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Scott Howard-Cooper

A young Charles Barkley digs in against Croatia in the 1992 Olympics.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Dream Team, on cusp of Hall, changed the hoops world

Posted Mar 19 2010 10:08AM

It wasn't the couple weeks in Barcelona. It's the 18 years everywhere since.

It wasn't Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. It's everyone since.

It wasn't the Dream of the moment. It's the reality since.

That's the thing about the 1992 U.S. Olympic team and its nomination for the Hall of Fame, a nomination that appears headed to another easy victory for the Team when inductees are announced April 5. The Dream Team isn't about the Bug vs. Windshield tournament in Spain, in which some overmatched opponent was getting scraped off the mat after a quadruple-digit loss to make sure players were in the picture with their favorite super American heros afterward.

It's about when the Dream Team stopped playing.

The candidacy is about legacy, not victory. In that regard, enshrinement is a no-brainer -- the first roster with NBA players, plus Christian Laettner as the lone representative from the college ranks, had a far-reaching and dramatic impact on the sport in a way few singular moments in the sport can match. Maybe any singular moment.

The league sent its stars as ambassadors, at the encouragement of the very opponents that would get rolled, and the rest of the world became energized. Other countries decided to play catch-up, which led to a new excitement for international basketball, which led to programs being developed in foreign lands, which led to young players being developed, which led to the NBA of 2010. There is a straight line from that tournament to this moment.

The real lasting impact of the 14 days in Barcelona is the 18 years that followed. That is what gets you in the Hall of Fame, not United States 127, Lithuania 76 in the semifinals or United States 117, Croatia 85 for the gold.

"That was kind of the height of where basketball was taken to another level, in my opinion, worldwide," said Jerry Colangelo, the Suns owner at the time and now Team USA managing director. "It was the Dream Team that made that happen. The bar was raised for basketball around the world, making it more difficult for the USA to dominate the way the Dream Team did in 1992. But for the betterment of the game."

The opponents mostly closed the gap. Yugoslavia won the 2002 world championships, prompting the United States to react to a sixth-place thud by implementing a new program based on continuity of coaching and players, and Spain won in 2006 as the NBA All-Star collection was handed the bronze.

But the world being better made the NBA better. Dirk Nowitzki. Steve Nash. Pau Gasol. Tony Parker. Andrew Bogut. Manu Ginobili. Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The list of standout imports is long.

"We didn't really talk about history or anything," Johnson said. "What we talked about was dominating. And because we dominated, it became historical. You can't really talk about it. You have to be about it. And we were about showing the world that this team was great, this team of collective All-Stars would come out and play together and would blow out every team in the world. And we did that, but we did it with style and class. I think that's why the world enjoyed this team, because we just kept coming at 'em, but we did it with style and class."

Or at least they did except for Charles Barkley blatantly elbowing Herlander Coimbra, a 180-pound economics student playing for Angola, with the Dream Team on a 31-0 run and leading 38-7 in the opener, prompting jeering whistles of disapproval from the crowd. (Not to mention the Barkley responses that have been passed down ever since: "Somebody hits me, I'm going to hit him back. Even if it does look like he hasn't eaten in a while." And: "Well, he might have pulled a spear on me.")

"We just played basketball at a high level," Johnson said. "And we got up and down [with a running game.] They loved the fast break. They got the chance to see Michael Jordan be Michael Jordan, Drexler be Drexler. We were up and down, we'd shoot the lights out with Bird and Mullin. It was truly a balanced team. Even when I go now, when I travel around the world, that's all they talk about. 'I saw you and the Dream Team.' It's a special team. I don't think you'll ever see it again."

It was an amazing collection of talent that became an amazing moment for an entire sport, a convergence of circumstance and time that became a global boost for basketball. That, in turn, became a benefit for the NBA and ensured the Dream Team's forever impact. Even for Coimbra.

After Angola's 116-48 loss, he motioned to Barkley as the teams approached their dressing rooms. He wanted a picture with Sir Charles.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.

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