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.
Even as the league got blacker and blacker–it seemed that Bird’s Boston Celtics were the only “white team”–the NBA and its unofficial minor league, college basketball, began to achieve tremendous growth in attendance, television deals, corporate support, and celebrity cheerleaders (Jack Nicholson, Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Murray, Jerry Seinfeld, and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few). When Michael Jordan struck his now historic deal with Nike in 1985 and began appearing in commercial after commercial–ultimately becoming as popular, according to one poll, as Jesus Christ–the floodgates were opened for America to accept this “black sport” and spread it like a religion across the globe. (The NBA has been opening its season in Japan every other year since 1990. Pre-season games have been held in England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Mexico).
“Basketball,” says Grant Hill by telephone, “regardless of what color you are, is just an exciting game. I look at the other sports and they just don’t have what basketball has. There isn’t a wasted moment on the court. Plus the way they market Michael Jordan or Shaq–these are people who are interesting to everyone.” That crossover appeal wasn’t lost on the Federation International de Basketball (FIBA). In 1989, the organization voted to allow professional players to compete in international competition, paving the way for the colossal franchise known as the Dream Team.
Says Granik, “The feeling around the rest of the world was that basketball was never going to reach its full popularity and the players weren’t going to develop to their fullest potential unless they got to play against the very best people. So, ” he chuckles, “they don’t mind looking.” Though Granik and others deny it, the U.S.’s elimination in the 1988 Olympic Semi-Finals (resulting in its first-ever bronze medal; the U.S. refused to accept the silver medal it won in ’72 due to a controversial call in the final game) must have played a part in the rise of the Dream Team. Not only would the U.S. regain its throne –it won nine gold medals and had an 85-2 record since men’s basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936–but it would also do so in the manner of a powerful nation overwhelming the opposition with awesome weapons of war. Or as Charles Barkley aptly described the first Dream Team, “We’re like a group of Freddy Kruegers.”
The birth of Dream Team I unleashed a huge media blitz. The press sucked up every detail, including Barkley’s ignorant comment about elbowing a bony Angolan player because, “he might have a spear hidden somewhere.” Instead of staying with the other athletes in the Olympic Village in Barcelona, the 12 American basketball players and their entourage had a brand-new hotel all to themselves. (Speaking by car phone from a limo after shooting a Dream Team III commercial, Barkley says he has “no regrets” and responds to all critics: “The press was jealous of the Dream Team. They always talked about the hotels we were staying in and made a big deal about it. And Americans hate you if you’re popular.”)
At least 12 companies spent upwards of $12 million in promotion and advertising to highlight their connection to the 1992 Olympic squad. Dream Team jerseys, mugs, hats, and posters omnipresent. Though Granik insists that “the Dream Team itself is not hugely profitable, “the NBA continues to assist U.S.A. basketball in the promotion of all international events. It invests its resources with the hope that new TV and merchandising markets will continue to open up. But there is no denying that sports and big business got criss-crossed when Michael Jordan and five other Dream Teamers who wore Nike (a sneaker named for the Greek goddess of victory) balked at appearing at the medal ceremonies because Reebok–Nike’s staunch competitor–had outfitted the team. So after demolishing their opponents by an average score of 44 points, Jordan and his fellow Nike clients (as well as players under contract to other shoe companies) took the medal stand and rolled back their collars to obscure the Reebok emblem. Jordan, the epitome of basketball’s surge into the global consciousness, smothered the Reebok name with the American flag.
The financial bonanza of Dream Team III is sure to be even greater than the original version. Nike and Reebok have designed footwear especially for this competition, and corporation after corporation has somehow connected itself as an “official sponsor” of Dream Team III. A television audience estimated at two-thirds of the world’s population will soak up the fastest-growing sport of the 1990s, and inevitably, will want to buy anything and everything associated with this sensation. The fact that Charles Barkley was selected again for Dream Team III after saying four years ago, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime, and they should give someone else a chance to enjoy it,” says much about the economics of the game. “The NBA came back at me and asked me again,” Barkley explains. “I said yes because Atlanta is close to my home state of Alabama. It’ll be more relaxed and more fun this time, being home.”
“There is a business side to it,” says Grant Hill, “and that may be a part of why Barkley was named to the team. There’s a lot of personalities involved, a lot of selling of the game. A lot of selling of the NBA. I think all the success of Dream Team I really grabbed the attention of the world. Dream Team III is expected to take it to the next level.
