With NBA TV's The Dream Team documentary airing recently, VIBE revisits our 1996 cover story featuring another Olympic supergroup.
READY FOR THE WORLD
DREAM TEAM III MAY BE LARGER THAN THE WHOLE OLYMPIC GAMES
BY Kevin Powell
"Right now, basketball is like Beatlemania..." -Grant Hill, Dream Team III member
And that is exactly what I was thinking this past February when I stood outside the automatic front door of the posh Marriott Rivercenter Hotel in downtown San Antonio, the site of the National Basketball Association's All-Star Weekend celebration. I came to this mega-sports event (second only to the Super Bowl in the amount of celebrities attending and rump-shaking parties) to observe and interview players selected for the U.S. Olympic basketball team a.k.a. the Dream Team III. There was no doubt that this squad--Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Grant Hill, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, Hakeem Olajuwon, Mitch Richmond, Glenn Robinson, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, and Karl Marlone--would win the gold medal as their predecessors had. That was pretty much a given. The question was, how much would this latest packaging of NBA talent further the goal of maintaining a global hunger for the sport, its stars, and its merchandise? And where did this mass-marketed phenomenon come from in the first place?
But before you can ask any questions, you gotta get your ass in the joint, and even with a press badge, matters were thick. A mighty multi-racial throng packed the front entrance of the hotel awaiting the sight of a basketball player--any basketball player. Just the mention, of say, Hakeem Olajuwon whipped the onlookers into a frenzy, their motion propelled by the sheer possibility of spotting one of their heroes. When Olajuwon's seven-foot frame actually appeared from an elevator, beefy, no-neck security men parted the sea of worshippers so the Nigerian-born superstar, grinning sheepishly, could push his way to a black limo outside.
Just as I was nudging my way toward Olajuwon to get a closer look, a gaunt, ponytailed white girl in a San Antonio Spurs sweatshirt with a Polaroid in one hand and a photo of Charles Barkley in the other smashed right into me screaming, "Oh my God, I touched him! I touched his hand!" She then vanished into the hysterical throng.
But it wasn't just the heads wearing NBA paraphernalia or the latest, greatest pair of Nikes that caught my attention. It was the different types of people that stood there--black, brown, yellow, and white, with some faces painted in team colors--waiting, wondering, cameras ready, pens and scraps of paper nervously moving between moist fingers. This group--the middle-aged businessmen with expensive double-breasted suits; the local homeboys wearing glow-in-the-dark gear; the strikingly beautiful black women with their butt-gripping shorts, painted lips, bare stomachs, and asymmetrical haircuts; the older, more conservatively dressed black women who could easily have been some of the players' moms (or not); the plain-Jane housewives trying to keep track of their hyperactive children; and the young white men and women who affected a hip-hop attitude--confirmed (if there were any lingering doubts) that basketball has replaced baseball as America's national pastime. Such mythologized black men as Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal are as big as Elvis and the Beatles put together.
"In the early 1980s, people were talking about America not accepting a black sport", says Russ Granik, deputy commissioner and COO of the NBA. "I was here with [NBA Commissioner] David Stern when things weren't so good. Back then, there wasn't much focus on how the game was presented. And TV coverage wasn't great at the time." What had always been great, though, was the NBA's talent pool. The 1970s alone produced legends like Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, Rick Barry, and Walt Frazier. But only die-hard fans followed these stars--it was usually football and baseball players who received the big endorsement deals. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league in 1979, finally giving the NBA two ready-for-prime-time players. The college rivals had gone head-to-head in that year's NCAA championship game (Indiana State vs. Michigan State), and as pros, their contrasting styles of play and skin color made the rivalry even more intense. Then, in 1983, a collective bargaining agreement that guaranteed players 53 percent of league revenues opened the NBA up to new marketing strategies. David Stern, a lawyer and business, borrowed heavily from pro football's playbook. Kids in the 1970s wore O.J. Simpson's No. 32; now they wear Michael Jordan's No. 23.