Baller Mind Frame

Sonny Says … The Dream Team Was Transcendent, But Beatable

DreamTeam

After a six month hiatus, welcome to the return of my “Sonny Says …” mailbag column! All questions in today’s edition came from friends and family members, and in order to make this a regular thing, I could always use more questions to answer. So if you have any interesting/off-beat/though-provoking sports or pop culture inquiries that you are curious to read my take on, find a way to get it to me. Consider this request my birthday wish (yes, today is my birthday). Email, Twitter and Facebook all work. Let’s get to it!

Michelle – “If you were able to compete in an Olympic Sport, which one would you choose and why?” 

What a way to kick off the return of the Sonny Says mailbag! This question is right in my wheelhouse for two reasons:

Reason #1: While I don’t particularly enjoy the Winter Olympic experience, I don’t personally know anybody who enjoys the Summer Olympics more than I do. For two weeks every four years, this guy is locked in and watching countless hours of Summer Olympic action at all goofy hours of the day. In fact, one of my favorite moments of the year 2008 was staying up until 3 am and watching the USA Basketball Team beat Spain in the Gold Medal game with my parents and frequent podcast companion Paul Clark. I didn’t go to sleep until all 12 guys had the Gold hanging around their necks. It was nearly 6 a.m..

Truth be told, that’s not the only time I’ve altered my sleep schedule or social calendar to watch Olympic events live. Symbolically, I love what the Olympics stand for so much. I love the idea of the best athletes from all around the globe coming together and leaving any of the shitty political or societal baggage that makes the world so stupid behind to compete in sport for two weeks. Can’t we all learn a little something from them?

Reason #2: I ponder this question (or a version very similar to it) every single Olympic year. So with that said, I can’t just jump right into my top choice. I need to introduce everyone to my Top 5. And for the record, my favorite sport (Basketball) isn’t included on the list since I don’t look at it as “an Olympic Sport.” Obviously it would be great to win a Gold Medal in Basketball, but I’d rather win an NBA Title than a Gold Medal, you know what I mean?

5. Archery – Little known fact … My cousin John was a Silver Medalist at the 1996 Olympics in Archery. I can’t say it wouldn’t be a great honor to follow in his footsteps and make our family proud once again.

4. 100 Meter Sprint – The ultimate bragging rights event in either set of Olympics. You grow up as a kid wanting to beat your friends in races. Winning the 100 Meter Sprint at the Summer Olympics is the pinnacle event for all childhood speedsters. However, I’ve always prided myself on being deceptively quick rather than fast, so claiming the title “Fastest Man Alive” isn’t something I’m totally consumed by.

By the way, there was a great Losing My Virginity joke to be made there, but please note that I withheld because I’m 26 years old as of today and those types of jokes are just too childish for my liking.

3. Curling – Am I wrong for believing whole-heartedly that if I spent the next four years practicing Curling for two hours a day five days a week I would be able to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing? I think I could even take some extended time off for select holidays and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. I’m confident in saying that I’m closer to becoming an Olympic Curler than I am an Olympian for any other sport aside from my top choice on this list, and I base this on the fact that my table-top Shuffleboard record is 2-1 all-time.

And let’s be real, Frozen Shuffleboard is a delight to watch. It’s the only Winter Olympic sport I actually make an effort to tune into. This time around people seem to be going nuts for some of the Americans who are medaling in Figure Skating and Skiing — I could’ve looked up their names and acted like I have actually been watching and know who they are, but that wouldn’t be at all genuine — and I’m just like “Well did you see the performance the Canadian Mixed Doubles Curlers just had?”

2. Handball – By the time the Summer Olympics head to Los Angeles in 2028, Handball will be to the Summer Olympics what Curling is to the Winter Olympics right now. You just wait.

1. Table Tennis – I’m pretty sure at one point in my life I was one of the Top 100 American Ping Pong Players in the world, so this was a no-brainer. Just check out my bio below … When I claim that I’m “the greatest racket sport player you’ll ever meet,” I’m not lying.

Amy – “Is there a a difference between Ping Pong and Table Tennis? Like is the table size, paddles and playing ball the same for both? How fast does the ball have to travel in order to sting the skin of an opposing player?” 

It’s appropriate that this question would come from Amy, because Amy’s son (frequent podcast guest Dr. Collin Stucko) and I have been best friends for over 15 years and we’ve probably logged somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 hours playing Ping Pong against each other in Collin’s Grandparent’s basement and my childhood home living room in those 15 years. To my surprise, after doing a little bit of research, I found out that there are actually quite a few slight differences between Table Tennis and Ping Pong.

The simplest way to explain the difference between the two — without getting into the nitty-gritty details and history of trademarks, because surely that isn’t why y’all have come to this page — is to say that Ping Pong is a recreational version of Table Tennis. Some websites suggest that the difference between the two is the type of paddles you use (a less spongy paddle for Ping Pong, and a more spongy for Table Tennis), but ultimately, Ping Pong is just less formal. If you are playing Table Tennis, as Olympic athletes do in the Summer Games, games are always played to 11, players always change serve after every two points, and when you are serving the ball, the ball must always be thrown six inches up from an open palm and you have to hit the ball from behind the end of the table. Players can freestyle quite a bit more if they decide they are going to partake in a game of Ping Pong.

