So much of sports is about dreams; whether it’s the dream of young fans to emulate the athletic feats of their heroes or the culmination of a life’s work as a player clinches a title that encapsulates everything that the players strove to achieve all their lives.
Perhaps then, it’s no surprise that the 1992 United States basketball team captured the imagination of the sporting public around the world. At a time when the sport was going through a boom, with its stars transcending the game, almost all of its biggest characters and icons came together at once and managed to gel as a team, producing some of the best play to ever grace a basketball court.
The concept of pulling together the biggest stars in a single sport is one that has seen more than a few franchises overspend and underachieve, but the idea of a national team, playing for the pride of a country, was one that has never been matched in the same way. Before 1992, basketball at the Olympics was a very different proposition to what we know it as these days. Without professionals, the game was played by college students and amateurs, which has of course included the odd famous name, like Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing as they came through the ranks.
America's dominance in the sport had never come into question, but after the trouble of the boycotts in the tournaments of the 1980s, the two great powers of the sport in the United States and the Soviet Union had traded blows, and golds. While they were locked in political and sporting war, the rest of the world had caught up to their level a little bit, establishing professional leagues and improving their standard. The result was a bronze finish in 1988 for the United States, and some time for reflection for the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) - was it fair to let professionals take on amateurs?
Despite the objections of the United States and the USSR, the rest of FIBA overwhelmingly voted to have professionals from the United States to be allowed to compete at the Olympics in 1991. While the NBA weren’t thrilled about the idea, given they weren’t sure how they would benefit from the Olympic event, a number of players were a bit more enthused.
Unlike golf at the 2016 Games, the biggest names in the NBA were quick to sign up, but what made the 1992 squad even more special than the subsequent star-filled rosters was the stories at the heart of the team, fueled by the big characters who were in the locker room. As Magic Johnson told NBA.tv in a documentary about the team, "it was a no-brainer for me, you know I was in from day one." Fellow Hall of Famer David Robinson echoed that sentiment, noting that "representing the USA is already a tremendous honour, but to know that you’re going to be on a Dream Team is a once in a lifetime experience." Equally, Karl Malone didn’t care where on the list he was, so long as his name was down: “It don’t matter if you call me last,” said Malone, “I got the call.”
For Michael Jordan, who was at the height of his powers as the Games in Barcelona were approaching, it was a bit more of a difficult sell. Jordan not only wanted to know what other stars were going to be on the team, but also whether or not Isiah Thomas was going to get the call. The hugely talented, two-time NBA champion was one of the best point guards in the league, but as part of a Detroit Pistons side that had a reputation for playing on the limit (and sometimes over the limit) of the rules, Jordan and Thomas did not get on well.
Speaking to ESPN, Magic Johnson said that his exclusion was a difficult one to explain. “Did Isiah deserve to be on the Dream Team? No question about it,” said Johnson. “But when you think about a team, everybody must get along. They’ve got to live together, they’ve got to hang out together, and Isiah and some of his competitive nature just rubbed some of the guys the wrong way.”
Years later, in a book written by Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated, it was clear that the final decision was made by Jordan, who issued the ultimatum that if Thomas was to go, he wouldn’t.
Image: FRED JEWEL / AP/Press Association Images
The roster, when it was finalised, was the stuff of legend: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (Chicago Bulls), Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Lakers), Larry Bird (Boston Celtics), John Stockton and Karl Malone (Utah Jazz), Patrick Ewing (New York Knicks), Chris Mullin (Golden State Warriors), David Robinson (San Antonio Spurs), Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers). Even with that there was room for one amateur, Christian Laettner of Duke University, who could reasonably have expected to be one of the key figures on the team in any other year up to this point. Not this year, however.
Coach Chuck Daly, who had lead the Pistons to their NBA Finals wins, had a tough time explaining the exclusion of Thomas to his own player as he took over the hot seat, tasked with bringing the whole team together, including Jordan. His competitive nature meant that he had to prove a point to the other team members who may have doubted that he was now the most dominant player in the game.
For Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the other contenders for that crown, this was to be their last hurrah in the game. Johnson’s diagnosis with HIV almost saw him miss the cut, while Bird’s battle with his back issues meant he wasn’t the force he once was, but the two had been involved in some epic battles over the years, dominating the 1980s.
