One of the most prominent subplots of the Summer Olympics in Rio thus far – besides the utter domination of Michael Phelps in the swimming pool and Simone Biles on various gymnastic apparatuses – is the struggles for the American men’s basketball team who despite winning their group had real trouble eking out wins over Australia, Serbia and France by a combined 16 points. Of course, this is a far cry from the margin of victory for the inaugural, 1992 Dream Team who won by an average of 43.8 points, an Olympic record, and whose closest challenger managed a respectable 32-point throttling.
Although it may seem like the current iteration of the Dream Team is playing lackluster basketball, the close games might actually represent just how much the World has gained on the Americans on the court since the Barcelona games when professional players were first allowed to vie for gold medals.
Victory is hardly every guaranteed in the sporting realm. However, the world had little chance at channeling a David vs. Goliath scenario when the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton and Christian Laettner stepped between the lines to represent the United States.
In fact, the only real high-drama for the Dream Team happened in the lead up to the medal ceremony, when Nike athletes – headline by Air Jordan himself – had to consider if their allegiances to Nike outweighed their commitment to their service of their country.
Prior to the April 1989 announcement that allowed professional basketball players to compete in the Olympics, the United States had finished third at the previous summer’s Olympics in Seoul – where future NBA players like Stacey Augmon, Dan Majerle, Mitch Richmond and David Robinson lost to the USSR in their bid to qualify for the Gold Medal game.
Ironically, the United States voted against the proposal to allow professionals to compete in what had always been a clash of amateurs in the basketball ranks – although the vote was decidedly lopsided, 56-13.
“I’m not sure the NBA., if it had a vote, would have voted for it, either,” said Dave Gavitt, President of the United States Amateur Basketball Association.
Among those disapproving was Detroit Pistons guard, Isiah Thomas, who said that professionals in the Games would be part of a “win-at-all-cost mentality.”
“This raises issues and burdens for us,” said NBA Executive Vice President Russ Granik. “We would like to develop a process that makes it attractive for all NBA players to play. If we’re going to be involved, we want to present American and NBA basketball in the best possible light.”
In an Associated Press survey of 295 NBA players released the same week that the change in Olympic policy was announced, only 58 percent said they would play if given the opportunity. Notably, Michael Jordan said he would not be interested because he had been in the Olympics, while Karl Malone said he would “go in a heartbeat and pay my own ticket,” and Magic Johnson would, “definitely like to play.”
The NBA was well-aware that the 1992 Summer Olympics roster was not only a chance to win a Gold Medal, but also place the best the NBA had – both past and present – in a time capsule for preservation. Thus, some decisions were harder than others when it came to selecting the 12 players.
“There was a lot of discussion about Larry Bird, because Larry had started having back problems,” said Granik, who served as a liaison to Team USA. “He clearly wasn’t anywhere near what his peak had been, but if you were putting together such a historic team, you couldn’t leave him off.”
“Charles Barkley was one of the last guys put on the team,” said Rod Thorn, a member of the Team USA selection committee. “You wanted to make sure that everything went smoothly, that everybody represented the way you wanted them to represent. And there were some who, frankly, were worried about Barkley. But then he ended up being the leading scorer.”
“The last player, as I recall, was between Clyde Drexler and Isiah Thomas, and you had two pretty great résumés there,” remembered Granik. “I don’t know what the final vote was—I never asked—but when they counted, it came out for Clyde.”
With the roster set – and Detroit Pistons coach, Chuck Daly, selected as the man tasked with leading this historic team – the Dream Team geared up for a scrimmage against a who’s who of college stars like Chris Webber and Alan Houston to get a sense of how so many egos could coexist on the floor. Surprisingly, the Dream Team was promptly upset. The final score of the scrimmage in La Jolla, Calif. — Collegians 62, Dream Team 54.
“We took them for granted, and they kicked our butt,” Karl Malone said. “And Coach Daly just had that look on his face like, ‘Well, this is what we told you guys. You gotta be ready.’ After that, we was chomping at the bit to play them again that same day, but he didn’t let us. He let us stew on it a little bit.”
The next day, the Dream Team rebounded.
“We didn’t score a point,” Chris Webber remembers. “Not one point. Not a point on a free throw, not a point in the game. We were the perfect wake-up call for them, and they were the perfect reality check for us.”
The Dream Team had officially been anointed, but they still had to go through the regular paces and qualify for the Games. Debuting in an official capacity on at the Tournament of the Americas on June 28, Team USA decimated Cuba by 79 points.
Even the opposing players were star struck. Legend has it that opposing players were taking portraits of their teammates from the bench so that they could have memories of them guarding the likes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
Not surprisingly, Team USA went on to defeat Canada, Panama, Argentina, Puerto Rico and Venezuela en route to punching their tickets to Barcelona.
It was,” said Coach Chuck Daly, “like Elvis and the Beatles put together. Traveling with the Dream Team was like traveling with 12 rock stars. That’s all I can compare it to.”
Perhaps the only real threat to Team USA centered on commerce as opposed to their opposition.
