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There Are Many Teams in This Dream

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, February 13, 1998; Page C1

Michael Wilbon NAGANO — You want the list of similarities between the NBA Dream Team of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the NHL Dream Teams of the 1998 Nagano Olympics?

They all include professional athletes.

That's it. End of similarities.

Everything else about the situations is different. And I mean everything.

That group of NBA players comprised the greatest basketball team ever assembled, maybe the greatest team ever assembled in any sport. But the Olympic tournament stunk. It wasn't competitive. It had no suspense, no drama whatsoever. The U.S. team was invincible, a basketball deity that was so lordly opponents genuflected before every opening tip.

This group of NHL players, sprinkled generously throughout the entire Olympic tournament field, makes for the best hockey tournament ever. But nobody's invincible. Any of five teams could win gold. The U.S. team, for instance, could win the gold medal or could lose its very first game of the tournament, against Sweden, here Friday afternoon (Friday 12:45 a.m. EST). Everything is uncertain, which points to the kind of athletic stress and strain that makes for the best drama imaginable.

The NBA players were among the most recognizable men on the planet; most of the NHL stars, with Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros being notable exceptions, can walk down any street here and go completely unrecognized.

The NBA stars were tall and (with four exceptions) black; the NHL stars are relatively average in height and (with no exceptions) white.

The NBA stars lived lavishly in the suites of Barcelona's Ambassador Hotel, which was sealed off to almost everyone; the NHL players are packed six or seven to a room like frat boys. They live in the athletes' village like everybody else and love it.

Asked to compare the incomparable, U.S. Coach Ron Wilson, who is quite the sports fan in general, said: "I wouldn't want to compare this to the tournament they had in basketball. We're not the Dream Team in the sense of having all the best players on one team. I think this is a dream tournament."

That's the party line for any and all associated with this Olympic hockey competition: Dream Tournament. The party line is right on target.

You certainly couldn't call the United States a Dream Team. Okay, a team with Brett Hull, Pat LaFontaine, John LeClair, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Mike Richter and Brian Leetch is very, very nice. But it ain't Canada. It ain't Gretzky, Lindros, Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Martin Brodeur, Curtis Joseph, Ray Bourque and Scott Stevens. As a matter of fact, the United States may be star-matched by Finland, which has Jari Kurri, Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne and Esa Tikkanen; Sweden, which has Calle Johansson, Peter Forsberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Ulf Samuelsson and Mats Sundin; and Russia, with Sergei Fedorov, Pavel and Valeri Bure, Alexei Zhamnov, Sergei Gonchar and Valeri Kamenski.

There were 12 players to go crazy over in Barcelona.

There are 40 players to go crazy over in Nagano.

A person who has intimate knowledge of behind-the-scenes goings-on with both the '92 basketball team and these NHL stars recalled how the NBA players traveled to and from their first news conference with escort cars in the front and back, how they were brought in to the 1,500-seat auditorium on the freight elevator so as not to attract attention. "It was like moving the president," he said, noting the security team that accompanied the U.S. basketball gods almost everywhere.

And what about the NHL stars? "Only CNN met them at the airport," he said. "No other media was there. It's different, totally different. They're small, they're white. Nobody would recognize half of them."

Then there was the logo flap. Reebok made the official team sweats for the entire 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, among others, were (and still are) Nike guys who went as far as to drape the American flag around themselves to hide the Reebok logo.

And now?

There are no logos on the sweats at all.

"Everybody's trying to compare us to the '92 Dream Team, being in luxury suites and hotels," Hull said. "That was never the case with us. We wanted to see this as any other athletes would. I don't think I'd like to experience it any other way. I don't consider myself any more important than one of the bobsledders, a curler or a biathlete."

But Hull is enough of a realist to know there are differences. The U.S. basketball players "did have a valid point, in requesting some of the things they did, like living outside the village," he said. "They were the only team like that in the Olympics. We're not any different than the Canadians or Russians."

Hull hit the important note in those last two sentences. There was nobody else like the U.S. basketball team. It was peerless. The fashionable thing to do here is to praise the NHL Olympic hockey players for being such "regular guys" while bashing the Dream Team for being reclusive, self-absorbed gods.

That notion ignores certain facts. I went for a walk down an empty street in Barcelona one day in the summer of '92 and ran into Earvin Johnson. We walked for a block or so together when suddenly there was this frightening squeal, and what had to be 300 children engulfed him, screaming "Maaaaaagic Joooohnson!" at the top of their lungs. Magic, trapped against a wall, waved me on and began to sign each and every piece of paper thrust in front of him, shaking hands and hugging anybody who asked.

Barkley visited the athletes' village, but the mob scenes were so overwhelming he didn't go as many times as he wanted to. The U.S. players were anything but reclusive.

The fact is, more people recognize the silhouette of Jordan's shaved head than the face of any hockey player alive, and that includes Gretzky, who's the only godlike figure in this tournament. Global recognition of those basketball players demanded protective conditions. These hockey players should be thankful they're allowed to be "normal guys."

You don't need to trash the '92 U.S. basketball team to enjoy the '98 hockey tournament. There will never be another team like the Dream Team. There's never been a hockey competition as compelling as this Dream Tournament.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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