Clyde Drexler, From Portland To Barcelona
The following article, written by Eddie Sefko, details Clyde Drexler's time with the Dream Team at the 1992 Summer Olympics and was the cover story of the first edition of Rip City Magazine, published in November, 1992
For years, Clyde Drexler’s basketball career was the all reaches and dreams.
With a pair of near-misses at the NCAA Final Four and a couple of close calls in the NBA Finals, Drexler was becoming the crown price of coming in second.
The brass ring always seemed just out of reach, the triumphant celebration a dream that never materialized. If he had entered beauty contests, Drexler would have been a lock for Mss Congeniality. If he were on a football team, he'd be John Elway, always leading the Denver Broncos to Super Bowl losses. In politics, he'd be counting how many points he need to make up in the latest poll.
Reality refused to throw Drexler a championship ring, hurling instead a seemingly endless trail of close-but-no-cigar salutations.
Then came the ultimate dream, the ultimate Dream Team.
The U.S. Olympic men's basketball team captured the imagination of America and resoundingly showed the world who's boss under the backboards. It also gave Drexler his first real taste of glory. And it was a lot like he thought it would be -- incredible.
"On the medal stand, I was just caught up in the glory of it all and for what it stood," Drexler says, weeks after the Olympians romped home from Barcelona with the gold medal.
"It's the start of many first-places, I hope," Drexler added.
Maybe. Maybe not. But the Olympics provided Drexler with a memory nobody will ever be able to take away. When the Drexler family sits down in 20 or 30 years to watch old tapes of Drexler (will they call them Glyde-iator movies?), there will be the wonderful Olympic scenes to serve as a climax, even if the elusive NBA Championship never comes.
The U.S. sweep of the Olympic gold was, of course, no surprise. The minute Drexler was picked as the 11th, and last, NBA player to receive an invitation to be on the team, he knew the gold medal was as automatic as a two-inch putt for Fred Couples. But that doesn't make the achievement one iota less thrilling.
"It's the first place for your country and that's the main thing," Drexler says. "We established that basketball is played best in this country. Everybody thought that before. But we confirmed it with a huge punctuation mark.
"We all felt very good about that."
Nobody more than Drexler, who erased more than a decade of frustration on the basketball court with his Olympic success.
In two trips to the NBA Finals with Portland, Drexler and the Trail Blazers have been sent home with only consolation prizes. But the vision of Drexler as a bridesmaid but never a bride began when, as a 20-year-old, he found out just how tantalizing success can be.
The scene was New Orleans and Drexler’s Houston Cougars had reached the NCAA’s tastiest plum, the Final Four. Drexler was on the verge of putting dynamite to that old, cynical theory that nice guys finish last.
But Michael Jordan, James Worthy and the rest of North Carolina’s Tar Heels had other ideas. They proved to be the first of many dashers of Drexler’s dreams. Next came North Carolina State, with Thurl Bailey and friends, who beat Houston in the 1983 NCAA title game.
Those days still qualify as painful memories for Drexler. But he made a lot of friends and it didn’t take long after his return from the Olympics for Drexler to get a telephone call from one of those familiar old friends.
"Guy V. Lewis was the first person to call me when I got back," Drexler says of his coach during his Phi Slama Jama days at the University of Houston. "He kind of put the crowning touch on it. He’s always been a class guy."
The same can be said of Drexler. But it’s one thing to be known as a class individual. It’s something else to be a good guy with a gold medal.
The summer of 1992 may not make up for all the shortfalls of the past. But it’s a start, and the memories have enriched Drexler’s life immensely. Even the rough spots -- and there were a few -- that were proven were not so bad.
There were, as Drexler says, some misconceptions about the Olympic basketball team. Two of them still nag at him.
First, the idea that the extra six weeks of basketball-related duty in the Olympics wasn't a hardship if folly. Second, the hubbub over the team's seclusion in a posh hotel in Barcelona instead of in the Olympic Village was overblown. The team simply needed a more secure venue than the village could provide.
"I have to say that USAB (USA Basketball) did a great job in setting us up in a hotel. It made the situation a lot easier for s and our families. I'll be the first to tell you that nobody on our team felt like we were doing anything wrong by not staying in the Olympic Village," said Drexler.
"We went down to the village when we first got there to get our credentials and it was like a mob scene just for those few minutes we were there. So how could we have lived there the whole time? Anybody who was with our party knew why we were in another residence."
The demands on the time of Drexler and Co. were considerable. After working nearly every day for nine months during the NBA season, Drexler had less than two weeks off until the Olympics ended in early August.
"That (the summer months) is our time," Drexler says. "We’re on the clock for eight or 10 months starting in October. The summer is supposed to be our time to spend with our family on a day-to-day basis.
"You take that time away, it really drains you mentally."
