By Sterling Pingree
Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: “To die, to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream- ay there is the rub. For in this sleep of death, what dreams may come.” You’re already asking why I’m quoting Hamlet, ay, there’s the rub because when talking about the 1992 Dream Team basketball fans thought they had died and gone to hoops heaven.
In sports, we dish out monikers like Hollywood pumps out super hero movies, but rarely does the name take hold. How many times have we seen Sports Illustrated dub someone “The Natural” only to look back on the nickname as laughably false. (Jeff Francour is the one I am thinking of in this case.) The Dream Team moniker was given to this group by Jack McCallum, coincidently enough of Sports Illustrated. The idea of professionals playing in the Olympics wasn’t always thought of as such a great idea, many believed that either the pros would ruin the integrity and spirit of the Olympics or that not enough of the NBA’s best players would want to participate. The latter would not be a problem.
25 years later, I can still name the entire roster of the Dream Team off the top of my head: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler and Christian Laettner. It’s hard to find a flaw in this team, they didn’t leave anybody off the roster who at that point in time felt like they should have been on the squad. The only name that surprised people by getting passed over was Isiah Thomas. Thomas was passed over because nobody wanted him on the team, not only that but Pistons coach Chuck Daly was named the coach of Team USA and he didn’t even go to bat for Isiah. You have to remember that these were the Bad Boy Pistons, they were not liked by the rest of the league. Chiefly, not by Jordan and Pippen who had just battled them for 4 years in the playoffs, not by Bird for the same reason or by Magic Johnson for their battles in the NBA Finals. With all the derision towards “Detroit Basketball” you might wonder why nobody had a problem with Daly being the head coach, Charles Barkley explained it best: “He coached the Bad Boys, if you can coach those a—holes, you can coach anybody.”
Addressing the elephant in the room, I realize that when you give this roster a cursory look, that Christian Laettner doesn’t seem like he should be on the team. Laettner was a concession to the way that USA Basketball had been run previously when it was made up 100% by collegiate players and actually when the idea of using pros was first broached it was agreed upon that the roster would at first feature 8 pros and 4 college players, then 10 and 2 and then the final ratio of just having one token college player on the team. Remember, Laettner had just won two national titles at Duke, which wrapped up one of the great careers in the history of college hoops. With our prospective now as we look at the greatest team even assembled in team sports, the team would look much more impressive if Shaquille O’Neal had been the 12th man on the roster. That would have closed the weakest link of the chain but in 1992 Laettner was the man and don’t forget that in head to head games, Laettner had abused O’Neal. It didn’t hurt that Laettner had played in USA Basketball junior tournaments, or that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was an assistant on the Dream Team.
It is amazing to watch back the highlights and game films of the Dream Team for a couple of reasons. The Dreamers never played a close game, a team staying within 40 points of them was a surprise. It was the sights that made the team transcendent because even with All-Star games you didn’t get this. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had never played on the same team. Think about that for a moment, this was the end of the era of prosperity where Magic and Larry turned the NBA into America’s premier sport and because they had always played in different conference we’d never seem them on the same side. Here it is all of these years later and ESPN is still churning out Magic vs Larry documentaries, the sight of these two running the floor in the same jersey was and is startlingly unique.
The Dream Team came along at the perfect time when you think about it. Magic Johnson hadn’t played the 1991-92 season (except for the All-Star game in Orlando) due to his HIV diagnosis and Bird would play his last basketball game ever for not the Celtics, but for team USA in Barcelona. Not to mention the fact that just a season later, Michael Jordan would stun the world by announcing his first retirement in 1993. 1992 was the crossroads of the NBA’s glory of the 1980’s and the dawning of the Jordan era. 12 guys made up the team, 11 are in the Hall of Fame (as is the team that went in as a group in 2010) just two were past their prime (Magic and Larry), one had yet to reach his prime (Laettner, though maybe Duke in 1992 was his prime?) The other nine players were at the absolute height of their powers and none more so than Charles Barkley.
No discussion about the Dream Team is complete without mentioning Charles Barkley. The outspoken “Sir Charles” was almost left off the team because of unpredictable public demeanor. Barkley had gotten in bar fights, spit on a young girl at a game and cursed out his owner for two years as a way to get out of Philadelphia. Barkley was considered by some as a social liability to what NBA Commissioner David Stern hoped would be a basketball missionary trip of sorts. Whatever baggage he brought to the team, there was no denying that Barkley was at that time the only player that could be compared to Jordan in terms of talent and he proved that in the Olympics. On the stat sheet, Barkley was a monster filling up most categories. Off the court, Barkley was a monster, he roamed the streets of Barcelona all night and when he was asked about first Olympic opponent Angola, Barkley said “I don’t know nothin’ about Angola, but Angola is in trouble.” On the court, Barkley was a monster because he slammed Angola’s Herlander Coimbra with a vicious elbow. I guess the least you could say is that he was consistent.
It’s been chic for a long time to call popular groups “Rock Stars” as a means to describing the mania surrounding them. Watching the footage of the crowds and fans on NBA TV’s documentary The Dream Team, you quickly realize that this was Beatles-level admiration from the fans and being the first of their kind, there will never be another team like it. The NBA is currently going through a talent boom, the likes of which we probably haven’t seen since roughly 1992, but because this was the first of its kind and came along at a time where the game was just starting to become global. No Olympic team, even if you could somehow get 100% buy in from the top 12 players in the world could ever have the impact that the Dream Team had on basketball in 1992 and going forward.
25 years later I still remember that team incredibly fondly and remember seeing the image of the team plastered everywhere for many years after it. They called the USA team at the 1996 games Dream Team II and even had many of the original group on the squad (this time including Shaquille O’Neal but forgot to invite Christian Laettner) but even Scottie Pippen admitted that it wasn’t close to being the same as it was 4 years earlier.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare asked “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” The Dream Team could have been called anything and by weight of the greatness on the roster it would have made that name synonymous with excellence. August 8th is the 25th Anniversary of the Dream Team beating Croatia for the gold medal, it’s hard to believe that it has been so long.
Maybe it was all a dream, after all.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.