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Michael Jordan’s ’92 crew or today’s Olympians? Only one era is dreaming

Michael Jordan soars over Spain’s Angel Herreros during U.S. team’s steamroll showing BarcelonOlympics 1992. | Getty Images

Michael Jordan soars over Spain’s Angel Herreros during the U.S. team’s steamroll showing at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. | Getty Images

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Updated: August 23, 2012 10:45AM

Jack McCallum owes Kobe Bryant a favor.

McCallum, a former Sports Illustrated senior writer, was one of the sharpest and most insightful NBA reporters of his time. To commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the U.S. Olympic ‘‘Dream Team,’’ the first to tap into the NBA’s all-world workforce, McCallum has written Dream Team: How . . . the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed Basketball Forever, a book recounting its origins and its history-making march to a gold medal in Barcelona.

Bryant inadvertently piqued interest in the ’92 team and, by extension, McCallum’s book, with his recent claim that this year’s London-bound U.S. outfit, with
K. Bryant in a leading role, was the stronger squad and would win a head-to-head matchup of both teams at their physical peak.

‘‘Hogwash!’’ Dream Teamers responded en masse. Even Michael Jordan, who rarely says anything these days, was moved to weigh in, scoffing at Bryant’s impudence while citing the 11 Hall of Famers on the Dream Team roster as proof of its invincibility.

A dissenting view comes from some discerning hoops fans at Leo High School, where I work. Most of these youngsters were unborn or toddling around in diapers when MJ was at his electrifying best, so he’s something of a mythical figure to them — they have no memory of how good he was. Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade and D-Rose form their frame of reference, and they can’t imagine anyone being better.

So as the older heads at the table were dismissing Kobe’s assertion as baseless and boastful, the young Lions found it spot on.

‘‘Who guards Kevin Durant?’’ one demanded.

A suggestion that Scottie Pippen might handle him drew blank stares and a disdainful snort. Pippen, a notoriously smothering defender, evidently has less kid cred than Jordan.

‘‘Who checks Kobe?’’

Derisive hoots at the mention of MJ. You would have thought we had offered Kornel David or Rusty LaRue.

It’s a generational thing. Our own eyes and ears are our most trusted witnesses, so we want to believe that what we are seeing and hearing is the best that’s ever been. Not just in sports but in culture as a whole: music, movies, television, books (books?) and the internet.

The what?

And if we as witnesses are determinedly protective of ‘‘our era,’’ imagine how the participants feel.

Bill Russell retired from the Boston Celtics in 1969, after NBA title No. 11. Rookie Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reported for pro hoops duty with the Milwaukee Bucks the following season; thus their paths never crossed on the court. But Russell, as proud an athlete as ever laced up sneakers, had a ready reply when asked how he would have fared against the sky-hooking 7-4 marvel.

‘‘Young man,’’ Russell said, ‘‘I think you have that question reversed.’’

Jordan, too, was notorious for a scorched-earth response to any perceived slight. Poor Jerry Stackhouse got the full treatment as a Philadelphia 76ers rookie in 1995.

Stackhouse shared Jordan’s North Carolina lineage and inspired some inevitable and misguided Jordan comparisons with a few spectacular dunks as a Tar Heel. Perhaps to buck himself up before facing Jordan for the first time as a pro, Stackhouse allowed as how he usually held his own with Michael in pickup games back in Chapel Hill and didn’t figure to be intimidated.

Try humiliated — MJ went for 56 on the kid. He was still shooting (and Phil Jackson was still wearing that inscrutable little smile) at the final buzzer of a Bulls rout.

Jordan averaged a modest 14.9 points as the Dream Team won its eight Olympic games by an average margin of 43.8 points. He led the Dreamers in assists and steals and played a lot of point guard because Magic Johnson was rusty (and chunky) from a year’s layoff and John Stockton hurt his leg.

The absence of a true point guard and the career-ending back injury that bothered Larry Bird in Barcelona eliminate the Dream Team from best-ever consideration, according to pro hoops maven Sam Smith, who joins McCallum on the roster of elite NBA scribes.

The 1960 U.S. Olympic team had a starting backcourt of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson and won its eight games by an average of 42 points, but it was a college all-star squad, and the rest of the world was playing JV basketball back then.

I saw the Dream Team in Barcelona, and I can’t imagine it losing, to the 2012 U.S. squad or to anyone else, ever. MJ was at the peak of his powers in 1992. He never lost when it mattered.

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