Image: Lennox McLendon / AP/Press Association Images
The rise of Michael Jordan meant that they would be passing on the torch, but there was some questions over whether or not Jordan would simply take it from them, upsetting the delicate balance of the team. As Daly struggled to pull together 11 future Hall of Famers and a college student together in a room and come up with a cohesive unit. To speed up the process, he decided to let them suffer an embarrassing defeat.
To this day, Mike Krzyzewski, who was part of the coaching ticket in 1992 and will lead out Team USA in Rio, swears that Daly threw the team’s first game. Setting up a scrimmage against a college team, he picked his tactics well and used Jordan sparingly, as they were beaten in embarrassing fashion by a bunch of teenagers whose greatest hope before tip off was to get an autograph after the match.
Krzyzewski claims that Daly used that as motivation for the team, highlighting that they weren’t unbeatable and would have to work for everything they get at this tournament. If they didn't want to go home empty-handed, then they needed to give it their all. The message sunk in, as they avenged their defeat the following day against the same team, who failed to register a single score. After easing their way through the Tournament of the Americas to qualify, there was a strong bond being developed between the players, but right before the tournament proper started, Daly once again used his management skills to reignite their competitive spirit in what was to become known as the ‘greatest game that nobody ever saw’.
Image: U.S. men's basketball coach Chuck Daly talks with the team during a preliminary-round basketball game with Croatia at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. AP Photo/Ed Reinke, File
In a change to their usual practice drills, they had a full match. Johnson and Jordan were on opposite sides as the two teams went at it in what proved to be the toughest test of their Olympic campaign, neither side giving the other an inch. Each player was taking on a rival, the other contender for the “best in the league” title, and each had a point to prove and respect to earn. “The best game I’ve ever played in,” said Jordan. “The best game I ever player in, in the sense that there was no coaching, yeah there were referees but not really. And you had 10 Hall of Famers playing against each other, and I mean first ballot Hall of Famers. It’s not even a question.” Fouls, trash talk and ludicrous skill were on display in equal measure, and despite the incredibly high level that all players involved in had played at before and after, all of them agree that they were never tested like they were in that gym on that afternoon.
As they arrived in Barcelona, the balance between rivalry and teamwork had been perfectly struck, and their path to gold was clear. There were still speedbumps along the way, as Barkley’s elbow against an Angolan opponent with the game well won earned headlines they would rather not have had calling them bullies. In the game against Croatia, Pippen and Jordan hassled and harried future team-mate Toni Kukoc off the court - the pair were incensed that the Bulls were stiffing Pippen on his negotiations to save money for the Croatian starlet, so decided to give him one of the worst days of his career. That game proved to be their toughest test, and they ran out 33 point winners.
Image: From left the USA's John Stockton, Chris Mullin, and Charles Barkley rejoice with their gold medals after beating Croatia 117-85 in the gold medal game in men's basketball at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. AP Photo/John Gaps III
The winning margins were so huge that you would have been forgiven for thinking that there was no point in watching the games, given they weren’t close to even being a contest. Angola were beaten by nearly 70 points, Germany were dispatched by over 40, and Lithuania couldn’t get within 50 of Johnson, Jordan & Co. Still, the crowds turned up and cheered, and the team produced.
Truth be told, few teams could have coped with the sheer depth of talent available to Daly; when he went to make a change by taking of an All-Star, he turned to a bench that had even more All-Stars on it. There was no respite for their opponents, as the Dream Team played some of the best basketball ever seen, combining grace, skill and athletic ability. They defended with grit and attacked with style, a rare occasion of a team living up to the hype and being appreciated for just how good they were.
Around the globe, the Dream Team’s impact was to be significant, perhaps more so than they ever realised when they first answered the call. The phenomenon that was the 1992 squad inspired stars such as Manu Ginobli, Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol, and Dirk Nowitski, all of whom have cited their admiration of the team that set the standard. That it took place at the Olympics, rather than in a game in Chicago or Detroit, meant it was more accessible to a wider audience, with the eyes of the world on them. In inspiring a new generation of stars, the Dream Team had lived up to their name.