The United States' vaunted Dream Team—unquestionably the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled—rolled to a gold medal in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. Comprised of eleven National Basketball Association members and one collegian, the Dream Team's very existence was made possible by a 1989 agreement with the International Amateur Basketball Federation to allow professionals to participate in the Olympic Games. While the American team was greatest beneficiary of the rule change, its international organization, USA Basketball, had voted against the inclusion of NBA players. As David Wallechinsky noted, concerns were expressed that financial support for women's and junior basketball programs would diminish and that one-sided games would markedly reduce the television audience.
The American team, averaging 117 1/4 points per game, swept to eight consecutive wins in Barcelona, while holding its opponents to 73 1/2 points a game; the actual margin of victory could have been even greater had not various ailments afflicted several of the U.S. players, while others held back through fear of injury. The American roster nevertheless was star-studded. The Dream Team boasted the presence of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, and John Stockton, all to be inducted into the Hall of Fame later. Also on the team were NBA star Christopher Mullin and Duke University's Christian Laettner, while the coaches included Detroit's Chuck Daly, Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens, Portland's P. J. Carlesimo, and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
With the United States having lost the 1972 and 1988 Olympic Games, as well as a series of subsequent international events, Chicago Bull Michael Jordan, who had recently led his team to its second consecutive NBA championship, asserted, "We've got to regain our sense of pride, our dignity. Some way—even if it's just basketball. We can at least show the world that we can take control of something. " But it was the possibility of a financial windfall that undoubtedly led the NBA to support the sending of its greatest players to Barcelona, with Commissioner David Stern envisioning the possibility of a transoceanic league. NBA teams had recently added Lithuania's Sarunas Marciulionis, Croatia's Drazen Petrovic, Germany's Detlef Schrempf, and Yugoslavia's Vlade Divac to their rosters, and looked expectantly to the likes of Toni Kukoc, Arvidas Sabonis, and Dino Radja.
With its opponents already thoroughly intimidated before the first jump ball, the Dream Team, whose members received the public adulation generally reserved for pop stars, had to contend with the fact that the competition often seemed thrilled just to occupy the same basketball court. While the U.S. team was crushing defending champions Argentina 128-87 at the Tournament of the Americas, Jordan dunked the ball, resulting in wild cheering from the Argentine bench. Center Hernan Montenegro declared, "I played with great happiness against the monsters." Guard Marcelo Milanesio stated, "When we met at the center of the court, I was very excited that it was Magic Johnson shaking my hand." After a 136-57 shellacking, Cuban coach Miguel Gomez philosophized, "One finger cannot cover the sun." American observers, such as Princeton coach Pete Carril, also waxing eloquent about the American players, said, "This is not a great team. This is the greatest team ever."
During the Barcelona Olympics, the Americans, despite playing under international rules—two 20 minute halves, a shorter three-point line, and zone defenses—scored better than 100 points each time out. The two closest games involved Croatia, featuring Petrovic and Kukoc, but the margins of victory were each better than 30 points. In their meeting, Chicago's Pippen shut down Kukoc, who had been offered more money by Bulls' general manager Jerry Krause than Jordan's teammate had been. The greatest notoriety involved Barkley's elbowing of an Angolan player in the midst of an opening-game rout (116-48). Jordan remarked, "Charles is Charles. He's not crazy. He just likes to push his behavior to the edge." Angolan coach Victorino Cunha dismissed the concerns: "We know Charles Barkley. No problem. He does this ten times a year in the NBA."
Following the Dream Team's gold medal win over Croatia, 117-85, Mullin mused about "everybody willing to throw egos, individual statistics and all that other stuff out the window to prepare to be the best team ever. Nope, it won't happen again." Johnson, speaking rhetorically, asked reporters, "When will there be another Olympic team as good as this one? Well, you guys won't be around, and neither will we." While Barkley led the team in scoring with an 18.0 point average, Jordan contributed 14.9 points per game and provided a tournament-high 37 steals. The most perceptive analyst of the Dream Team, Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum, insisted that "on the most star-studded team in history, Jordan was, simply, the star stud. When Magic was on the floor finishing the fast break, Jordan was his finisher. When Jordan was called upon to run the offense, he did so with control and a few dazzling no-look passes. When Daly gave the ball to Scottie Pippen, Jordan acted as a decoy. When the [team] needed a defensive stopper, Jordan got the call. And when the team need a scoring jolt, Jordan went out early and kick-started the offense." The Dream Team was, indeed, as Coach Daly described it, "a majestic team."
—Robert C. Cottrell
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