“I’m like the Rodney Dangerfield of basketball” says Dream Team III head coach Lenny Wilkens. “I’m the best-kept secret of the NBA.” Wilkens has won more games than any other coach in the history of the National Basketball Association, but hardly anyone acknowledges it. Whether that has to do with the fact Wilkens is one of the NBA’s very few black coaches, he will not say–at least not directly. What he will discuss is the task that faces him as he directs, in his words, “the finest athletes in the world.”
Wilkens was a star player himself during the ’60s and the ’70s. Today he is a fiftyish, six-foot-one, beige-complexioned man with an infectious smile, a well-coiffed salt-and-pepper Afro, and a laid back disposition. I spoke with him at the Embassy Suites hotel in Secaucus, N.J. on a Sunday morning before his Atlanta Hawks–who went on to be eliminated in the second round of the year’s playoffs–played the New Jersey Nets.
“I have players I would never have had the opportunity to coach before,” says Wilkens. “Being an assistant coach for Dream Team I was a good learning experience for this, because we had to juggle so many incredible in and out players of the starting lineup, you know, make sure got their playing time in. I felt [Dream Team I head coach] Chuck Daly and the rest of us did an amazing job.”
But the infamous Dream Team II was another story. Featuring players like Derrick Coleman, Shawn Kemp, Larry Johnson, and Dominique Wilkins, the athletes who represented the U.S. in the 1994 World Championships in Toronto weren’t considered to be basketball ambassadors on the order of Magic or Bird or Mike. Although they won the gold medal convincingly as Dream Team I had, Dream Team II left a lasting impression that NBA players were a bunch of trash-talking egomaniacs.
“I wasn’t there in 1994,” says Wilkins rather testily. “I know nothing about it. In ’92, we had a lot of legend-type players. I think this team will be as versatile as that team was.”
But then he adds, “If you are going to talk about athletes’ behavior, you have to also talk about society as a whole. Because everything has changed, not only in sports. We have a lot of kids that come from single-parent families. The family ties are not as strong as when I was growing up. This is rampant in society.” Translation: Ready or not, the hip hop generation had made its way into professional basketball, and some of them are as good or better than the players selected for Dream Team III. But business is business, and Shawn Kemp, dope as he is, isn’t anybody’s first choice to represent the U.S.A. When he grabbed his nuts while while hanging on the rim in’ 94, the ensuing criticism made it clear that street flavor of that nature was not desirable.
“Because it’s become more of a business now,” says Barkley, “players have to keep it in perspective. It’s the NBA’s fault, because they made everybody coming into the league a star immediately. Every guy acts like a prima donna. In the old days, you had to prove you were a star by making the All-Star team five or six times first.”
If you analyze the roster of Dream Team III, none of the players–notwithstanding Shaq’s post-drunk grimaces and Barkley’s outbursts (which, for whatever reasons, NBA bigwigs and the media tolerate)–are as hardcore as most of the NBA’s young guns. Dream Team III is a nice mix of old and new, for sure, but it’s also relatively safe. Russ Granik is straight up blunt: “When we picked the team in ’94, we didn’t stop to take into account enough character of the individuals being picked, and went just on talent. That taught us a lesson.”
Back at the All-Star practice session in San Antonio, fans were going bananas in the stands as Michael Jordan cut and slashed to the basket, Reggie Miller shot his trademark three-pointers, Shaq dunked over Patrick Ewing again and again, and first-time All-Star Juwan Howard absorbed the ribbing of Alonzo Mourning and Scottie Pippen. As the session ended, the PA announcer said, “The East players will remain on the court for 15–” Before the sentence was completed, Mike, Shaq, and Grant, three of the most talented and visible athletes on the planet, were besieged by photographers on stepladders, TV cameramen banging one another for position, and overbearing, impatient writers shouting questions.
