PORTLAND, Ore. -- As the week went on, it was easy to forget what this tournament was really about. There were preposterous scores, the occasional yawn, a little Clyde the Glyde, a little Mailman, and the inevitable gold medal for the United States basketball team.
Maybe things will get a little more serious in Barcelona. Surely, the Dream Team isn't above at least one crisis. Until further notice, though, this brazen new concept can be condensed into a single statement: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
The other teams fought desperately for their trip to Spain. The honors went to Brazil, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, which lost yesterday's title game to the United States, 127-80. There was great honor for those teams, to say nothing of considerable sacrifice and hard work. But it all came down to Johnson and Bird, and everything they've represented over the years.
"When you see those two guys," said U.S. assistant coach P.J. Carlisemo, "you're looking at the recent history of basketball. It's hard to watch them play and not get a little chill down your spine."
Johnson was at his finest once again yesterday, running the show and making sure everyone got a little taste. With his unselfishness setting the tone, the box score was a coach's dream: 17 points for Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, 16 for Christian Laettner, 15 for Clyde Drexler, 14 for David Robinson, 12 each for Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing. As Mullin said later: "We were all amazed how close this team got in a very short time. I think that's something we'll cherish the rest of our lives."
But for the fifth straight game, there was no sign of Bird. He was little more than a statue at the end of the bench, moving gingerly on his bad back, shouting encouragement, needling his teammates. After his memorable stint in last Sunday's opener against Cuba, Bird spent the week answering interminable questions about his back and his future.
Yesterday, the general public simply demanded Bird. As time ran out, they chanted, "Lar-ry! Lar-ry!" from the stands. He really didn't want to play, but Johnson had other ideas. As the crowd's noise grew louder, Johnson jumped off the bench and ripped off Bird's warm-up jersey. "You," he said, "are going in there."
Within seconds, two guys on the Venezuela bench had their cameras out. People inside the NBC truck were ecstatic; a golden moment at last. Bird's teammates got a kick out of it, too.
"The thing I'll remember about this week is that Bird is such a comedian," said Mullin. "I had no idea what an entertaining guy he is. Him and Patrick have been goin' at it a lot. I wish I could tell you the jokes. You can't print them. But when he came into the game, we're saying, 'You better score. You've just been sitting LTC around, riding everybody all week.'
"Was I ready to come in?" Bird said later. "I was almost asleep."
It wasn't the greatest two minutes of Bird's career. He put up a hurried three-pointer that didn't come close, and he missed a left-handed drive to the hoop. But when he dropped in a follow shot, he brought the house down. It was a tribute to Bird and the fans of Portland, who filled the Coliseum for every U.S. game and staged a weeklong, flag-waving party.
"I wasn't gonna sprint, I wasn't gonna jump," said Bird. "If I had the ball, I was gonna shoot. That's about it."
Bird still doesn't know what to expect. Nobody's keeping him off the July 18 flight from New York to Monte Carlo, where the U.S. team will train for five days, and he'll be in Barcelona if they have to wheel him in. Beyond that, no promises.
"I really think I'll be all right by next week," he said. "I was a little disappointed here. Magic and I had such a great time that first game, then I didn't get any more time on the floor with him. My back just couldn't take it. I just want to say thanks to everybody who supported me."
For the spectator, either in Portland or at home by the television set, this tournament carried a special set of rules. Healthy doses of patience and sympathy were required, to say nothing of imagination. You can only say "heck of a painting" so many times as you stare at the Mona Lisa, so when you watched Johnson and Bird, it helped to remember all the buzzer shots, behind-the-back passes and playoff confrontations over the years.
"I don't think you can even sense how great these guys really are," said head coach Chuck Daly. "I've been in the league something like 15 years now, and I still marvel, even in one-sided games like these. It's very special, because we may never see anything like it again."
The Brazilians left the floor in disgrace Friday night. After beating Venezuela by 47 points earlier in the week, they missed 16 straight shots down the stretch and lost to that same team, costing them a spot against the United States in yesterday's title game. "It was like a nightmare," said Marcel De Souza. "The people in Brazil were waiting for that game." Yesterday, though, Brazil rebounded for a 93-91 victory over Puerto Rico for third-place honors. Oscar Schmidt was 2-for-9 from his beloved three-point territory, but led the way with 27 points.
Venezuela coach Julio Toro said there was "wild celebrating" back home after his team's surprising finish. As for the Americans, he said, "They are non-earthly. They are a space team."
Dream Team's road to Barcelona
June 28: USA 136, Cuba 57
June 29: USA 105, Canada 61
Tuesday: USA 112, Panama 52
Wednesday: USA 128, Argentina 87
Friday: USA 119, Puerto Rico 81
Yesterday: USA 127, Venezuela 80