The ’92 Dream Team: The Team that Changed the Game of Basketball Forever

Dream Team Promotional Magazine from 1992 that featured players on the Dream Team such as (from Left to Right) Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Oscar Robertson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, and Chris Mullin | Courtesy of flickr

The crowds cheer, cameras flash, and huge smiles plaster the U.S. players’ faces. The buzzer sounds with the final score —  117-85. With this, the U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball team won the gold medal, beating Croatia in the 1992 Olympic Games. This victory resulted in a skyrocketing global interest in basketball. The Dream Team was unlike any other team that won games — they inspired those who watched them play. The Dream Team will undoubtably go down as the best basketball team to ever be assembled.1

The game of basketball today is different than it was thirty years ago in both the NBA (National Basketball Association) in the United States and in the Olympics. European players began coming to America after this great victory to play ball. Well-known athletes like Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginóbili, and Tony Parker were inspired by the 1992 Olympics Dream Team to play basketball at the highest level, which many believe to be the NBA. Before this, the Olympic Games were intended only for amateur players. Only college players could compete in the Olympics, which became difficult when the U.S. had to build a new team every four years. Although the U.S. were only allowed to put amateurs in to compete, the Soviet Union used full-time professionals because their jobs were “not professional” which allowed them to bypass the rules. Unlike the Americans, who had to create a new team for each Olympic Games, the Russians had a few experienced veterans who played together for years. FIBA, the international basketball’s governing body, finally realized that the rules were unfair and changed them. This change allowed the creation of a U.S. Men’s Basketball team with NBA players that had no restrictions.2

At the 25th Olympic games David Robinson, makes a free throw during the game between the “Dream Team” | August 1992 | Courtesy of Wikimedia

At first the NBA was not very enthusiastic about its players being able to compete in the Olympics, because they had no idea what its impact would be. Michael Jordan was the first player to be asked to be on the team. You would think he would immediately say yes, but he waited to see what some of the other players’ answers were because he did not want it to become a one-man show.3 After Magic Johnson, who played for the LA Lakers, and Larry Bird, who played for the Boston Celtics, agreed to play on the team, the other players realized that this was a serious opportunity. The first ten players for the Dream Team were officially selected on September 21, 1991: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls, John Stockton and Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks, Chris Mullen of the Golden State Warriors, David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, and Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers.4 Most of the players on the team reached or were close to reaching their peak in their careers. Bird was reaching his, because of his back injury, while Johnson was peaking because he had tested positive for HIV. Overall, everyone was excited for the team’s potential.

As the team got together to play for the first time, Coach Chuck called up a college team to scrimmage them. He wanted to find a team that would resemble that of the European teams they would face. As the teams met in a closed practice, the college players were both awestruck and intimidated because of who they were playing against. Expecting to destroy the other team, the Dream Team and college team began playing and an unexpected turn of events occurred. With a shocking result, the Dream Team had lost to the NCAA team 62-54. The press and every news channel you could think of was knocking at the door waiting to see the score. Before the doors flooded open with eager people, Coach Chuck had cleared the score from the board.5 Coach Chuck purposely limited Jordan’s court time and did not make many substitutions during the game. Coach Krzyzewski, assistant coach of the Dream Team, later said that he knew Chuck “threw the game” to teach the players that they could be beaten by anybody who walked through the door ready to play. The following day, both teams played again for a rematch, and to no surprise the Dream Team crushed the collegiate team.6

1992: Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson of the United States Basketball Team share a laugh during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. | November 2012 | Courtesy of James Robert Smith | Flickr

Before playing in the Olympics, the team had to play in a tournament in the Americas to qualify for the games.7 The team destroyed Cuba 136-57. Marv Albert, the announcer of the game, even recalled that “it was as if [the Americans] were playing a high school team, or grade school team. They were so overwhelming … a blowout after blowout.”8 Cuba was the first of many teams they faced, who were more interested in taking photos with the Americans rather than playing against them. The rest of the games the Dream Team played were easy wins resulting in the team unsurprisingly qualifying for the Olympics.

