The Interpretation of Dreams

I don’t usually watch the Olympics much.  Not because I don’t enjoy the events, but because NBC usually feels compelled to shovel forklifts of “human interest” stories down your throat with brief breaks taken for cursory athletic performances.  So I wasn’t surprised when I checked in on the Olympics briefly this summer and didn’t see much actual footage of events.  I was struck, however, by the length of time devoted a very large excerpt of the 20th anniversary film/infomercial NBA TV made about the Dream Team.  I kept waiting for NBC to cut back to a story about a current athlete, but it just kept going.  You can see the whole film at the bottom of the post; here’s an excerpt.

Any documentary is to a certain extent a work of fiction.  Even if a lot of period footage is used, as is the case here, the editing process often says as much about the people who make and watch the film as it does about the subject of the film itself.  It struck me that the film uses the anniversary of the dream team as an opportunity for a collective mourning for the decline of the American Empire, as well as a compensatory reliving of its glory days.  Some things have changed since 1992, and some remain the same.  Each Olympic games took place shortly after the (declared) end of a war with Iraq.  Each mission was proclaimed successful.  But of course the realities of the two historical junctures are very different.

Back in 1992, Operation Desert Storm served notice that the fall of the Iron Curtain would usher in an era of uncontested US global dominance.  The quick strike and rapid close to the hostilities of the Gulf War seemed to promise a painless and limitless potency that put an end to the lingering wounds the Vietnam War, the Iran hostage crisis, and the Iran contra affair had dealt to the national military ego.  News anchors were enthralled with the carefully choreographed video-game style footage supplied by General Schwazkopf, who my friend Paul sardonically termed “the greatest artist of the 20th century” for his manipulation of the way the war was presented in the media.  More recently, another kind of tribute has been paid to this figure by Thomas Ricks, whose autopsy of the 2003 Iraq War Fiasco sets up a good cop / bad cop dichotomy between career military men like Schwarzkopf, who ran things the right way in 1991, and the career politicians like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz who screwed things up 12 years later.  It seems like an anti-war book, until you realize it’s just a big exercise in nostalgia for the halycon days captured in the following youtube clips:

The film about the Dream Team uses a highly militaristic lingo that resonates clearly with the kind of nostalgia Ricks conjures up on the pages of Fiasco.

Charles Barkley is shown saying that the US was going to “take back the canal” by beating Panama, who of course had been invaded by the US a few years prior to the Olympics.  He also is shown throwing elbows at a player from Angola during a game the US won by over 60 points.  Barkley infamously said afterward, “Somebody hits me, I’m going to hit him back. Even if it does look like he hasn’t eaten in a while.”  Proving his previous statement that he didn’t know anything about Angola, he said nothing about the fact that that country had been torn apart by a civil war United States bankrolled rebels had been waging against a Marxist government.  (Of course, Barkley was the man who said, “My family got all over me because they said Bush is only for the rich people. Then I reminded them, ‘Hey, I’m rich’.”)  Not to be outdone, Barkley’s rival power forward Karl Malone compared the dream team to the Navy Seals:  “our job was to go over there and kick butts and take names.”

The victory over Angola, who had just lost their own imperialist sugar daddy with the implosion of the USSR, and renounced Marxism in 1992, soothed an open wound.  The film treats the two gold medals won by the USSR in 1972 and especially 1988 as primary motivating factors in the creation of the Dream Team.  The US refused to stand at the podium and accept their silver medals after the 1988 loss because of a dispute about the officiating at the end of the game.  The fresh wound of the previous loss, coupled with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, reinforced the way the Dream Team’s victory resonated with the moment in time Francis Fukuyama called “The End of History,” a conservative summer of love in which it seemed that US style neoliberal capitalism had won not only the day, but history itself, now settling into a plateau that would be forever ruled by the Pentagon and by Wall Street.  The final score as the buzzer of history rang looked something like this:

1992 Olympics results

Game USA Points Opponent Points Opponent Point differential
1 116 48  Angola 68
2 103 70  Croatia 33
3 111 68  Germany 43
4 127 83  Brazil 44
5 122 81  Spain 41
6 115 77  Puerto Rico 38
7 127 76  Lithuania 51
8 117 85  Croatia
(Gold medal match)
Source: [4]

The absence of insecurity or rivalry that was felt at that time runs throughout the way the Dream Team’s story was presented on NBC.  A series of lopsided victories over all of the other nations that came to the games in Barcelona in reeled off in tribute to what one commentator called an “orgasmic” experience.  This reminds of the line a friend of mine wrote for one of his band’s songs in 1991:  “You see a missile.  I see a dick.  We’re both right.”

