The Dream Team made its official debut 25 years ago today, opening up Olympic play against Angola. Though they were already basketball’s version of the Beatles in Barcelona, the 40 minutes of dominance against Angola re-affirmed that this wasn’t merely just another band of ballers but a group unlike any the basketball world had ever seen.
Prior to the start of the game, Angola head coach Victorino Cunha leveled with his team, telling them that they could not win against Team USA and their goal was to stay within 45 points.
With a roster that did not have a single player taller than 6 feet, 7 inches, it’s hard to find fault in Cunha’s blunt honesty. For a few fleeting moments, it was competitive -- the African champions led 2-1 and were tied 7-7 a few minutes in.
It would not last. The United States went on a 46-1 run which included a stretch of 31 unanswered points during which Angola missed 12 straight shots. It ended up being just as big of a mismatch on the hardwood as it was on paper.
With a suffocating defense and fast-breaking offense that featured a heavy dose of Michael Jordan’s dunks and Magic Johnson’s dimes, the Dream Team rolled to a 116-48 win, the 68-point margin of victory the largest in the Olympics by the United States in nearly 40 years.
Yet that wasn’t the story of the game. All anyone wanted to do afterward was talk about Charles Barkley, who in the summer of ’92 -- and never more so than in the opener against Angola -- did everything short of enter to the song "Hit ‘Em High."
Though "Space Jam" wouldn’t hit theaters for four more years, Barkley played the part of his future Monstar counterpart Pound to a T with his actions and words.
Were it not for Barkley, that dazzling 46-1 onslaught in the first half could have been a 46-0 run. Angola’s only point came after Barkley was whistled for a flagrant foul which he claimed afterward was merely settling the score for previously physical play.
Following a layup in transition for the Team USA’s 31st straight point, Barkley elbowed Angola’s Herlander Coimbra in the chest, a controversial play that prompted color commentator Mike Fratello to wonder if he should be ejected, ignited post-game conversation in Barcelona and in the United States, and brought to the forefront fears shared by some within USA Basketball regarding the inclusion of Barkley in the first place.
As detailed by Lang Whitaker in his outstanding oral history of the Dream Team for GQ in 2012, long-time NBA executive and member of the selection committee Rod Thorn was one who shared some trepidation:
“Charles Barkley was one of the last guys put on the team. 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.”
Following the game, those cautionary sentiments were echoed by Jordan, who said “If he keeps this up, they’re going to throw him out of the Olympics.”
In some ways, the interaction between Barkley and Coimbra served as the perfect caricature for the Dream Team’s presence in Barcelona.
Here was Coimbra, a 24-year old economics student who weighed 75 pounds fewer than his counterpart and referred to Barkley as his favorite forward in the NBA, suddenly thrust into the spotlight with the media hanging on every word about his encounter with the outspoken superstar.
It was an encounter that with any other player from any other country would have been nothing more than a footnote. Because it was the Dream Team, it snowballed into an international story that lingered for years.
Leading up to a rematch between the countries four years later at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, both Coimbra (who was playing in the second of his third Olympics with Angola) and Barkley were asked about the elbow heard 'round the world ad nauseam while columns filled all of the major newspapers across the United States pontificating if there would be another incident.
Yet for all of the controversy, it was Coimbra who approached Barkley after the final horn in Barcelona to pose for a picture, a scene we typically associate with off-chance brushes with celebrity in the real world as opposed to athletes minutes removed from world-class competition.
Lost in Elbow-gate was that Barkley played a magnificent game, finishing with 24 points on 10-13 shooting while adding six rebounds, five assists and three steals. It served as a precursor of sorts as he would go on to lead the Dream Team in scoring at 18.0 points per game.
Odds and Ends
- The 68-point win was at the time tied for the second-largest win in Olympics history by the United States men’s team and largest since 1956 when they posted a 72-point win over Thailand and a 68-point win over the Philippines. In 2012, the United States set a new record with an 83-point win over Nigeria.
- After the game, Cunha was asked by a reporter what he thought was the turning point in the game: “We were hanging in there until they made a 46-1 run in the first half.”
- Jordan finished with eight steals, setting a United States men’s record for the most in the Olympics. In the 55 games the United States has played since, the only other time a player finished with that many steals was Jordan himself the very next day against Croatia.
- Magic Johnson had 10 assists, seven more than the entire Angola team. Johnson’s 10 assists were the most he had in any game in the 1992 Olympics.
- One area in which Angola held an advantage was beyond the 3-point line, finishing 9-of-38. The United States went 2-of-9, the only makes coming from Larry Bird and Chris Mullin. Bird’s came after a no-look, over-the-head, backwards pass from Johnson.