CHICAGO - The pain flares up from time to time, reminding them of an old injury that never fully healed. David Robinson and Mitch Richmond try to ignore it. They cannot. The hurt burns.
The two Dream Team III players were prominent members of the 1988 U.S. Olympic basketball team that lost the Soviet Union in the semifinal round at Seoul. The USSR went on to defeat Yugoslavia for the gold medal. The Americans, though embarrassed to be playing in the third-place game for the first time in history, took the bronze.
"I can't describe the feeling to you, man, it was just bad," Robinson said Thursday. "I mean, half the guys left their medals in the room. That's how we felt about it. It's something you don't want to go through. We felt like we were the best team out there and we didn't get the job done."
Robinson was able to exorcise some of his bitter feelings four years ago as a participant on the original Dream Team, which easily won the gold medal at Barcelona. But Richmond, a late addition to this year's team, has had to wait eight years for his shot at redemption.
He has never looked at his bronze medal. It is stored away in a closet, like a fourth-grade report card with "Ds" in Math.
"It's just the opportunity of a lifetime to go back," said Richmond, the least publicized of the Dream Team III members, though a four-time All-Star for the Sacramento Kings. "I wish we could have won the gold. Then I would have two golds after this one, and people could be talking about me and Carl Lewis."
When he isn't cracking wise, the personable Richmond is troubled by his poignant memories. He has the constant reminder of being paired in the Kings backcourt with Sarunas Marciulionis, a star on the victorious Soviet team who will play for Lithuania in Atlanta. Marciulionis scored 19 points in the USSR's win, while Richmond managed five points in 13 minutes.
"We don't want to downgrade a bronze medal, but our expectations were so high," Richmond said. "The trip home was so long from Seoul. We didn't know how people were going to receive us. We were college kids, and we lost the gold. We played the biggest game of our careers and our lives, and we lost."
Although the Soviet win was considered a major upset at the time, in retrospect, the top European teams had caught up to America's best amateurs. The USSR's key players were in the mid-20s to early-30s and had several years of international experience. The United States was the only country in the world precluded from using its pros, which left it to rely on collegians in their early 20s.
Contrary to popular belief, though, U.S. basketball officials did not lobby to have NBA players admitted into the Olympics. The push came from the leadership of the world governing body (FIBA), which reasoned that it was unfair for players from Italy, Spain and elsewhere to receive money for playing in international competitions and be eligible for the Olympics when American pros were not.
In 1989, the FIBA membership voted 56-13 to admit the NBA players. Oddly enough, the United States voted against the rule change.
Some countries may have underestimated the talent level of the NBA players.
"The Europeans started thinking they were the best," said Dream Team III coach Lenny Wilkens. "They didn't believe our pros were as good, because, what they were seeing from time to time was a touring bunch of pros who were out of shape. An agent or somebody would take these guys through Europe and they'd win some and lose some. They weren't really representative."
The original Dream Team provided a rude awakening, winning its eight games at Barcelona by no fewer than 38 points. Dream Team II dominated the World Championships in 1994, and this year's Olympic team isn't expected to be challenged.
Said Robinson, "I supposed if you want to take something good out of that '88 experience, the fact that we're here now is it."