Original Old School: The Dream

With this summer’s Team USA flashing on everyone’s radar, we figure there’s no better time than now to hook you up with this Old School feature  from SLAM 133.–Ed.

Dream Team II feature, SLAM 133.

by Russ Bengtson

It’s probably for the best that Team USA couldn’t hear Marv Albert’s remarks before the nationally televised start of the 1994 World Championship gold medal game. Given what took place in the game itself, it’s unlikely their “us against the world” attitude could have grown any nastier, but you never know.

“Over the past two weeks in Toronto, the world basketball spotlight has been on Dream Team II,” Albert intoned. “And while they’ve failed to match the dominance of Dream Team I, this second set of NBA stars has shown flashes of brilliance.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Team USA’s average margin of victory heading into the final was 36.6 ppg, which compared quite well to the original Dream Team’s 43.8. And while head coach Don Nelson had not been able to duplicate Team USA predecessor Chuck Daly’s feat of not calling a single time-out throughout the entire tournament—in fact, Nellie called one in the very first half of the very first game—the outcome of the tournament was never in doubt. “There was no pressure on ‘were we gonna win a gold medal?,’” Dream Team II guard Steve Smith remembers. “It was just how we were gonna win a gold medal.”

The problems, as they were, began with the name. The original Dream Team, of ’92 vintage, featured the reigning MVP, as well as the winners of the previous eight (they’d go on to win six of the next seven as well). Between them, they had 12 championship rings and seven Finals MVPs. Dream Team II? Discounting the injured Isiah Thomas who was selected but unable to play, the count stood at zero, two and one, respectively. And all of those were the property of one player, 31-year-old Pistons guard Joe Dumars. Dream  Team II? This was the equivalent of a record company naming a promising but not particularly accomplished band “The Beatles II.” Right. Good luck with all that.

The elders of the group were Dumars, 30-year-old guard Mark Price, and Dominique Wilkins, 34. (Wilkins was gleefully dubbed “Grandpapa” by Larry Johnson and “Antique Dominique” by everyone else.) Reggie Miller, Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson were 28, Derrick Coleman was 27, Smith and Larry Johnson were 25, Shawn Kemp and Alonzo Mourning were 24, and Shaquille O’Neal, the baby of the bunch, was 22. This was clearly a far less accomplished squad.

So when Nelson brought them together that summer for a short training camp at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, it wasn’t about to be all fun and games. The players expected a carefree Nellie who would let everyone run, but got a taskmaster instead. “It wasn’t a lackadaisical camp where he threw out the balls and let us scrimmage,” Majerle says. “I think that would have been a lot of fun, but it was more like a training camp where we went out and ran through the drills and did defensive things, a lot of shooting. He was out there to make sure we won.”

Nellie was hoping that success in Toronto would result in his being named Olympic coach in ’96—a job which wound up going to Lenny Wilkens. But he had to make sure he succeeded first. “The pressure was great because everybody expected us to win,” Nellie says. “I expected us to win, we just had to make sure we didn’t make some mistake and not be ready to win every game. And not to be in any close games where a referee could make a call and beat you.”

Still, Chicago wasn’t all wind sprints and diving after loose balls. Guys found time to go up against each other—primarily O’Neal and his ’92 Draft mate Mourning. Nellie, at the time 54 and a three-time NBA Coach of the Year, had never seen anything like it: “My first couple days of practice, I remember Shaq and Mourning going at it, just to see who was the best. Holy criminy, I thought those guys were gonna kill each other.”

The tournament began on August 4, in Copps Coliseum, in Hamilton, Ontario. Outside, Team USA (and the paying customers) were greeted by a giant inflatable version of Larry Johnson’s “Grandmama” character. Converse and Coca-Cola were major sponsors, the Phoenix Gorilla provided entertainment, Kris Kross and Public Enemy blared through the arena sound system. They felt at home. They were heavily favored. And then the first pass of the first game was picked off, leading to a Spain layup. The crowd roared. Team USA pulled ahead, but Spain wouldn’t go away. Inconceivably, they even took a 42-41 lead with just over five minutes to go in the first half, before fading in the second and losing by 15. But the damage had been done.

“I played the bench and they screwed around,” Nellie recalls, “and all of a sudden that game was at 14 points on us, and it was like we had lost a game.” He laughs. “And the media killed us. But that was our only close—it wasn’t even close—our only game that was a negative.”

This was the fine line the second Dream Team had to walk. How do you respect your opponents, yet blow them out at the same time? “It seems like we can’t win,” Mourning told Sports Illustrated. “If we don’t win by a ton of points, everybody says we’re not as good as the Dream Team. And if we do win by a lot, people say, ‘Yeah, but it was more fun when the Dream Team did it.’” (SI‘s post-Gold Medal coverage of an imaginary World Series showed what they thought of the whole thing.)

Against China in the second game, winning by a ton of points seemed likely. Thanks to leakouts, the absurd 20-7 three-point line (Miller and Majerle regularly shot from 10 feet behind it), and the fact that China only had one player over 6-10, the USA stormed to a 71-38 halftime lead en route to a 132-77 blowout. They kept shooting and pressing all the way to the final horn, seemingly trying to erase the first result from everyone’s collective memories.

