CHICAGO - The original Dream Team had Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and a mystique that will never be duplicated. Disappointed no one, the team won its eight games at the 1992 Olympics by an average of 44 points.
The scary thought for Europe's 1996 Olympic entries is that the new collection of NBA superstars headed to the Atlanta is more athletic, younger, quicker and healthier.
"This Dream Team could take all the other Dream Teams put together," asserts center Shaquille O'Neal.
That's hardly a universal opinion, and comparisons at this point are premature to say the least. But if Dream Team III is as good as its billing, history will be its main competition.
"I don't think you can really compare playing with Michael and Magic and Larry to what we have now," said David Robinson, one of five players returning from '92. "Playing with that particular group was a unique experience, and it will always be special. We'll try to create something special with this group, too."
Bird and Johnson have retired, and Jordan - still regarded as the greatest player in the world - declined an invitation to play again.
But five players are back from the '92 team - Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton. And the seven new players - O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton, Mitch Richmond - represent the best of today's NBA.
The first Dream Team had Jordan, which is a big advantage. But Bird was near the end of his career and was barely able to play, and Johnson had retired from the NBA a year earlier after learning he had the HIV virus. Point guard Stockton appeared briefly in only four games because he was recovering from a broken leg, and Chris Mullin was clearly in decline.
Also, Dream Team I devoted one position to a college player. Duke's Christian Laettner, now an Atlanta Hawk, was a token addition and contributed little.
This year's team is healthy, except for Pippen, who has several nagging injuries and hopes to limit his minutes to 15 per game. There is a mixture of youth and experience, and you won't find a college player.
You want prowess on the front line? Robinson, the NBA MVP two years ago for the San Antonio Spurs, is the third center behind behind Olajuwon and O'Neal and will probably spend more time at power forward. Four years ago, Robinson was the starting center.
Dream Team III team should have better perimeter shooting, too, with Miller and Richmond. In '92, only the ailing Bird provided a three-point threat.
Add to that the fact that this U.S. team will be playing at home, in front of huge, supportive crowds in the Georgia Dome, and will benefit from the experience of an Olympics and the 1992 World Championships, won by Dream Team II in Toronto.
The challenge for coach Lenny Wilkens is to meld 12 egos and bring about the cohesiveness and unselfishness that characterized the '92 team.
"I've coached against these guys, I've coached all of them in All-Star games, so I know them very well," Wilkens said. "This is important to them. They'll suppress their egoes. For a short period of time, we can take 12 great players and play together. You couldn't do it over an 82-game season."
Added Robinson, "The easy thing about roles on this team is that everybody knows what they do real well. That's what we'll try to stick with. John Stockton can pass the ball. I think if he shoots it, we're all going to attack him. We've got Mitch Richmond and Reggie Miller, and those guys are our shooters. I think we'll come together pretty well."
What Dream Team III doesn't want to repeat is the offensive behavior exhibited by Dream Team II in Toronto. The taunting, cursing and crotch grabbing by some players on that team brought negatives reviews near and far. It's no coincidence that the most serious offenders from that team - Derrick Coleman, Larry Johnson and Shawn Kemp - are not '96 Olympians.
"We're going to win, and we're going to do it with class," said Wilkens.