If you look at the honor roll of Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductees, you will notice that 10 teams are inside the gates of the estate where roundball’s immortals dwell.
The Harlem Globetrotters and other barnstorming teams are on the list. Immaculata College, the trail-blazing team for women’s college basketball, is on the list. What’s also noticeable about the list is that there are no NBA teams. It seems counterintuitive, but it makes sense: If you let in one team, you might as well let in just about every championship team. This means that the eleventh man in the rotation for the 1990s Chicago Bulls and the tenth man for the 1980s Boston Celtics would get in.
The special teams of all time — in a much larger historical and cultural sense — have to be either All-Star teams (collections of nothing but the best players in a nation or some other community) or teams which enabled the game to grow, such as the bunch of barnstormers you see in the Hall.
Therefore, two of the 10 teams in Springfield are Olympic teams. More specifically, though, they are United States men’s teams.
The 1960 team, which cruised to the gold medal in Rome, is widely viewed as the best amateur team ever assembled. Jerry Lucas, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson, all on the same team? Yeah.
Pete Newell — a coach who stepped away from the bench at age 45 due to stress, and an accompanying desire to teach the game as a camp instructor and team consultant — could have become the best coach who ever lived had he stayed in the profession. Newell usually got the better of John Wooden when he coached against the Wizard at the University of California in Berkeley.
Yes, the 1960 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team deserves its spot.
As for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team… well, what more needs to be said? That’s the team everyone knows about and recognizes as the best international team of all time. When the Olympics allowed professionals to play hoops, the dynamics of both the Olympics and international basketbll changed forever. Not a single soul would dispute the 1992 Dream Team’s impact on the growth of basketball across the planet, and on the improvement of the product from one nation and continent to the next.
This is where our story truly begins.
If you accept and acknowledge the 1992 Dream Team’s role in shaping the larger modern existence of basketball — captivating the world’s fans first of all, but then challenging and forcing the rest of the world’s players to get better — you need to then acknowledge one other thing: Something — or more precisely, some people — had to make 1992 a reality. Some human beings had to unleash the forces which led Olympic basketball to become a haven for the pros, leaving the antiquated amateur model behind.
You could give David Stern a measure of credit. You could acknowledge that the International Olympic Committee and Juan Antonio Samaranch (as odious a figure as he might have been on many levels) had to give the okay for this. You could identify some other figures on the periphery. However, the people most centrally responsible for essentially giving birth to the 1992 Dream Team — for making it necessary in the eyes of many (American power brokers) — were the members of the 1988 Soviet Union Olympic men’s basketball team.
It doesn’t need much of any explanation. If Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis — both in the Hall of Fame individually — hadn’t led their teammates to a victory over the all-college United States team in the Olympic semifinals in Seoul, South Korea, the 1992 Dream Team might never have come into existence. After years and years and years of holding the rest of the world at bay with collegiate stars (the 1972 American team technically didn’t win, but it essentially held off the Soviets, only for an appalling series of events to deny those young men the gold medal they deserved…), the United States finally lost.
The flip side: The outside world finally won. This didn’t mean the world had caught up to American basketball, however — we’d find that out four years later in Barcelona. The key insight — also the more specific and precisely accurate one — is that the rest of the globe caught up to American COLLEGIATE basketball.
This moment, in 1988, was the necessary precursor to 1992. If the Americans had won gold in 1988, would there have been an outcry — near the end of the Cold War — for the United States to use NBA players? Probably not… but even if there had been, it wouldn’t have been nearly as strident or insistent as it in fact was when the beaten Americans came home.
Here’s the game, if you want to dip into the vault:
It stands to reason, then, that while the 1992 United States Olympic men’s basketball team enjoys its rightful place in the Hall of Fame, the 1988 Soviet Union Olympic men’s basketball team created the environment in which the Dream Team could emerge.
We’re no longer in the Cold War, so we shouldn’t have to resist this statement out of a sense of misplaced or lingering nationalism: The Soviet Union’s 1988 Olympic men’s basketball team deserves to stand alongside the 1992 Americans as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.