1992 vs. 2012: A dream team debate for the ages

Cross-generational arguments in sports are the best because it is impossible to end them with a satisfactory or even logical answer, meaning nobody ever can be proved right or wrong. You’d think this might discourage debate, but it hardly stops fans who are in the mood to play what-if.

Or athletes who are in the mood, apparently.

It’s one thing if you or I are chewing over whether the 2012 U.S. Olympic basketball team could beat the 1992 “Dream Team.”

It’s quite another when the stars of those teams are the ones starting the fight — Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan jousting, each arguing for himself, his team, his era.

Typically a much greater gap than 20 years is involved in this kind of historical discussion. You know: One minute you’re minding your own business at the Quill n’ Swill Pub and the next minute you are drawn into a beery debate on whether Babe Ruth — who we only know as always seeming portly and pigeon-toed in grainy footage — could go yard on a Justin Verlander fastball.

Or whether a 1962 Jim Brown, if beamed forward a half century, would be as great running against today’s NFL defenses.

(You know the line of argument has officially veered off track when you are challenged to debate Secretariat vs. Usain Bolt over three furlongs.)

Best to just douse such fires with “you can’t compare” and move on to a more amicable debate with a simple answer, such as right to life vs. right to choose.

But if Kobe and Michael themselves have bothered to take time out of their busy lives to invite our debate, well, the least we can do is oblige!

“It’d be a tough one, but I think we’d pull it out,” Bryant said this week when asked if his current Olympic team, training for the fast-approaching London Games, could beat the storied 1992 team.

Hardly fighting words, those.

But Jordan seemed to take them as such. He scoffed there was “no comparison,” so much greater was his Dream Team. He said “I absolutely laughed” when he heard what Bryant had said.

Fellow ’92er Charles Barkley, not one to demur, joined the condescension by adding he thought only three 2012 players — Bryant, the Heat’s LeBron James and the Thunder’s Kevin Durant — would have even made the 1992 U.S. roster.

LeBron, for his part, benignly said only, “We have the potential [to be better than ’92]. But we’ll see.” (James’ newfound national popularity will not be jeopardized, his white hat knocked askew, by inflammatory comments!)

One oddsmaker conjectured the Dream Team would be favored by eight points, but remember betting odds reflect public perception, and that gold-medal-winning ’92 squad probably ranks with the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” American hockey team as the most mythologized team in Olympic history.

What to believe?

Driving public perception and reflected in poll results I’ve seen is the idea that team did it and this one hasn’t yet. More than that, we dreamily recall a Dream Team led by the unparalleled triumvirate of Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, conveniently not bothering to remember that Johnson was then 35 and Bird 33, both newly retired from the NBA. Each averaged only eight points a game in that Olympics.

In fact, there was discussion leading up to the Barcelona Games (I was there) that Johnson and Bird were selected at that time more as an honorarium than on merit, a luxury the United States could abide partly because international competition was not as good then as it is now — verified by the Americans’ average winning margin of 43 points.

Mostly because Magic had lost most of his mojo by then and Bird was low flying, I tend to agree with Kobe. Close call, but give me the 2012 team.

The one man who most should know, Mike Krzyzewski — now the Olympic head coach and a U.S. assistant in 1992 — agrees.

“This team, they’re all in their prime or coming into their prime,” he said of the team that played its first exhibition Thursday night against the Dominican Republic in Las Vegas. “In ’92, you had Magic and Bird, who were past their prime. If they were all in their prime together in ’92 we’d never see a team like that again.”

The Dream Team was taller, maybe deeper and had the best player in Jordan. But the 2012 team is younger, faster, more athletic and has at least three players — LeBron, Kobe and Durant — who are better than anyone but Jordan was in ’92.

“A bunch of young racehorses,” Bryant called his guys.

Jordan, the elder, nearly evoked the good-old-days-were-better screed in saying, “Remember now, they learned from us, we didn’t learn from them.”

But I’d argue that in just about any sport, athletes are generally better than they were 20 years previous. (The same would hold true that 1992 NBA stars were generally superior to stars of 1972. Nothing personal, John Havlicek.)

Best we can do

Arguments for and against both teams have their “yeah buts,” of course.

Jordan might have won unanimous agreement had Magic and Bird been in their primes then. (But they weren’t.) Bryant might have mentioned that the current U.S. team would have been that much better if Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose weren’t all skipping London while recovering from injuries. (But they are.)

For now, acknowledge that most folks probably agree with Jordan about the Dream Team’s superiority, something that is golden and time-gilded.

Kobe and LeBron et al winning gold in London wouldn’t so much end the debate as be the prerequisite that allowed it to start for real.