The U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Fresh-faced college kids who came together under a strong-willed but understanding coach who molded them into a championship unit that conquered the world and brought home the gold.
Not any more.
The United States hasn't won a gold medal in international competition since 1986. From the Pan American Games to the Olympics to the World Championships to the Goodwill Games, for Ted Turner's sake! There went Oscar Schmidt and Sarunas Marciulionis and Toni Kukoc, shooting the lights out, cutting to the basket, lifting their victorious coaches into the air.
Not any more, say America's basketball supporters. The NBA is here. And order will be restored.
Today, in its new NBA Entertainment facility in Secaucus, N.J., the league will officially confirm one of its worst-kept secrets -- that Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Chris Mullin, John Stockton, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen and Patrick Ewing are the first 10 NBA players who will accept Olympic invitations.
"The way the whole process has come about, it's going to be more of an all-star team," said U.S. Coach Chuck Daly. "And who can argue with the names they've brought up?"
Apparently, Daly's general manager with the Detroit Pistons can. Jack McCloskey resigned from the Olympic basketball selection committee over the controversy surrounding Pistons guard Isiah Thomas, the Detroit News has reported. Thomas reportedly will not be chosen for the team.
Ever since FIBA, basketball's international governing body, gave the go-ahead for professional competition two years ago, USA Basketball, headed by Boston Celtics President Dave Gavitt, has aimed to give the next U.S. team a pro bent. It hired the Pistons' Daly as coach, flanked by Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Lenny Wilkens as assistants.
USA's Games Committee for Men, Olympic Team Subset, definitely has a pro majority, with NBA general managers Wayne Embry (Cleveland), Donnie Walsh (Indiana), Jan Volk (Boston), Bob Bass (San Antonio) and until Friday, McCloskey. It also has an NBA co-owner in Billy Cunningham (Miami), the league's vice president of operations, Rod Thorn, and the head of the players' union, Charles Grantham.
Krzyzewski and Carlesimo, along with Southern California Coach George Raveling and committee chair C.M. Newton (Kentucky), are the collegiate voices on the committee, with former player Quinn Buckner a bridge to both sides. The selection will be televised following the 1 p.m. Notre Dame-Michigan State football game.
The shorter (40 minutes) international game, as well as the reality that three or four of the megastars will be sitting on the bench, could give Daly and his coaching staff fits in terms of finding a rotation that pleases everyone.
Counters Laker General Manager Jerry West: "How many superstars are there in this league? Three or four? So let's start with a different premise. Every player who's on this team is a great player, though some are better than others. And all of these guys aren't just great players, they want to play as a team. They're not selfish people. So I think it's going to be a very cohesive group."
It is hair-raising, the notion of Malone or Barkley grabbing a rebound and Johnson or Stockton leading the break, with Jordan or Pippen filling the lanes and Bird or Mullin spotting up for threes.
"When we lost the last one, we didn't have enough of this or that," Johnson said recently. "Now we have somebody, when we penetrate, we can kick it out and he can shoot it. We're going to have a really unselfish team."
"It's only special because it's going to be history," Barkley said. "I'm proud to represent our country, but I just want to be on it because it's going to make history. And I'll be the answer to a trivia question. It's going to be unbelievable. I'm going to be part of the greatest team ever assembled. It's going to be a big deal. They've already told us that."
There is the question of the 12th spot -- along with the 10 NBA players and one college player who will be invited after next year's Final Four. (The likely candidate: Shaquille O'Neal of LSU or Christian Laetner of Duke.) Spirited debate continues -- should Isiah Thomas get an invitation? Or a sharpshooter like Indiana's Reggie Miller? Or slashing Portland guard Clyde Drexler?
Jordan, who won the gold on the 1984 team that included Ewing and Mullin, and Bird originally had reservations about playing. Jordan desperately wanted the time off; Bird thought a younger and healthier player should get a chance. But both got full-court pressure from Johnson to sign up.
"Even if (Bird) can't play, the world should see him just sitting there," Johnson said.
The U.S. team should have no problem in the 10-country Olympic zone qualifying tournament, which begins in Portland next June 27 through July 5, three weeks before the Games begin. Four teams will come out of the draw and advance to Barcelona.
Who will provide the competition in Barcelona? The Yugoslavians, who have dominated international play for the last year in winning the Goodwill Games and European and World championships, would be the primary threat to the United States, but their country is suffering through the spasms of civil war. And who knows what the Soviet Union will look like in 10 months, let alone its basketball team?
Still, the U.S. team will have to adjust to the international game, with closer three-point lines and wider lanes. And they have to deal with teams that take a positive delight in shooting three-pointers all game long.
"Chuck wanted to make sure he had some shooting and physical jumpers," one committee member said.
The committee also went away from big rebounders with little lateral movement. The European teams love to penetrate, draw the defense and distribute the ball to their shooters. This means the U.S. team will have to abandon the idea of "help" defense -- someone beats your teammate, you go over to help -- which is at the foundation of the American system.
"The thing is they play a much different style now," West said. "It's not a style where big people can stand around. If our big people think they can, they're going to be the ones who are surprised. They play a style that's very awkward to play against. At one time you could say you could just run through these people. You can't say that anymore.
"But this (U.S.) team will win."