CHICAGO -- Orlando Magic guard Anfernee Hardaway smiled and described the feeling as "being in point guard heaven."
Nearby was Seattle SuperSonics point guard Gary Payton, grinning ear-to-ear as he envisioned running a fast break with Scottie Pippen in one lane, Karl Malone in another and Reggie Miller spotting up from long range if needed.
"I can't go out on the break and say, 'Oops, I can't throw the ball to him,' " Payton said. "You can throw the ball to whomever and they're going to get the job done. It's going to be nice. It's going to be fun. I can't wait."
What Payton can't wait for is the start of the Olympics later this month, when he and the rest of his USA Basketball teammates -- also known as Dream Team III -- go through the necessary motions to lay claim to their gold medal.
Yesterday 12 of the best players in basketball -- an accurate statement now that Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson has removed himself from the team because of an injury -- assembled here at Moody Bible Institute for a week of training before the start of a five-game exhibition series that will begin Saturday in Auburn Hills, Mich., against the USA Basketball 22-and-under team.
This 12-member team is a collection of young stars (Grant Hill, Hardaway, Shaquille O'Neal) and established veterans (John Stockton, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone). A combination of players with Olympic experience (Stockton, Barkley, Malone, Pippen, David Robinson and Mitch Richmond) and players who will be experiencing the Games for the first time (Payton, Miller, O'Neal, Hardaway, Hakeem Olajuwon and Hill).
Behind the original Dream Team, which featured Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, Dream Team III qualifies as the second best basketball team ever assembled -- although some fans here in the Windy City might rank it third behind the NBA champion Chicago Bulls. Regardless of its ranking, this team will roll through the competition at Atlanta with the greatest ease. Argentina gets demolished first, on July 20.
"Basketball is our game," Barkley said. "We may not make the best cars, we may not have the best swimmers. But basketball is something we can control."
Control will be easy with this assortment of talent. Hardaway, who along with Hill was a member of the developmental team that scrimmaged daily against the original Dream Team, said he was awestruck as he gathered with the team for dinner on Sunday.
"I felt invincible," Hardaway said. "Being in the room with those guys, it was, like, bring anybody on. Being around these guys and the kind of sportsmanship they carry -- except for Charles Barkley -- everybody on this team is just having fun. I'm going to like this."
Of course, Hardaway was laughing when he made the comment about Barkley, an original Dream Team member known for elbowing opponents during the 1992 Games in Barcelona. The surprise addition of Barkley to the team was probably intentional his antics will provide a bit of comic relief for the squad.
What the selection committee did not do with this team was add any players capable of embarrassing the United States -- which is what had happened in 1994 when Dream Team II won the gold medal during the World Championship of Basketball in Toronto.
Chances are the likes of Derrick Coleman and Larry Johnson will never get a chance to represent the U.S. again. Shawn Kemp's absence here is due to his crotch-grabbing antics in Toronto. Both Miller and O'Neal also were on that team, and they're just happy not to be forever associated with that group.
"This team is a lot older. We got a lot of classier guys with this team," O'Neal said. "The [NBA] had a lot of problems with that World Championship team. I'm just glad that I'm here."
Part of the problem in Toronto was players griping about playing time. Malone said that won't be a problem this time around.
"When that horn blows, we're going to be ready to play as a unit, not as individuals," Malone said. "I don't think anybody out there is going to try to market themselves. Everybody is going to try to make this team win, and we're not going to accept anything less than that."
Not everybody was talking about USA Basketball. O'Neal spent most of his time talking about his pending free agency and rumors that he's set to bolt Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I've never said anything about Los Angeles," O'Neal said. "I like Orlando. I'm going to look at all my options on July 9, and hopefully I'll make my decisions very quickly."
Barkley was asked about rumors that he will soon be traded to the Houston Rockets, where he would join Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
"That would make me happy; I'd feel like a fat person at McDonald's," Barkley said. "When I saw Hakeem [Sunday] I hugged him like I hadn't seen him for 25 years."
All jokes aside, Dream Team III members said they will be all business during their five weeks together. And from the Olympic veterans to the newcomers, each is thrilled about the opportunity to represent their country.
"Once you become famous and successful, people don't think you appreciate things like the Olympics," Barkley said. "But this is awesome. It's going to be a lot of fun."
;11996 .... .... .... .... .... .... ... .... 1992
Player ....... .... Pos. .... ... Player ..... ..... Pos.
Charles Barkley .... F .... ..... Charles Barkley ... F
Anfernee Hardaway .. G .... ..... Larry Bird .... ... F
Grant Hill .... .... F .... ..... Clyde Drexler ..... F
Karl Malone .... ... F ..... .... Karl Malone ....... F
Reggie Miller ..... G ..... ..... Magic Johnson ..... G
Hakeem Olajuwon ... C ..... ..... Patrick Ewing ..... C
Shaquille O'Neal .. C ..... ..... Christian Laettner . F
Gary Payton ... ... G ..... ..... Michael Jordan ..... G
Scottie Pippen .... F ..... ..... Scottie Pippen ..... F
Mitch Richmond .... G .... ...... Chris Mullin ....... F
David Robinson .... C .... ...... David Robinson ..... C
John Stockton ..... G .... ...... John Stockton ...... G
Pub Date: 7/02/96