With all of that said, it seems as though I actually haven’t played a single game of Table Tennis in my life. Back in my heyday, games were played to 21, you had to win by two points, and serve changed after every five points. I frequently played with a harder, less spongy “Ping Pong” paddle and I talked all kinds of shit when I played. I don’t think that trash talk is encouraged or allowed in Table Tennis. Also, as far as I can tell, there’s no version of Table Tennis where the loser has to stand with their eyes closed and hands behind their back and allow the winner to smack the ball as hard as they could at them.

So to answer the second question, the only thing I can say is I’ve never been hit so hard by a Ping Pong ball that it genuinely hurt me, and that’s not for Collin’s lack of trying.

Luca – “With All-Star Weekend recently behind us, if you could put together a Slam Dunk Contest, Three Point Contest and Skills Challenge with any four players, past or present, who would you choose?” 

A fantastic question. I’m glad to see that Luca’s Canisius education is paying off thus far. Very proud of you, little cousin. But if we’re putting together an All-Time All-Star Saturday Night we can’t half-ass it. We need to go big. Therefore, I’m expanding on Luca’s parameters and opening up each competition to the number of players currently allowed in each contest. That means I’ll begrudgingly stick with four guys in the Slam Dunk Contest, but increase the number to eight for the Three Point Contest and Skills Challenge instead of four. And since the Skills Challenge has opened the doors for big men to be involved, I’m extending invites to four frontcourt players to participate too.

Skills Challenge Competitors: Chris Paul, John Stockton, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, Arvydas Sabonis

Good news y’all … Everyone accepted the invite! I decided that for the Skills Challenge I couldn’t go wrong with four of the most uniquely talented big men ever to round out the field along with four of the greatest passers in basketball history. For the record, we’re getting all guys at the peak of their powers for each of the three events, so that means we’re getting late-80’s USSR Sabonis, early-90’s Stockton, Timberwolves KG, and LeBron at any year he damn well wants because he’s been in the NBA for 15 years and somehow it’s his 14th “peak” season. I remain completely baffled (and utterly amazed) by LeBron’s playing career.

The Pick: In a borderline upset, give me mid-00’s Dirk Nowitzki — deceptively athletic and spry! — over the Point God, Chris Paul, in the Final Round, just because in this setting I trust Dirk with my life to be able to knock down that top of the key three-pointer that decides every Skills Challenge.

Three Point Contest Competitors: Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Jeff Hornacek, Ray Allen, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Steve Kerr

Since I’m writing this thing, that makes me the Commissioner and overseer of the imaginary All-Time All-Star Saturday Night, so we’re gonna shake up the format of the Three Point Contest. Since there are four current Warriors in the field, we’ll combine their 1st Round scores and stack them up against the four non-Warriors, and whichever group of four has the highest combined score will advance to the Championship Round.

The Pick: Although Larry Bird — required to don his warm-up jacket, by the way — had the highest Round 1 score, the Warriors quartet would advance to the Final, where the greatest shooter ever, Stephen Curry, would narrowly edge past his Splash Brother from another mother, Klay Thompson, to win it all.

Slam Dunk Contest Competitors: Vince Carter, Jason Richardson, Aaron Gordon/Zach LaVine, Michael Jordan/Dominique Wilkins

I’m using All-Star Friday Night to hold two play-in Dunk Contests. We’re gonna have Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine and Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins run back their historic Dunk Contest duels in order to determine who will join Vince Carter (the best Dunk Contest performance ever in 2000) and Jason Richardson (the most underrated Dunk Contest performer) on Saturday evening. I thought Gordon and Dominique were the rightful winners the first time around, so to make it right, I’ve selected them to move on to the main event.

The Pick: Eighteen years later, I still remember sitting in my Grandma’s living room totally giddy awaiting the next time Vince Carter would step up to dunk. I remember letting out audible gasps and screams each time he threw one down because Holy Shit this guy is not messing around out there. It was a legitimate sports moment I’ll never forget. That memory is more clear in my mind than watching any of the six NBA Finals Games that same year. Richardson and LaVine and Dominique are terrific dunkers, worthy of competing in the All-Time Dunk Contest, but Vince Carter was a perfect showman, a goddamn athletic marvel in his peak, and the best Slam Dunk Contest competitor ever. It’s over … give me Vinsanity.

Annie – “Do you think there could be a ‘Dream Team’ assembled today that could beat the original Olympic Dream Team?”

