In Jack McCallum's fantastic book Dream Team -- which tells the story of the 1992 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team that featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Batman, Superman, Thor and Abraham Lincoln -- a dirty secret about the team is revealed: The team was not particularly enjoyable to watch.
Sure, it was fun to tune in for a few minutes to see Johnson kick off a fast break with Jordan on one wing and Bird on another, but the novelty wore off fairly quickly. There was simply no one that could compete with the team, which meant the vast majority of their games were over before most fans had found their seats. Theoretically, the Dream Team should have been glorious. In practice, the final, oh, 35 minutes of every game were garbage time. Opposing players asked the USA stars for autographs during the game. Coach Chuck Daly didn't call a timeout the entire tournament. The night before the gold-medal game, the team stayed up drinking and playing cards until dawn. They still beat Croatia by 32 points.
This is the standard against which we will judge all U.S. Olympic basketball teams, this team of NBA legends trashing Angola while half asleep and reeking of gin. (There's an actual moment where a player storms into the players lounge hours before a game and screams, "Who's got a rubber? I need one fast!" McCallum, perhaps mercifully, leaves the player unnamed.) That was the team that was supposed to set the world back on its proper axis, the one that was meant to make up for the United States falling behind internationally in the game it had invented. The U.S. had finished with a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics, and lost in the semifinals to Yugoslavia in the 1990 FIBA Championship and to Puerto Rico (!!!) in the 1991 Pan American Games. In the wake of FIBA finally allowing professionals into the Olympics, the Dream Team was assembled to show everybody what's what. Our best, hungover and only slightly paying attention, against their best: We win by 50. USA! USA!
The Dream Team will always hang over every USA basketball team until the earth crashes into the sun, which is why there has been a minor murmur of concern all week ever since USA Basketball released the roster for the Rio Olympics. The roster is mostly of note for who is not on the team rather than who is on it.
No LeBron James. No Stephen Curry. No Russell Westbrook. No Chris Paul. No Anthony Davis. The stars are Kevin Durant, Demarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony. And those are pretty good players! They're more than good enough to win the gold medal, and they are heavy favorites. But they are missing most of the superstars. Which leaves them vulnerable to an upset, and thus vulnerable to the pleading, "What has happened to USA Basketball? We're supposed to dominate our own sport!" knee-jerk reactions that you see every time with USA Basketball. Even if Team USA does win the gold, if there are struggles along the way, you will hear the laments. Don't these players love their country? This is the way it works, and the way it has always worked. Those knee-jerks are the driving force in USA Basketball. They are a feature, not a bug.
After all, this has always been the pattern. Team USA falls behind, it gets itself into gear to dominate again, it recedes as superstars lose interest, the rest of the world catches up again, we lose in a major international competition, the best players all sign up again to restore American pride, and the cycle begins again.
Team USA falls short in the late '80s and early '90s? Gather the Dream Team! Put the world in its place! In 1994, Dream Team II -- headlined by Shaquille O'Neal and Dominique Wilkins -- crushed everyone again in the FIBA World Championship, and in 1996 Dream Team III cruised to gold in Atlanta. The lockout in 1998 led to a group of scrubs and college kids in the World Championship, but the "Dirty Dozen" team -- led in part by my collegiate colleague Kiwane Garris -- still won bronze, speaking even further to USA's place in the world: Even the backups to our backups to our backups to our backups could win a medal.
But then the crumble begins. We win gold in 2000 in Sydney, but unimpressively, nearly losing in the semifinals and beating France by only 10 in the final. That team, most notably, featured many major USA stars deciding not to play, and you began to hear rumbles quite similar to now. It culminated in 2002's World Championship team, with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Shaq all begging off of, resulting in a stunning sixth-place finish. The big disaster was the 2004 Olympic team in Athens, which had no chemistry, a depleted roster and a nightmare of a tournament, losing three games, including (again) to Puerto Rico.
This is the bottoming out, the nadir from which the team had to recover in order to restore its proper place in the world. It led to rule changes -- notably, that players had to commit to three years of USA Basketball so the team wouldn't just be thrown together -- and, most important, NBA players all being pressured into not skipping out next time.
Thus, the 2008 Redeem Team, which had everybody: Kobe, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul. That team returned to dominance, winning games by 30-plus points and outlasting a greatest generation Spain team to win gold.
This is everybody back on board, and suddenly it's cool to play for USA Basketball again. We are the best! This is the Jerry Colangelo/Coach K era, the one that leads us into present day. We've won every gold medal since then, mostly with stacked teams of players who all wanted to be there. We destroyed the field in the last tournament, the 2014 World Cup, led by Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis and most everyone you would expect. But no LeBron, and no Durant, and no Anthony. It was clear: You could skip some of these if you wanted.
That mindset -- and a brutal, hard-fought regular season -- has led to LeBron and Curry and the gang skipping out on these Olympics. Which is fine! There's nothing wrong with that. They don't owe us anything. Basketball is exhausting. But then again, we tend to only think that when the U.S. is winning. If the U.S. falters, then the people on your television start screaming again, why isn't LeBron here, why isn't Steph here, why do these players not give back to the country that has given them so much? If the U.S. wins the gold this year, this doesn't refute this either; it just means there will be more complacency in years to come, and more players will skip, until, eventually, inevitably, we do lose again.
What happens then? The cycle continues. We get Redeem Team II. Players are pressured to recommit, and there is public relations damage if they don't. Then comes Dream Team IV, or whatever we're on now. And then we dominate, then relax, then lose, then reconstruct, then dominate, and on and on and on. Whether the U.S. wins the gold in Rio, this is the way it works, and the way it will always work. We're the best. And if we're not the best, dammit, what's wrong with us? It's cool now, all good, if LeBron and Steph and whoever else begs off the Olympics. But it's only cool until we lose. And then it begins again. The Rio Olympics will tell us how far along on the cycle we are. But it will not break the cycle. We care deeply, until we don't, and then, after a loss, we decide we must care desperately.
No matter how we do or how much we care, it will always pale in comparison to that 1992 Dream Team. The gold standard was a team of guys just goofing off and drinking and taking a long vacation. That's the irony of all of it: This cycle was kicked into motion by a group of guys who couldn't have cared less. The best game they played, as chronicled by McCallum, was the one they played against each other, an intrasquad scrimmage -- Magic, Barkley, Christian Laettner, Chris Mullin and David Robinson vs. Jordan, Bird, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone -- in a closed gym. McCallum in his book even comes up with a box score. "In many ways," Jordan says, "it was the best game I was ever in. Because the gym was locked and it was just about basketball."
Our relationship with Team USA, alas, will always be more complicated than that. It will always be about much more than basketball. It's OK for now that LeBron and Steph are sitting out. But only for now.