Of all the hundreds of pumped-up story lines NBC cranked out in the last two weeks to try to elevate the Summer Olympics beyond the realm of sport into big-event, prime-time entertainment TV, none rivaled that of the Dream Team.
But the story line of the men's basketball team wasn't about dreams at all. It wasn't even about actually creating the kind of fantasy lineup that some sports geeks spend their days and nights getting high on.
Michael Jordan Saturday suggested the story line that many of us were really hearing in our heads, when he defended his controversial use of the American flag to cover the Reebok insignia on his U.S.A. team jacket out of deference to a higher god, Nike, the company he works for.
"When you hire 12 Clint Eastwoods to come in here and do a job, don't ask them what bullets they're putting in the gun," Jordan said.
And that's what made the Dream Team appealing to many viewers even though there was absolutely no drama as to how the games would end or whether Jordan & Co. would win the gold. It was a short-pants-and-hard-court version of "The Magnificent Seven," "Wild Bunch" or "The Dirty Dozen" -- an American hero myth especially popular during the late 1960s that still plays well today.
The key elements of the story include some sort of injustice being done -- usually by a foreign power -- and a group of American mercenaries, who are the very best at what they do, being rounded up for one last ride to go off to avenge the injustice or "whip some butt," in the words of the immortal Charles Barkley.
The stories are characterized by violence, jingoism and the central fact that the group of men who go off to save or avenge society are really outsiders to that society -- but, because mainstream society is somehow so weak or corrupt, such men have to be hired to save it.
There is something else worth knowing about this story line, which NBC celebrated night after night the last two weeks during its prime-time telecasts of "Barcelona: The Miniseries": That narrative is the distorted flip side of one of our most fundamental and powerful national myths. It is a dark inversion of the story of Cincinnatus, the citizen as patriot, the farmer who laid down his plow to go off and defend the Roman republic. Our national version features George Washington as the leading man.
The difference, though, between Cincinnatus and Washington vs. the mercenaries with whom Jordan identified the Dream Team is that the former are part of the community and make their sacrifice out of love for that community, not for money. As a result, their efforts are the stuff of patriotism, while the efforts of mercenaries are nothing more than the stuff of commerce.
So, let's not kid ourselves about what we saw on TV and felt as we watched.
What we gained was the joy of kicking foreign butt, an illusion of international dominance. Japan might laugh at our president and mock our ability to compete globally, but no Angolan basketball player is ever going to get in Barkley's way again. What we lost were Olympians who were connected to us, who were part of the community, who were amateur athletes just as Washington was a citizen soldier.
They were replaced by mercenaries who told us, as Jordan did, they were "hired" by us to "do a job," and we had no right to tell them "what bullets to put in the gun." They did the job. The victory really belonged to them and their corporate sponsors, not us. We were just spectators, mere consumers, and the only way we could connect with them was by buying the sneakers they endorsed.
As the national anthem played Saturday and the TV cameras closed in on Jordan, Barkley and Magic Johnson, the emotions many of us felt were real. The question is: What price did we pay for them?