The Dream Team Or Team USA 2012? The Debate Rages On

Had Kobe Bryant decided to go to college, I could see him as one of those students that purposely won’t start writing a term paper until the night before it’s due; the type that thrives in classes in which the final exam counts for 50 percent of the grade for the semester.

Meanwhile, on the court, he’d be the type of player that raises his game amidst the madness of March; one of those that relishes a hostile road crowd and egging on the worst chants they can muster.

In other words, I see Kobe as the type that doesn’t just welcome pressure – he needs pressure to perform at his best.

So it makes sense that – whether it was consciously his intention or not – Kobe was the member of this year’s U.S. Olympic basketball team to get the mainstream sports world started on the debate pitting the 2012 team against the 1992 “Dream Team.”

While the argument is naturally light on facts and heavy on fantasy, here is one truth: This year’s Olympic squad is the biggest, fastest, most athletic and most talented basketball team ever assembled.

And so, knowing this, perhaps Kobe foresaw a rather boring, spotless romp to the gold-medal stand in London and needed to up the ante. Four years ago he faced the pressure of winning his first gold medal, of being the alpha on the best team in the world. Perhaps he needed a new challenge. Perhaps he needed to start the Dream Team argument because now Team USA 2012 has inherited an opponent tougher than Spain, Argentina or Greece: the almost indestructible mythology that surrounds the original Dream Team.

And now the pressure is on Kobe and Team USA to play the tournament of their lives.

At the same time, Kobe gave the public exactly what we wanted going into the London Games: A sports argument that can be waged endlessly, with no way to prove one side right or wrong. It’s the ideal scenario for sports TV producers, sports radio program directors, sports writers and their editors. It’s the priceless gift of polarizing content.

Better yet, no definitive answer exists.

Everything about the 1992 versus 2012 debate is hypothetical, theoretical and speculative. Those who have bought into the cult of nostalgia can boldly talk trash about how Chris Mullin would drop 40 on Andre Iguodala, how Patrick Ewing would make Tyson Chandler ashamed to call himself a New York Knick, how Scottie Pippen would manage to hold 2012’s starting five scoreless all by himself.

And then the rest of us can roll our eyes because we know better.

Here’s what seems obvious to me: The 2012 U.S. team could absolutely beat the Dream Team.

And just as likely, the Dream Team could beat the 2012 team.

But either way, it would be close. Whether it’s one game, best-of-seven, or best-of-25, it would not be a blowout.

That’s where Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan and so many other staunch Dream Team supporters lose credibility, with their idea that Jordan and Barkley’s team would roll over Kobe and LeBron’s team like it was the Kentucky Wildcats versus Kentucky Wesleyan.

(And yes, I’m writing this the night after Team USA 2012 slogged through an 11-point victory over Brazil in an exhibition game in Washington D.C.)

Outside of the belief held by a disturbingly high percentage of the population that a Jordan-led team simply couldn’t lose because Jordan is and forever will be undefeated in every competition ever, the most misleading piece of evidence introduced in this case – by Magic Johnson and others – is that the Dream Team had 11 Hall of Famers and 23 NBA championships, therefore they’d have to win because the 2012 team has zero Hall of Famers and only seven championships.

But at the time the 1992 Olympics were played, the Dream Team actually had 12 rings and … zero Hall of Famers. Nobody can be in the Hall of Fame if they’re still active or less than five years into retirement, right? So in 1992, did we know that 11 of those 12 Dream Teamers would be in the Hall of Fame? Conversely, in 2012, do we know that 11 or 12 of these Olympians aren’t headed for the Hall of Fame?

That’s the most glaring omission from a lot of the pro-Dream Team arguments I hear, the issue of timing.

When the ’92 Olympics began, Magic had been out of the NBA for a whole season. Bird had just finished his final NBA season, a bad back limiting him to just 45 games. Jordan and Pippen had two rings apiece, not six. John Stockton and Karl Malone were five years away from making their first NBA Finals appearance. Mullin, 29 years old, had just one great half-season left in him. David Robinson, Ewing and Barkley had yet to play in an NBA Finals series. The Dream Team is full of Hall of Famers, but a lot of that Hall of Fame development happened after 1992, and not all of them were in their primes as players or as winners in 1992.

Next, we have to consider the evolution of the game, both in the NBA and internationally.
Barkley and Malone might be two of the three greatest power forwards the game has ever seen, but they didn’t play against 6-10 power forwards capable of leading the league in rebounding and three-point shooting like Kevin Love. Pippen might be pound-for-pound the best defender of all time, but he wasn’t guarding too many 6-10 small forwards who could shoot and score like Kevin Durant. Magic might be the prototypical point guard, but he never went head-to-head with anybody like LeBron James.

The game has changed, and like pretty much everything else in our world, it has changed for the better. And it’s not disrespectful to one’s elders to admit that.

That should have been evident in Monday night’s U.S.-Brazil exhibition. Rather than using the 80-69 score as some kind of illogical proof that the 2012 team could never beat the 1992 team, I saw it as a testament to how far the rest of the world has come in basketball. Because while we’re debating 2012 versus 1992 in America, think outside of our borders.

Would anyone claim that the 1992 Brazilian team is better than the 2012 team? Would anyone claim the 1992 Spanish team is better than the 2012 team? Argentina, Lithuania, Angola … pick the country, pick the sport, and we’d be confident in saying the 2012 version is an upgrade on the 1992 version. It’s only in American sports that we cling so tightly to our nostalgia and old idols.
The Dream Team wasn’t challenged in 1992. That’s not because they were so much better than the 2012 team, but because the rest of the world posed no challenge at that time. So just as I doubt the Dream Team would smash the 2012 U.S. team by 25 as some claim, I also doubt the Dream Team would smash the 2012 German team by 43, as they did 20 years ago.

Another major flaw in this debate is that we’ve let Barkley and Magic and Kobe and Jordan dictate the flow. Kobe threw out the first salvo, then Barkley answered, then Jordan and Magic added on. And from the SportsCenter anchor desk to the office break room, their voices have been used as admissible evidence, never mind the blatant conflict of interest.

Asking Barkley or Kobe or anyone involved with either Olympic team is a rhetorical question. These men are competitors of the highest degree. Of course they’ll say their side would win. You could ask Kobe to pit his current NBA team against 12 Avatars warriors in a playoff series, and he’d pick the Lakers in five. Jordan would probably pick his Bulls to sweep the eight-foot tall blue opponents.

The only certainty now is that the argument will last throughout the summer, heating up whenever Team USA has a game and cooling off when something else can fill the sports media void.
The Redeem Team is no more. Now it’s no longer good enough that the 2012 team simply wins each game and eventually wins a gold medal. Now they must destroy the competition to the same tune that the Dream Team did it.

Maybe that’s the pressure Kobe wanted to put on himself and his teammates. Maybe that’s the pressure Kobe needs to keep himself sharp during another grueling NBA offseason. Maybe he was talking crazy like a fox when he said the 2012 U.S. Olympians could beat the allegedly unbeatable Dream Team.

Or maybe he was just telling the truth.

Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206.

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