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Revisiting the Legendary 1992 Dream Team and Their Gold-Medal Win at the Barcelona Olympics

The Dream Team stormed through the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain to win the gold and firmly cement America’s ever-lasting legacy as basketball titans. 

By Andrew Woodin
The 1992 USA Men's Basketball Olympic Team's portrait

Widely considered to be the greatest basketball team ever assembled, many have tried to replicate the magic of the 1992 Dream Team at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, but that’s the thing about magic — as hard as it is to cultivate, it’s even more difficult to hold onto. Between giving fans the opportunity to watch Michael Jordan and Larry Bird shred every country’s defense that dared stand in their way, it wasn’t just a special moment in time, it was a legend in the making, and it almost didn’t happen.

The Controversial 1972 Olympic Basketball Game

Though Team USA was already a bona fide juggernaut in Olympic basketball, winning the gold medal nine times between 1936 and 1988, the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany ended up being a controversial match.

During the gold medal game against the USSR — the same Soviet bloc engaging the United States in the Cold War — the Americans seemingly won the game twice, but the head of international basketball kept putting more time on the clock, according to David A. F. Sweet’s book Three Seconds in Munich. The game-winning decision ultimately came down to a five-member FIBA jury which voted 3-2 in favor of the Soviets. This combined with the fact that there was already much hostility surrounding the multiple egregious calls in the final moments of the game, led to Team USA's decision to boycott accepting the silver medal. Compound this isolated incident with the fact that Russia had historically taken its best athletes and enlisted them into the army where they could continue to train for their sport while getting paid, it became crystal clear that something new needed to be done stateside.

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Still, it would take further embarrassment at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea to catalyze change. The Americans again came up short against the Russians as well as the Yugoslavians, who constructed a silver medal-winning squad comprising multiple future NBA Hall of Famers in Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja, Vlade Divac, and the great Toni Kukoc. Soon after accepting the bronze, the sting of defeat and recent, sour-tasting history coalesced to push FIBA to unanimously lift the long-standing restrictions that NBA pros could not play in the Games. Change was now officially in motion.

The United States National Team discuss strategy during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain

Who was on the 1992 Dream Team roster?

Free and clear of any restrictions, Team USA could build its roster the way it wanted to, and that meant looking no further than a completely stacked NBA. Headed by University of Kentucky’s former athletic director CM Newton, USA basketball created a selection committee in 1989, and in September 1991, the first 10 players were revealed. Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers; Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns; Karl Malone and John Stockton of the Utah Jazz; Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks; Chris Mullin from the Golden State Warriors; Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics; David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs; and, of course, Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls.

While Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Miller, and Tim Hardaway were also rumored to get a look by the now legendary team, one name basketball fans will immediately recognize due to its absence on the list of Dream Team players is Isiah Thomas. According to USA Today, the star guard and founding member of the rough and tumble “Bad Boys” — the core behind the Detroit Pistons’ two NBA titles (1989, 1990) — was purportedly loathed by Michael Jordan and generally disliked by the rest of the players, which led Johnson to say in his book The Game was Ours, written by Jackie MacMullan, that “Isiah killed his own chances when it came to Olympics. Nobody on that team wanted to play with him.”

Though many of the greatest NBA stars of the time were selected, the team wasn't set in stone. It took all of Johnson’s incessant courtship to finally land Bird, who was 35 years old at the time and dealing with a litany of back issues. MJ was also reluctant about playing in another Olympics after having previously led Team USA to a gold in 1984, when he was still a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Furthermore, the unprecedented decision to reserve a spot for Johnson was incredibly impactful because, at the time, Johnson had been out of the NBA for an entire season as he dealt with an HIV diagnosis.

The final NBA player spot went to Clyde “The Glide” Drexler of the Portland Trailblazers, the MVP runner-up to Jordan in the 1991-1992 season. The last roster spot went to Duke’s Christian Laettner in a nod to former Olympic teams, which were historically comprised from collegiate athletes. Despite having just led the Blue Devils to an NCAA championship, Laettner was a bit of an odd choice, considering his cantankerous nature, and the fact that Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning were both in contention to land the lone, coveted college spot.

With the 12-man roster solidified without laying waste to too many of the association’s inflated egos, the easy part was over. Now, it was time to mold the starting lineup for the Dream Team.   

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The Starting Five

John Stockton takes a shot during the 1992 Summer Olympics

In a super group whose dominance only Marvel’s Avengers have managed to come close to replicating, Team USA had a plethora of future Hall of Fame talent to choose from, but only five players could round out the starting lineup for the 1992 Dream Team. The starting five had to exude power, tenacity, elite passing, but most of all, the Dream Team’s starting five had to be absolutely ferocious when it came to scoring because it was time to remind the world where basketball supremacy was born and bred. Mr. Nice Guy had long left the building as the Dream Team’s starting five looked to tear out their opponents’ souls and stomp them to smithereens.

