So I’m at this Team USA Olympic tuneup at Verizon Center on Monday night where Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Durant were shockingly getting tuned up by Brazil for much of the first half. And I happen to run into this total hoops junkie at halftime, a guy whose opinion of the game I greatly respect.
Rather than our usual courtside conversation, where I nervously shoot the breeze about having played high school ball in Hawaii at the same time or pathetically remind him of his 2009 invite to play in a pickup game that has yet to happen, I cut to the chase:
“Mr. President, I gotta ask you: ’92 Dream Team or this team? Who would beat who?”
This has been a source of great debate recently, ever since Kobe Bryant last week surprisingly said, “It’d be a tough one, but I think we’d pull it out.”
Meaning, in Kobe’s world, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton in their primes — plus Magic and Larry past theirs — would fall to a team featuring today’s stars, a team that starts Tyson Chandler at center.
Barkley shot back within 24 hours, saying the game wouldn’t be close. Jordan respected Kobe’s competitiveness but begged to differ, mentioning athleticism could only work so many miracles against a team just about everyone acknowledges as the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled.
It was time to go to an unbiased observer, a bipartisan ’baller:
“I think someone else put it pretty well tonight,” President Obama said simply after some thought. “The Dream Team was never down eight.”
If Team USA 80, Brazil 69 didn’t end that argument, then some too-close-for-comfort game in London in two weeks will put it to bed for good. Comparing eras always ends in someone being slighted, but since Kobe brought it up let’s be clear:
There will never be a team as good as the 1992 Olympic team. They weren’t just incredibly athletic, they knew the game so much better — angles, the economy of movement, spacing — than so many of today’s stars.
With all due respect to Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and the rest, never will we see the sublime choreography of teamwork on an international stage than we saw in Barcelona some 20 years ago.
That’s taking nothing away from this group, which had a basketball audience at Verizon Center pounding with noise and excitement for the first time in forever. After that agonizingly slow start, Russell Westbrook came off the bench and turned on the afterburners and Team USA followed, going on a 16-3 run to end the half and seize control of the game. Nene had a nice night on his home floor, but nothing was as riveting as when Team USA genuinely wanted to play.
LeBron got the most thunderous ovation he’s ever received here after a first-half dunk. He ended with 30 points and raised a game MVP trophy at the end. The few boos were drowned out by cheers. Love or loath him, LeBron was wearing a red, white and blue jersey; only so much venom can be reserved for a guy representing his country.
It’s time to appreciate this version of an NBA-stocked Olympic team, because it very well could be the last one we see assembled prior to the Games. Many of the players are tired of the Olympic grind after a 100-game-plus NBA grind. Commissioner David Stern is already making noise about following suit with Olympic soccer, where teams are made up of 23-and-under players with the exception of two wild cards to be added to the roster.
The result would eventually lead to the United States losing the gold medal at some point down the road. But so what? Winning gold in hoops isn’t our birthright just as winning gold in hockey isn’t Canada’s birthright.
Frankly, in Durant and Westbrook’s heart of hearts, they would rather have an NBA title than an Olympic gold medal. It’s not the pinnacle of their sport the way the Olympics are for so many other athletes in different disciplines. And if it’s expected every four years — and in this country, basketball gold is — another NBA-stocked team means another expectation.
Anything less than the top of the medal podium is seen as failure, and that’s not what the Olympics should be about.
I’d rather see kids who want it badly, scrapping in the fourth quarter against Spain, finding a way to knock off an international power even before they get to the NBA. There’s something noble in that than merely blistering New Zealand by 60.
Also, none of those kids would ever make a comparison to his team and the original Dream Team. Just ask the leader of the free world — there is no comparison.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.