Another topic that’s right in my wheelhouse, and since it’s one I’ve written about a little bit in the past, I’m going to rely on some thoughts I had from previously published content. Now before I get into the analysis of my case, I just want to make it clear that my answer to this question only deals with the result of a hypothetical, time-machine enabled basketball game between the 1992 Dream Team and a team of American basketball players assembled today. In no way, shape, or form am I attempting to compare the prospective legacy of a modern day ‘Dream Team’ to the 1992 version, because it isn’t possible that a team in 2018 could mean as much to the sport of basketball as the 1992 team did. Back in July 2012, prior to the London Summer Olympics and shortly after watching the remarkable “The Dream Team” documentary, I wrote the following:

The biggest question that the documentary presented was the claim that the Dream Team is the greatest team of all-time in sports history. From a historical significance standpoint, that statement cannot be disputed. In fact, it shouldn’t even be up for discussion. It was the perfect storm of star power (Jordan, Bird and Magic headlining a group of 11 future Hall of Famers), talent (I won’t gush about the talent since it sort of speaks for itself), time period (coming off of a Bronze Medal finish in 1988, and becoming the first team of professionals to represent the United States in basketball at the Summer Olympics), success (winning by an average of nearly 44 points per game) and lasting impact (changing the landscape of international basketball for better and always). 

The ability to make a profound and long lasting pop culture impact is rare. It requires a number of external components to be working in ones favor. This is the reason why there will never be a musical act as important as The Beatles. The Beatles are a perfect example of what happens when transcendent talent comes along and enters the national consciousness at the ideal time. The Beatles are not The Beatles if they come together ten years earlier or ten years later. Their success was just as dependent on situational factors that were outside of John, Paul, Ringo and George’s control as it was how pleasing or innovative their music was at the time.

(If you’re interested in this topic, I’ll be expanding on it in my next Sonny Says mailbag).

The Dream Team is the best sports example. It will forever remain the most important collection of talent assembled in the history of team sports. Without the Dream Team, it’s impossible to know if the NBA’s expansion globally would’ve happened at such a rapid rate. The Gasol brothers, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Yao Ming and countless others who came into the NBA in the late 90’s and early 00’s were first introduced to the game on a big stage when they watched the Dream Team take on (and pummel) the best competition (Toni Kukoc, Arvydas Sabonis, Drazen Petrovic, etc.) from around the world. Twenty five years after the Dream Team, some of the best players in the entire world were born internationally. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, Ben Simmons, Rudy Gobert, Goran Dragic, Al Horford, and Marc Gasol are all top 50 players in the league.

Back to the question at hand … let me once more lean on something I previously wrote. This comes from a December 2015 piece on the current NBA Golden Age.

The Dream Team stands the test of time more so because of the names on the team than anything else. Was that the perfect basketball team? Absolutely not. Magic Johnson retired a year prior and Larry Bird could barely move and was on his way out of the NBA too. Think of it this way: imagine if Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan played on Team USA in the 2016 Summer Olympics – even though both are well past the primes of their career and there is a very realistic chance they could both retire after the 2015-16 season, the aura of the 2016 team would be so much greater just with their presence. This is the same sort of impact Bird and Magic had on the Dream Team. Replace those two with Tim Hardaway and Joe Dumars and suddenly the narrative is totally different. 

I wanted to include that quote because it’s necessary to remember that the versions of Bird and Magic that existed on the Dream Team were not the versions that were battling for NBA titles in the mid-80’s. This can’t be forgotten when we’re talking about a hypothetical game. Peak Bird could’ve gone toe to toe with LeBron or Durant, but 1992 Bird would’ve been torched by either of the two. In some way, Bird and Magic’s stature actually helped to enhance the allure of the Dream Team at the time though, because none of their teammates were as established as they eventually would be. John Stockton wasn’t yet the all-time assist and steals king. Charles Barkley and Karl Malone lacked a single Finals appearance or MVP Award. David Robinson only had three NBA seasons under his belt. Patrick Ewing hadn’t gotten past the 2nd Round of the Playoffs. On the backs of Bird, Magic and Jordan (the biggest and brightest star in the sports world), the Dream Team became a phenomenon. But the legacy of the Dream Team has aged like a fine wine.

There’s no way a current team could stack up to the Dream Team from a legacy standpoint — though if we include Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, you could easily put together a team with more MVP’s and Championships than the Dream Team had in 1992 — but if you’re like me, you believe the best players today are possibly slightly better than the players from the past. It’s evolution. Sprinters run faster, swimmers swim faster, football players are bigger and faster than before … doesn’t it make sense that twenty-five years of trial and error in terms of basketball scheme and off-season routine and in-game mechanics would give today’s NBA players just a slight edge over their predecessors? I think so.

And that’s why my answer is “Yes,” you could put together a team today that could beat the Dream Team. My roster would consist of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan in the Bird/Magic spots (apologies to Jimmy Butler and DeMarcus Cousins for being left off because I wanted Kobe and Duncan on the team), LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard. We’d spread the floor with shooters, bomb three’s and attack the basket, fly all around the floor defensively, and prove what I’ve been saying for five years … The NBA is better now than it ever has been.

 

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