The 10 Most Important Things We Learned From ‘The Dream Team’

By: 06.14.12
The Dream Team

Finally, we’ve seen the Monte Carlo tapes. I can speak only for myself when it comes to seeing “The Dream Team” documentary that NBA TV debuted on Wednesday that had been 20 years in the making, but watching the full-court scrimmage between one of the greatest groupings of talent, ever, was a long-awaited highlight.

I’ve read up on the 1992 Dream Team before, and more stories have been published earlier this month that add depth and context. That is to say, “The Dream Team” wasn’t a groundbreaking feat of film for me, but it still was one of the best sports documentaries I’ve seen if only for seeing the team balling together at a ridiculous level. It wasn’t a cold rehash, though; in fact, here are the top 10 things I took away after watching the film.

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10. It was the perfect way for Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to end their careers.

Would the 1992 Olympics have been such an honor to Johnson had he not retired due to his HIV diagnosis? I kept coming back to that question. There was a deep appreciation by all the players, of course, but Magic clearly had the most visible fun knowing this was the coda on his career. It seemed to be a deeper appreciation, though, because of his not playing the year before, one that made it an honor for him to represent his country in a way that I doubt he would have felt had he been fully healthy. Bird, meanwhile … well, that dude could have played his final game in a pick-up contest in French Lick, Ind., and been fine with it. Don’t get me wrong, he needed competition to run on like I need air, but you could tell he just wanted to be in a gym, anywhere.

9. Christian Laettner had a great time as a prop.

The Duke star could not have cared less that he rode the bench or was frozen out of the famed Monte Carlo practices. At least two of the stars even admitted that, yeah, the rook had no part in the battle going on inside that gym. I can’t really blame Laettner, either. He got the sit back and watch — and occasionally take part in — an All-Star game every day. The only thing I wanted to get more context on from the documentary was how involved he was in the chemistry of the team. We know he wasn’t among the first 10 guys on the floor, but I never got the sense either way about his involvement in the team dynamic away from the court. Maybe he just hung with Coach K?

8. The fashion sense was eye-opening.

I can actually see Russell Westbrook taking pointers from the documentary for new looks, but don’t confuse that with being fashion forward. One of the easiest laughs was peeping what everyone, from Chuck Daly‘s sweatsuits to Scottie Pippen‘s striped shorts on the beach, wore. A few that stood out: Michael Jordan‘s henley top on a Monte Carlo golf course; Jordan’s Gilligan bucket had; the red-white-and-black U.S. team amalgamation shirts; David Robinson‘s half-orange sweatshirt; Charles Barkley‘s Nike Force tank top while walking Las Ramblas; MJ’s short-sleeve turtleneck.

7. Jerry Krause wasn’t thought highly of by MJ and Scottie Pippen.

Pippen’s ball-fake move to the rim shown against Croatia on the break was nasty — kind of like his and Jordan’s treatment of Toni Kukoc. Kukoc, their future teammate, wasn’t necessarily the target of their ire; he was just a proxy for Krause, the Chicago GM who believed he was the real deal. What does MJ have to lose talking that candidly 20 years later about how much he despised the audacity of Krause’s belief in Kukoc? Nothing, of course, and it’s nothing Krause didn’t already know about MJ’s impression of his work as GM, either. Still, that those two wholeheartedly despised an attempt by their boss to get better — remember, no one was saying Kukoc was going to supplant either guy — was remarkable. Competitive to the end, about everything.

6. The dynamic between Magic and Michael.

One question simmered under the surface of the whole movie: the ’80s or ’90s? It was fascinating to watch how both Magic and Jordan politicked towards becoming the team’s alpha male, and how graciously it played that Jordan let Magic have his moments in the sun — all while exerting dominance. Case in point: MJ let Bird and Magic become team captains, but the way he played against these half-rate opponents left no doubt the team ran through him on a pragmatic, play-to-play level. It also made me think of what the 2012 team will be like, with Kobe Bryant playing Magic and Kevin Durant playing Michael. Who acquiesces to whom?

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5. The San Diego and Monte Carlo tapes were incredible.

I can’t rank this much higher because we knew going in the footage from these scrimmages would be the best, period, of the whole thing. However, seeing Penny Hardaway glide in for the effortless dunk in San Diego, Barkley dunk over Karl Malone and Magic going nuts while playing squad leader in the Olympic tune-up were fascinating. If I could rewatch just two parts over again, it’d be those two.

4. MJ the populist.

I don’t think the clips of Jordan touring Barcelona at 6:30 a.m. were spontaneous. The footage of MJ eating breakfast with star-struck strangers and touring Barcelona’s Olympic stadium was surprising because it showed Jordan at arguably his least competitive of the whole trip. This was the only time we saw MJ not trying to take someone’s money playing some variation of a game. It looked like something the film crew had set up ahead of time — oh, he just happened to walk under his Nike poster that’s the size of a building? — but it still caught my attention for how relaxed he was.

3. No one could pick John Stockton out of a crowd.

Hands down, one of my favorite moments of the entire thing was about the Jazz’s Hall of Fame point walking around Barcelona unobstructed. He was just your average white dad in green, shimmering shorts. If he and Bobby Hurley had been walking around together, people would have thought it was a picture-perfect father-and-son Olympic trip. Now, would I know the Spanish national soccer team’s best point guard equivalent if he walked past me on a street? Outside of Cesc Fabregas, I wouldn’t put money on it. I’m not saying people should be ashamed of letting a top-3 point guard of all-time walk by but … actually to that girl in the Dream Team shirt and the guy in the Uncle Sam get-up, I am blaming them.

2. Whatever Charles Barkley did, he came out like a bully against Angola.

The memory of the Angola elbow from Chuck stood out because of how vivid it still is. He’s still adamant about one thing, saying it was instigated by Herlander Coimbra, a player the New York Times described at the time as:

a 174-pound economics student from a third-world, war-torn nation who has spent many a Wednesday night back home in Luanda searching the television dial in search of his favorite forward from the National Basketball Association.

I don’t remember the Dream Team when it happened (something about me being 5) so I can’t know personally the depth of the controversy. The documentary didn’t pull a punch though about how bad Chuck looked afterward. And he still doesn’t quite get that taking anything out on poor Angola, while up 38-7, is still considered uncouth.

1. Isiah Thomas was vilified.

While I’d read before watching that Thomas would be shredded by the first 15 minutes of the documentary, I was still surprised by the certainty the characters involved spoke about not wanting him on the team.

Time can heal wounds, but from Rod Thorn to Jordan, there was no denying he wasn’t wanted. I went back and forth on how much the decision from USA basketball higher-ups was because of basketball reasons (too much hate for any non-Pistons), or because of his cutthroat reputation (after all, Barkley had a stigma, too). MJ may say the decision was over his head, but catering to him had to be a factor.

Isiah’s response via Twitter today:

 

“Today, like all Americans, I congratulate the Dream Team on their anniversary. I am proud of my career in the NBA and have fond memories of going head to head with all the members of the Team. I can’t speak to the selection process as I wasn’t involved. But 20 years later, their gold medal is still a momentous achievement.”

What did you take away from the documentary?

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