These were the Beatles in shorts and sneakers. Magic, Michael, Larry and Charles. The late Chuck Daly as George Martin. More? A chorus of Scottie Pippen and John Stockton and Karl Malone. Chris Mullin and Clyde Drexler and Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. And don't forget Christian Laettner, the college token from Duke, who absorbed daily doses of mostly good-natured ribbing.
Ah, the Dreamers.
They dined with princes in Monaco, posed for photos with foes in Portland, made friends and influenced people while walking the grand boulevards of Barcelona. Known as the Dream Team then and forevermore, they also threw elbows, ogled topless sunbathers at a rooftop pool in Monte Carlo, rudely introduced themselves to Croatian star and future Chicago Bulls swingman Toni Kukoc and endured a controversial snit with a major shoe company.
But, in the end, they re-established America's basketball supremacy, winning the gold medal with a style that was uniquely spectacular and fundamental, and oftentimes, just plain breathtaking.
Fast breaks routinely consisted of passes and no dribbling. Halfcourt sequences were clinics on backdoor cuts, on devastatingly quick head fakes and ball fakes, on ball and body movement, on one uncontested layup or jumper after another. Team USA won its games in Barcelona by an average of 43 points. It trailed only once against Croatia in the finale. Daly never called a timeout.
Later, the former Detroit Pistons coach described his team as "majestic" and offered two words for anyone suggesting that future Olympic rosters would compare favorably: Dream on.
Twenty years later, the idea presented by FIBA secretary general Boris Stankovic and embraced by NBA Commissioner David Stern inviting pros to compete in international competitions to tutor the rest of the world still resonates.
Opponents occasionally still ask for autographs or a signed pair of sneakers, but the globe has shrunk. The ball is shared. The United States remains the favorite in London and elsewhere, but it's no longer immune from defeat.
Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic guided the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia) to the gold medal at the 2002 World Championships. Argentina stunned Larry Brown's hastily assembled squad at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Mike Krzyzewski's team lost to Greece in the 2006 Worlds in Japan a defeat he ranks as the worst of his coaching career. "Because I was coaching for my country," the highly regarded Duke coach explained.
Additionally, about one-fourth of NBA players are born outside the United States, bolstering Stankovic's premise that competition is good for the game, if not the soul, and validating Stern's unrelenting push to expand the NBA's reach.
More change could be ahead. Prodded by a few NBA owners who resent that their league doesn't share in profits generated by the Olympics, Stern recently floated the notion of restricting Olympic eligibility to NBA players 23 and under, thus saving the league's older, more established stars for a tournament modeled after soccer's World Cup.
"I'm not ready to go there yet," USA Basketball executive director Jerry Colangelo said recently, but he advised members of the 2012 Olympic team accordingly: "This could be the last (Olympic) team as we know it. This could be your legacy.' "
Back to the beginning
While subsequent Olympic teams have latched onto the catchy "Dream Team" nickname, there is no duplicating the 1992 team, or for that matter the summerlong joyride that many league officials, players, coaches and journalists regard as the highlight of their careers.
Beginning with the weeklong training camp in La Jolla in July, the story lines started and never stopped. Bird and his one-liners and his cranky back. Jordan and his competition with Magic. Robinson and his oft-stated desire to atone for the USA's upset loss in 1988. Magic and the reaction to his HIV diagnosis. Barkley and his promise to behave.
That famous first scrimmage.
Hours after they gathered at a hotel in La Jolla, the Dreamers were defeated by a developmental squad that featured college standouts Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Chris Webber. In Jack McCallum's new book, "Dream Team," Krzyzewski, an assistant on the 1992 staff, said Daly orchestrated the defeat as a wake-up call.
Lenny Wilkens, also an assistant in Barcelona and Daly's successor in 1996, interpreted the outcome a little differently.
"Our guys just weren't ready," Wilkens said the other day, "so the opportunity was there, and Chuck let it happen."
Hurley, drafted by the Kings several months later, was particularly effective, squirting into the lane for layups, hitting floaters, passing to open shooters. Later that afternoon, he retrieved a collection of basketball cards from his hotel room and walked up and down the hallway, knocking on doors and asking for autographs.
"It was a little awkward because we had just beat them, and these guys were my idols," laughed Hurley, 41, now an assistant coach at Rhode Island. "But my brother (Dan) and I made the rounds Bird, Magic, Jordan whoever answered their door. I took some pictures with them, too."
Posing for photos
Hurley, it turns out, was only the first of an onslaught of autograph-seeking competitors. When the Dream Team shuttled to Portland for the Olympic-qualifying Tournament of the Americas, their fan base expanded and included nearly every member of every team they encountered.
In what became a pregame ritual, the Cuban players requested a joint team photo session at midcourt. During one post-game news conference, Brazilian icons Oscar Schmidt and Marcel de Souza recited Bird's birth date, hometown and career statistics and publicly pleaded for the Celtics star's autograph. Another comical moment came when Argentina's Marco Milanesi, attempting to hold post position against Magic Johnson, gestured wildly toward the bench and screamed for someone to grab a video recorder.
