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Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Dream Team still the best ever ... or is it?

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Scattered throughout the Thomas & Mack Center on Sunday were a handful of people lucky enough to have witnessed closely the 1992 Dream Team and the 2007 U.S. Olympic qualifying team.

A few of them were on the inside back in Barcelona, spending nearly every waking hour shepherding the 1992 U.S. team -- the Dream Team -- through the ins and outs of the Olympics. Others were chronicling that team's dominance for the folks back home, who got their news from newspapers as the Web was still in its infancy.

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ESPN.com talked to a bunch of them over the weekend, asking them to compare what is widely acknowledged as the greatest team ever assembled to this year's version of Team USA, which steamrolled its way through the Tournament of the Americas and will be the undisputed favorite in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Of all of those interviewed, only one was bold enough to say what a lot of people are beginning to think.

That was Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, the Puerto Rican basketball legend who competed against the Dream Team 15 years ago and was still mixing it up in international competitions as late as 2004, when he was a member of the Puerto Rico team that defeated the United States by 19 points in Athens.

I reintroduced myself to him up in the top row of the media seats Sunday afternoon just before halftime of the Argentina-U.S. gold medal game and asked him the same question I had been asking everyone else I could find: How does this team stack up against that team?

"I think this team is much better," Ortiz said.

"When '92 came, Larry Bird was already coming out [of the NBA], Magic was coming out. Those guys were legends, but this team is a great, talented team."

Final judgment on this version of Team USA will have to wait another year until we see how it performs in Beijing against world-class competition, but for now we're left with the lingering image of the breathtaking display of harmony and talent this team put on over the past two weeks while decimating its competition by an average of nearly 40 points per game.

At Sunday's postgame news conference, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski seemed stunned by the level of awe and respect coming from the mouth of his Argentine counterpart, Sergio Hernandez.

"It is obvious that no one will ever forget the original Dream Team with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but I really like this Team USA team because they also have players of the same caliber such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant who know how to really play together.

"They have good chemistry. They play great defense, but the most important thing for us would be the respect they have for all the other teams so much," said Hernandez, who apologized for his broken English. "I tell you, and I want to say that again and again and again, because I like when teams play hard. If they can beat me by 40 points, I don't want them to beat me by 20 points. I want 40 points -- and this is what they do.

"So, I say thank you. It was a big pleasure to play against you. The game, you see the game. They shoot 20 3-point shots, 25 fast-break points, 15 offensive rebounds. They kill Argentina. They're great."

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Krzyzewski, who was an assistant on the 1992 Barcelona team, said he was enjoying this experience more. His comparison of the two teams:

"It was one of those unique experiences of my life, but it's a different time. We could win on just talent alone at that time in the history of international basketball, but those days are gone."

Here's what others who were around Team USA in 1992 and 2007 had to say:

Rod Thorn, general manager the New Jersey Nets, who was a committee member for USA Basketball in 1992:

"Athletically, I don't know that we've had a team more athletic than this team. That team had some of the icons in the history of basketball on it, so you know, it's tough to compare until this team goes on in Beijing."

Russ Granik, former NBA deputy commissioner, who was vice president of USA Basketball in 1992:

"That was a more veteran team, and what you had back then is most of those guys had never had a chance to play in the Olympics. You had a couple, Michael Jordan and David Robinson, but a lot of those guys had never had a chance to play in the Olympics, and even in their 30s they all wanted to play.

"Now you have a situation where a lot of veteran guys, like Kevin Garnett, they've had their chance to play already. So it's not the same."

Terry Lyons, former NBA vice president of international public relations, who handled media relations chores for every U.S. senior national team since '92:

"I have to say it's apples and oranges. Totally different. I'd have to say the '92 team because of the experience would have the edge. But I think this team, by far, is quicker, younger and more athletic, but the '92 team could really score up the middle. Mailman [Karl Malone] and Charles Barkley inside, [Patrick] Ewing and David Robinson up the middle were a lot to handle. But I'd love to see a game [between them]."

Jim O'Connell, longtime basketball writer for the Associated Press and a member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame:

"The biggest difference is the Dream Team, most of them were two exits away from Springfield [Mass.] on I-91. They had all been around for a long time, but these guys are all at the beginnings of their careers with the exception of Jason Kidd.

"But that team had a mystique and an aura to it, because everybody knew who they were everywhere in the world, and not just in the U.S. And if you look on the court, that team had more size with the two centers, Robinson and Ewing, so they could take you inside. But this team is probably a little quicker on the perimeter because of how much younger it was.

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"If I had to take one of the two teams, I'd take the Dream Team because they were so much more polished. Maybe if this team stays together and in 2012 we're talking about them, these guys might be that good of a team."

Mark Heisler, veteran NBA columnist for the Los Angeles Times:

"Dream Team was tremendous on offense. We didn't notice if they played any defense, and they probably didn't. But I think the one thing the Dream Team had, besides all the greatest players, I think Magic Johnson's personality made all the difference. He made it so that everybody wanted to play their best. Magic was the rarest of all things, he was a great player who transcended all the other great players just on personality. So there were better players on that team, Michael Jordan to start with, but Magic's personality really made that team different.

"But the one thing I really like about this team, it seems like they've got really good chemistry as far as personalities. I think Kobe's personality and Jason Kidd's personality, I think it's really impressive -- as much better as they are than everyone here -- how hard they play."

Jan Hubbard, columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who covered the 1992 team for New York Newsday:

"Other than the '96 team that had five members of the Dream Team on it, this team is the closest to the Dream Team. Probably lacking in the middle, compared to Ewing and Robinson, but with Kobe playing defense, he mimics Jordan and Pippen. They had two defenders, and this team kind of really only has one.

"The other thing is that those guys were just legends. They had Magic, Michael and Larry, and Charles, I think in the Olympics kind of became like a legend. He was the second-best player on that team. Michael was first and Scottie [Pippen] was third.

"But that team was older, I think they had five guys over 30 -- this one has two -- more Finals appearances, more championships, more of a veteran team, and just this aura that was incredible.

"But this team is a reasonable facsimile of that, and except for the '96 team, is the best international team they've had -- and has the most promise."

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.