The U.S. men's basketball team celebrates winning gold at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992 on Aug. 8, 1992 in Barcelona, Spain.
In two years, the Dream Team will celebrate the 30th anniversary of winning the gold medal at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, and the amount of talent on that prolific men’s basketball roster is perhaps even more impressive today than it was back then.
Michael Jordan. Larry Bird. Charles Barkley. Karl Malone. Patrick Ewing. Magic Johnson. The list goes on. At the time, Jordan, Johnson and Bird alone had combined for 10 NBA championships and won seven NBA Finals MVP and nine regular-season MVP awards. Eleven of the 12 players are now in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“It was literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said P.J. Carlesimo, who was an assistant coach on the team. “I don’t think there’s ever been a team like that and I doubt there ever will be again.”
Fans can relive the gold-medal game against Croatia Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN as part of the network’s Olympic Games Week.
From the very beginning, Carlesimo said, what was so stunning was not just the sheer talent of the players assembled but also their commitment and work ethic. It was the first time that NBA players were participating in the Olympic Games, and the U.S. was coming off a bronze medal in 1988 after losing to the Soviet Union in the semifinals.
For Jordan, Ewing and Chris Mullin, 1992 was a return to the Olympic stage after having played on the team that won gold in Los Angeles in 1984 while still in college. David Robinson played on the 1988 team. John Stockton and Barkley, however, were cut from the 1984 team and were among those who thought their chance at winning an Olympic medal was long gone.
“It was an unusual dynamic among the team,” said Carlesimo, who was coaching at Seton Hall at the time. “Now the best players in the NBA get the chance to be on multiple Olympic teams, but it wasn’t like that then. It was very, very special for all of those guys in different ways to be a part of that team.”
Clyde Drexler was one of those who never thought he’d get to play at the Games after turning pro in 1983. He was coming off a long season with the Portland Trail Blazers and had lost to Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in that year’s NBA Finals. He was also battling a knee injury and would eventually have surgery, but couldn’t turn down the chance to play for the U.S.
He’d end up alongside some of the very players he’d just battled in the playoffs.
Magic Johnson competes at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992 on Aug. 8, 1992 in Barcelona, Spain.
“Obviously when they’re putting the team together it’s the best players in the history of the game and obviously they’re still playing at a very high level, but at the time those guys were your peers so you weren’t even thinking about that,” he said. “You’re trying to beat them during the NBA season so you look at them like they’re on the other team. In practice when you’re wearing the same jersey you’re like, ‘Alright, let’s see what we can do together.’”
From the first scrimmages in La Jolla, California, to the qualification at the Tournament of the Americas in Portland, Oregon, to the team’s sessions in Monte Carlo before traveling to Barcelona, the way the players handled the lead-up to the Games was special. If there were ever any concerns about egos or how the fiercest of NBA rivals would play together under the U.S. flag, they evaporated within a day or two of the first practice, Carlesimo said.
“I always talk about the stat sheet,” he said. “Usually after an NBA or a college game the ball boy or manager would come in with the stat sheet after the game and guys would be grabbing it to see how many minutes, how many points, how many shots they got. There was not one time that entire summer that I saw anyone looking. The only thing they were concerned about was the scoreboard.”
That’s not to say they weren’t intense whenever the team took the court. The practices in Monte Carlo, when the players faced each other for the first time, were just as impressive as the games themselves, Carlesimo said.
“That was the best basketball played the entire summer,” Carlesimo said. “You’d have David Robinson guarding Ewing, Malone guarding Barkley, Drexler guarding Mullin or Magic guarding Michael. The matchups were ridiculous. And given their competitive nature, they weren’t going to take things lightly whether it was drills or practice or 5-on-5.”
It was Carlesimo’s suggestion to bring in international officials for the intrasquad games in Monte Carlo, but that didn’t work out so well. They’d never seen what the U.S. players were doing, and after about two days the coaches politely told them their time was done.
Michael Jordan competes at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992 on Aug. 6, 1992 in Barcelona, Spain.
“Some of the players were just screaming at them during the scrimmages because these guys wanted to win, and if the official made a terrible call they’d just be barking at them,” Carlesimo said. “After the second day that experiment was over and it was up to us to ref the 5-on-5s.”
The games in Barcelona weren’t close.
The Dream Team beat Angola by 68 points in the first game, and the closest anyone came to winning was Croatia when it lost by 32 points in the gold-medal game. No one could match up against the Dream Team, and opponents knew it.
“If you see the guys on (the Dream Team) and you’re on the other side, you have to go, ‘That’s basketball royalty on the other end,’” Drexler said. “You have to almost pay homage even if you’re playing against them out of respect, and that’s what teams did. Some of those European teams were pretty good, too, but not enough to combat that team.”
Despite the outrageous advantage the Dream Team held against the rest of the world, Carlesimo said, head coach Chuck Daly, the rest of the staff and the players themselves knew that upsets happen. Even going into the gold-medal game undefeated and never having been in any danger of losing, they knew there was still one important game left.
“Everyone knew we’d be on the medal stand and three flags would go up, but they were only going to play one anthem,” he said. “They took nothing for granted and went out and did the same thing. As the minutes ticked down it was incredible. There was certainly no suspense in the fourth quarter.”
Drexler recounted those final moments as a feeling of finishing the job they came to do.
“That medal ceremony signified the end of our very successful journey and you just felt so happy and fulfilled,” he said. “You didn’t let your country down and hopefully you inspired millions of people around the world to play the game of basketball the right way and show them what that looked like. That’s what the Dream Team will go down in history for.”