BEIJING One thing about being around a lot of reporters at the Olympics is that you never run out of arguments. Since the Games began, we have argued about the greatest ever Olympian (I say Michael Phelps has clinched it), the chances that Brett Favre will work out well for the New York Jets (I say it's about zero) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (I think they will win their division).
Well, someone brought up a fascinating argument about basketball, and this clash has been raging for a couple of days now.
The question: Is this U.S. Olympic basketball team actually better than the original Dream Team?
The question is fun because it has a couple of layers. At first blush, it might seem ridiculous to even talk about: How can you compare ANY team to that first one? Dream Team had 10 players on the list of the 50 Greatest NBA Players ever. And if you were choosing an all-time team, you could start with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, the three biggest stars on the star-drenched Dream Team.
Then, everyone remembers that Dream Team dominated games to such an absurd level that — well, there are countless famous stories about opponents rushing over to the Americans after games in the hopes of getting autographs and their photos taken with the basketball gods. Dream Team was so good that opponents were proud to lose, and that's something unlikely to ever happen again.
Then, in a crazy way, that's exactly where the argument begins for this year's Olympic team. Redeem Team is playing basketball in a whole new world. These days, opponents aren't interested in having their pictures taken with Americans, they're interested in winning.
And while the world has not caught up to the U.S.A. basketball's depth, well, depth can be beaten by great players. And other countries have great players now — China has Yao Ming, Argentina has Manu Ginobli, Germany had Dirk Nowitzki, Spain has Ricky Rubio (who may be the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft), and so on. These are major stars who are not intimidated nor even especially impressed with the American team.
So Redeem Team has to play with a different intensity and a different focus. And so far, they have done just that. They have just been getting after opponents, they have been playing with a ferociousness inspired by the great American basketball disaster of 2004 and playing with a togetherness built up by Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. They have won their first four games by an average of 28 points a game. They really have been something else. I don't think they're going to lose this time around.
Now, it's true, Redeem Team does not have the same kind of star power as the Dream Team — Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are probably the only guys on the team with the worldwide aura. Those two and Jason Kidd are probably the only sure Hall of Famers, though Dwayne Wade is awfully good and there are a few young players like Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony who certainly are off to Hall of Fame starts.
But that leads to the second argument for Redeem Team: They are young. They are hungry. The players are ascending. By the time Dream Team played in 1992, Larry Bird was 35 and retired from the NBA. Magic Johnson was almost 33 and had not played an NBA game for more than a year. There was only one guy on Dream Team who was younger than 25, and that was Christian Laettner, who was a college guy brought along to sit on the bench and enjoy the experience.
This year's team has six players younger than 25, including the two big men (Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh) who have been overpowering. Chris Paul is 23 and already one of the best players in the world. And, of course, LeBron James is only 23, too.
So you could certainly argue — and people here are arguing — that because the players younger, because the players still have a lot to prove, Redeem Team plays with a higher energy level than the Dream Team, Redeem Team plays much fiercer defense, Redeem Team has a sense of purpose that Dream Team didn't need.
It's a fascinating argument. Personally, I think Dream Team would beat Redeem Team for a couple of reasons. First, I think they had more ways to beat you. Redeem Team is a terrific team, I've really been blown away by how hard they play, but they don't have much shooting and they're not at their best when slowed down. They beat teams with intensity and pressure and defense and, again, that sense of purpose.
Dream Team, with 10 of the best players of all time, brought more variety. Take Magic's leadership, Bird's presence, Barkley's power, David Robinson's dominance around the basket, Chris Mullen's shooting, John Stockton passing to Karl Malone … that team could beat you just about every way possible.
The second reason I think Dream Team would win, the big reason, is, of course, Michael Jordan. He was in his prime in 1992 — the best basketball player who ever lived, I think. He was more than great too; he willed his teams to championships. Whatever it took … he would score, he would rebound, he would shut people down, he would trash talk, he would take over.
And in the end, I think he's the difference. Kobe Bryant is a terrific player, and he has by all indications been a good leader for Redeem Team. But I think Jordan would get in his head, and Dream Team would find a way to win.
Of course, just the fact that there's even an argument going on is a pretty good indication that American basketball is back on the right track.