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The original Dream Team

Ben Blackmore
January 19, 2012
The 1992 USA Dream Team © Getty Images
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With less than 200 days to go until the start of the London Olympics, the countdown to the 2012 Games has begun and the clock is ticking for those athletes who harbour medal aspirations this summer.

This week saw USA Basketball announce what was labelled arguably the most extraordinary Olympic provisional squad of all time, worth an estimated £160 million in annual salaries. However, two decades before the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James head to London, came the inauguration of the very first and original Dream Team…

The Harlem Globetrotters are a basketball team that have "thrilled audiences around the world" for the past 84 years, in the words of one ticket-selling website. They are "a team that combines athleticism, theater and comedy", according to another. In essence, they are an exhibition outfit that tour the globe, wowing audiences with the best basketball tricks and skills on the planet.

To a very significant extent, the 1992 USA Dream Team ticked all the same boxes, although you can remove the exhibition part of it.

For the first time in Olympic history, the 1992 USA men's basketball squad was permitted to be made up entirely of active NBA players. A watershed moment, it allowed the 'dream' to happen. On behalf of the entire country, the likes of Michael Jordan - recognised as the greatest ever - could team up with rival NBA players such as the Utah Jazz's John Stockton, or the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird to form a team of out-and-out superstars, representing the stars and stripes in front of the greatest global window.

The dam-breaking moment (dam-breaking due to the fact that it meant the USA dominated the Olympic basketball competition for the next decade), had been borne out of a context of failure.

The USA expects success in basketball, so when they suffered their second Olympic failure during 1988 in South Korea, taking only bronze, change was a necessity. Unlike 1972, when the USA side had numerous questionable moments to defend their loss, their 1988 failure at the hands of the Soviet Union was fair and deserved. The USA's college-based roster had failed, and failure does not sit easily in the American vocabulary.

The solution arrived a year later when the FIBA (International Basketball Federation, or Fédération Internationale de Basketball in French), allowed professional players to participate in Olympic competition. In popular culture terms, it was like Simon Cowell allowing Jay-Z to compete on the X Factor.

Cue the Dream Team. The first 10 players selected were as follows: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen - legendary pairing of the Chicago Bulls, John Stockton and Karl Malone - the equivalent at the Utah Jazz, Magic Johnson of the LA Lakers, Larry Bird - synonymous with the game of basketball at the Boston Celtics, Patrick Ewing - awe-inspiring presence at the New York Knicks, Chris Mullin of the Golden State Warriors, 1988 member David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, and the controversial Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Could so many individuals, so many egos, so much talent all read from the same script? The first indication came on June 28, 1992, at the Tournament of the Americas. Cuba were the 'opposition', although when used as an adjective it seemed more accurate to describe them as the 'participants'. Following a startling 136-57 victory for the USA, Cuban coach Miguel Calderon Gomez was moved to comment, "You can't cover the sun with your finger."

It was child's play for Michael Jordan © Getty Images
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To sum up exactly how monumental the talent pool at the USA's disposal was, they had drafted in two extra players ahead of that match, with Clyde Drexler and Christian Laettner welcomed to the fold. This was a Christian Laettner who had been preferred to one Shaquille O'Neal, who went on to win four NBA titles and amass 28,596 points.

The Dream Team was the only way to describe them. "It was like Elvis and the Beatles put together," said coach Chuck Daly. Even the players that shared the same court as them at the 1992 Olympics would stand close to their heroes, hoping they would get snapped in a photo.

This was not a machine built just for winning, nor a marketing tool manufactured solely for public adoration though. This was a team who, like the Harlem Globetrotters, made it their unoffical mission to spread the gospel of basketball to the masses. And boy how they managed it.

By the time they returned home from the '92 Olympic Games with gold medals in their pockets, they had won their eight matches by an average of 43.8 points. Their narrowest winning margin was 32 points, and that came in the gold medal final against Croatia.

Angola were first up in the group stage, swatted aside 116-48. It was perhaps the only match of the Olympic tournament that brought any stain to the Dream Team brand. Barkley, scorer of 24 points, inexplicably elbowed an opponent with the scores at 33-0 - an incident replayed multiple times mainly due to the fact it was the only sign of humanity in an otherwise untouchable team.

Croatia, the eventual runners-up, were beaten next, and by the time the group stages were finished seven different players had all scored in a whipping of Brazil. Attacks came from all angles, cameras were loaded with image after image of incredible dunks, while the tricks on show appealed every bit as much as what the Globetrotters perennially offer.

Semi-final opponents Lithuania fell by a staggering 51-point margin, before Croatia were given another humbling in the eventual final. The USA's status as top dogs in basketball had been established more convincingly than at any of the previous Olympic Games, by a team that would be remembered as the greatest of all time.

In total, 11 of the 12 players (Laettner aside) have since been elected to the individual Hall of Fame. The team itself, needless to say, received equal recognition.

Speaking of the opposition faced, Daly commented: "They'll go home and for the rest of their lives be able to tell their kids, 'I played against Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.'

"And the more they play against our best players, the more confident they're going to get. Finally there will come a day - I'm not saying it will happen anytime soon, mind you, but it's inevitable that it will happen - that they will be able to compete with us on even terms. And they'll look back on the Dream Team as a landmark event in that process."

It took 12 years for Daly's prophesy to ring true, when the USA lost to Argentina in the 2004 semi-finals.

Era of dominance temporarily derailed (the USA regained the gold medal in 2008), there are perhaps two legacies left by the original Dream Team. The first took basketball to a whole new stratosphere of popularity, bringing with it all the financial and commercial benefits that inevitably follow. The other legacy was something of a poisoned chalice for future USA Olympic teams, players and coaches to take on. How could you possibly emulate the original?

"Dream Teams on paper, nightmares on the court" sums up the experiences of those who crumpled under the pressure of the USA jersey. Will Kobe, LeBron and Co be able to set the bar at a new height in London?

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