Not that the Olympic experience was totally taxing all the time. Drexler did more than practice, play games and drape gold around his neck.
For example, during a free afternoon while the team was practicing in Monte Carlo before the Games, Drexler teamed up with Charles Barkley and a pair of journalists for a friendly round of golf -- complete with a friendly wager of course.
To see Phoenix’s Barkley and Drexler, who represent opposite ends of the diplomacy scale, bantering on the golf course is comical.
"There was a lot of talking, in fact, there was more talking than playing," Drexler says.
To see Barkley and Drexler playing together is like watching former President Gerald Ford in duplicate.
Drexler, especially, is an accident waiting to happen on the golf course. His typical golf shot carries long and far and is majestic enough to rival John Daly.
But as Vlade Divac would say: "Distance, no problema; direction, big problema."
Drexler may be conservative by nature, but his golf shots lean far to the right of center. His slices amazed Barkley with their length and misdirection.
"I had no trouble finding the fairway," Drexler says. "Which fairway was the big problem. I was usually five fairways across the course."
But whatever shortcomings Drexler knew on the golf course, he made up for when he and his teammates retreated indoors.
"I don't know if there will ever be a team like that again," he says. "There were 12 that were proven superstars. Well, there were 11 that were proven and Christian (Laettner), who will be a star.
"And some of those guys are truly legends.
But we proved we could play together and play well together. We weren't a bunch of super-egos or super-athletes who were selfish. We proved we could play together for one common goal. It was a very special group. There will be other stars in the future on the other Olympic teams, but I don't think there will ever be another team like this one."
As far as the interaction with his peers, Drexler knew it would be different than the NBA regular season, when he routinely is pitted against other stars. During the Olympics he got to find out just how special the talents of the Dream Team were.
The camaraderie of the Dream Team went far beyond the bounds of the basketball court, the hotel or even the golf course. This was a group that forever would have a special bond. They learned things about each other during the Olympics and the preceding practices and tournaments that made them almost like family.
And like all families, they shared secrets and innermost thoughts that usually were reserved for members of the inner circle.
When Magic Johnson announced to the world that he was returning to the Los Angeles Lakers after a year of retirement, it was old news to Drexler and other members of the Dream Team. They had gotten so close during their stay in Barcelona that Magic had intimated to them that he was going to be back in the NBA this season. They knew this long before the decision was made public. When Larry Bird deferred top his chronic bad back and announced his
retirement, it caught none of the Olympians by surprise. Bird had given them signs, if not words, that Barcelona would be his curtain call.
It was almost as if the Olympians had formed a members-only clique. And it made sense. As in any business, nobody knows what it is like to be a superstar NBA player, except for another superstar NBA player. Theirs was a relationship. that could not be duplicated, just like nobody would understand the pitfalls and frustrations of being a plumber except for another plumber.
"It was a very special time," Drexler says. "Whether it was going out to eat dinner with the guys and their families, just doing something together during the evenings or even going to practice, it was just a lot of fun, the whole thing."
Not that anybody ever lost sight of what the primary objective was in
Barcelona. Chuck Daly, who proved to be the perfect man to coach the Dream Team, said before the Games started that if the U. S. lost the gold medal, they might as well stay in Spain, or exile themselves to whatever country they lost to because they would become the biggest losers in U. S. sports history if they did. Daly was well-suited to handling what easily could have been a dozen large egos each pulling in a different direction. Even Drexler said getting sidetracked could have been sabotaged what the Americans were in Spain for.
"Everybody expected us to win," he says. "If we had allowed ourselves to slip
just once, it would have been very embarrassing."
"But Chuck was great. He let us play and he realized quickly that we would play as a team, not as individuals. I think if anything, we were too unselfish when we were playing. But it’s better to be that way than the alternative."
And of course, the most mesmerizing thing about the team was the talent, the incredible, wall-to-wall talent. If the Dream Team had been horses, it would have been comprised of Secratariat, Man ’O War, Seattle Slew and all the other greats. Even Drexler, who rates as one of the NBA’s most respected stars, the feeling was almost overwhelming.
"Everybody had a great talent," Drexler says. "But I’d have to say that
Larry Bird was incredible. He’s got such great instincts to do things before and after a play that make the game so easy to play. It must have been wonderful for those guys on the Celtics to play with him all those years."
It anything, Drexler's respect for the people he will be battling against this coming season is greater after the Olympics.
"Everybody got along, and got along very well," Drexler says. "It was a mature bunch of guys, much more mature than people might think."
But, he added, it was very easy to be motivated for success.
"Like I said, I'm going to look at it as the first of many first-places," said Drexler. "And it was a victory for my country. This is a team sport and you can't take it personally.
"Our team this summer happened to be the entire country. And that makes it very special."