There’s a play from the first official game of the 1992 Olympics for the Dream Team that I think about nearly every time I see a USA Basketball–related thing. They were playing Angola, in a game that is still somewhat famous today. The Dream Team had already posted a 46–1 run — the one point came after a technical foul had been called on Charles Barkley for elbowing a guy in the chest. The play I remember happened in the second half after one of the Angolan players received a pass at the top of the key that seemed like it’d put him in a spot to do something constructive for his team, if not destructive to the Dream Team.
When the Angolan player caught it, he had two teammates spaced out at the 3-point line to his right and was staring at two defenders: Michael Jordan, who was at the free throw line, and Karl Malone, who was directly under the basket. He drove around Jordan to his left (which kept the other Dream Teamers from rotating over), got into the paint, jumped, and tried to laser a pass to a teammate who’d floated over to the right corner for what was going to be a wide-open 3. It was a smart play, and maybe against any other team in the Olympics it’d have worked. But the ’92 Dream Team was unbelievably, overwhelmingly, inconceivably, irresponsibly better than everyone else. So it didn’t.
When the Angolan player tried to shoot the pass across the court, Malone got enough of his gigantor bear paw on it to knock it up into the air. He tracked the ball through the sky, then snatched it down, then turned and fired an 85-foot pass to Magic Johnson, who’d begun sprinting out into the fast break about two days before Malone made the steal, it felt like. The pass was perfect — it hit Magic right in the hands and led him to the exact right spot so he could catch it in stride, and so that was impressive enough by itself. What was even better, though, was that Malone was already mid-throw before he’d even looked at anything or anyone. It was incredible. It was like he’d insta-taken a picture of the court as soon as he knocked the ball up, then calculated where all the pieces were going to be when he turned around. It was gorgeous, really. And it just got better from there.
Magic caught the pass, immediately threw the ball behind his head without looking, and there was Michael, the deity, fireballing down the court, but in the most graceful way a fireball could ever move. He grabbed the ball, planted both of his feet, exploded upward into infinity, then dunked it. The arena went nutso, the players on the bench stood up and cheered, Magic jumped and punched the air in celebration. It was gorgeous, really.
And here’s the thing I remember whenever I think about that moment: The whole sequence of events — from the time Malone batted the ball in the air to the time Jordan thunder-dunked it home — took less than six seconds. Six. That play has been burned into my hippocampus forever. It happened 24 years ago and I can still see it.
There are, of course, moments that happen during NBA games that have a similar sort of artistry, but generally it feels like those come secondary to the result of a game or a season. That’s part of the reason I enjoy watching Olympic basketball so much. The games are rarely competitively interesting, but sometimes I don’t want to see a close game; sometimes I just want to see the type of cool shit that can happen only when you put several of the best players on the planet in a basketball game where the game counts for at least a little bit of something. That’s what separates the Olympics from the All-Star Game.
I went to the USA-Nigeria game in Houston on Monday evening. Two plays happened there that I’ll remember for at least a little bit of time, if not a long bit of time.
The first happened early in the first half. Harrison Barnes held the ball near the left bend of the 3-point line. He passed to Carmelo Anthony in the left corner. And as he did, Kyle Lowry, my favorite bowling ball, snuck behind the zone and into the paint with his hands ready to catch the ball. Carmelo passed it to him and Lowry drew the defender in the paint — but he didn’t shoot, he just lobbed the ball to heaven. DeAndre Jordan, my favorite caricature, pinged up into the air, gathered the ball, then dunked it. I will not lie to you and say that it possessed the same sort of magic as the Malone-Magic-Jordan moment, but I also will not underplay it and say that it wasn’t an incredible amount of fun to watch unfold in real time 100 feet from my face. It was great.
The second play happened a couple of minutes into the second half. Nigeria had the ball and was looking to inbound it. Carmelo took a look around to see who was guarding whom, then started shouting toward the bench, and let me take a second here and say how wonderful it is to be able to watch Carmelo Anthony play basketball from a seat close enough to the court where you can hear him, because he talks on — I would guess — every defensive possession. He shouts about picks and who should be moving where and what should be happening when. It’s so much fun.
But so, OK, Nigeria had the ball and was looking to inbound it. Carmelo took a look around to see who was guarding whom, then started shouting toward the bench. The USA players were confused. The Nigerian team was confused. The refs were confused. Anyone in the stands who noticed that Carmelo was shouting was confused. The only one who wasn’t confused was Carmelo.
Because he was the only one who’d realized that his team had only four players on the court. The basketball team for the United States of America set up to play defense and it was missing a player. That’s great, too. I’ll never forget it.