x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The '92 Dream Team paved the way for global players to make mark in NBA

Michael Jordan, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Larry Bird and the entire NBA honour roll schooling the world in 1992 can be seen as a great investment in the sport.

Dirk Nowitzki, of Germany, has steered Dallas to the brink of the NBA Finals.
Dirk Nowitzki, of Germany, has steered Dallas to the brink of the NBA Finals.

The one (and only) United States Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics was regarded as a basketball blessing by celebrity stargazers and xenophobes.

The rest of us? Not so much.

A team of overachieving but relatively unknown players stepped aside so that Michael Jordan, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Larry Bird and the entire NBA honour roll could school the world. Many Americans had taken offence that the Olympic gold medal was no longer the exclusive preserve of the US, and they no longer would settle for a roster of college standouts.

What played out that summer in Spain was shy on legitimate competition, heavy on humiliation and comic relief. A few opposing players posed for photos with the Dream Teamers before and after getting crushed by an average of 44 points.

The lack of competition soon proved dreary viewing. But the Dream Team now can be seen as a great investment in the sport.

Take a bow, you visionaries who counted on interest in hoops being ignited or accelerated in countries across the globe. Boys in Europe and Africa and Asia wanted to Be Like Mike. Make their own Magic. Proclaim that Bird is the word. The result: an influx of internationals who have enriched the NBA.

Two words: Dirk Nowitzki.

The son of a woman who played on the German national team, Dirk may have gotten his basketball bones genetically. Still, like so many others of his generation, he was captivated by the Dream Team and likely would have signed to play for an American university if not for a commitment to military service.

Nowitzki declared for the 1998 NBA draft and wound up in Dallas. Thirteen seasons later, he not only has steered the Mavericks to the brink of the Finals, he has carved out a niche as the best-shooting big man in league annals.

Rick Carlisle, the Mavs coach, claims that Nowitzki rates among the top 10 NBA players of all-time. That might be showing a bit too much love for his player. But top 25? Could be.

Nowitzki carries the banner for a long parade of international players, 84 from 38 countries and territories at the start of the season. You can hear almost as many accents in a locker room as at a United Nations meeting.

The Dream Team begat Dirk and his passport-carrying pals. It led to this season's 15-man All-NBA squad welcoming three expatriates - Nowitzki, the Spurs' Manu Ginobili (Argentina) and the Lakers' Pao Gasol (Spain), who was a precocious 12-year-old in Barcelona when Jordan and Magic and the paparazzi pulled into his town in 1992.

It has led to a Western Conference finals featuring three starters from distant lands - besides Nowitzki, the Oklahoma City Thunder's Serge Ibaka (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Thabo Sefolosh (Switzerland). Plus a proven back-up, the Mavs' Peja Stojakovic (Serbia).

The East, a bit more domesticated, includes the Bulls starter Luol Deng, a Sudan native who stopped off at Duke University, along with back-ups Omer Asik (Turkey) of Chicago and Zydrunas Ilgauskas of Miami (Lithuania).

Collectively, they have transformed the league. In Europe, in particular, young players are not locked into a specific position and taught only related skills. Hence, extra-tall guys now run the floor rather than just drop anchor in the lane. They score on jump shots from distance as well as dunks at the rim.

Imagine: without a Dream Team, there might have been no Yao Ming, whose pilgrimage to the NBA made basketball the most popular physical activity in China, with an estimated 300 million dribblers and wishful dunkers.

What began as a trickle is now a steady stream. As US Olympics coach Chuck Daly prophesied then: "There will come a day - I'm not saying it will happen anytime soon, mind you, but it's inevitable that it will happen - that [other countries] will be able to compete with us on even terms. And they'll look back on the Dream Team as a landmark event in that process."

A look at a projected NBA draft reveals a stunningly diverse group. Gentlemen, stand and be recognised. Be careful not to scrape your head on the ceiling.

Fourth: Enes Kanter, 6ft 11ins, of Turkey.

Fifth: Jonas Valanciunas, 6ft 11ins, of Lithunia.

Sixth: Jan Vesely, 6ft 11ins, of Serbia.

Seventh: Donatas Motiejunas, 7ft, of Lithunia.

Eighth: Bismack Biyombo, 6ft 9ins, DR Congo.

Three others, each 6ft 10ins or taller, are forecast for the first round.

So, high-fives to the Dream Team for making this marvellous migration possible. Those cover-your-eyes blow outs in 1992 made today's NBA is a joy to behold.

sports@thenational.ae