Following decades of dominance, by the late 1980s, it was clear that the American men's basketball program could no longer roll out a team of amateur players and expect to beat professionals from other countries simply because of the USA letters on their jerseys.
The point was driven home by a semifinal loss to the Soviet Union in the 1988 Olympics, so when the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) voted to allow American professionals to compete the following spring, it was time to assemble the cavalry for the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain.
The result was 12 players who wound up with a combined 117 All-Star appearances and 23 titles over the course of their NBA careers, a collection of talent so astonishing that there was no other way to describe them but as the "Dream Team."
PHOTOS: The Dream Team
The team dominated their competition from the start
The Dream Team took Barcelona by storm that summer, delighting fans with their aerial aerobics and the sort of theatrics one would expect to see at a Harlem Globetrotters game. Opponents from countries like Angola, Puerto Rico and Spain were simply happy to be on the court with their NBA heroes as they were getting crushed by more than 40 points per game.
"We felt like we were the luckiest guys in the world. We were going to play against the best," Herlander Coimbra from Team Angola told GQ. "But those guys were on another level — a galaxy far, far away."
Even the teams with serious medal hopes had no chance. Lithuania lost by a 127-76 score in the semifinals, and Croatia, who gave the team the closest game, lost by 32 points in a 117-85 gold medal-winning performance for the Americans.
The Dream Team as a group was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 2010. Some of their Olympic records have been broken, but they remain in the public consciousness as one of the greatest teams of all time.
Here are the players who led the Dream Team to victory:
Michael Jordan, the reigning NBA MVP, was lukewarm about playing in the Olympics, but a Dream Team without Jordan would have been like Mount Rushmore without George Washington. His fellow future teammate, Magic Johnson, even put in some work trying to convince Jordan. “I’m working on him,” Johnson told the New York Times. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it."
Jordan eventually came around and joined the team. However, a look at the numbers suggests that Jordan wasn't at his best that summer – he led the team in turnovers and was the only regular to miss more than half his shots – but he still thrilled with his high-flying dunks and twice recorded an Olympic-record eight steals in a single game.
A shoo-in for inclusion when the Dream Team was conceived, Magic Johnson's status became a huge question mark with the November 1991 announcement that he was HIV-positive. But the International Olympic Committee gave him the green light to play, and by the time the Olympics started, his diagnosis had taken a back seat to the anticipation of seeing the NBA stars in action. Aside from a leg bruise that sidelined him for two games, Johnson proved he belonged in Barcelona by supplying his patented no-look passes and the sunny charisma that made him one of the NBA's first global icons.
Hampered by back pain and weeks away from announcing his retirement, the 35-year-old Larry Bird was not at the same level as the MVP who lifted the Boston Celtics to three NBA titles in the 1980s. But his absence would have been another glaring omission, and everyone understood that he was mainly there to serve as co-captain with Johnson and knock down a few jump shots. Bird ultimately made the most of his final competition by contributing 8.4 points and nearly two steals per game, and even showed a little of the old Larry Legend by scoring a team-high 19 points in a win over Germany.
Although Jordan was king of the basketball universe at the time, it was Charles Barkley who stood out as the Dream Team's most potent player – he set an Olympic record with a 30-point performance vs. Brazil and averaged a team-high 18 points per game – and its public face with his forays into the Barcelona nightlife. He also displayed the volatility that worried some members of the American selection committee, earning a flagrant foul for elbowing an opponent in the opener and a technical foul on another occasion for taunting the crowd.
As he did alongside Jordan for their championship run with the Chicago Bulls, Scottie Pippen kept the Dream Team humming in top gear with his all-around play, leading the group with 5.9 assists per game. He also used the Olympics to execute a personal vendetta against Croatian star Toni Kukoc – then reportedly being lured to the Bulls with a contract offer that exceeded his own – by giving his future teammate a taste of elite NBA defense.
One of the greatest shooters in NBA history, Chris Mullin relished the opportunity to take aim from the closer three-point lines of international basketball, sinking half of his shots from downtown. He led Team USA with 21 points in a quarterfinal win over Puerto Rico and finished fourth overall with an average of 12.9 points per game.
Harboring memories of his failed Olympic tryout from 1984, the rugged Utah Jazz forward took out his frustrations on opposing big men, tying for the team lead with 5.3 rebounds per game and finishing third in scoring. "The Mailman" also notched the first and the last points for the Dream Team in the tournament.
One of three returning players from the 1984 gold medal-winning team, along with Jordan and Mullin, Patrick Ewing capably anchored the paint for the Americans, pacing the team in blocked shots and tying Malone for the lead in rebounds. The New York Knicks center later likened the Dream Team's mission to that of elite forces like the Navy Seals, telling GQ, "We came in, and we kicked butt and took names and got everybody back home safely."
Coming off a loss to Jordan in the 1992 NBA finals, the Clyde Drexler got to bask in victory this time, showing off his smooth moves en route to 10.5 points per game.
A member of the disappointing 1988 Olympic team, David Robinson alternated with Ewing to man the middle for the Dream Teamers, chipping in nine points and four rebounds per game.
John Stockton had limited opportunities to run his patented pick-and-roll with Malone after sustaining a leg fracture early in the qualifying tournament, but he returned for the team's final four games and was on the floor as Team USA closed out its gold medal win.
The odd man out as the lone Dream Teamer with zero NBA experience – albeit one who had just been named National College Player of the Year – Christian Laettner played sparingly, but still made his statistical mark by leading Team USA in free-throw percentage.