It hit me watching the outstanding documentary on NBA-TV, "The Dream Team", what it is that makes team sports athletes miss the game so much after they retire. It's not the games they miss playing so much as they miss the shared experience. And what happened in 1992 was an experience that can never be matched again.
The "Dream Team" (and there was only one. Every other team of NBA'ers we've sent to the Olympics since is just a collection of NBA players) was the perfect storm of the greats of the 80's mixing with the stars of the 90's to create a roster that in retrospect is even more remarkable than when it was put together 20 years ago.
Putting Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan on the same team is the basketball equivalent of assembling a linebacking core of Jack Lambert, Lawrence Taylor and Ray Lewis. Lambert and LT overlapped four seasons, but Lewis came in to the NFL after they both left. Or how about a pitch staff that would include Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan and Stephen Strasburg? It couldn't happen, but what if it could?
What "The Dream Team" does an incredible job of, is showing how the torch was being passed from Bird and Magic to Jordan as the team trained together. We only saw the games, the documentary has some incredible behind-the-scenes and practice footage that gives you an understanding of how the greatest players in the game became a team in a sport that placed great value on their individual skills.
The only player on the team, who hadn't yet played an NBA game was Christian Laettner, who had just finished one of the best college careers in NCAA history, starring on Duke's back-to-back championship teams. His playing time was limited, including practice. He doesn't have a big personality like Charles Barkley, so the focus on Laettner in the 90-minute show is limited. However, he makes a point that, for me, gets to the heart of why playing on a team is so meaningful.
Laettner was treated by the 10 other players, rightly so, as a rookie. Despite his four-year college career, he was still the youngest player on the team. And 20 years later, he says he relished the role. He said it was the first time since his freshman year at Duke that he could just be a teamate. "Carry the bags and get the donuts," as he puts it. He didn't have to be the leader and shoulder the responsiblities that came with it. He had the pure joy of just being on a team.
Although none of the other 10 players commented on that issue, but one can easily see that they too were enjoying not having to be "the man", unless it was important to be the man. For Magic Johnson, it was. He'd been out of the NBA, retiring early because of the HIV virus. As perhaps the greatest on-court leader of all time, it was important to him to show that he still had it. From the practice footage, you could see this was like oxygen to him. But for the others, you could sense the relief and joy of playing the game at a level that could never happen unless that team had been assembled. It was as good as it could get.
Certainly Rafael Nadal feels great about winning the French Open and Webb Simpson is thrilled to the U.S. Open champion, but winning as an individual can never match the joy of winning as a team. And no team ever showed that better than the "Dream Team."
Despite being swept by the Yankees over the weekend, the Nats first-place lead over the Braves is still four games. Ironically, they can thank the Orioles for that with their Saturday and Sunday shutouts in Atlanta. So while it was a bitter pill to swallow, they're still in very good shape with the All Star break less than a month away.
The benefit of the weekend will far outweigh the three losses. While doing our show on Friday afternoon from the Bullpen outside the stadium, I could sense a big series atmosphere that I hadn't felt since my days of working in New York at WFAN. New York is a baseball city. And when the Mets hosted the Cardinals for late-season series that had big bearings on the division races, there was nothing in sports bigger in the Big Apple.
Even though this was interleague play, with only a World Series meeting a potential rematch, the young Nats got to feel what it's like to play the Big Room. And hopefully, lessons will be learned. Bryce Harper clearly put too much pressure on himself on Saturday. Hopefully in years to come, he'll look back on his 0 for 7 day with 6 strikeouts, and realize how much he's learned about the game since then. Tyler Moore was clearly safe at home on a play that could have won the game, but the call didn't go their way. You have to respond and they didn't.
We're only eight years in to the return of major league baseball to D.C. It'll take time to grasp what it's like to have a contender. But over the weekend, we got a glimpse of how great it can be. Like the Capital Centre in the late 70's for the Bullets, RFK in the 80's for the Redskins and the Verizon Center these days for the Caps, Nats Park could someday be a happening place.