In 1988, four years prior to the formation of the Dream Team, the United States lost the Olympic Basketball event to the Soviet Union, knocking the US out of the 1988 Olympic Gold Medal Game. It was embarrassing for the United States to lose to the Soviets, given the time the games were played. The Soviet Union had dethroned the kings of the basketball world, and the fight to regain the crown began with the subsequent creation of “the greatest team ever assembled,” known as the Dream Team.1
In 1989, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) cast a vote to allow professional athletes to compete in international competition for the first time.2 At the time of the 1988 Olympics, it had only allowed amateur athletes to compete in the Olympics. So shortly after the FIBA decision was made, the search began to find NBA stars who would be willing to forego their summer vacations and compete in the upcoming 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The team was coached by Chuck Daly, who was assisted by a number of legendary coaches, such as Mike Krzyzewski, Lenny Wilkens, and P. J. Carlesimo. The first ten players they selected were Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Oscar Robinson, and Charles Barkley.3 One big name left off the team was Isaiah Thomas, arguably one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game. He was not selected in attempts to keep Michael Jordan on the team. Jordan, when asked about this, was caught saying how he just wanted to win and would play with Isaiah Thomas if he had to, despite their harsh history. However, what had happened behind closed doors was something completely different. Jordan had in fact given the coaching staff a choice: Thomas or himself. It was an easy decision for the coaching staff to select Jordan over Thomas given that Jordan was coming off a Championship with the Chicago Bulls and was the reigning NBA MVP.4
With only ten spots on the roster filled, the last two spots were given to Clyde Drexler and Christian Laettner. Laettner was the only amateur basketball player to make the team. Original plans for this team were to have half NBA Stars and half amateur athletes. USA Basketball did not anticipate the number of NBA players willing to play in the Olympics and thus waived the idea of being a 50/50 professional-amateur team to being a predominantly professional team.5 On paper, this was the most dominant team in the world, but believers of this would be shocked by reality; the team could lose.
On June 24, 1992, the Dream Team scrimmaged a college all-star team that consisted of future NBA legends such as Chris Webber and Grant Hill. All odds were in favor of team USA and how they should easily roll over this college team. But never underestimate an underdog. The College All Stars won the game with a final score 64-52. Players such as Barkley and Jordan were eager to have a rematch, but Coach Daly and the rest of the coaching staff decided to deny the request, hoping they would take in the fact that the “greatest team ever assembled” just lost to amateur athletes.6 The hype surrounding the team quickly started depleting, and somehow they needed to redeem themselves before the Olympic Games.
This loss fired up the team to perform at the standard everyone set for them: to be kings of the court. In the tournament of the Americas, teams like Panama, Cuba, Canada, and Argentina never stood a chance in the group stage of the tournament. At the playoff stage of the tournament, Puerto Rico and Venezuela did no better, and the US came out on top, winning it all. They rolled over each team by nearly 52 points, granting them qualification for Barcelona.7 The tournament of the Americas only gave the world a taste of what the team could do. The depleted hype was rejuvenated, and the world waited anxiously for the Olympics to start to watch the Dream Team in full effect.
Since the start of the games, they were treated like rock stars. “It was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones all mixed into one,” said Matt Zeysing, curator of the US Olympic Teams exhibits at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.8 With the treatment they were given, advertisers looked to start cross-merchandising with Team USA, and corporations began to fight for air time during timeouts, end of quarters, half time, pre-game, and post-game slots, because everyone around the world wanted to watch this group of athletes play. This would result in a positive economic movement for the US, bringing even more positive outcomes for this team.9
Days before the start of the 1992 Olympic games, the team would participate in an inter squad scrimmage in Monte Carlo that would be coined as “The Greatest Game No One Ever Saw.”10 The teams were split evenly: Jordan the Captain of the White Team and Johnson the captain of the Blue team. It started with the Blue team getting off to a great start, being a duel between Jordan and Johnson. The two fought back and forth against each other, snickering with side comments that were taken as personal shots between the two. At the end of the game, the final score was 40-36, White team11. This game was nothing special; it was just a scrimmage against each other in the fun spirit of the game in preparation for the Olympics to come.12
Once the Games began, the Dream Team overpowered opponents throughout the entire Olympics. They started in the Group stage facing Angola, defeating them by a victory margin of 116-48. It was almost as if Angola was more interested in getting “Dream Team” autographs rather than competing against them. The Dream Team continued to crush anyone in their path throughout the games, like against 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 122-81.13 In Group A alone, they would average a 45.8 point difference. The worst of these loses came from playing against Croatia. On this Croatian team was NBA hopeful Toni Kukoč, newest pickup from the NBA Draft for the Chicago Bulls. This NBA hopeful was ready to take on the Americans and prove that he could play in the NBA, but Pippen and Jordan had different ideas. The Chicago Bulls were making cap space for Kukoč to join the team and therefore could not offer Pippen a new contract. So in retaliation, the two inflicted the maximum amount of embarrassment allowed under the rules by finishing the game with an incomprehensible stat line for Olympic athletes, practically shattering Kukoč’s NBA dreams after only scoring 4 points.14 Players such as Malone and Mullin “felt sorry for Kukoč” after what Jordan and Pippen had done to humiliate him on an international level.
Then came the actual playoff rounds, starting with Puerto Rico, who would be the first to feel the wrath of the Dream Team by losing by 115-77 in the quarter finals, and then Lithuania by a score of 127-76 in the semi-finals. The Gold Medal would be a rematch against Croatia with similar results. The Dream team still came out on top, with a score of 117-85. In this game, Croatia scored the most points against the Dream Team with 85 and losing by the smallest deficit of 32 (doing better than their original first meeting of 33), making this the most competitive game for the Dream Team on record.15 The most competitive game they played was the inner squad scrimmage mentioned before that counted as just practice for the games to come. “When they started playing the National Anthem, a few of us got choked up,” said Magic Johnson when describing the experience of standing up on the podium in front of the world as the kings of the basketball world. After the loss in 1988, the goal for this team was to crush anyone who dared to compete with the United States. They achieved this goal as easy as it is to take a breath.
In 2010 the Dream Team was erected in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and is still referred to as “the greatest team ever assembled.”16 The only team to come close to the status of the Dream Team was the 2008 “Redeem Team,” which consisted of players such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, but this team could only wish to live up to the standards set by the Dream Team. The story of the Redeem Team was very similar to the Dream Team’s. In the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the Americans were knocked out of the Gold Medal match by the Argentinians, only coming away with a Bronze medal. The Americans tied for most losses by any US men’s basketball team with three. In 2008, the best athletes in the NBA wanted vengeance and to regain the crown for the United States as the best in the world, but their games were much closer against their competitors winning by an average of 27.9 points per game.17 A great margin of victory for any team, but still nothing close to what the Dream Team had accomplished. This team brought prestige back to the NBA, inspiring international players to go to the NBA and make a name for themselves with the desire to compete with the best basketball athletes in the world.18 The Dream Team broke down the barriers for athletes around the world, raising the bar in a way that allowed them to go from being professional athletes to being Olympians, leaving behind big shoes that athletes in the NBA are still trying to fill to date.