Five days later, against Australia, the game played out in a way that would become familiar. After the first game, where Wilkins and Smith only saw garbage time, Nellie started to experiment with different starting lineups, moving O’Neal to the bench. And for a while, the Aussies were able to play with Team USA, even building a small lead. Enter Shaq-Fu. The end result? A 56-point USA victory. “He actually asked to come off the bench,” Nellie says of Shaq, “which solved any sort of problems that I had with egos. Because then I could start Mourning and bring him off the bench, and everybody else just got right into line.”

“I knew I was the young guy on the block, and I didn’t wanna hear no veterans talk,” O’Neal says. “So hey, I’m gonna come off the bench, you guys do what you do and I’m gonna do what I do. And then I’d come in and change the whole thing.” Of course, by then, Nellie realized he was facing a bigger challenge than just doling out minutes. “You have to understand that it’s not cool to disrespect people or other members of different teams from different countries,” he says. “It means a lot for those guys and to do something on the court that would embarrass ’em or something like that, that was my biggest challenge. I had a group that liked to do that, and it was quite a battle to keep them under wraps.”

This is Dream Team II’s enduring legacy, and it was well-earned. Watching the games now, with the chest-bumping and chest-thumping and yelling and dunks after the whistle and arguments with the refs and glares at opponents, it’s readily apparent. It didn’t help that those opponents were a far cry from what they are now—most teams were filled with anonymous highlight-reel fodder. But it’s equally difficult to imagine that the Team USA selection committee—which Nelson played no role in—didn’t know what they were doing. Were they expecting a team composed of Miller, Kemp, Larry Johnson, Mourning, Coleman and O’Neal to be model citizens? To not only win, but win with dignity? “That was just a lot of the personalities that we had,” says Majerle. “That’s the way Shawn played, and Larry Johnson, those guys were boisterous guys, that’s the way they played the game, and that was just the reputation we got.”

And of course some of it was entirely calculated. “Marketing, baby,” O’Neal says. “You gotta understand that makes for good entertainment. Some teams didn’t like that, you know, the ones that got demolished—‘Oh, they’re embarrassing our country.’ But if you come out there, that’s what happens.” The original Dream Team demolished everyone with one hand extended in peace. Or at least that’s how people chose to remember it. Dream Team II? They had a hand somewhere else. “I remember Kemp would do a thunder dunk or something,” Nellie says, “and he’d grab his testicles or some stupid thing, make a bit of a fool of himself. I had a couple guys do that.”

Gestures and jesters aside, they played team ball, finding the open man and the hot hand, whoever it was. There may have been some disagreements over minutes, but never shots. “We were very unselfish,” O’Neal says. “I remember one time Joe shot eight times in a row. He hit six of ’em, nobody said nothin’. It was all good. We didn’t care.”

Most times though, the ball went to Shaq. The new tattoo on his bicep read “The World Is Mine,” and every monstrous dunk underlined it. While he didn’t intend to become the team’s focal point, he wasn’t about to turn the chance down, either. “I didn’t really go in with the mindset ‘Hey, I’m taking over. I’m the new shit. Michael left, Magic left…’” O’Neal says. “I never had that, I just always know as a player, as a person, I want people to remember me. There’s only one way to make them remember you, and that’s to do something spectacular. And that’s what I did.”

It reached a point where even the announcers could only sit back and laugh. At the end of the first half against Puerto Rico, Team USA held for the last shot, and Majerle buried a long three. “It’s very sound basketball,” observed Daly drily, “especially when you’re leading 57-25.” Early in the second half, as the USA continued to build their lead, Daly noticed that the Puerto Rico coach had taken a seat. “When you’re in this situation, you just want to get out of the building,” he mused. Fellow announcer Gary Bender took the bait: “Alive, right?” Daly didn’t hesitate: “It’s too late for that.”

By the time the gold medal game rolled around, there wasn’t much left to say. The only other unbeaten team, Croatia, which featured Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja, lost in the semis, so Team USA would face Russia, whom they’d beaten days earlier.Nellie assembled the team for a 45-minute film session that morning, then kept it simple before the game. “I didn’t give them any rah-rah speeches or ‘win one for the Gipper’ or any of that kind of stuff.” Not that the players needed any motivation. “We were just amped up and prepared and ready,” Smith says, “just looking forward to walking on that platform and receiving our gold medals. We came out and it was unbelievable. Every shot was going in.”

In fact, the first 10 shots went in. By the time O’Neal entered the game, Team USA was up 42-17. And despite some hot second-half shooting from the Russians, the game was never close. Finally, Nellie could sit back and relax. “When you’re up 40 in the second half, I kind of felt that way, yeah. We weren’t gonna screw it up.”

Team USA hadn’t won gold at the World Championships since ’86, hadn’t gone through the tournament undefeated since ’54. Forty years later, it finally happened again. A perfect result from an imperfect team. “I don’t think it posed much of a challenge for any of us as far as the basketball,” Price says, “But being on that team meant a lot to me, and I got to be part of that.”