Sure feels like it was just yesterday.
The midnight dinners. The Ramblas. The best nightclub of all time -- Up and Down (Arriba y Abajo). The biggest grocery store I’ve every seen -- where you could buy eggs and motorcycles under one roof. The horrible vehicular traffic, in concert with everyone, seemingly, walking everywhere.
And the fast breaks and dunks, when the ball never touched the ground.
Barcelona was magical.
The U.S. men’s team that played basketball there in the Summer Olympics in 1992 -- headed, 25 years ago this week, toward the inevitable gold medal they were there to take -- was less magical than clinical, a machine that played the game as well as it could be played by five men on a court. It was the best team I’ve ever seen put together, and ever will see. Eleven of the 12 players on the team, individually, are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (Christian Laettner the lone exception), as well as the coach, the late Chuck Daly, as is the team collectively, and there simply will never be another team in the history of the game for which all of that will be true.
There simply will never be another team in the history of the game for which all of that will be true.
“I never traveled with a rock band,” said the NBA’s longtime Vice President of Public Relations, Brian McIntyre. “But that had to be what it was like with the Beatles.”
The NBA players were invited in by FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, whose head man, Boris Stankovic, wanted the pros in.
There would be no tryouts. The team would be selected by a committee that included some of the most respected people in the game: Wayne Embry, Billy Cunningham, Dave Gavitt, Bob Bass, C.M. Newton, Donnie Walsh, Jack McCloskey, Rod Thorn, Jan Volk and others.
This was different from the way Olympic basketball teams had been selected for decades before, when USA Basketball would invite a few dozen amateur hopefuls to a camp and then slowly, agonizingly, cut players from the team until they had their 12. (Charles Barkley and John Stockton, famously, had been cut from the 1984 Olympic team by Bobby Knight, and left the trials in Indianapolis in a van together, along with Joe Dumars, Karl Malone, Terry Porter and A.C. Green.)
Thorn, the NBA’s executive vice president of operations at the time, had two tasks. Few were as knowledgeable about the pro game and people as Thorn, who’d been a player, coach and general manager before going to work for the league. But Thorn had also drafted Michael Jordan while GM of the Bulls in 1984, and Thorn had Jordan’s trust and ear. So he was given the responsibility of feeling Jordan out to see if Jordan would play in the Olympics, as he did for Knight in ’84.
Because of the cache that USA Basketball Director Jerry Colangelo has created by playing in the Olympics today, it’s hard to forget how difficult people thought it would be back then to get NBA players to play in the Games, to play for a relative pittance and sacrifice their precious down time after a grueling season. But the exclusivity was the hook; if players knew only a few would be chosen, it created desire to be there, like being in a club that almost no one else could join.
“I remember people like Billy Packer saying players would never give up their summer,” Granik told me years later. But the committee found it to be, relatively, easier than people believed it would be to get commitments.
“Players played in the Olympics in college,” Granik said. “And at that time, most of the players played in college. If it was their junior or senior year, they would play in the Olympics if they were Michael Jordan or Patrick Ewing. And if they were Larry Bird or Magic Johnson and left school early, they never had an opportunity to play, and they missed it. Every player had the same reaction. Rod called most of the players. Two or three, we called together. I called a couple that I knew. We told them the kind of players we were trying to recruit. They all had the same reaction -- if you can put that kind of team together, I’m on board.”
Many were easy -- Magic Johnson was in because Magic was Magic, always attracted to the bright lights, and even after his HIV disclosure in 1991 forced him out of the NBA (he’d come back twice before retiring for good in 1996), the game’s elite players still viewed him as a peer, and part of the club.
But Bird was hurting. His jacked-up back required yeoman efforts from the Celtics’ medical staff and from his physical therapist, Dan Dyrek, to get him through the 1991-92 season -- which would be his last. Though he was extremely flattered by the honor of being asked, he thought his time had passed and that the ’92 Games should be “for the young guys,” as he told Gavitt, by then his boss as president of the Celtics.
