T here have been many basketball teams, but there will only be one Dream Team. Their names were already legend before the players were tapped for the roster of the 1992 US men’s Olympic basketball team: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and of course, Michael Jordan, the brightest star in a constellation of supergiants.
“I look to my right, there’s Michael Jordan. … I look to my left, there’s Charles Barkley or Larry Bird,” Johnson later recalled. “I didn’t know who to throw the ball to!”
In previous Olympiads, NBA players were forbidden from competing by the International Basketball Federation, but the rule was changed after the Soviet Union beat the Americans in 1988. (This loss reduced the American record in Olympic games to an embarrassing 84–2.) Jordan and Dream Teammates Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin had been to the Games before, back in 1984 while in college, where the team claimed gold after going undefeated in tournament play. Still, they were barely old enough to celebrate with champagne. In 1992, Jordan and the rest of the Dream Team were all grown up – ballplayers at the top of their game.
It would be an insult to say that the Dream Team brought their game like a gun at a knife fight – in fact, the Americans dominated the court like a battle tank. They averaged 117.3 points per game, blowing away every team by double-digit margins and all but two (Croatia and Puerto Rico) by more than 40 points. The most spirited competition that the squad faced was actually during practice; Sports Illustrated dubbed a legendary scrimmage match three days before the Olympics as the “greatest game nobody ever saw.”
“Everybody asks me about that game,” Jordan told the magazine’s Jack McCallum. “It was the most fun I ever had on a basketball court.”
Surprising no one, on 5 July 1992, the Dream Team beat Venezuela by 47 points, mounted the podium clad in Reebok-crafted American flags and received their gold medals. Now Jordan’s jacket, signed by the shooting guard himself, is open for bidding at Sotheby’s through 28 June.
Loyal Down to the Buzzer: Michael Jordan’s Olympic Gold Medal ‘Dream Team’ Jacket
“The Dream Team is entirely responsible for the NBA’s profile taking a massive jump forward. It just shaped how the world felt about the NBA.”
But the Dream Team didn’t just win (all six of its) games – it won hearts and minds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of their biggest fans were their Olympic competitors. During one game, an opposing player was caught gesturing for a teammate on the bench to snap a photo of himself guarding Johnson. Other players took pictures with the Dream Team before and after the games, human Olympians seizing their chance to immortalize their moment facing off against basketball’s pantheon of gods.
The Barcelona games were broadcast in 69 countries, transforming viewers around the globe into basketball fanatics. Some of those fans became professional basketballers themselves; while the NBA season before the games featured just 23 players hailing from outside the United States, the 2022 season saw 120, coming from more than twice as many countries. Many of the biggest names among foreign-born NBA players – some of whom would go on to play for Team USA in later Olympics – recalled watching the Dream Team dominate on the Barcelona hardwood.
“I don’t think Dirk [Nowitzki] or Yao [Ming] or the world is inspired by basketball if it wasn’t for [the Dream Team],” veteran sports reporter Marc J. Spears told ESPN in 2012.
In fact, the Dream Team’s dominance – and the global audience of eyeballs it brought to the sport – is arguably the greatest legacy of the 1992 Olympic Games, period. “The most important aspect of the Games has been the resounding success of the basketball tournament,” International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch said at the time. “We’ve witnessed the best basketball in the world.”
Or as sports reporter Michael Wilbon said in The Last Dance, the award-winning HBO documentary on Jordan’s life: “The Dream Team is entirely responsible for the NBA’s profile taking a massive jump forward. It just shaped how the world felt about the NBA.”