Olympic basketball worth buying into?

John Eisenberg

June 14, 1992|By John Eisenberg

In between the commercials for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, the Bulls and Trail Blazers have squeezed in five games of the NBA Finals. And you thought they were playing for a title. But have you really thought about it?

OK, OK, the Bulls and Blazers obviously are playing for real. Of course. But do you still sometimes get the feeling that the primary purpose of these Finals is to sell the Olympic team?

See if you can count the ads during the game today, and bring along your abacus. The hard sell is in gear. Everything from shorts to bathrobes to collector plates. Not that it is a surprise. From the start, this Olympic team was a marketing tool more than a grab for gold. Why do you think they named the team a year ahead of time?

It certainly was not so the players could practice together, which has not happened once. And it was not to ensure the best team was picked. A lot of things can change in a year, such as Dennis Rodman compiling the league's highest rebounding average in 20 years. He didn't make the team.

No, the "Dream Team" was named last year so companies could put the players' faces on shirts and shorts and charge $15, and NBC could sell a "team selection" show and hype the team all season, and magazines could put the players on the cover, and other companies could market videos and run ad campaigns.

In all, more than 30 companies have gotten involved as sponsorship and licensing partners. You can buy twill jackets, alarm clocks, individual player shirts, mini-backboards, computer games, figurines, trading cards, fanny packs and medallion sets. Among other things.

It all sells the NBA, and a lot of people are making a lot of money, and it is just smart business, and ordinarily there is nothing wrong with that. But this is the Olympics, and it is ugly to see them intruded upon so violently that the dime becomes this much bigger than the game.

Don't misunderstand: This is not a naive longing for amateurism, which needed to die. Neither is this a criticism of the NBA's first-rate marketers, who are just doing their jobs. No one is getting hurt here. But you have to have standards.

Amateurism is dead, but this is going too far. See, the "Dream Team" is more about selling than playing. Michael Jordan said the other day that the Olympics would be a "vacation," and can you blame him? Here is a little secret: We can beat Angola.

They are the qualifier from Africa and, just a guess, probably don't match up with Magic and Michael at guard.

China is in, too. They played the United States in the '84 Games and spent the whole time 25 feet out, as if Patrick Ewing were Godzilla chomping on telephone wire. The college-age U.S. team won by 50.

The big myth is that this competition is going to be any competition. Yugoslavia and the Soviets were the only challengers, and they no longer exist. Even if they did, they would be no match. How can anyone compete with David Robinson, Chris Mullin and John Stockton coming off the bench?

Admittedly, there is something exhilarating about these players coming together. That is the essence of the marketing hook. It will be interesting to see who scores and passes, does the dirty work, sulks about minutes. But the thrill will be gone with the score 33-8.

Maybe people are excited about watching the Americans stomp everyone, but it is like using a hammer to kill an ant. Those people really excited should be forced to watch when the United States is up 43.

What would really be interesting is hearing the ego collisions and finger-pointing if the team somehow lost.

The truth is that USA Basketball's decision to go pro is one of the great overreactions -- but smart business.

We lost in Seoul because John Thompson made it joyless and forgot to bring along any offense. A smart, well-coached team of our top collegians is still a healthy match for the world.

The top players in this year's draft -- Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, Harold Miner and Walt Williams -- are a gold-medal-winning starting five. But not one you could sell.

Meanwhile, the selling of the "Dream Team" is "phenomenal -- the hottest thing we ever did," one NBA executive said last week. Makes you wonder if basketball was the real reason for going pro.

Anyway, now we have this hard sell with Michael Jordan dreaming about bringing back the gold. Please. Maybe Michael does want to win, but after playing more than 100 games this season, Michael is dreaming mostly about playing golf.

But he won't get his chance until Charles Barkley does away with China, and NBC blows it up, and millions of dollars change hands, and everyone starts on the sell for next year, which will be "our guys who took back the gold." Coming soon to a T-shirt near you.

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