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A World of Their Own
Jack McCallum
September 30, 1991
With Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson heading a starry NBA cast, the U.S. basketball team should dominate the '92 Olympics
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September 30, 1991

A World Of Their Own

With Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson heading a starry NBA cast, the U.S. basketball team should dominate the '92 Olympics

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Jordan denies that he had anything to do with Isiah's being iced, and a few members of the selection committee back him up. However, just because Jordan did not go before the entire body and issue an ultimatum—if Thomas plays, I won't—does not mean that he didn't make his feelings known to certain key members.

Some arm-twisting was involved in getting Jordan to sign up—"The last thing on his mind in June was playing in the Olympics," says one Chicago official—and one of his conditions was that Thomas not be a teammate. Sources on both the selection committee and the Bulls confirm that behind-the-scenes scenario. It's almost impossible to overstate the animosity that exists between the Bulls and the Pistons in general and between Jordan and Thomas in particular. Remember the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, in which Jordan was reportedly miffed that Thomas didn't get him the ball enough? Jordan did not want Thomas on the Olympic team—period.

Theory No. 2 was equally pivotal. Thomas did not get strong support from either Daly or Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey, who was a member of the committee until he resigned last week to protest what he called the "ridiculous decision" to exclude Thomas. McCloskey said he was "disappointed that he couldn't convince" the committee to find a spot for Thomas, a statement that, according to sources on the committee, left other members flabbergasted because they knew that McCloskey did not speak up for Thomas at the outset of the process. When he eventually did bring up Thomas's name, the sources say, it was only in response to rumblings of discontent in Detroit. "A smoke screen to protect himself," said one source.

The party line on Daly is that he had no input into the selection process. This is absolute balderdash. Daly made his feelings clear about personnel and even gave the committee a wish list early in the process—one from which Thomas was excluded. Had he gone to the committee, banged his fist on the table and said, "I've got to have Isiah," he probably would have gotten Isiah. But Daly didn't. Why not? There are several possibilities: He didn't want to risk losing Jordan; he was still peeved at Thomas for having ignored his pleas not to walk off the court in the Bulls series; he remembered all too clearly the comments Thomas made last season about Daly's devoting too much time to Olympic matters and not enough to coaching the Pistons; he knew he couldn't get both Thomas and Dumars and didn't want to risk antagonizing the one who was passed over; or, like many NBA coaches, he would rather tire out someone else's players in the summer than his own.

Thomas said that he was "taking the high road" and refused to comment on the prevailing theories. But he did express his disappointment—friends described him as "devastated"—to SI last Saturday night. "I've never felt such a mix of emotions that I feel right now," said Thomas. "It's not the most disappointing moment of my life, but it's close. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and I just want to get the taste out of my mouth as soon as I can.

"All my career I've done nothing but win. I've always adapted to change, I thought, almost as well as anyone, and I would've adapted for this team. I'd still be honored to be chosen, but if I'm not, I'll still be rooting for us to win the gold medal."

You probably won't have to do much rooting, Isiah. With the U.S. not having won a gold medal in international basketball competition since the 1986 world championships, the selection committee was determined to build the strongest team possible. According to committee sources, Daly had seven players on his wish list: Ewing, Jordan, Magic, Malone, Mullin, Pippen and Robinson. Mullin was needed, Daly felt, for his outside shooting. Pippen, perhaps the biggest surprise, was on the list because he can defend three or four positions and, unlike Rodman, can contribute offensively as well.

Barkley was not included because Daly was worried about his comportment (over the last two seasons he has been fined $80,000, including an NBA-record $57,000 for his involvement in a brawl in a game against the Pistons on April 19, 1990). Bird was left off primarily because of his repeated insistence that he didn't want to play. But at the urging of Celtics executive Dave Gavitt, the president of USA Basketball, the decision was made to go after Bird. Finally, when no one pushed for Thomas, Stockton was anointed as Magic's backup. Invitations were extended only to those 10 players, and only Jordan and Bird hedged.

A variety of factors—no Isiah, the likelihood of no two-a-day practices, no limit to endorsement opportunities—contributed to Jordan's decision to become an Olympian. Bird had to be convinced that he would be more than a token presence, and a loose coalition of Gavitt, Celtics president Red Auerbach, Bird's wife, Dinah, and Magic did exactly that. Because his rehabilitation from back surgery in June had gone better than expected, Bird thought he would be ready.

But is the world ready for U.S. pros? Although Puerto Rico, which won the Pan-American Games this summer, and running-and-gunning Brazil have intimidated American collegians in the past, they may well fall apart at the sight of a soaring Jordan or at the sight—and sting—of a Ewing elbow.

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