AP Was There: Dream Team rolls to Barcelona for Olympic gold

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BARCELONA, Spain — America’s long basketball nightmare is over.

The Dream Team fulfilled their mission on Saturday night, claiming Olympic gold with a 117-85 pro victory over Croatia that restored American dominance after a generation of decline and defeat in international competition.

“We were able to do what everyone expected of us,” said Michael Jordan, who scored a team-high 22 points. “Now we can be proud of our basketball program again.”

In the end, Team USA, unstoppable and unchallenged through the first seven games, was simply unstoppable.

He actually trailed 25-23 more than half the first half before Charles Barkley hit a 3-pointer, turned to the opposing bench and pumped both fists as if to tell the Croats they wouldn’t see each other again never head.

The United States took a 56-42 halftime lead, still their smallest of the Olympics, then started the second half with an 11-2 run. The eighth consecutive eruption was assured. The gold medal, only the United States’ third in basketball since 1972, was never in doubt again.

Playing the best a fragmented world had to offer, the Americans shattered the previous Olympic record and became the first team to score at least 100 points in every game. They averaged 117.3 points, easily eclipsing the 1960 Team USA standard of 101.9. They won by an average of 43.8 points – the 32-point margin in the Finals being the closest .

So how late is the rest of the world now?

“About 35 points, right? Barley replied

When it was over, the players on the bench hugged Daly, and Barkley – smiling broadly – went onto the pitch and handed Croatian Dino Radja his warm-up jacket.

In the medal stand, Magic Johnson, Jordan and Barkley had American flags draped over their right shoulders, hiding Reebok logos on warm-up suits that some players had protested over conflicting trade endorsements.

“The only way I could think of to not disfigure (the uniform) was the American flag,” Jordan said. “If I offended anyone, so be it.”

The Dream Team was born from the humiliation of a series of international defeats, including the 1987 Pan American Games against Brazil, the 1988 Olympic semi-finals against the Soviet Union and the 1990 World Championships against Yugoslavia.

The seeds, however, date back to 1972, when an all-college American team suffered their first-ever loss in 63 Olympics – against the Soviets, who scored the winning basket after the final seconds were replayed three times.

This memory served as the final inspiration on Saturday night. The team watched it on tape before taking to the pitch against Croatia.

The Dream Team spent almost as much time defending themselves as defending their opponents. He was criticized for staying in an exclusive hotel instead of the Athletes’ Village, for being hesitant to wear Reebok warm-up suits, for not showing more excitement on the pitch.

It didn’t help that they were never rushed into a game, never pressured to play their best.

“I dreamed of playing in the Olympics when I was young, but when you win by 50 every game, I think it takes you away,” said Larry Bird. “But when my children grow up, I can say that I played in the Olympics and won the gold medal. If the games were closer, we would have seen more emotion. I cry a little when I see guys winning a close race, but it’s different when none of the games are close.

Croatia have four players who were part of the Yugoslav team that won the world title in 1990, the last major international basketball tournament without American NBA players.

But even an all-star team from the rest of the world probably wouldn’t present a challenge to the Dream Team.

“You’ll see other professional teams, but you won’t see a team like this,” said coach Chuck Daly, who has never called a timeout in all of the Olympics. “It’s a majestic team. The players of the teams to follow will be known to some extent, but not like these guys.

These guys were the best of all time, 11 NBA All-Stars and Christian Laettner College Player of the Year, and even for them the gold medal was special.

Barkley was eliminated in the trials for the last American Olympic champion, the 1984 team which included fellow Dream Teamers Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin. He led this one with an average of 18 points, 17 in the last game, and was exuberant with the gold medal around his neck.

“It’s the biggest sporting event of my life,” Barkley said. “My only other ambition in life as it relates to athletics is to win an NBA championship.”

Magic Johnson, who won the NCAA title at Michigan State and five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers before retiring last season after learning he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS, said that was the best.

“You can combine them all together,” he said, “and it still wouldn’t rank with that.”

Scottie Pippen, with two consecutive NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, agreed.

“It shows that you are the best. It’s nothing like winning the world championship, but coming away with a gold medal is totally different,” said Pippen. “You represent not just a city, but the entire United States, and to come out and stand up as they raise the American flag, nothing means more to me than having that gold medal.”

AP Corporate Archives contributed to this report.

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