After the Dream Team finished the tournament in America, their next stop was to Monaco to begin the Olympic experience. Once the team arrived in Monaco, they began training for the Olympics for six days a week for at least two hours a day in addition to playing exhibition games. While most, if not every athlete stayed in the Olympic Village, the Dream Team did not. Instead, they stayed in a luxury Barcelona hotel. People assumed that the team thought they were too good for the village, but it was actually the opposite. Barkley recalled that the team had received death threats, “In our hotel, you had to have a picture ID to get in there, and we went to the pool on the roof of the hotel, there was like 10 guys standing around with Uzis. People thought we didn’t want to stay in the Olympic Village because we wanted to be big shots, but it was because we were getting death threats. They had told us this would be considered great by one of these terrorist groups if they could take out the Dream Team.”9 Although they received death threats, Barkley had no care in the world because he wanted to walk around the city. When the paparazzi asked where his bodyguards were, his response was him pointing to his fists. Barkley was described as “the number one U.S. Olympic ambassador” for the team because of the way he interacted with the crowds full of fans.10

The opposing teams were overwhelmed by the talent of the U.S. roster, losing by an average of 43.8 points per game. The Dream Team was the first team to score more than 100 points in every game. Its 117.3 average was more than 15 points more than the 1960 US team.11 Jordan was the only player who studied the opposition, carefully watching game tapes.12  Jordan and the rest of the team were such a force to be reckoned with, because of the amount of talent they had on the team was never lacking. Johnson later shared, “I look to my right, there’s Michael Jordan … I look to my left, there’s Charles Barkley or Larry Bird … I didn’t know who to throw the ball to!”13

Referee Stefano Cazzaro hands a basketball to Michael Jordan. | September 2011 | Courtesy of Wikimedia

In the first Olympic game, the team played against Angola, and Barkley got into it with Herlander Coimbra, one of the players on the other team. During the game, Barkley elbowed Coimbra in the chest, and he was unapologetic after the game. He claimed he was hit first. Either way, Barkley was called for an intentional foul on the play, which resulted in a made free throw. Despite the technical foul having no bearing on the final result, 116–48 win, there was a concern about the image of America to the rest of the world. Jordan said, “There just wasn’t any place for it. We were dominating the game. It created mixed feelings, it caused a mixed reaction about the U.S. There’s already some negative feelings about us.”14 Rather than being viewed as a highly skilled team dominating others teams, some people viewed them as bullies. Although Barkley had committed the small incident, the headlines portrayed it as something the team did, rather than something Barkley had done as an individual. This incident spread through the news quickly, but died down quickly once people got to know Barkley better. Although he was an aggressive player, he enjoyed people and was not malicious. After the elbowing incident, everything went back to normal and it sent a message to the rest of the teams for what was to come.15

Out of the eight matches the U.S. competed in, the gold medal game against Croatia was the closet in score with a 117-85 win. Toni Kukoč, a player on the Croatian team, was heavily guarded by Pippen and Jordan, because he had just signed a contract with the Bulls for more money than Pippen made which did not sit well with Pippen.16 Pippen and Jordan agreed that they were not going to let Kukoč score or let him do anything on the court, because he was the teams’ main scorer; they knew the whole world was going to be watching the game to see what was Kukoč was going to do.  Malone said, “They was debating on who was gonna guard him. ‘No no no I got him,’ ‘No no I got him.'” Johnson added, “I’m looking at Michael and Scottie, and they’re ready for blood…like man.”17 The entire game if Pippen wasn’t shadowing Kukoč, then Jordan was just so Kukoč would not score for the team. The game ended with a win, and a shiny gold medal hanging around their necks. For Johnson and Bird, that was their last basketball game to be played, while the rest returned to the NBA for the following season.