“Larry was a different situation,” Granik said. “He was ailing already at the time. And there really was a question of ‘should he be on the team because he was Larry Bird? And eventually the committee felt, yes. The fact that Magic said he was in, it worked that way with Larry and the others. Rod obviously had a strong relationship with Michael because he drafted him. Rod always told me, Michael says he’s in. He just didn’t want it public. But trust me, he’s in.”
Thorn has a slightly different recollection.
“Early on he told Russ he would play,” Thorn texted on Saturday. “Then later, there was a report from a golf tournament he was playing in, I think it was an amateur tournament in the Midwest, that he had changed his mind. I called him at the Tournament and he confirmed that he was going to play. After that, we always thought he was a go, regardless of various reports otherwise.”
Once Magic, Bird and Jordan were in, the rest of the choices were fairly easy, with the notable exception/exclusion of Isiah Thomas, who’d led the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. There seems to be little doubt, all these years later, that Jordan didn’t want to and wouldn’t play on the team if his longtime rival Thomas was chosen. That ground has been covered consistently over the last two decades, most notably in the NBA TV documentary “The Dream Team”, and two books: Jack McCallum’s Dream Team and Jackie MacMullen’s When the Game was Ours.
I can tell you my reporting at the time for The Washington Post certainly is in line with what Jack, Jackie and others like Newsday’s Jan Hubbard reported contemporaneously -- there was little support for Thomas on the selection committee, which included McCloskey, the Pistons’ GM, who subsequently resigned from the committee after Isiah wasn’t one of the first 10 players selected.
My personal opinion -- that Isiah definitely belonged on the team ahead of Utah Jazz guard John Stockton -- was just that, my opinion. The committee saw it differently.
One committee member told me at the time that they looked hard at the Thomas-Stockton issue. Thomas had had wrist surgery during the ’90-’91 season that had limited him to 48 games, but he’d started 78 games the following season. The surgery, the committee member said, came up during the discussions.
“John Stockton has been the best point guard statistically for the last four years,” the committee member told me at the time. “I know Isiah’s won championships, and he’s a tough kid. A very tough kid. But if you’ve got to choose between these guys and you’re not doing it five years ago, that’s not a knockout vote (for Thomas) like everyone thinks it is now.”
The other selections had next to no controversy.
David Robinson was an elite defender who’d just won Defensive Player of the Year honors (he led the league in blocked shots in 1991-92, swatting an incredible 4.5 per game). At 26, many already viewed him as the best big man in the game. (Hakeem Olajuwon, born in Nigeria, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1993 and played on the ’96 U.S. Olympic team). Patrick Ewing was a little older (30) than “The Admiral”, but was still a double-double machine (24.5 ppg and 11.2 rpg) that season, and still blocking 2.7 shots a game.
Scottie Pippen was considered the league’s premier wing defender in ’92, having changed The 1991 Finals by picking up Magic full-court and harassing him through the last four games of the series. Barkley had just averaged a double-double (23.1 ppg and 11.1 rpg) for a seventh consecutive season. Chris Mullin was first-team All-NBA the previous season, averaging 25.6 ppg for the Golden State Warriors. Karl Malone was the best power forward in the game and was also first-team All-NBA in ’91-’92, averaging 28.0 ppg.
The committee held out the two remaining spots for players who excelled during the ’91-’92 season, but it was a poorly kept secret that the Portland Trail Blazers’ Clyde Drexler would be the last pro player added. “The Glide” made his sixth All-Star team (and fifth straight) that season, leading the Blazers to The Finals. As a concession to the college game and players that had been shunted aside for the pros, one spot for a college player was available, and it went to Duke’s Laettner, who’d just led the Blue Devils to a second straight national championship.
