I don’t consider myself especially patriotic. And while I have my allegiances in the NBA, I’ve always considered myself a basketball fan first, Lakers fan second. Maybe that’s why I savored the opportunity to cheer for eleven players I’m neutral towards during the regular season.
When I was cheering at the top of my lungs after every basket or assist by Kobe Bryant in the closing minutes against Spain, a smile crept across my face when the thought crossed my mind that somewhere — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird were doing the same. They may not have been as joyous as I was, but the feeling was there. Somewhere, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett were wishing they were a part of what was unfolding in front of them. And every fan NBA fan that had cheered against Kobe, or LeBron, or Wade before, was cheering in unison for them now.
The members of Team USA weren’t playing for Lakers fans, or Cavs fans, or Heat fans, they were playing for everyone in the United States.
The gold medal game against Spain was more than an NBA Finals game 7. An NBA Finals loss can be redeemed the next season. A loss in the Olympics last four years. World championships are nice, but the Olympic gold medal is what counts. The NBA Finals pits two teams from different regions of the United States against one another. Olympic basketball is country versus country. It’s about pride and determination.
Many comparisons have been made between this year’s team and the original Dream Team. The comparisons are entertaining, and I’ll admit, I’ve offered my two cents on numerous occasions. This year’s team has just as much or more talent as the Dream Team had. But the members of the Redeem Team are at different stages of their careers than the Dream Team that came before them. Magic Johson and Larry Bird were at the tail end of their careers and owned a combined eight NBA championships. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen owned two rings of their own.
Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd were Team USA’s only two players above the age of 26. The Dream Team had an average age of 28.
There will never be another Dream Team. Not because their talent was untouchable. But because the game has become globalized. More than their 44 point average margin of victory, the Dream Team’s legacy is that of globalization. Michael, Magic, and Larry spread basketball’s popularity abroad. The Dream Team’s games were broadcast in 180 countries. I don’t know how many of those countries played basketball before, but all of them play the game now.
After winning gold, Bird was asked why he showed little emotion on the podium: “I’ve shown emotions at home,” Bird said. “I’ve sort of cried seeing people winning close races, in the 100 meters, that sort of thing.” But, he added, “When you’re standing up there, and you’ve been winning by 50 every night, it sort of takes something away.”
That “something” is the Redeem Team’s legacy.
During the Olympics, Doug Collins commented that American-born basketball players grow up dreaming about NBA championships, while foreign-born basketball players dream of winning gold medals for their countries.
But after watching superstars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade win a gold medal that was as hard fought and celebrated as any NBA Finals victory, that attitude will change.
For young players, the goal will still be to play in the NBA, but an NBA championship is no longer alone as the ultimate prize. Together, an NBA championship and gold medal are the pinnacle.
The United States taught the world how to play the game of basketball. And the world taught the United States the magnitude of international competition. The Dream Team inspired a basketball revolution. Sixteen years later — the Redeem Team brought that revolution full circle.