The Dream Team was arguably the most dominant team ever assembled in any sport. Their legacy left was not a team that dominated opponents and won the gold medal. They changed the game of basketball, and showed the rest of the world how to play. Wilbon, an ESPN sports analyst, explained that, “It really lifted basketball…and it gave birth to international stars, who had nothing to do with those games in ’92, but who took so much from it.”18 More international players kept coming to the U.S. to play in the NBA every year, and it all began from watching the Dream Team. Barkley added, “I’ve talked to Parker, Nowitzki, and Ginóbili. Their first love of basketball started with the Dream Team, and I’m really proud of that.”19 What other team can say they impacted the world with their gameplay? Not only did they change the game, they influenced multiple successful NBA players we see now. I do not think we will ever see anything as inspiring as this team again. 

  1. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2019, s.v. “Dream Team,” by Robert Cottrell.
  2.  Wikipedia, s.v. “1992 United States Men’s Olympic Basketball Team.”
  3. Франческ Соланеллас, and Андреу Кампс, “The Legacy of the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games,” Nauka v Olimpijskom Sporte 3 (2017), 4.
  4. Sam Smith, “Olympian Jordan: ‘We’ll kill ’em.,” Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1991, https://www.chicagotribune.com.
  5. Wikipedia, s.v. “1992 United States Men’s Olympic Basketball Team.”
  6. Sam Smith, “Olympian Jordan: ‘We’ll kill ’em.,” Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1991, https://www.chicagotribune.com.
  7.  Oxlade Ballheimer et al., Olympics (Eyewitness Books: Dorling Kindersley Pub, 2000), 15.
  8. The Dream Team, Director Zak Levitt (USA: National Basketball Association, June 13, 2012).
  9. The Dream Team, Director Zak Levitt (USA: National Basketball Association, June 13, 2012).
  10. Wikipedia, s.v. “1992 United States Men’s Olympic Basketball Team.”
  11. Wikipedia, s.v. “1992 United States Men’s Olympic Basketball Team.”
  12. Andrews, David L, Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America (State University of New York Press, 2001), 34.
  13. The Dream Team, Director Zak Levitt (USA: National Basketball Association, June 13, 2012).
  14. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2019, s.v. “Dream Team,” by Robert Cottrell.
  15. Wikipedia, s.v. “1992 United States Men’s Olympic Basketball Team.”
  16. Wikipedia, s.v. “1992 United States Men’s Olympic Basketball Team.”
  17. The Dream Team, Director Zak Levitt (USA: National Basketball Association, June 13, 2012).
  18. The Dream Team, Director Zak Levitt (USA: National Basketball Association, June 13, 2012).
  19. The Dream Team, Director Zak Levitt (USA: National Basketball Association, June 13, 2012).

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55 Responses

  1. To be able to watch this team in action would’ve been a treat to see with how much talent was on the floor at all times. This basketball team changed cultures with how big each individual player and the impact these players had across the world. For this team, it felt like winning came easy as why they got the name of “Dream Team” Olympic gold was always the standard nothing less and as a spectator, it was easy to say they played that way.

  2. I love reading about this team! I really do think it’s something to be proud of as a country to be so globally dominant in a sport. It was unfortunate to see so many of our American NBA stars choosing not to play in the last Olympics, because I fear they may have set a precedent. The 92′ dream team was a once in a lifetime team but I think there is an immense amount of American talent in the NBA and I hope we get to see something like that again in the next summer Olympics.

  3. The 92′ FIBA USA DREAM TEAM…..what an amazing team, full of NBA legends and a legendary team itself. This team is the best team to ever be assembled without a doubt. Including players like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Malone, Pippen,etc. All of the players in this team are now Hall of Famers and will be know forever in basketball. My dad always tells me stories about how this team made basketball famous and how MJ sky-rocked.

  4. Hi,
    I love this article already because its about basketball and I play basketball. The 1992 Dream Team is definitely considered to be the best basketball team ever assembled if not the best already. They had the best of the NBA represent The United States of America and won gold several times. They definitely changed the game with the level of performance they put on along with the teamwork they showcased.

  5. It was really interesting to read about the formation and effect of the 1992 USA Olympic Men’s Basketball Team AKA The Dream Team. Seeing the team evolve and work together in order to capture the Olympic gold was a very interesting read and seeing how the Dream Team inspires so many basketball players today is not only motivating but captivating.

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