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The Dream Team and Muhammad Ali
The Dream Team and Muhammad Ali
THE GAME OF MY LIFE By Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) Updated July 09, 2012 12:00 AM
1996, Atlanta. August had just begun, and it was the end of a grueling coverage of the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics. There had been so many stories, and so much had gone on. For many, it was the gaudiest, most commercialized, most American Olympic Games ever. Atlanta was sure to break records and get back the billions of dollars it had spent on bidding and infrastructure, and then some.
It was also historic in basketball terms because it was the culmination of the US women’s basketball team spending a year on the road, traveling, playing against men and drumbeating for the distaff side of the sport, and remaining unbeaten. Their success would spawn not just one, but two professional women’s leagues in the US, of which the WNBA remains. It was also where, at the Dream Team press conference, that Karl Malone was asked by an inexperienced European journalist why you were given two points for every field goal instead of just one like in soccer. Malone laughed and said he had never been asked that question before. It was also where Shaquille O’Neal announced that he was leaving the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers. I still remember the look of shock on Penny Hardaway’s face, as if his life was over.
For me, personally, it was also a time of great terror. In the early morning of July 27, as my broadcast colleague Ron delos Reyes, our liaison Greg Fitzgerald and I were about to head home, the Centennial Park bomb went off less than a hundred feet from us. We were eyewitnesses to the horrific, the unthinkable. A whirlwind of reactions followed, even from US President Bill Clinton. The park, which was built for those who didn’t have tickets to any of the games, was fenced in. Security detail Richard Jewell was falsely implicated, all but ending his professional career.
But for me, it is Aug. 4 that is inked into my memory. Considering the fact that I had almost died just days before says volumes. There was so much going on, and yet I remember it as clearly as if it were going on right now.
I was exhausted. The 12-hour time difference had taken its toll on all of us. There were nine of us commentators from the Philippines, but we would sometimes receive up to 16 live feeds during the day. We lived on coffee and soft drinks. Coca-Cola, which is based in Atlanta, had just issued new automated vending machines, and all media had cards that got us free Coke any time. Still, our nerves were a bit frayed. Adding to the strain was the fact that our hotel, which had been booked belatedly, was 20 miles away, we has almost no long breaks, and vehicles only left the transportation mall every hour on the hour. I started my broadcast day at 6 a.m. and ended it doing two basketball games solo from 8 p.m. to midnight. Once your day started, you couldn’t leave. But hey, this was the Olympics. I wasn’t going to complain.
After the first all-NBA team won the gold in superlative fashion in Barcelona in 1992, everyone knew there was no way to top that. The team’s second incarnation, filled with the next generation of playground-bred players led by Larry Johnson, was a PR nightmare. After a world championship filled with arrogant chest-bumping, trash-talking and crotch-grabbing, 10 of the team’s 12 members were replaced. Original Dream Team veterans David Robinson, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen were called back into service. Hakeem Olajuwon’s US citizenship was rushed, and he was allowed to play.
Games were played at the gargantuan Georgia Dome, next door to the Atlanta Hawks’ original home, The Omni, which now looked like a giant shoe box in comparison. It was also walking distance from CNN and the International Broadcast Centre, where we were based. The dome could hold 70,000 spectators, and was split in half to hold both basketball and gymnastics competitions. In the middle was a giant divider, and tier upon tier of booth for the media. Seattle Supersonics sixth man Detlef Schrempf was two rows down from me, covering for German radio, since his country did not qualify.
Basketball games were played in three sessions of two games each: 8 a.m. to 12 noon, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and 8 p.m. to midnight. After the first few games, the US was always scheduled last for the day. In my perch midway up that media stands, I was in a cocoon, surrounded by two monitors, a headphones and stat sheets. From my vantage point, I could see straight down the tunnel to the US dugout.
Lithuania had already won the bronze, a sort of vindication for an aged Arvydas Sabonis and the gifted Sarunas Marciulionis. Sabonis was dropped from the USSR team when he announced his intention to go to the NBA, and was mysteriously injured after. The US was taking on Yugoslavia with Vlade Divac before he became known as the king of flopping. Everyone knew the US was going to win, perhaps not as easily, but win nonetheless.
During one second-quarter timeout, as I went through my notes, a very polished baritone boomed through the public address system. “Ladies and gentlemen, at halftime His Excellency Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, will make a special presentation.”
That left the jampacked crowd buzzing. Halftime? But the game wasn’t over yet. Curious. I took my mind off it, and went back to work.
The halftime buzzer sounded, and peering up from my monitor as people left for the restrooms, I saw a golf cart slowly moving up the US tunnel, with a rather chubby African-American man in a red shirt was in the passenger’s seat. Samaranch was waiting at midcourt. Then the voice came back on.
“In 1960, a young boxer named Cassius Clay won light heavyweight Olympic gold medal in boxing in Rome. Sadly, that medal was lost. Today, His Excellency Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, will present a replica of that old medal to Muhammad Ali.”
The crowd erupted in a cheer that I had not heard in a generation, at first as a murmur, than a growing crescendo, as Ali shakily alighted from the golf cart. The Dream Teamers were in awe, and cautiously approached in disbelief, until Charles Barkley broke through and gave Ali a bear hug. Then the Yugoslavian players came over, a few pulling out cameras from nowhere. The crowd was on its feet, cheering the world’s most well-known and beloved athlete. Many were in tears.
And commentating live, so was I.
Sadly, since it happened at halftime, it was never broadcast live in the Philippines. But for those of us who were there, that moment will live forever.