Thus mounted, the Dream Team came together in La Jolla, just outside of San Diego, for training camp in mid-June, then obliterated the competition at the Tournament of the Americas in Portland, officially qualifying for the Olympics. In Portland, you saw what would become a constant theme throughout those weeks and months -- opposing players asking for the Dream Teamers’ sneakers and jerseys, or for pictures -- sometimes during the games.
In Barcelona, the Dream Team had its own accommodations, at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Barcelona -- a necessity if you witnessed the near-riot the team encountered just when picking up its credentials at the Olympic Village. There were objections to the different treatment, but people acted a little differently around Magic than, say, Maxim Tersasov.
Coming back from a game en route to the hotel, the bus carrying the team missed a turn, and drove down a street filled to bursting with fans -- who recognized the Dreamers immediately and rocked the bus from side to side for a few harrowing seconds.
At the hotel, the second floor was players only, where they could hang out, toss insults -- Bird, Magic and Jordan mocking Barkley for not yet having won a ring; Jordan telling Magic and Bird their time had passed.
The U.S. team won by an average of 43.8 points per game in the Olympics, starting with a 116-48 rout of Angola in the opening round, during which the Dreamers went on a 46-1 run and Barkley a) shoved one Angolan player who fouled him and b) elbowed another Angolan in the chest for bodying him too close.
“If somebody makes violence with me,” said the player, Herlander Coimbra, “it is preferable that I get out before the violence. Sport is not violence. It is sport … the word of these Games, if I remember, is ‘friends forever,’ something like this. Don’t make violence.”
But “The Chuckster” was the best player on the U.S. team during the fortnight. He brought up the ball and made plays (Stockton was laid up most of the Games after breaking his leg during the Tournament of the Americas), he filled the wings on the break, he blocked shots. The U.S. defense was stifling, with Pippen and Jordan snuffing out opponents on the wings, and Robinson and Ewing keeping the paint clean.
It’s hard to describe on the printed page how exquisite the Dreamers were in real time. They would go three or four minutes without allowing opponents a basket. They moved the ball around like it was tethered to them. They played against the game itself as much as their opponents. Back then, the difference wasn’t just in talent, it was in temperament, as displayed by when Jordan and Pippen locked up their future Bulls teammate, Toni Kukoc, who was playing for Croatia, in the second round.
To be fair, the rest of the world, relatively speaking, was in its infancy in producing competitive ballers at the highest levels. Other than Lithuania, whose country produced four of the five starters on the Soviet Union team that won the 1988 Olympic gold in Seoul, and which won the bronze medal in Barcelona as its own independent nation after the collapse of the USSR, no other country had multiple NBA-caliber players.
But the U.S. dominance in Barcelona was the catalyst for the world catching up. Spain and Argentina became international powers. By 2002, Argentina and Spain beat the U.S. team at the World Championships in Indianapolis, and the U.S. team finished sixth. Today, France has a strong program, too. Canada and Australia are on the cusp, with great young talent ready to break through and medal.
The United States team crushed Lithuania in the semifinals by 51, its second-biggest margin of victory in the tournament. The gold medal game was a rematch with Kukoc and Croatia, which did a little better this time, but still lost by 32.
They had to find their competition elsewhere, if not on the court.
“I had to get 60 basketballs signed by everyone on the team,” McIntyre recalled. “Somehow, they went missing somewhere. I had more of them in boxes in my room in Barcelona throughout the whole time. I told the players we need to have them signed again. I told the players, one of these is yours, but the commissioner wants one, the sponsors want one. Bird said ‘yeah, I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it.’ Stockton took the longest time to sign it; he said ‘Brian, 50 years from now, I want people to be able to read my name on the ball.’
“Bird was the last guy. He came into the room and said ‘what’s the fastest time anybody took to sign all of them?’ I said it was anywhere from seven minutes to 40 minutes. He said ‘time me.’ He just started signing ‘LBird,’ ‘LBird,’ and after the last one he just flipped the pen up and said ‘how long?’ I said 6:10. Competitive to the end.”
Best team I ever saw, and it isn’t close.
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