"During the medal ceremony, they were like kids. Here they had NBA championships and all that, but they were like kids. It was a beautiful moment." – Dream Team assistant coach Mike Krzyzewski, as told to GQ.
Twenty-five years ago today, on Aug. 8, 1992, the Dream Team ascended a podium, donned gold medals and cemented its status as the greatest basketball team the world has ever seen. But it wasn't without at least a little bit of drama.
Halfway through the first half of the gold-medal game against Croatia, the Dream Team was doing the unthinkable: losing.
Just over 10 minutes in, the United States trailed 25-23 against a team it had routed by 33 earlier in group play. Toni Kukoc looked like the best player in Europe, Drazen Petrovic torched nets as he did with the Nets, and Croatia served notice that it wouldn't simply bend the knee to the star-spangled collection of superstars. It would make them work for it.
Charles Barkley ignited the inevitable run, hitting the go-ahead 3 and throwing behind-the-back passes on fast breaks that ultimately busted the game open. When the clock hit zeros, the scoreboard read United States 117, Croatia 85, making Team USA 8-for-8 in Barcelona blowouts.
The 32-point win in the gold-medal game was the Americans' closest game in the Olympics; they finished with an average margin of victory of 43.8 points per game, the second-best scoring margin in U.S. Olympic history. The 1956 team, featuring incoming NBA rookie Bill Russell, outscored its fledgling opponents by 53.5 points per game.
Just as he did in the semifinals against Lithuania, Michael Jordan once again led the team in scoring, finishing with 22 points in 23 minutes. Barkley poured in 17, clinching his claim to international fame as the Dream Team's leading scorer for the tournament.
That the Dream Team scored 117 points in its final game was poetic after it came in averaging 117.3 points per game, the most the United States has ever averaged in the Olympics, a record that still stands today. The only team that has come close to matching the Dream Team in scoring is the 2012 London squad featuring LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, among others.
That team didn't quite cruise to gold, as it beat Lithuania by five and Spain by seven in the gold-medal game. The 2012 team's average margin of victory was 32.1, nearly identical to the Dream Team's closest win in 1992.
The fact that it looked easy in Barcelona wasn't lost on Larry Bird. "I've cried at home when I've seen Americans win close races," said Bird, who was quoted after the game. "I think you would've seen a lot more emotion up there if we hadn't won every game by 50 points.”
Although Bird was a nonfactor -- he was the only United States player who didn't score -- the gold-medal game remains significant in his story arc as it proved to be the final game of his career. Despite concerns about his back, Bird played in all eight games in Barcelona, averaging 8.4 points in 18 minutes per game. Less than two weeks after returning to the United States, Bird announced his retirement from the NBA.
If the Dream Team closed the door on Bird's playing days, it propped open another one regarding international involvement in the NBA. A large part of what makes the Dream Team so compelling beyond simply a celebration of USA basketball is that we're still feeling the reverberations globally 25 years later.
Watch the Olympics or world championships or even EuroBasket today and you'll see tons of international rosters littered with NBA players. Before the Dream Team, that simply wasn't the case.
In 1991-92, only six countries other than the U.S. -- Germany, Serbia, Canada, Croatia, Jamaica and Lebanon -- had more than one NBA player who was born in that country. Among the 12 players born in those six countries were Americans Patrick Ewing, Steve Kerr, Kiki Vandeweghe and Rumeal Robinson.
Back then, there were 26 foreign-born players from 20 different countries who appeared in an NBA game. This past season featured 115 foreign-born players from 42 different countries. Over that same span, the number of countries that can claim three or more foreign-born NBA players has gone from zero to 16.
This past season, 24 percent of NBA players to appear in a game were born outside the United States, up from just 7 percent in the season prior to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. It truly has become a global game.
It wasn't just that the Dream Team won but how it did so, and how it transcended time, that has earned a spot in athletic lore. Placed under an unprecedented microscope, the Dream Team exceeded all on-the-court expectations, navigated the off-the-court critics and ultimately elevated the game.