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‘The Dream Team’ documentary injects new life into the myth (REVIEW)

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Christian Laettner's teammates all wonder why he's tired (Andrew D. Bernstein/ Getty).

Twenty years after it dominated the competition at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the Dream Team has only grown in stature. It is generally agreed upon as the greatest collection of basketball talent in history, and its performances were so great that the margins of victory look like misprints. But as the games themselves have faded into memory, the greatness of the Dream Team has become almost too much of a story and not enough of an experience. We can look at the players on that roster and know how good they were, or the effect they had on the international popularity of basketball, or the extent of their celebrity overseas. Yet what was the experience really like? And why, exactly, does the team still capture our attention and imagination so long after its achievement?

If for no other reason than that it communicates the answers to those questions, NBA TV's 90-minute documentary "The Dream Team" (which premiered Wednesday night and will be rebroadcast several times this weekend) is essential viewing. Though it takes the form a standard-issue hagiographic production, the doc features highlights, rare practice footage, and behind-the-scenes clips of players hanging out that both recall the experience and provide a new look at it. Not every moment is stellar, but there are so many joyous moments that it's all too much fun to complain. In turn, we can remember and understand just why anyone cares so many years later.

There are times when "The Dream Team" seems made for people who were too young to experience the squad the first time around. Stories like the bad feelings towards Pistons star Isiah Thomas among many of the participants and the friendship of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are conventional wisdom for many, and hearing them again feels a little unnecessary for the hardcore basketball fans that make up most of NBA TV's audience. On top of that, the narration by director-actor Edward Burns ("A Sound of Thunder," "Newlyweds") sounds like a sleep-deprived read-through rather than anything professional. (It doesn't help that Burns isn't of the Dream Team era and just familiar enough — without being especially popular — that he's distracting.) At its core, this is a documentary intended to make the Dream Team seem great, and when that's too much of a focus viewers might feel the need to fast-forward.

Luckily, those stretches are few and far between. The producers understand what people have come for. Since early May, this special has been advertised as featuring clips from the Dream Team's training camp loss to a select team of college stars (including Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway and Bobby Hurley) and a legendary scrimmage in Monte Carlo days before the start of the Olympics. Using the coaches' tape of each, the documentary selects various plays to showcase the competition between players and the extremely high quality of play. The loss to the select team mostly features Hurley darting through defenders and the Dream Team looking tentative, though current Team USA head coach and then-assistant Mike Krzyzewski says that Chuck Daly intentionally threw the game to prove a point that anyone could beat the best team ever assembled. The Monte Carlo scrimmage, on the other hand, is presented as an intrasquad war, with a team led by Michael Jordan beating Magic Johnson's squad not just as a battle for bragging rights but the future of the NBA. The highlights are so great, in fact, that it's hard to figure why the powers that be haven't released the tapes, no matter how poor the video quality might be, on DVDs. It'd be like printing money.

Apart from those nuggets, though, "The Dream Team" succeeds because it cares more about the experience than the particulars. Much of the running time is devoted to the ways that the players spent their time in Europe, like hitting the beaches on Monte Carlo to stare at topless women (a favorite of Scottie Pippen, apparently), playing golf (posited as the way that Chuck Daly and Michael Jordan bonded despite the fierce Pistons/Bulls rivalry), all-night card sessions (at least half the team, it seems), walking around with the family as passersby leave them be (only the anonymous John Stockton), and doing everything possible to have fun (Charles Barkley, discussed as a great ambassador for America in that he'd simply talk to everyone he met). Through these stories, the documentary gives a sense of just how charismatic all these players were and still remain. It also becomes clear that their experience as teammates helped break some of the barriers they experienced as rivals, which created friendships and (though it's unspoken) helped pave the way for the altogether friendlier atmosphere between opponents in today's league.

Of course, the best advertisement for the players' personalities — and the reason for their popularity — was the way they played basketball. In an intelligent move, "The Dream Team" doesn't give a blow-by-blow account of the team's games. With the exceptions of the Tournament of the Americas opener against Cuba, the Olympic opener against Angola, and the Jordan and Pippen-led decimation of Toni Kukoc and Croatia, the documentary focuses on highlights and the general style of play. It's always clear that the Dream Team impressed everyone who watched them not just because of their talent, but because they played a fun, exciting, unselfish style of basketball in which each player's best abilities could be displayed. They were intense competitors, but there was also a palpable joy in the way they played. Fans still adored them because they represented what basketball could and should look like. They presented an ideal of what the game could be, and in doing so gave an entire generation of players and fans something to which they could aspire.

This documentary isn't perfect by any means: There are slow bits and many controversial stories go untold, such as the very public ways in which Nike-endorsed players like Jordan covered up the Reebok logos on their gear. In many ways, the team is presented too positively. But that works, for the most part, because we remember them that way. And while this isn't a complete picture of the Dream Team — we'll get closer to that when Jack McCallum's book drops in a few weeks — the images make a compelling argument that they deserve all the attention they get two decades later. What's great about this production is that we get to experience some of those thrills again.

Watch it when you can. The next rebroadcast is Friday night at 10:30 ET. Set your DVRs accordingly.

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