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Dream Team Forever: Why the United States should go to 23-and-under

By Matt Moore | NBA writer
There will never be another. Why try? (Getty Images)


The NBA premiered a documentary on the Dream Team Wednesday night, to critical acclaim. Legendary writer Jack McCallum releases a book on July 10th about the same incredible collection of talent, the most in-depth tome on the most legendary team in history ever written. Basketball-everything officianado Lang Whitaker released an oral history on the team.

Maybe at no point in the past 10 years has the memory and legend of that team been as palpable in popular culture. And it's fitting that we remember that team as the NBA considers moving the Olympic team to a 23-and-under club, ending the change that began in 1992 allowing all professionals world-wide to play (international professionals were allowed to play prior to '92, something the documentary and McCallum's book discusses).

Because it serves as a reminder: there's no point in putting together any more "Dream Teams." You want the biggest reason to support an under-23 structure? Forget the players' exhaustion. They get paid the rest of the year and get to market themselves while representing their country. It's a burden, but it's both an honorable and profitable one. Forget evening the competition. The U.S. has no obligation to make it easy on the world.

(Though there is a reason to embrace the under-23 stipulation. This is a country where we cherish the challenge. Form your own nation. Free yourself from British rule. Build an economy. Build a military. Defeat the Axis powers. Fly to the moon. Make a movie about a board game. We are made to challenge ourselves.)

No, the biggest reason is because there is that we have nothing left to prove as a nation, not after the Dream Team. Be careful, here. I'm not saying that another nation can't defeat the Team USA's of now, that this summer's team can't go down in a heap. They can. International basketball has leveled the playing field without our help (well, not much of our help). Were the Spanish team anything close to healthy, they would have to be considered a pretty close second to Team USA in London this summer.

No, it's because we set a bar we can never reach again. It's possible there will come a time when there is so dominant a set of athletes as to rival the Dream Team. It's not now. I'm a pretty strong proponent that this is the greatest collection of athletes in the league since that day. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, the list goes on and on. But they don't touch that group. That's how special it is.

The current Team USA is faced with living up to that expectation every game. Now, again, I'm not advocating pity for them. Again, we live for challenges. But it's impossible for them to approach that team. Today's stars could blister every team by 100 in a tougher competition, and still would receive the same level of passive disdain from media and fans. Because there is no Magic. There is no Bird. There is no Barkley. And there will never be another Jordan.

That first group set a bar that leaves everything so far behind, it's incomprehensible. So we need to make Team USA about something else.

We saw a glimpse of it last summer in the FIBA World Tournament. The group lead by Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose featured veterans, but was lead by younger players. And it was about as likeable a group, as easy to root for as any in Team USA history. Those younger players still appreciate the opportunity to play for their country, still value the experience. It provides a training ground for superstars looking for the chance to develop leadership. And it creates a faster, more athletic core.

The 23-and-under team allows for the United States to still send arguably the best talent in the world, while developing basketball and its players, and saving itself from a myriad of hassles about the event. Maybe we'll have less influence from shoe and drink companies. Maybe the absurd media attention and responsibilities won't be so high. It's pretty clear that the current players aren't exactly all beaming at every chance to play abroad.

The members of this summer's team have already groused about it. There's talk of compensation for the athletes, a total abandonment of the concept of amateurism. Again, I'm no idealist, but if you want to get paid, set up a global league. This is the Olympics and it is played for national pride. Teams are tired of their players coming back worn out and injured, a legitimate, understandable complaint.

So let's back it up, give the 23-and-under thing a chance, and let the Dream Team stand as the greatest that ever was or will be.

There's no point in chasing history if you're just trying to run down the ghost.
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