Standing just outside of Shaq’s orbit, I heard a meek voice pleading, “Mister, please mister, could you just tap Shaq on the shoulder? Please, mister, please?” When I realized I was the “mister” in question, I turned around to see a diminutive, middle-aged Chicano woman clad in an Orlando Magic jersey and waving a Magic banner, tears running down her cheeks. The hoop-hero-as-god syndrome was definitely in effect. In 1996, 24-year-old millionaire/hoopster/rapper/product pitchman/movie star Shaquille O’Neal (with his Superman tattoo) is a modern-day Hercules. He doesn’t need the Olympics to be an Olympian. The bedlam was upped a notch when the West All-Stars, led by hometown favorites David Robinson and Sean Elliott, took the court. The East players, notably Miller, O’Neal, Pippen, and Hill, accommodated every interviewer, including the foreign press. Michael Jordan, relentlessly sweated by the media when he tried to leave for the locker room, was ghost. As Shaq was trying to leave, an Orlando Magic PR rep grabbed him so I could ask what being on the Dream Team meant to him. “It means a lot,” he said dryly, as if he’d delivered this answer many times before. “It’s an honor to to my family and to my country. I’ma just go out and show a lot of sportmanship and, you know, be a class individual. And just try to bring home the gold medal. I don’t believe in pressure. But Dream Team I and II set such high standards that we must follow.”
I made my way across the floor to where David Robinson was being interviewed by a Costa Rican reporter. Robinson, an original Dream Teamer and born again Christian hailed universally as one of the NBA’s best role models, was struggling with his Spanish. When I passed him a question about Dream Team III’s chances of duplicating Dream Team’s I success, he got open: “I’m sure it’ll be real dominating ’cause of the type of players you have. Me and Hakeem come out, and Shaq and Karl Malone come in. All we have to do is go out and play.”
A few feet away, Olajuwon was being quizzed about his favorite foods by a Dutch television crew. “I like jollof rice,” he said obviously distracted by the whirl of action around him. “Sweets? Uh, I like, apple pie. And ice cream.” I asked Olajuwon, who became a U.S. citizen in 1993 thus eligible for the Dream Team, what the opportunity meant to him. He said, “I feel honored,” before being pulled by the arm to another camera crew. Reggie Miller, who also played on Dream Team II, was a bit more profound: “My first dream and wish of playing in the Olympics is when I saw my sister Cheryl [a star player at the University of Southern California] accept the gold medal around her neck in the 1984 Olympics. Being in the Olympic Village and seeing the athletes walk around, just the unity amongst everybody. That’s what I kinda wished and hoped for.” I asked Reggie if Dream Team III is a shoo-in for the gold. He frowned. “We’re never going to underestimate our opponents. You’ve got Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc, Detlef Schrempf. These guys have played in the NBA, and they’ve gotten the experience, and they’re taking that back to their countries and making their countries automatically better. Everyone thinks it’s going to be a cakewalk, but we’re gonna be prepared like we’re going to into an NBA final.” Dream Team veteran Scottie Pippen admitted that there’s pressure: “Every team that went to the Olympics and didn’t come back with the gold medal, you remember them. You remember those years when the U.S. lost at the Olympics. And I don’t want to be a part of that group that didn’t get an Olympic gold medal.”
If there’s any single thing that I got from All-Star weekend and all the research I’ve done and all the people I’ve interviewed, it’s this: Basketball–a sport that was invented by a white dude named James Naismith in 1891 but molded into a gravity-defying art form by black men from America’s urban centers–is the ticket out for so many people, economically, spiritually, psychologically, and recreationally. More than any other sport, basketball is a reflection of the high-tech, fast-paced world that we live in–post modern athletes breaking and bending rules all the time, like new gadgets popping up to take things to another level. The Dream Team is the NBA raised to the level of virtual reality, like a dope new Sega cartridge. Whether you’re a kid from the ghetto or Jack Nicholson, you love this game.
It is no coincidence, for example, that a record of 35 college underclassmen and three high schoolers decided to enter this year’s NBA draft. Many of them cited increasing financial pressures for their decisions and now carry the burden of fulfilling the dreams for themselves, their families, and all the kids in America’s inner cities who will never make it from the playgrounds to the big time. Just like their rap brethren, today’s young B-ballers don’t have time for playing someone else’s rules. The “get money” mentality reigns supreme, even if that means sacrificing a college education, or maybe in the future, a high school one. But I’m not going to fake the funk: There is a certain pleasure in noting that America’s Dream Team is largely peopled by brothers, even if they do appeal to all colors. And that, perhaps, is the ultimate beauty of the Dream Team–it can be anything you or I want it to be. What else are dreams for?