Beaming from the current cover of Sports Illustrated are the faces of five potential young Olympians. Well, not so young: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone. Take a ride on that, Suriname. The American basketball team is turning pro in 1992 and the Pistons' Chuck Daly will be the head coach. USA! USA! USA!
In the accompanying story, an excited profile of a "red, white and blue dream team," we are invited to imagine what a marketing vehicle the Olympics would make for Magic and Air Jordan. "This is the 1990s, after all," explains the author, "and millionaire pro athletes cannot be expected to give up 2 1/2 months of their free time to play for the Olympic stipend of zip, zilch, nada."
Leave it to Larry Bird to pluck the only string in a tuba recital. "The Olympics are for young guys," Bird said simply, eliminating himself. "I'd hate to take something away from a young kid."
The Olympics used to be for kids. Every four years, as the Olympic wok goes cold, the children of the world, the awakening generation, are challenged to convene in another place. But usually it is Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses and Greg Louganis who show up.
Because of money and television -- the roots of practically everything in sports -- the Olympics have become a pro career. A good tour is four or five quadrennials plus a stint on special teams, pushing bobsleds off mountains a la Willie Davenport. If you think George Foreman looks forlorn in his anachronistic quest for the modern money, consider that, 19 years after his time, Mark Spitz is back in the deep end.
Each Olympic sport operates under its own definition of professionalism. Track and field maintains a pretext of innocence by laundering the payoffs through a system of "trust funds" that really are nothing more than checking accounts. Figure skating has worded its regulations to let in certain ice show headliners while leaving out Frick and Frack. Soccer observes a maximum age of 23. Whatever the tennis rules may be, Steffi Graf is on a seven-year winning streak.
Having dropped a total of two basketball games in Olympic history, the U.S. naturally has been frantic to get the NBA into the contest. When John Thompson's collegians lost only to the Soviet Union last time in Seoul (circumstantially winning the bronze medal), the home front was inconsolable. To the jingoists, Thompson represented a kind of Alger Hiss of the hardwood whose incriminating papers were found not in a pumpkin but in a basketball.
Lost in all the black crepe was the fact it was a beautiful tournament with an appealing winner. Alexander Gomelsky, the grandfatherly Soviet coach, thanked the Americans for inventing the game he loves. At the mention of Lakers and Bulls on the horizon, he smiled magnificently and said in perfectly imperfect English: "I am basketball man. I think is good. I know Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan is not possible to beat this year. Maybe after 10 years is possible."
In 1960, U.S. Olympic Coach Pete Newell hadn't the heart to play both Oscar Robertson and Jerry West in the same backcourt. So he employed Robertson at forward, and still their closest games were 40 points. Unable to enjoy winning that way, Newell set out with a squadron of colleagues to change the universe.
They journeyed to Eastern Europe, the Far East, Africa, everywhere, presenting clinics on pressure defense and the pick-and-roll. Henry Iba, who coached gold medal teams in Tokyo (1964) and Mexico City (1968), did not enjoy losing to the Soviets in Munich in 1972. Especially considering the strange circumstance: a confusing finish peppered with multiple endings. But Iba had a certain consolation. He had been one of the missionaries. The plan to teach the world how to play was working.
When Brazil trimmed the Yanks at the 1987 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis -- fundamentally because Louisville Coach Denny Crum was just getting around to an understanding of the three-point shot -- America gasped and gagged. But Newell didn't. He smiled. Brazil had a star named Oskar.
Johnson, Jordan, Barkley, Ewing, Malone, David Robinson, Joe Dumars, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin and three amateurs will make a hell of a club, but it won't be the red, white and blue dream team of Barcelona. The real dreamers won't make it on TV. They'll be in the sports nobody cares about. They're practicing now.
In a basement somewhere, a canoeist has converted a small coal bin into a stagnant river. He's crouched on one knee, interminably paddling nowhere. The sloshing is a night sound of the neighborhood, a beguiling mystery to the neighbors. A roller skate wedged beneath his forward foot simulates the rocking of the boat.
Old mirrors of every shape, rescued from dressers and garage sales, are suspended all around him. In their reflections, his technique can be checked against the home movies he has taken of Romanians and Swedes.
He can't win and he doesn't even know about merchandising.
He's just a hero.