TORONTO -- They're the Dream Team, the hired guns of the NBA with a mission to restore the United States to the summit of international basketball.
At times during the past two weeks the job hasn't been handled as decisively as many expected. But yesterday, with the gold medal of the World Championship of Basketball on the line, Dream Team II handled its job with the precision of a skilled
As promised, Dream Team II saved perhaps its most dominant performance for the final game, crushing Russia, 137-91, to win the World Championship of Basketball before 32,616 at SkyDome.
"We came here to win the gold medal, to leave no doubts in anyone's mind about who was the best," said Joe Dumars, who hit five of seven shots for 13 points. "We didn't want [the Russians] to think they had a chance to win."
Maybe Russia thought it had a slim chance after Friday's 17-point loss to Dream Team II, after which coach Sergei Belov complained about the on-the-court privileges he felt the NBA stars were getting. But after yesterday's beating, Belov gave the Dream Team its proper respect.
"I'd like to congratulate the Dream Team -- we were playing the best players in the world," Belov said. "Our victory over Croatia [in Saturday's semifinal] took almost all we had. The desire was there, but we
were affected by fatigue."
Even a Russian team with fresh legs would not have had a chance against Dream Team II, which backed up its promise of saving the best for last. The Dream Team hit its first 10 shots of the game, finished with 19 three-pointers (of 35 attempts) and led by as many as 47 points to finish the two-week event with an 8-0 record.
"The games before, we just played," said Shawn Kemp, who scored 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds. "Before the game we talked about the gold medal, and we were prepared to go the distance. This was the one that counted."
All 12 players scored, eight in double figures. Dominique Wilkins led with 20 points. Shaquille O'Neal added 18 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. So lopsided was the game that three times coach Don Nelson ran plays in the second half to free up O'Neal for three-pointers. O'Neal misfired on all three.
That didn't keep O'Neal from being named tournament MVP. He was joined on the all-tournament team by teammates Kemp and Reggie Miller; Dino Radja from the bronze medal-winning Croatian team; and Sergei Bazarevich (17 points) from Russia.
The result of the tournament could have been predicted from the time the United States decided to send a pro team to the World Championships. And the gold-medal game was pretty much over after Derrick Coleman (13 points, all in the first 10 minutes) hit a three-pointer from the top of the key after the tip.
Five minutes later, Dream Team II had hit 10 straight shots -- including three three-pointers --
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and didn't miss until Dumars misfired on a jumper.
By the midway point of the half, the Dream Team had hit 16 of 18 shots and was on pace to score 168 points. In what's maybe the quickest recording of garbage time in the history of the World Championships, a faint chant of "We want Steve" could be heard in the quiet SkyDome -- but little-used Steve Smith would have to wait until deep into the second half before seeing action.
And rightfully so. The fans came to see the real stars and the likes of Kemp and O'Neal didn't disappoint, displaying a variety of rim-hanging, picture-posing slam dunks. The game was such a breeze that during a late timeout several players took to the court and began tossing T-shirts and other items provided by a shoe manufacturer into the crowd.
L "It was fun, just like it was supposed to be," Coleman said.
For Dan Majerle, the feeling was more than fun. During the 1988 Olympics he stood on the medal stand as a bronze medalist, part of the John Thompson-coached team that was heavily criticized.
"This is a great feeling, because in 1988 all I can remember is this feeling of emptiness," said Majerle, a gold medal draped around his neck. "This is very fulfilling. This medal will have a special place in my heart."
Watching Dream Team II gather at center court at game's end, its posture on the victory stand didn't quite equal the exuberance expressed by previous amateur basketball teams that have won the gold -- or Dream Team I at the Barcelona Olympics. But the international teams had better get used to it -- NBA commissioner David Stern said after the game that the league will continue to provide players to future World Championships.
"I really feel that the NBA players have helped basketball internationally," guard Kevin Johnson said. "It has helped other countries know exactly where they stand.
"We have the opportunity to be the ambassadors of basketball," Johnson added. "They have quite a
ways to go to catch up to our level."
So after a month together, the members of Dream Team II have succeeded in their mission and part ways. It's unknown how many will get together for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but all will cherish the experiences of this tournament.
"We're all great players, and we all got together and looked out for each other," Coleman said. "It's an experience I'll never forget."