The most popular question relating to the 2012 Olympic basketball tournament isn’t which team in this year’s Olympics has the best chance of beating the Americans, but whether this American team could beat the 1992 American team – the so-called “Dream Team” that featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.
It is widely assumed that this is a question without an answer; it is a diversion built to provoke arguments in bars, along the lines of “Which of Leonardo diCaprio’s ex-girlfriends is the hottest?” or “Is Mitt Romney human?”
If an “answer” to this hypothetical is found, it usually takes the form of, “Well of course the Dream Team would win…Jordan, Magic, Bird, where’s the debate?”
The man who delivers that answer is right about one thing: there isn’t much debate. It’s just that he’s completely wrong.
All nostalgia aside: Jordan, Magic, Bird, the Dream Team?
Tossed around like a handbag in a hurricane.
From a simplified viewpoint, a basketball team built in 2012 would beat a basketball team built in 1992 for the same reason a computer chip built in 2012 is faster than a computer chip built in 1992: people improve upon the work of their predecessors. LeBron James learned from Michael Jordan. Kevin Durant picked up tips from Connie Hawkins. Not directly, of course, Jordan has never been James’s coach and as far as we know, Kevin Durant has never even met Connie Hawkins.
Basketball players have learned from their forebears just as computer programmers have learned from theirs: knowledge is shared, tips are given, the men and women who come after are better off than the ones who came before.
However, this reasoning doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer to our question, because if time machines (and Face/Off) were real and we could switch players past and future, it is reasonable to assume that Michael Jordan & The Superfriends would have learned just as much from LeBron James & Co as happened in reverse.
The answer doesn’t lie in a direct matchup of the players. The answer lies in competition.
Larry Bird is 8 years old. Magic Johnson is 5. Michael Jordan is 2. Don Draper is somewhere between 28 and 45.
The dominant sport for kids to play: baseball. Second-place: probably football. Meanwhile, basketball is confined to the innermost of inner cities and the outpostiest of outpost Midwestern towns.
Now fast-forward two and a half decades. It’s 1989. Kobe Bryant is 11. LeBron James is 5. Kevin Durant is 1. The dominant sport for participation among American children: basketball. (Oddly enough, there is documentation to back this up. The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association has been keeping track, so that Dick’s would know what to stock.)
So in 1989, everyone (in a relative sense) was playing basketball. In 1964, almost no one (again, relatively) was.
And that’s just in the US.
One of the reasons we romanticize the 1992 Dream Team: their competition was overmatched to an almost comedic degree. The dominance of Jordan, Ewing, Robinson et. al might seem to bolster the argument that the 1992 team was a once-in-a-century collection of players.
But in fact, it helps our case. In the 1992 Olympic Games, the rest of the world (outside of Serbia and pockets of Russia) played like it was sharing something like twelve functional basketball hoops.
The world’s contribution to the basketball talent pool was not, shall we say, significant.
Since then, the catch-up has been remarkable. The NBA now employs around 80 foreign-born players each year. (In 1992, that number was 21.)
Let’s not confuse the issue: the foreign players have their own Olympic teams. But all those great foreign players made it even more difficult to make it as an American in the NBA.
And if it’s more difficult to make it to the top, the players at that top are going to be much better than they were.
The demand is the same whether you started playing in 1964 or 1989: 12 spots on an Olympic team.
But thanks to increased participation from all corners, the supply is significantly bigger – more Americans, more foreigners pushing those Americans.
Bigger supply, same demand; I’m no economist, but I’m pretty sure that means the competition was fiercer for LeBron James than it was for Chris Mullin.
And if the competition is fiercer, the players are better.
And if the players are better, the 2012 Olympic team would smash the 1992 version like Cartoon Hammer v. Cartoon Piggybank.
There is a chance, of course, that the guy down at the bar – Barry, I’m assuming – is right. That there was just something different about Magic and Bird and Chuck and Mike and the Admiral. It is possible that he’s not romanticizing the past, that those men were transcendent genetic specimens, the likes of which we’ll never see again, and it doesn’t matter how many advantages one gives the young ‘uns; the old guys were just, somehow, better.
But a more likely answer is that the Dream Team was a lot of fun, and that they were something the likes of which we’ll never see again.
But only because they had it so easy.