The final scores never seemed to matter. Asked how to defend Team USA after his club endured a 136-57 beating, Cuban coach Miguel Calderon Gomez shrugged, then eloquently provided the statement of the summer: "As we say in Cuba, one finger cannot cover the sun. It (the Dream Team) is a machine, almost a perfect basketball machine."
If La Jolla awakened the slumbering Dreamers, the intense media coverage and large, persistent crowds in Portland provided a blast of reality.
"We started to realize how much impact we were having," recalled former NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik, "and it was enormous. This was turning into something far bigger than anything we could have imagined."
Europe, here they come
The next leg of the trip was a weeklong training session in Monte Carlo, and seriously, what can you say about Monte Carlo except that it was as glorious as it sounds, and even more productive.
About a dozen of us journalists were stuck in a five-star hotel. With the Dreamers. On the Cote d'Azur. Access to the game's greatest players, whether in the coffee shop, the casino, the rooftop pool or nearby pubs and restaurants, would never again be this good.
On one occasion, Prince Rainier and Prince Albert strolled through the hotel lobby after hosting a formal dinner for the U.S. team. Daly, who had prepped his players about etiquette putting down the fork when the prince does, eating only when the prince eats, etc. had been mildly alarmed when Barkley insisted he would eat his steak when he felt like eating his steak.
"I was like, 'Damn, what if he (Prince Rainier) isn't very hungry?' " Barkley said. "If I'm halfway through my steak, I ain't stopping for no prince!"
A few nights later, the princes attended a U.S.-France exhibition that had been widely and somewhat anxiously anticipated because of uncertainty regarding the international reaction to Johnson and his HIV disclosure.
"It (AIDS) was a huge social issue," Granik said. "For us in the U.S., the (1992) All-Star Game kind of set the tone. But for the rest of the world, I think it was the Olympics that did it. People saw that Magic made the team, that he could still play, and that was huge."
That night in southern France was beyond huge, it was magical, it was all about Magic, and as the longtime Lakers star said later, it was one of the most emotional, gratifying nights of his life. Every time he made a pass, attempted a shot, grabbed a rebound, the fans stood and applauded. Heck, they stood and applauded when he shook his head.
Encouraged by the animated U.S. players, who were caught up in the moment, the fans simply refused to sit or stop screaming until Magic turned, and ever-so-dramatically, took a bow.
Could it get any better than that?
We knew the answer then. Probably not.
It was about more than gold
As the team arrived in Barcelona, the political climate was tense, but fascinating in many respects. The original Team USA plan to dominate without being perceived as bullies had become a particularly delicate dance in light of the tensions within Spain, along with the recent breakup of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, both formidable basketball powers entering the 1990s.
But by the summer of 1992, the teams effectively had been divided into two: Kukoc, the late Drazen Petrovic and Dino Radja forming the nucleus of newly independent Croatia, while their former friends and teammates Serbs Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Zoran Savic, among others were banned from international competition by United Nations Security Council sanctions.
Similarly, Alexander Gomelsky's marvelous Soviet team had been dismantled, with those left on the Russian team competing on a depleted roster known as CIS.
While the contrasts among the teams could hardly have been more pronounced, with wealthy Team USA taking on an impoverished Angola squad in the opener, anyone who failed to understand why the Dreamers belonged in a hotel instead of the Olympic Village needed only to visit the hotel.
The crowds outside the entrance thickened daily, encircling blocks and causing massive traffic jams. Armed guards patrolled the grounds. Snipers were visible on the rooftop. Even the team bus took different routes to the arena.
"It was a little scary," Daly recalled a few years ago. "I started to think it was a Tom Clancy novel waiting to happen."
Occasionally, the players tired of room service and slipped out a side door. If they attended other events, they left early to avoid the commotion.
Barkley, of course, was an exception; he wasn't intimidated and he wasn't changing his habits. Even after he created a mini-crisis by elbowing Angola's Herlander Coimbra, he continued strolling and luring huge crowds on the boulevard Las Ramblas into the wee hours, buying drinks and mingling with spectators.
The Dreamers grasped the broader purpose of furthering the NBA's global goal, and without exception, shared their time, insights and humor.
The enduring images of Barcelona are far too numerous to cite, so just a few: The future Hall of Famers some of whom would never win an NBA title clinging to their gold medals; the Lithuanians sobbing and singing after they captured the bronze and arriving at the medal ceremony in their tie-dyed shirts; the defiant, ferocious Petrovic, such a warm, engaging individual off the court, chiding the doe-eyed Kukoc for wilting in the first Croatia-USA matchup.
There were the photo shoots and wildly entertaining interview sessions in Portland, that unforgettable evening in Monte Carlo, and all those nights in Spain. It was Barcelona, and it was a writer's dream.