But even as this Desert Storm-style Blitzkreig Bop unfolds, we are repeatedly told that this kind of Dream “will never happen again.”  The current interviews with Dream Team alumni kill two birds with one stone by touting their own superiority to the current US team of Lebron and Durant at the same time as they mourn the ascent of foreign basketball stars like Nowitzki and Genobli that have made the current international arena more competitive, just like the BRICS have done in the economic arena.  Only Mike Krzyzewski spins this differently, saying that one of the things the Dream Team accomplished was to inspire players in foreign countries to become the great players they have become today.

What no one says is that the reasons why the dream team of 2012 does not meet with the same rock star reception around the world that the Dream Team of 1992 did has a lot to do with the historical circumstances they are operating in.  The twin engines of US off-court Dominance, the Pentagon and Wall Street, have been exposed as corrupt and mismanaged by the failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the post-2008 shambles in which the US economy finds itself.  What’s worse, nothing has been learned from those failures to ensure that they will not happen again.  Nor has the entire project of whether the goal of a country should be to run roughshod over the entire globe by 50 point margins of athletic, military and economic victory been called into question.  Even as it becomes apparent that the zero-sum game mentality that project is based on hurts Americans just as it hurts folks from the countries the US (and/or its economic partner in crime, China) looms over on podiums at the Olympics.

No athlete or sports journalist will openly acknowledge this on camera, of course.  And the players are just the face men for a power structure that is less visible on screen, that of the NBA/ESPN/NBC executives and producers that created this documentary.  But just like Freud and John Fahey said, the repressed will return.  There’s something uncanny ( about the glow that suffuses this hagiography of basketball players.  It smells like Blowback.

Of course, the glow has to do with more than the unrecognized conflicts about empire.  Race is a part of it too.  Lenny Wilkins, the only black (assistant) coach of the team, hardly appears in the film.  His boss, the white Chuck Daley, was deemed necessary to bring in because “he coached the bad boys (the Detroit Pistons) and if you coach those guys you can coach anybody.”  This seems to suggest that Wilkins in particular or a black coach in general could not be relied upon to “control” the mostly black stars and their “big egos,” of whom Charles Barkely said, “Everyone in the world has an ego.  The only difference is that we have a reason to have one.”

A key part of the story of Daly is the way the league forced him to agree to the exclusion of his best player, Isiah Thomas, from the team.  The film dwells on this controversy quite a bit in a way that redirects attention away from the white coaching and executive power structure onto a blood feud between two black superstars, one of whom (Jordan) is presented as and angel, while the other, (Thomas,) is demonized.  Sounds like colonialism 101.

Thomas is presented as the “general” who instigated all of the “dirty” play of the two time champions from Detroit, while the role of Bill Laimbeer, who was a foot taller, considerably heavier, white, and the child of a corporate executive, is minimized to a few snapshots.  This despite the face that the video game “Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball” had been released in 1991.  The futuristic game is based on a hypothetical league in the year 2030 of which Laimbeer is the commissioner.  Rules are abolished, the referees are all fired, and the use of weapons during games has become perfectly legal in which there are no fouls, but plenty of harm.   I had a friend who had played a lot of pickup basketball on both the south side of Chicago and at Harvard Law School.  He told me that the rich white Harvard Law students were by far the dirtiest players he ever played with.  I played a pickup game with him there once and quickly saw what he was talking about.

I’m sure Harvard Law students still commit flagrant fouls.  But the NBA dream team of 2012 cannot bulldoze every country in the world.  They can still win the gold medal, just as the US can appoint whoever it wants to act as head of the World Bank, as Europe can with the IMF.  But it’s no longer a lock.  Argentina won the gold medal for basketball in 2004, after having become the first international team to beat a US team full of NBA players in 2002 FIBA world tournament in Indianapolis.

One could make a very interesting film about how that historical juncture dovetailed with Argentina’s momentous 2002 decision to default on its debt to the IMF.  IMF structural adjustment “loans” are widely viewed in the Global South as tools used to exploit the labor and resources of recipient countries in ways that enrich the north and create skyrocketing inequality in places like Nigeria and India.  This process is now coming home to roost in places like Greece and Spain as well.  Who knows, the 2004 gold medal may have encouraged Argentina to finally liquidate all remaining debt to the IMF in 2005, a decision that has proved to work out to their advantage.  Maybe someone will interview Manu Ginobli et al. about that.  But even money says it won’t be NBC, NBA TV, or ESP(i)N.

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