The 1992 Games were the year of Reebok making a real push to keep up with Nike’s budding dominance in the athletic realm – especially basketball. Most notably, they had produced a series of commercials – commonly referred to as “Dan vs. Dave” – which outlined the rivalry between American decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson which ran as part of an eight-month campaign.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Nike and Reebok were believed to “have spent an estimated $50 million on Olympic advertising.”
Despite boasting notable endorsements with Michael Jordan and five other Dream Team athletes – Johnson, Barkley, Stockton, Robinson and Mullin – Nike faced several roadblocks in Barcelona.
A Spaniard, Juan Amigo Freitas, had purchased a trademark from a Barcelona sock manufacturer that had registered a statue of the Greek goddess “Athena Nike” in 1932, and thus owned the Spanish trademark for “Nike.”
As a result of pending litigation, Nike was forced to alter a huge, six-story billboard painted in downtown Barcelona where the Nike name and logo was banished to the corner and off the uniforms worn by a pole-vaulting Sergei Bubka and a dunking Michael Jordan.
“If they don’t comply, they’ll have to pay the consequences,” said Jose Antonio Hernandez, a lawyer for Freitas. “We’ll talk with the judges, we’ll talk with the police, whoever.”
Nike claimed it faced $20 million USD in lost revenue by not being being permitted to sell its clothing in Spain.
Looking to pile onto Nike’s troubles, Reebok secured the rights to the warm-ups that athletes would wear before games and if they should appear on a medal podium for $4 million USD. Thus, Reebok had almost assured themselves a place in history when the Dream Team was anointed based on Rule 14 of the code of conduct signed by every United States Olympic athlete which stated that “medal winners will wear apparel supplied by the United States Olympic Committee at award ceremonies.”
“This rule,” said Harvey Schiller, the U.S.O.C. executive director, “was approved by the Athletes Advisory Council and all athletes on our teams are expected to abide by it and all other portions of the code. It is mandatory policy that any athlete taking part in an official medal ceremoney in Barcelona will wear this apparel, without exception.”
It was decided that Nike athletes would wear the suits, but turn down the collars so that the Reebok logo wouldn’t show.
“One of the most difficult things was dealing with some of Michael Jordan’s endorsement issues, remembers Michael Jordan’s longtime agent, David Falk. “He was in a class by himself, breaking a lot of ground, and a lot of that conflicted with what the U.S. Olympic Committee assumed they were entitled to do with all their athletes. We really had long and difficult negotiations with Michael and with Nike.”
Although an agreement had tentatively been reached between Nike athletes and Reebok as it related to medal stand attire, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were not satisfied and threatened not to appear at the ceremony should they win the Gold.
“I don’t believe in endorsing my competition,” Jordan said. “I feel very strongly abut loyalty to my own company.”
And rightfully so, as Jordan had recently signed a $25 million endorsement contract to sell Nike products.
“Us Nike guys are loyal to Nike because they pay us a lot of money,” said Charles Barkley. “I have two million reasons not to wear Reebok.”
The New York Times was critical of Jordan over his declaration of allegiance to company over country, questioning, “As for loyalty to his company, how loyal was Jordan to Coca-Cola when Gatorade offered him more money?”
“Nike is the Greek word for winged goddess of victory, the Times added. “But if Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley don’t wear their official warm-up suits, Nike will mean broken-winged goddess of greed.”
USOC spokesman Mike Moran stated, “we will fight them to wear that award suit. The first athlete who says he’s not wearing it will be the first athlete who ever said that. To me, that would be an act of arrogance that backfires on any player that does it. Anyone not wearing the uniform won’t get on the award stand.”
In the lead up to the final game against Croatia, other Dream Team members with rival apparel deals began chiming in as well.
Karl Malone, endorsed by LA Gear, and Patrick Ewing, who had his own line of shoes and clothes, said they would not wear the Reebok suit.
“I’m with LA Gear,” Malone said. “That’s all I’m wearing. I’m not wearing Reebok.”
“I’m not wearing any Reebok,” Ewing said. “I’ll take it off.”
As it stood, Larry Bird was signed with Converse, Magic Johnson was in the process of getting out of his Converse contract and Christian Laettner had recently signed a deal with Adidas. Only Clyde Drexler, who represented Avia shoes, a subsidiary of Reebok, stated he had no objections.
“I have no problem with it,” he said.
On August 8, the Dream Team completed their quest for Olympic Gold. As Jordan and co. walked toward the podium, he and all of his teammates – regardless of sneaker affiliation – donned the red, white and blue Reebok tracksuit. However, Jordan, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson draped American flags over their right shoulders to obscure the Reebok name.
“Everyone agreed we would not deface the Reebok on the award uniform,” said Jordan. “The American flag cannot deface anything. That’s what we stand for. The American dream is standing up for what you believe in. I believed in it, and I stood up for it. If I offended anyone, that’s too bad.”
Perhaps His Airness summed it up best, “When you hire 12 Clint Eastwoods to come in here and do a job, don’t ask them what bullets they’re putting in the gun.”
- Featured/Main Image: Reuters