were playing Burma or anyone else, they were certainly the class of the competition. But it seemed their true foes were not the international players lined up on the other side of the court. This second version of a Dream Team was battling the "ghosts" of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley - the original Dream Team of the 1992 Olympics.

From day one, the debate raged on - how would these youngsters fare against the more experienced, more revered Dream Teamers.

"They say Dream Team I was the greatest assembly of talent ever," KJ said. "But a lot of those guys were on their way out. If we had to play them now, of course, I'd say the younger guys would win. But if we played those guys when they were in their prime - a young Magic Johnson, a young Larry Bird without the back problems, an enthusiastic Michael Jordan - then it might be a different story."

For their part, Magic, Michael and Charles all chimed in saying that forget about "in their prime" - Dream Team I would whip the youngsters right now. Unfortunately, this debate may never be truly solved - not that KJ and Dan won't have a few discussions on the matter with the loquacious Sir Charles.

Perhaps Dream Team II will have the chance to further prove their mettle on the same international stage that provided Dream Team I the chance to shine - the Olympics.

While nothing is set in stone, the members of Dream Team II reportedly are on the inside track to selection for the 1996 United States Olympic Team that will compete in Atlanta two summers from now. For Majerle and KJ, the opportunity to be Olympians would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Well, make that twice-in-a-lifetime for Dan.

"I have that bronze medal (from the 1988 Olympics) at home and I'm proud of it," Majerle said. "Now I've got a gold from the World Championships. Not many players can say that. This does help erase the disappointment of '88, but an Olympic gold would be great. I'd jump at the chance to play again in '96."

"It would certainly be an honor to represent the country in the Olympics, but those things are beyond my control," KJ said.

For now the Suns' newest Dream Teamers can bask in the golden glow of their World Championships victory. A victory that proved exactly where the United States stands in the basketball world. "One of the thrills associated with being on this team was being able to represent my country and to show the world that the U.S. is still the dominating country when it comes to basketball," KJ said.

Dominating indeed.

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