Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and this week we look at possibly the greatest sporting side ever assembled – the USA’s men’s basketball team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
How it started
Right from Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees to Phil Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers and New Zealand’s All Blacks to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, the greatest teams assembled in history have not only mesmerised spectators, won trophies and produced scintillating performances but also left an indelible mark on the history of sport.
However, the sheer brilliance, dominance, global appeal and world-class talent exhibited by the USA’s men’s basketball team at Barcelona 1992 is yet to be replicated.
The inception of this galactical team is rooted in the USA’s performance at the Seoul 1988 Games and its decision, until 1992, to not send professional players to the Olympics. At the Games held in the Republic of Korea capital, the United States had to settle for bronze with arch-rivals Soviet Union taking home gold.
Mike Krzyzewski, the USA’s coach who led the team to gold medals at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, was an assistant in the ‘Dream Team’ coaching staff and revealed the reason behind the federation deciding to send NBA players.
Speaking to New York Post in 2017, he said: “We played against the Yugoslavian team and the Russian team that had Lithuanians. There was no way our college kids could beat them. [The European teams] were men. They were all pros and many became NBA players. It was the right thing to do."
“I knew college kids weren’t going to beat those guys anymore, especially in the international game. They may beat them if we brought them to us and played the collegiate game. It’s a different game. Different lane. Different clock. Different ball. All the nuances. In tennis, it would be as drastic as going from grass to clay.’’
The USA were looking to assert their dominance on the Olympic stage and the NBA’s desire to make the world's premier basketball league a truly global phenomenon gave birth to perhaps the greatest consortium of stars ever seen in any sport.
The team had Magic – literally. Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, three of the greatest players of all time, along with David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Christian Laettner, Clyde Drexler and Chris Mullin formed a squad that was rightfully called ‘The Dream Team.’
The biggest wins
And there they were in Spain in all their glory and ready to give the world a taste of elite basketball. Coached by Chuck Daly, the Dream Team was placed in Group A alongside Croatia, Brazil, Germany, Angola and Spain. The gold medal was a foregone conclusion and the only thing that the world awaited was the magnitude and extravagance of this team’s performance.
They didn’t disappoint.
The Dream Team began its campaign with a thunderous victory over Angola, decimating them by a score of 116 to 48. This performance set the tone for the rest of the Games as Michael Jordan and company. steamrolled over opponents, who were sometimes mere spectators in the match as a team of superstars went about their business.
Daly aptly characterised the team in a 2019 interview with NBA.com: “It was like Elvis and the Beatles put together. Travelling with the Dream Team was like traveling with 12 rock stars. That’s all I can compare it to.”
After Angola, Croatia, Germany, Brazil and Spain were brushed aside by an imperious Dream Team. The USA’s journey in the knockout stage was much the same as their group matches as they won the quarter-final against Puerto Rico and the semi-final against Lithuania with a thumping score of 127-76 to set up a gold medal clash with Croatia.
The USA had already beaten Croatia in the group stage but the final turned out to be a relatively closer contest – only in terms of the point gap being lesser than 35 points. Their European opponents were swept aside by 85-117 and the United States reclaimed Olympic gold and the zenith of basketball’s Olympic mantle.
After the gold medal victory, coach Daly said: “They knew they were playing the best in the world. They’ll go home and for the rest of their lives be able to tell their kids, ‘I played against Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.’ And the more they play against our best players, the more confident they’re going to get.”
The key players
In a team that comprised Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, it was Charles Barkley who emerged as the team’s leading scorer with 18 points per game. Jordan, at his brilliant best, produced several moments of magic that gave the world a glimpse of one of the greatest athletes of all time. The then Bulls’ shooting guard finished the 1992 Barcelona Games with a PPG (points per game) of 14.9 and set the record for most assists in a single Olympic game (12) against Germany.
Co-captains of the team Bird and Johnson put in performances that were quintessentially charismatic and showed why they belonged in the league of the greatest basketball players of all time.
The likes of Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson also put in consistent performances that helped the USA reclaim the Olympic gold. Christian Laettner was the only member of the team without NBA experience although he was a youngster bursting onto the scene and showed why he belonged on the grandest stage.
Apart from putting the USA on top of the global basketball charts once again, the 1992 Dream Team helped popularise the NBA across the world.
Speaking about the impact of the Dream Team at a promotional event, Johnson said: “It had such a big global impact on the game and it allowed kids around the world to dream that they can play in the NBA one day. The game grew in popularity and it grew in terms of our own personal brands, in terms of all the individuals. I mean, Michael Jordan became even bigger.’’
The Dream Team spelled a new era of dominance for the USA at the Olympics with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Kevin Durant winning medals at basketball’s premier international competition.
The United States have won gold at Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016, meaning in men’s basketball they've won 15 out of a possible 18 titles. With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics not far away, the world will once again catch a glimpse of the NBA’s best talent at the Games and the United States will be one of the favourites to win gold.
However, the magnificence and grandeur of the 1992 Dream Team comprising 12 superstars is not likely to be repeated again.