This became a common occurrence as the Dream Team could literally start any of their players and still leave whatever sad saps they were facing heartbroken after the final whistle of the game. That said, Michael Jordan, who turned down the opportunity to co-captain so Magic and Bird could take the honors, started every game. Some nights, His Airness would be joined by David Robinson and Patrick Ewing. Another occasion would pair the G.O.A.T. with Charles Barkley. The starting lineup for the gold medal game against Croatia — a game in which Croatia’s star player Tony Kukoc got completely owned by Scottie Pippen and Jordan as a way to welcome him to the Bulls — featured Johnson at point guard, Jordan at shooting guard, Ewing at center, Karl Malone at power forward, and Pippen at small forward.

It didn’t really matter who started for America’s Dream Team at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain, for the result was always the same: complete and utter decimation.  

USA David Robinson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing sit on the sideline

Who were the coaches?

It wasn’t just the embarrassment of riches with the group’s player personnel that made Team USA’s 1992 Dream Team so incredibly special. Having Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson all play together meant the Dream Team would need elite-level coaching to properly fire on all cylinders, and that element to the Dream Team’s game was a slam dunk.

Hot off his tenure with the Detroit Pistons that saw him and Isiah Thomas capture two chips, Chuck Daly was named the head coach of the Dream Team. In a 2019 interview with NBA.com, according to the Olympics website, Daly revealed that the team “…was like Elvis and the Beatles put together. Travelling with the Dream Team was like traveling with 12 rock stars.”

While Daly was supported by now legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and P.J. Carlesimo, it was Daly’s critical thinking early on that unlocked the Dream Team’s full potential. As the story goes, Team USA fielded a group of NCAA college players to scrimmage against the Dream Team, including Bobby Hurley, Chris Webber, Eric Montross, Grant Hill, Allan Houston, and Penny Hardaway. Coupled with the college athletes’ nothing-to-lose fighting mentality, Daly intentionally limited Jordan’s minutes and made untimely substitutions to put his squad behind the eight ball. The strategy led to the cast of amateurs defeating the NBA’s best 62-54, but more importantly, it taught the titans of the hard woods an invaluable lesson in humility — one that would ultimately stick with them as they never lost again after that fabled scrimmage.  

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The Stats

As expected, the stats produced by the 1992 Dream Team were nothing short of phenomenal. For starters, in their opening game against Angola, Team USA destroyed their opponents, walloping them by 68 points. America’s aces put their foot on the gas and never once let off, generating 117.3 points of average offense during their perfect 8-0 run in the tournament to capture gold in Barcelona. Remember, Olympic games are only 40 minutes long compared to the 48-minutes games played in the NBA, so that meant packing even more of a punch in such a limited amount of time.

In short, the Americans didn’t just beat teams. The Dream Team, led by the salty, trash-talking master Charles Barkley with his team high 18 PPG and a 71.1% field goal percentage, left teams demoralized and cowering in the fetal position, not to mention completely exhausted as Daly had the audacity to never once call a timeout.

USA Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, and Karl Malone stand on the medal stand after winning Olympic gold

Here's a breakdown of the stat leaders:

  • Points: Charles Barkley with 18 PPG
  • Field Goal Percentage: Charles Barkley with 71.1%
  • Rebounds: Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone with 5 RPG
  • Assists: Scottie Pippen with 5.88 APG
  • Blocks: Patrick Ewing with 1.88 BPG
  • Steals: Michael Jordan with 4.63 SPG
  • Minutes: Michael Jordan with 23.3 MPG

Here’s a breakdown of the game results:

  • U.S. 116, Angola 48
  • U.S. 103, Croatia 70
  • U.S. 111, Germany 68
  • U.S. 127, Brazil 83
  • U.S. 122, Spain 81
  • Quarterfinals U.S. 115, Puerto Rico 77
  • Semifinals U.S. 127, Lithuania 76
  • Final U.S. 117, Croatia 85

The legacy of America’s Dream Team at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain cannot be overstated and will forever be heralded for its unparalleled greatness, but for all those who stand atop their proverbial Mount Rushmore, there will always be those taking their shots at you. Unfortunately, for the 1992 Dream Team, that came from the late Kobe Bryant who proclaimed that his 2012 Olympic team — which featured the Black Mamba as well as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul and, among others, Anthony Davis — could defeat the 1992 Dream Team.

"[The 1992 Dream Team players] were also a lot older, at kind of the end of their careers,” Bryant said, according to ESPN. “We have just a bunch of young racehorses, guys that are eager to compete. So, I don't know. It'd be a tough one, but I think we'd pull it out."

Well, as one can imagine, that didn’t sit well with the “Chuckster,” and in an interview on The Mike Missanelli Show on 97.5 The Fanatic Philadelphia, according to ESPN, Barkley said the OG’s from Barcelona would take down the young guns by double digits.

"Oh yeah, that's no disrespect," stated Barkley. "I ain't got to badmouth them. But like I said, their point guards weren't going to beat us. That's a no-brainer."

"Other than Kobe, LeBron [James] and Kevin Durant, I don't think anybody else on that team makes our team."

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