The Dream Team

Impossible to beat them: USA '92 Olympic Basketball Team

The USA’s 1992 Olympic Basketball squad remains one of the supergroups that we think about, and the term star-studded comes to mind. They were like a force of nature, a phenomenon, and this was not just when they played but also in their collective profiles off the court. Then they were called the Dream Team, now in addition to that, they are still regarded as the most incredible basketball squad ever put together, of all time, of any country or group.

In 1988, the Soviets won the Olympic Basketball title and in the process dethroned the United States. The US team made up of amateurs had to settle for bronze in Seoul even though they had terrific players back home. It was their worst finish since Basketball was included in the Olympic programme. This loss at the Olympics was what the US guys needed to fire themselves up to challenge the rule which prevented professional NBA players from playing on the Olympic team. After the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) voted to allow professional athletes to compete, the search began for NBA stars who would make up the USA’s Olympic team for Barcelona. Before this, the US had to field collegiate players. Great timing with the new decision, the NBA was full of amazing players at the time. 

In February 1991, Sports Illustrated ran a cover that featured five legendary NBA players: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley, with Dream Team written across the front. This cover long preceded the official announcement of the team members, and that caption would stick. All five players would also go on to feature in the team.

In September later that year, the first members of the team were selected. The team was coached by Detroit’s Chuck Daly and assisted by Mike Krzyzewski, Lenny Wilkens and P.J Carlesimo. Michael Jordan and his fellow Chicago Bulls teammate Scottie Pippen were named on the team. Jordan had also been on the 1984 gold medal Olympic team. Two time MVP Karl Malone and his Utah Jazz teammate, John Stockton, were in too. The New York Knicks Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin of the Golden State Warriors were included in the roster. They had both played in the 1984 Olympic team alongside Jordan. LA Lakers’ three-time MVP Magic Johnson was drafted into the team too. Johnson abruptly retired that same year after he found out he had contracted HIV. Though his teammates had expected him to die from the disease, the call up to the Dream Team was just what he needed at the time to go on living. He would later go on to see it as a lifesaving occurrence. Three-time NBA champion Larry Bird, who was 35 years old already, was included in the team’s roster despite having some health issues. David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs was also included. Robinson had been on the team that lost to the Soviets in the 1988 Olympics and couldn’t wait to see that change at the 1992 games. The trash-talking and irrepressible Charles Barkley, who would go on to give the team some arguably needed aggression and controversy, was also included. The last professional roster spot on the team was assigned to Clyde Drexler of the Portland Trail Blazers. 

The US Basketball Committee decided to give one spot to a collegiate player as a tribute to the amateur system which had served the country so well before this. Christian Laettner of Duke University was then chosen over Shaquille O’Neal of Louisiana State University. Laettner had led his collegiate team to NCAA titles in 1991 and 1992, and therefore got the nod for the Olympic squad. 

O’Neal would later go on to play in another US Olympic team. 

On paper, this was an intimidating, unbeatable ensemble of characters. What a collection of stars! Most of these men were already performing at their peak and knew the game inside out. They were also quite popular with NBA fans already. They were what Olympic Basketball didn’t even know it needed right then.

The initial plan for the team was to have half NBA players and half amateur players. The team planners did not expect that so many NBA players would be willing to play in an Olympic squad. When they realised this, they then brushed aside the half and half idea. Bird and Johnson were selected as co-captains of the team. 

At the time, an obvious omission from the team was Detroit's Isiah Thomas. Though Thomas was a 12-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion, a feud between him and the Chicago Bulls, Jordan and Pippen in the Eastern conference has been cited as the cause of his omission from the team. This makes it even more interesting that Detroit’s coach, Daly, was selected as the team’s head coach.

On June 28, 1992, the team played their first game in a tour of the Americas. They beat the Cuban team in that game with a 136-57 decimation that showed just how strong they were. However, before this, the team had lost a game, okay, not a big game, but a practise session with a college all-star team. Before that game, it was expected that the Dream Team would walk over the college guys, but the college all-stars defeated them with a final 64-52 score. This was probably what fired the team to live up to the hype they had initially generated. Coach Daly refused a rematch as he wanted the team to have a little bit of a reality check, and it seemed to work. They finished the tour winning all six games they played by an average of 51.5 points per game and thereby qualified for the Olympics in Barcelona. There was now renewed interest in the team after their domination of the American tour. 

Everyone wanted a piece of the action. Advertising agencies realising that there was growing interest in the team, began to vie for slots to place their ads during timeouts, half time, pre-game and post-game openings. When the games started, this didn’t stop. When the team arrived at the Olympic village to pick up their credentials, they drew a crowd as other Olympic athletes and officials wanted to have pictures with them or get their autographs. The team did not stay at the Olympic village due to security concerns, and instead stayed at Barcelona’s Hotel Ambassador, where fans still flocked to in hopes of seeing them. 

The team was placed in Group A, which also had Croatia, Brazil, Germany, Angola and Spain. In theirfirst game, the team decimated Angola with a gargantuan score margin, 116-48, and while this may have been embarrassing for the Angolans, they knew they were facing greatness. The Angolan team members seemed overwhelmed with both the Americans’ style of play and their rock-star status. The team was unstoppable as they destroyed the competition in their following games. They defeated Croatia with a score of 103-70, Germany with a score of 111-78, Brazil with a score of 127-83, and Spain with a score of 122-81. 

In the quarter-finals, the team defeated Puerto Rico 115-77, then moved on to the semifinals, where they defeated Lithuania with a score of 127-76. The final ended up being a rematch with Croatia. This time, the scores were closer than their first game together. Still, the US won with a 117-85 score. Croatia could take solace in being not just the team that scored the most points against the Dream Team but also in being the team that lost with the smallest deficit. Every single game, the team scored over a hundred points, this had never happened before. There really was no equal for them, they were the kings of the world of Basketball.

Many of the team’s players have fond memories of their time together during the games and have gone on to say that representing their country on such a stage was a big deal for them. Jordan also stated that playing with some of the guys at the Olympics helped him to understand their weaknesses and eventually defeat their NBA sides later in his career. During the Olympics, he did something similar with the opposition. He watched tapes of the other countries’ games and studied how they played. 

The player selection committee was unsure of Barkley’s inclusion in the squad as they felt his character could misrepresent the United States. In their first game against Angola, Barkley elbowed Herlander Coimbra of Angola and that incident made some people feel the US team were unnecessarily aggressive. However, Barkley, who was known for his trash-talking, ended up being the team’s leading scorer during the games. 

In 2009, the team was elected to the US Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame. It was also elected to the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2017. The only team to come close to this team was the 2008 ‘Redeem Team’ which had stars, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Almost all the Dream Team’s players and officials have now been elected into the Hall of Fame as individuals.

The Dream Team helped immortalise what it meant to be an Olympian. Global interest in Basketball grew due to the team. The team’s players individually grew bigger than they were before the Olympics as the buzz rubbed off on all of them too. With the popularity of its stars, the team helped contribute to the globalisation of NBA basketball. Foreign players sought to play with the best globally, and the NBA has since been seen as having that. The team raised the bar so high that many are still looking to reach their marks.


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