In about 10 months Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson will have a date in Barcelona to carve up the world. The 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, the first Olympic team ever introduced to America on a national television special, will open more eyes and more checkbooks than any other sporting team in history.
So jump a little higher, Michael. Smile a little wider, Magic. There are rich new worlds and television markets to conquer. The Games are expected to attract about 2.5 billion viewers in 170 countries, and somewhere out there, there may just be a multimillion-dollar conglomerate that hasn't seen, or has not fully appreciated. your commercial possibilities.
With stakes like those, it's not surprising that the long selection process did not go as smoothly as executives from the NBA, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Basketball—the sport's governing body in this country—would have liked. The process included backstabbing, backroom politicking, cries of "I'm not coming if he's coming," a resignation, insulting missives, finger pointing, juicy rumors, a letter-writing campaign and even the threat of legal action. Good thing they opened up Olympic basketball to the pros, eh?
The whole thing seemed like a giant sweet-16 party at Ridgemont High. Among the 10 players announced last Saturday on NBC were, of course, all the cool guys in school: Jordan, of the Chicago Bulls, and Johnson, of the Los Angeles Lakers, who will surely be the starting guards; forwards Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz; and centers David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs and Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks. Three relatively new members of the in-crowd also made the team: Utah guard John Stockton, forward Chris Mullin of the Golden State Warriors and Chicago forward Scottie Pippen. Rounding out the Terrific 10 was the player voted most likely to moon the principal, forward Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers. More than a few grown-ups had doubts about Barkley, but in the end his talent won them over. The 13-man selection committee will announce the team's final two members, at least one of whom must be a college player, after the NCAA tournament next spring.
As you might have heard by now, among those not invited to the party was Isiah Thomas, the Detroit Piston point guard, who, unlike anybody with the exception of Magic, has been MVP of a Final Four, MVP of the NBA Finals and MVP of an NBA All-Star Game. Those are what you call credentials. Other stay-at-homes were: Joe Dumars, Thomas's backcourt partner in three NBA Finals; Laker forward James Worthy, who was probably doomed when Bird agreed to play; and the versatile Clyde Drexler of the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland, by the way, is where this collection of the best and brightest will first be loosed upon the world, in an Olympic qualifier, the Basketball Tournament of the Americas, to be held from June 27 to July 5. One of these four players will most likely be named to the team, and the best bet is Drexler. Loyal Trail Blazer fans have already begun a letter-writing campaign in his behalf, and he would undoubtedly be an added draw.
If the U.S. can somehow finish among the top four in that 10-team round-robin event—and coach Chuck Daly is already thinking of ways to make Uruguay seem All-Universe—it will be on to Barcelona and almost-certain Olympic gold. Still, Thomas's omission may have repercussions for the Pistons. "Can I guarantee that this will not affect them during the NBA season?" said Daly, who coaches Detroit. "I don't think so. I know Isiah is hurt. That's not going to go away."
Daly hopes that Dumars—who keeps his own counsel, whether in suffering or celebration—is not too upset about not being selected, but he knows that a third Piston who merited consideration, defensive specialist Dennis Rodman, is. "With Rodman's sensitivity," said Daly, "he could be as hurt as anybody."
What's more, according to a Piston official, Detroit center Bill Laimbeer was so incensed about the exclusion of his good friend Thomas that he talked about seeking an injunction to stop Saturday's announcement on the grounds that players weren't given an opportunity to try out for the team. Another of Thomas's buddies, Mike Ornstein, an NFL marketing executive, wrote all 13 committee members—on NFL stationery—to tell them what he thought of their not choosing Isiah. In his letter to committee member Wayne Embry, who is also the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ornstein wrote: "I think you made a big mistake, and judging by your record as a general manager, it's not your first."
While Thomas has turned a few stomachs in his day—most recently when he and Laimbeer petulantly led their teammates off the floor seconds before the Bulls completed their sweep of the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals last spring—he has also turned in as many big-game performances as any guard in history. To argue that his emotional unpredictability would upset team chemistry, as some Thomas critics suggested, is to underestimate the leadership abilities of the veterans—primarily Magic and Bird—and the proven stewardship of Daly. Stockton, who has led the NBA four straight years in assists, is a brilliant quarterback, but he simply does not belong on the Olympic team ahead of Thomas.
So why wasn't Thomas selected? There are two theories: the Michael-didn't-want-him theory and the Chuck-and-Jack-didn't-push-hard-enough-for-him theory. Every indication suggests that both are true.