Living the dream 20 years later

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


A legion of sports fans were desperate for a distraction last week. It was a moment most dreaded since LeBron James announced on a one-hour prime-time TV special in the summer of 2010 that he was leaving Cleveland and 'taking his talents to South Beach' to play with his all-star chums Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. And sure enough that somewhat contrived and narcissistic collection of front-running talent known as the Heat brought the NBA title to that somewhat contrived and narcissistic collection of front-running talent known as Miami. Sorry folks, it was going to happen at some point. But luckily this is an Olympic year and the next meaningful basketball isn't that far off. So adios Heat and hello the London Games. James and his cohorts, barring the injured Wade, will all be front-row centre on the so-called American Dream Team so relief is all relative. But before the champagne had a chance to dry in Miami there was another basketball squad bumping the Heat and the US Olympic team out of the limelight. This year is the 20th anniversary of the first and only basketball Dream Team and the occasion is being marked by a number of commemorative mementos, most notably a new book and documentary.

After winning a bronze medal with their worst-ever showing in 1988, the US were looking for retribution four years later in Barcelona. It was also the first year NBA players were allowed to compete and to say the US team was stacked is the ultimate understatement. All 11 professionals on that team are now in the Hall of Fame and three of them, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, are the undisputed transcendent talents that made the NBA the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. Their average margin of victory was 44 points. It was easily the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled and arguably the greatest team ever assembled in any sport. None of that is news but what is news is some of the subtext behind the scenes revealed in the new book Dream Team, written by Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated. Although Jordan was in his show-stopping prime, it was Magic who was easily the most captivating player. Diagnosed as HIV positive only nine months earlier, virtually everyone assumed that this would be the last they would see of the star.

Magic wasn't just retiring from basketball, he was retiring from life. In 1992, everyone assumed if you were HIV positive it was a death sentence. According to Clyde Drexler, Magic's Olympic teammates certainly thought so. 'But you have to have to understand what was going on then,' Drexler told McCallum in an excerpt of the book released this week. 'Everybody kept waiting for Magic to die. Every time he'd run up the court everybody would feel sorry for the guy, and he'd get all that benefit of the doubt.' And Drexler also intimated that if everyone knew Magic was going to live this long, he would never have merited inclusion on the Olympic team because of his declining skills. Needless to say, Clyde 'The Glide' is furiously backtracking and denying he said any of that. But McCallum is as reputable a basketball writer as there is. Ironically, Drexler may have helped to cement the most enduring legacy of the original Dream Team. Raise your hand if you thought Magic Johnson would have been around to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team. Sure the Dream Team were instrumental in the game's global growth and helped the NBA reap untold billions.

But that all pales in comparison to the fact that not only is Magic still alive, he is thriving as well. He is a ridiculously successful businessman and TV analyst who is an integral part of a consortium that just spent over US$2 billion to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers. And, yes, he was rich so he could afford the best possible medical care over the years. And he can also be quite self-serving in his business and personal affairs. However, that is a common affliction among many extremely successful business people. But despite all that he was a famous face, one that was globally recognisable after the 1992 Olympics and one that was readily attached to the most insidious plague of our times. For better or worse, he humanised Aids and took it into the mainstream where it could receive the requisite funding that was lacking when it was considered nothing more than retribution for homosexuals.

This is a far more noteworthy legacy for the Dream Team than the fact Nike's footwear sales went through the roof because of Jordan's spellbinding feats in Barcelona. The Dream Team were full of egos and agendas, both on and off the court, and how could it not be with the cast of incredibly competitive characters assembled. But Drexler was right. Everybody thought Magic was going to die and he didn't. This really was a dream team.