PORTLAND, Ore. -- Before the Dream Team, there was Nightmare One (the 1987 Pan Am Games) and Nightmare Two (the 1988 Olympics). David Robinson is the only member of the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team who was part of both.
"I have the unique distinction of being on the only Olympic team to lose without controversy, and the only Pan Am Games team to lose without controversy," the San Antonio Spurs' 7-foot-1 center said glumly.
Robinson, 26, keeps his silver medal from '87 and bronze from '88 "somewhere home in a box." He never expected to play again internationally, but there he was yesterday, marching into the opening ceremonies of the Tournament of the Americas.
The U.S. Olympic basketball team's first public appearance was greeted by loud shrieks from the crowd at the Portland Memorial Coliseum, and silent stares from the other nine teams competing in the Olympic qualifying tournament.
The greatest basketball team ever assembled opens play today against Cuba at 3 p.m. Robinson is expected to start at center in place of Patrick Ewing, who will miss at least three of a possible six games with a dislocated right thumb.
Robinson, mind you, is coming off a thumb injury of his own -- he underwent surgery March 28 and missed the rest of the NBA season -- but yesterday he pronounced his left (shooting) hand was holding up "extremely well."
All that's left is to play. Robinson spent the bulk of yesterday's 30-minute interview session answering questions about 1988 -- the humiliation, the embarrassment, the defeat. He raised the subject of '87 himself, lest anyone forget.
That was the year the United States blew a 20-point halftime lead to Brazil in the gold-medal game at the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis. Brazil's Oscar Schmidt scored 46 points. Robinson fouled out in the second half.
Then came '88. The U.S. Olympic team featured several future NBA stars -- Robinson of Navy, Danny Manning of Kansas, Mitch Richmond of Kansas State. But it lost to the Soviet Union and wound up with the bronze.
"It's not a source of shame," Robinson said. "But it's probably the lowest moment I've ever had in sports. I played hard in the Pan Am and Olympic Games. I felt like we had a good shot to win. We didn't.
"When it happened, I was upset, I was hurt. But, it was over. I'm not one to regret anything. It's never been an issue for me. When I thought about playing in this Olympics, that's when I remembered what it felt like to lose."
It all seems so long ago. Robinson reflected calmly yesterday, without emotion. He said his motivation in these Olympics was to play with his fellow NBA greats, not to avenge his previous disappointments. In just three seasons, Robinson has become one of the league's biggest stars. Indeed, "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" is nearly as recognizable a marketing concept as "Air Jordan."
Last season, Robinson was NBA Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-league. He was the only player in the top 10 in scoring (23.2 points), rebounding (12.2), blocked shots (4.49), steals (2.32) and shooting percentage (.551).
After the surgery, however, his left hand was in a cast for four weeks. Doctors ordered two more weeks of inactivity after that. Robinson didn't resume playing until the middle of this month, and rushed to prepare for last week's Olympic practices in La Jolla, Calif. "He hadn't played a lot, and I thought he came in a little tentative," Olympic coach Chuck Daly said. "But he's gotten sharper every day, as have a lot of people. He's played well."
Good thing: Ewing said he planned to test his thumb in practice yesterday, but is still experiencing discomfort from a cut that required five stitches in the same area as his dislocation. It's not a major concern -- Daly can plug in Duke's 6-11 Christian Laettner at center or even Utah's 6-9 Karl Malone. "We have enough talent where I don't need to rush it," Ewing said, smiling.
Indeed, the players are loving every minute, and not just because of basketball. Yesterday Robinson spoke of a budding friendship with Ewing, a friendship that could never have developed during the course of a hotly contested season.
"We're fighting all the time when we play," Robinson said, laughing. "We don't have a great friendship on the court. You have to break through that off the court.
"The first couple of times, it was like, 'Hey, how you doing?' Not too friendly. But as you start to see each other's personality, you nTC start to open up. It's, 'How you doing, how's your wife, and all that.' "
Robinson doesn't engage in all the Olympic team banter, explaining, "It makes me mad when they talk about my team." But after living through two nightmares, he's delighted to be part of a dream.
"I'm real excited. You think about it, the opportunities you missed out on," he said. "No one wants to feel they were part of a losing cause. These opportunities come few and far between."