At half-time of the US basketball team’s Olympics warm-up victory over Brazil, the most prominent Chicago Bulls fan in the world took Kobe Bryant to task.
The LA Laker had created a nice little firestorm of publicity by claiming this current bunch of NBA stars — heading to London as gold medal favourites — would give the revered 1992 Dream Team a run for their money, an unprecedented gathering of talent which brought together, among others, the veteran superstars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to play alongside the era-defining Michael Jordan who was well on the road to dominating the NBA.
Bryant reiterated his confidence in Barcelona on Saturday, back where it all began.
“People who think we can’t beat that team for one game, they’re crazy,” said Bryant. “To sit there and say we can’t, it’s ludicrous... They got beaten by a college select team once. Doesn’t mean we’re a better team than them, but shit, we can beat them one time.”
To be fair and as was pointed out by Bryant’s US team-mate Chris Paul, an LA Clippers point guard, if the Lakers veteran had gone the other way and conceded hypothetical defeat, he would have paid a bigger price.
Sadly, injuries to some key players mean we won’t see the very best the NBA has to offer over the next fortnight but they’ll still be good and we’ll have to make do with what we can because this could well be the last of an era of great teams which has — by and large — dominated.
Two decades after the real Dream Team took Barcelona by storm, it seems like NBA chiefs are going to bring the curtain down on the practice of sending their superstars out to international competitions.
In Brazil in four years’ time, Team USA might replicate the methods of the soccer tournament, putting in place an age limit of 23 while allowing three overage players to compete.
Further emphasising the swansong vibe of this team is the departure of legendary Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski from the international set-up whether or not they manage to defend the gold medal they won in Beijing.
That won’t be entirely easy. They must try and qualify with a top seeding from the tougher group which means they have to overcome France and Argentina, both of whom boast a handful of NBA talent while the Argentinians have been somewhat of a bogey team for the US, most memorably when they derailed their illustrious opponents in the 2004 semi-finals.
The biggest challenge of all will be European champions Spain who have the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka although they’ll miss young NBA rookie Ricky Rubio, who was a sensation in Milwaukee before injuring his knee earlier this year.
“You’d better be focused, you’d better be paying attention to [each team], because if you’re not you’ll get your butts handed to you before you know what happened,” said Bryant.
“Look, they are just as competitive as we are, they want to win, they believe that they can win — which is different from ’92. We’re facing teams that want to take us down and believe they can take us down.”
They’re facing greater adversity than the Dream Team ever did, he is claiming, doing what he always does and giving us what we want to hear: talking trash and getting everyone riled up. All the better for the TV ratings.
These arguments are always enjoyable, futile though it may be to compare different eras in any sport. Given the fact that the altogether more sordid topic of the Penn State sex abuse scandal was rearing its ugly head in the US again, Kobe was a merciful distraction.
The statue of Joe Paterno, the legendary coach who ruled supreme in Western Pennsylvania for over 40 years, was ordered to be taken down by university officials on Sunday morning after an internal report criticised Paterno’s poor handling of allegations being made against his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky.
This all quickly came to pass six months after Paterno died and over eight months after he was fired, much to the dismay of hardened supporters, only some of whom have reassessed their opinions about a man they considered as close to a deity as is humanly possible.
Sport is at its most unpredictable when we place too much stock in our heroes. Our gods are just men, our dream teams are flawed and our underdogs always have a trick up their sleeves.
Maybe Kobe Bryant is right to challenge the mastery of Michael Jordan.
In the context of the institutional horrors which have brought Penn State to its knees, theirs is an arrogance worth fighting for.
* Twitter: JohnWRiordan. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org