It's the classic sports debate, whether it's being argued by two friends at a bar, two co-workers around the water cooler, or two all-time NBA greats through the media.
Could a team from today beat a great team from the past?
Kobe Bryant caused a stir this week by saying the 2012 Olympic men's basketball team would beat the Dream Team, from the 1992 Olympics. Michael Jordan, who played on that '92 team, called Bryant's assertion laughable and, despite Jordan's complete inability to judge talent as the Charlotte Bobcats' top decision maker, most fans seem to side with Jordan.
But is that simply nostalgia winning out over reason? Anyone over 35 was awed by that team, with Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and the rest, but is everyone ignoring the evolution of athletes?
(There's a school of thought that every generation of athletes exceeds the previous one. That Barry Bonds would've destroyed 1920s pitching while Babe Ruth would've struggled against the slider and situational relievers. Another school of thought says the greatest athletes of any era would find themselves right at home in any other era and Ruth, with modern training, would've dominated today's watered-down pitching staffs.)
It's a given that Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever to don a Speedo. His times say so. Ditto on the track for Usain Bolt.
But just as Jordan said today's basketball players learned from the Dreamers, so, too, has every athlete learned about how best to prepare for his or her event. Thus, Mark Spitz begat Phelps just as Jesse Owens begat Carl Lewis, who begat Bolt.
So do we consider advances in training, nutrition and technology when considering the past? Bobby Jones or Ben Hogan would scarcely recognize the equipment Tiger Woods uses and Roger Federer's oversized, lightweight rackets would've been a tremendous asset in Rod Laver's day.
The New York Yankees won every World Series from 1949-53. They did so without a closer or substantive scouting reports, and also without weight lifting or even the go-ahead to drink water on a 100-degree day. It was not uncommon for them to lose 15 pounds during the summer.
So when comparing the Joe DiMaggio-Whitey Ford-Phil Rizzuto Yankees of 1950 to the Yankees of half-a-century or more later, do we do so in vacuum, or do we assume everything we've learned in the interim would close the physical gap?
Same for football. A glance at the Pittsburgh Steelers rosters of the 1970s would show that the Steel Curtain had linemen who weighed 50-75 pounds less than the lineman of today. But, knowing what we know now, isn't it fair to assume the players would be much bigger, and wouldn't Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth take full advantage of the favorable passing rules of this era?
Of course, on the other hand, isn't it unfair to today's teams to assume that the Yankees or Steelers dynasty could stay together in the modern era, when free agency and salary caps break teams up every year?
But there would be no such issues when comparing this year's Olympic hoops team to the one from 1992. And it isn't like we're going back to the 1960 Oscar Robertson-Jerry West team. There's plenty of footage, data and fresh memories about the '92 team. So no free agency issues, no reason to worry about training techniques, too short a time to consider evolution.
Which team was better?
The current version is certainly more athletic. Few would argue that Chris Paul and Deron Williams don't have a huge quickness edge on the guards from that team, and that LeBron James is quite simply the biggest physical freak to lace up sneakers since Wilt Chamberlain. Who's going to stop him? Or Kevin Durant, for that matter? Particularly with Magic and Bird past their primes by 1992.
Of course, "big men" Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love would surely have their hands full with David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, who played when it was actually important to get the ball inside to a guy with honest-to-goodness post moves and would be a significant impediment once today's players beat their defenders and got into the paint. Throw Barkley and Karl Malone into the mix and who knows how the current team ever gets a rebound.
It might come down to a one-on-one battle between Jordan and Bryant. As great as Kobe is, that's a battle no one wins. Jordan was the best player of his generation - maybe any generation - and he's the greatest competitor in the history of sports. Plus, he was four years younger in 1992 than Jordan is today.
So the Dream Team gets the nod here, in a close game.
But, keep in mind, when we consider the Dream Team we're also considering everything Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Malone and John Stockton, Robinson and Clyde Drexler did afterward.
So we'll reserve the right to be revisionist if James and Durant go on to win four or five NBA titles each, if Williams and Paul can do the impossible and make the Nets and Clippers perennial contenders, and if Anthony Davis turns into a 10-time all-star.