Stylish shoe didn't fit Dream peddlers

August 17, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

They sold a lot of drink cups and shoes and T-shirts. At least the NBA and the shoe companies hope they did.

They showed the world how to strut and preen after dunking on a Chinese center who was hoping mostly not to incur a head injury with his team trailing by 50.

They won something called the World Championship of Basketball. If you enjoyed it, you probably think the American invasion of Grenada was a good war.

Oh, and the members of Dream Team II succeeded in demonstrating why the NBA is getting slam-dunked with bad pub now after a decade of happy-face growth success.

Because it is a league in which style is every bit as important as substance, if not more so.

Because the shoe-commercial-driven mythmaking machine has become so potent that the players now believe the hype, rendering them virtually uncoachable.

The original Dream Team was no different from the unattractive sequel in that it was strictly a marketing tool for the NBA, the shoe companies and everyone who profits from the NBA's popularity. It had a lot to do with selling and very little to do with competition. Unless your idea of competition is squashing ants with a hammer.

But at least the originals had class. (OK, Barkley excluded.) Their championship rings gave them the right to strut, but they just played ball against their overmatched opponents. They had a dignity that was appropriate for the historic teaming of Jordan, Bird and Magic.

Wilt and Russell and Oscar and Julius had the same grace. They could have woofed, but they just played. It was more than enough.

The members of Dream Team II had little class. They had no right to strut as they did in Toronto. Except for the Detroit Pistons' elegant Joe Dumars, none had won an NBA championship. Most have vanished pretty quickly when it counts, in the playoffs. Yet, like a cheap bully picking on a little kid, they taunted and showboated and pretended they had big shoulders.

L They're the future of the NBA. And the future is not pretty.

Larry Johnson has played in exactly nine NBA playoff games. His next important basket will be among his first. Yes, he is a nice, solid player, but he is famous mostly for his clever shoe commercial alter ego, and he thinks he is special because he is famous. Maybe you noticed him all but thumping his chest while helping the Dreamers blow out Puerto Rico. To which the only appropriate response was: Try doing it in the conference finals.

But let's not single out Johnson when Dream Team II was loaded with paper lions. Shawn Kemp. Derrick Coleman. Alonzo Mourning. They're all fabulously talented, no doubt about it. Just ask them. But they haven't done anything except rack up some nice stats and sell tens of thousands of shoes, not necessarily in that order.

They sure could woof when they were up 40 on Australia, though. As if there was a coach anywhere on the planet who could keep them in line.

Remember what Mourning said when someone asked him if hworked first for his shoe company, Nike, or his team, the Charlotte Hornets? "Nike," he replied.

Remember what Magic Johnson said when he announced hwould not continue coaching the Los Angeles Lakers? That today's players just won't listen.

Remember why Scottie Pippen refused to leave the bench in the final seconds of that playoff game against the New York Knicks last spring? Because the game-winning play wasn't designed for him.

What was the only controversy in the Dream Team II locker room? How many minutes certain players weren't getting.

It all fits together. The NBA soared in popularity as its starbecame legends on the wings of their shoe ads, but now the monster is turning on its creator. The sell is just as important as the win, if not more so. The individual is more important than the team. It has become an "I" league, not a "we" league, led by a generation of selfish, egocentric players.

Shaquille O'Neal has the talent to become one of the greatest players ever, but it's doubtful he'll care enough to improve his limited, power-only game. He is already such a huge success, selling millions of dollars of shoes, soft drinks and various other products, that it doesn't really matter what he does on the court. If he never wins a playoff game, and he hasn't yet, he'll still be "Shaq!" And hey, once you're the MVP of the World Championship of Basketball, you don't have to prove anything.

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