A dozen years ago, there was no greater badge of honor for a team sport athlete than to be named to the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Shoe companies fought over what players could or couldn't wear in Barcelona. The Dream Team, quite appropriately, trained and scrimmaged in Monaco, mingling with Prince Albert in Monte Carlo when time permitted. It was a team so oozing in glamour and talent that opposing players brought their own cameras to center court to snap pictures of the Americans before tip-off.
There's no such cachet now. Just five weeks before the start of the Summer Games in Athens, USA Basketball has put together a team, but only after nearly begging NBA stars to participate and only after having been turned down by as many players as finally accepted invitations. The 1992 U.S. team included not just internationally known basketball players but several of the most recognized athletes in the world. The team that takes the floor next month will, in some cases, be playing against more recognizable players from Europe and Asia. Patrons will actually need a roster to identify some of the American players. Take, for example, Carlos Boozer of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has never participated in the NBA playoffs and never made the all-star team.
Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson will play. Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Mike Bibby, Kenyon Martin, Elton Brand and Ray Allen, among others, will not. Those who have declined have expressed reasons that range from concern over security in Athens to summer wedding plans. Kobe Bryant has a felony criminal trial to prepare for, and Karl Malone is rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee. A few just want the summer off.
"It may not be the same calling it once was," NBA Commissioner David Stern said during a recent conversation about the issues involved in putting together an Olympic team.
And it raises many serious questions, from why so many NBA players didn't want to play this time around to whether today's players even value representing the United States in international competition, to whether the U.S. should go back to sending college players to the Olympics, to whether this U.S. team will be up to what most people in the global basketball community think will be a series of difficult challenges once the Athens Games begin. The angst over is palpable because unlike most of the Olympic sports, basketball is a game invented in and popularized by the United States.
"Here we are a mere dozen years later," Stern said, "worrying that a team that will include Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Amare Stoudamire, LeBron James, Stephon Marbury and Richard Jefferson is a team that is not good enough to win."
Of the notion that this U.S. team will have trouble, Stern said: "If from that mass of players we can't send a team that can contend for a gold medal, then we're not as good as we used to be, and that may be. But I think we can send a team that can contend."
Every time an NBA player declined an invitation, there was public outcry for USA Basketball to return to sending college players -- amateurs -- which had been the case exclusively before 1992. But the U.S. college players, beginning in 1987 with a loss to Brazil in the Pan American Games and continuing through the 1988 Olympic loss to Russia, have been clearly overmatched in international competition. Asked if the U.S. could ever again win with college kids, Coach Larry Brown said emphatically: "No. We are playing against better players, bigger players and more mature players. Argentina, Lithuania and Spain. They're all experienced teams playing for an experienced Olympic coach. Yugoslavia and Argentina are already practicing."
Brown is already fretting about so many teams in the Olympic tournament having the jump on his team, which won't begin practice until July 25. After admittedly being "crushed" because even two of his own Pistons players, Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace, turned down invitations, Brown apparently is done fretting over personnel. He mentioned James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, all NBA rookies, as being "the future of our Olympic team. And the fact that they're so excited about playing is a huge step in the right direction."
The coach isn't alone in that assessment. Michael Jordan, who played as an amateur in 1984 and then as a member of the Dream Team in 1992, said: "If you had 11 Carlos Boozers it would be a really good thing. We spoiled everybody in '92. I had said from Day One I thought it was overkill, an overreaction to losing to Russia in 1988. I think even then we had enough young players who know how to play to win. The problem is that when veterans play late into June and then try to play in the international competitions, it takes a major toll on their bodies.
"Almost every guy on that '92 team was injured to some degree in '93. I know Phil Jackson had to give Scottie [Pippen] and me some time off. It's demanding. I would much rather see some new guys play. For Karl to have that knee drained, then play, then have it get inflamed again, then play, then take treatment, then play hurt, that's a hell of a cycle at 41 years old."
Jordan called playing in the '84 Games -- the last one in which U.S. college players won a gold medal -- "the purest of all because we were kids representing our country. We have kids who can play now; they're just young professionals. Boozer, to me, is exactly what the Olympics are about and should be about. People have to stop comparing this to '92. That was a totally different motivation. These kids have energy and hunger. They haven't yet played a lot of minutes and seasons or late into a bunch of seasons."
Charles Barkley, who played on the Dream Team in '92 and the '96 team in Atlanta, said in a recent conversation: "It's probably not fair to ask the same players to represent the country in the world championships, the qualifying tournament and the Olympics. It's just too tough on your body. I think we may need to have two teams, one with younger players. The advantage we had in '92 and '96 was depth. We had 10 all-stars, and they had two NBA players. Now, you're seeing the same countries 12 years later with six NBA players and one of them is an all-star."
Stern, Jordan and Barkley said there is still a sense of "this is our game" among older players that has to be passed on to younger players. They don't believe today's NBA players are so comfortable they no longer care about showing off the game. Stern said: "Younger is okay with me. That's fine."
But they're not naive about the challenge the U.S. team faces. "Post-1992," Stern said, "the growth of the elite player internationally happened faster than anybody expected."
That suggests the United States, which defeated Lithuania by two points in the semifinals four years ago in Sydney before beating France for the gold, will face even more severe tests in Athens. "We can't guarantee medals anymore with any team we send," the commissioner said.
Brown, with his full attention turned to the Olympic team after winning an NBA championship with Detroit, thought back to his two lasting memories of the '92 Dream Team. "The first memory," he said, "is that those were some of my favorite players. And the second is the way the world responded to them, the dream had come true. Players from Asia, Africa, South America and Europe looked at the U.S. team in Barcelona and had their own dream of improving their own level of play in the effort to catch up with us. It made our league better. And it made the game better."