Charles Barkley relives Dream Team
It was not until he was 36,000 feet into the air, halfway over the Atlantic Ocean heading West, away from Barcelona, when the totality of the Dream Team experience struck Charles Barkley like a sharp elbow to the head (something he knew all too much about).
The emotion that overcame him was neither relief nor joy nor pride. All the endorphin rush-inducing moments had already come and gone.
Instead, it was a twinge of sadness.
The greatest collection of superstars ever assembled on one team in the history of the sport, after an entire summer of bonding together, blowing out every team they faced and ushering in a new era in the globalization of the game, was just a few hours away from dispersing.
"Halfway through that flight, you realized you're never going to see anything like this again," Barkley said. "And we had so much fun together, it was sad to leave everybody, to be honest with you. When we landed at JFK, everybody gave everybody a hug and said good luck, and then -- especially Michael [Jordan], Scottie [Pippen] and Patrick [Ewing] -- all told each other: 'I'm going to kick your ass this season.'"
The summer of 1992 was unlike any in the history of Olympic basketball, the American Dream Team of superstars -- Barkley, Jordan, Pippen, Ewing, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, David Robinson, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Christian Laettner (who made the squad ahead of Shaquille O'Neal because the USA Basketball selection committee gave one roster choice to the NCAA) -- becoming the biggest and brashest story of the Games, drawing a level of worldwide interest that ultimately contributed more to the growth of the global game than any other singular factor.
They were the first team of NBA professionals permitted to compete in the Olympics, and they restored American dominance to the sport by proving that when any and all athletes were allowed to compete -- not just amateurs -- it would produce a truer measure of who was indeed the best.
And the Dream Team?
Hard to argue that they were not the best team ever assembled.
They averaged 117.3 points per game and defeated their opponents by an average of nearly 44 points, never once even calling a timeout under the direction of Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly. They came together at a time when Jordan and Pippen were coming off the first of their eventual six championships together, when Johnson had made his dramatic return to the court following a brief retirement after he tested HIV-positive, when Bird was in the twilight of his professional career, when Ewing, Robinson and Malone were peaking as the game's best big men, and when Barkley was a lean 225-pound machine starting to play the best three-year stretch of basketball of his career. (Barkley led the Dream Team with an average of 18.0 points, 3.1 more than Jordan, who moved over to play point guard after Stockton injured his hand midway through the Olympics.)
The United States was coming off a disappointing bronze-medal finish at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and President George H.W. Bush was among those in the intervening years to call for the inclusion of NBA players at the Olympics.
What nobody realized was how much the star power of these players would impact the Games -- a dynamic that became clear to every member of the team when they decided to forsake landing at the Barcelona airport, where thousands had gathered in hopes of catching a glimpse, and instead touched down in Reus and took a long bus ride directly to the Olympic Village to pick up their credentials.
As soon as they arrived, it was bedlam.
"We walked in there and people started coming from everywhere. We went to get our IDs, and every country, every person, every security guard, everybody came rushing at the same time. They just wanted our autographs and to take pictures, but anytime a bunch of people come at you and you don't know if they have control of the situation, it's somewhat scary. When a crush of people run at you, it's a little bit disconcerting," Barkley told ESPN.com in an interview recounting his strongest Dream Team recollections.
"And what people don't understand, we got death threats. In our hotel, you had to have a picture ID to get in there, and we went to the pool on the roof of the hotel, there was like 10 guys standing around with Uzis. So it was kind of funny, it was like: Girl in bikini; dude with an Uzi; girl in bikini; guy with Uzi. People thought we didn't want to stay in the Olympic Village because we wanted to be big shots, but it was because we were getting death threats. They had told us this would be considered great by one of these terrorist groups if they could take out the Dream Team."
Barkley went on to recount how the team bus was flanked by two Uzi-toting policemen on motorcycle sidecars, one on either side of the bus, along with police cars in front and behind and a helicopter hovering overheard as the players traveled each day to the arena in Badalona, fans lining the entire route to wave and take pictures.
They were being treated like rock stars, and the hero worship was so non-stop that a couple of opposing players actually posed for pictures while the ball was in play during preliminary round games, which began with a 68-point demolition of Angola and included a 44-point victory over Brazil.
It was Barkley who provided some comic relief and some controversy for those two games.
Against Angola, Barkley was whistled for an elbowing foul against a 174-pound Angolan named Herlander Coimbra, whose foul shot provided the lone point during an Olympic-record 46-1 run. Barkley explained that it was a "ghetto thing" in retaliation for Coimbra hitting him on the head as he went for a dunk, and he drew criticism for joking that the African player "might have pulled a spear on me."
Prior to the game against Brazil, in which the U.S. team set another Olympic record by pouring in 127 points, Barkley was asked how much thought he was giving to the matchup against the legendary Oscar Schmidt, the architect of Brazil's surprising victory over the United States at the 1987 Pan American games in Indianapolis. "I've been thinking about him all week," Barkley said. "In my backswing, I think 'Oscar, Oscar.'"
"I was just trying to have fun," Barkley recalled. "First of all, clearly Oscar was a great player, already a great player, but the notion that any of us knew anything about the foreign players, we just did not."
Well, there was an exception to that statement, and it came in the form of Toni Kukoc of Croatia, who had been offered a multimillion dollar contract by the Chicago Bulls at a time when they were refusing to renegotiate the contract of Pippen, who was earning a relatively paltry $770,000.
In a story that has become famous in the years since, Jordan followed up Daly's pregame speech by telling the rest of the locker room that he and Pippen would be the only ones defending Kukoc that day. They held him to four points on 2-for-11 shooting with seven turnovers in a 33-point victory before beating the Croatians again, by 32, in the gold-medal game.
"We didn't know, going in, how big it was going to be; but once we got there and saw the crowds and the armed guards, we sat down and said, 'Guys, this is big. This is huge,'" Barkley said. "And we were like, 'We can't lose.'
"Going in we did not think we were going to win every game by 60, 70 points. You just don't know that because those teams had NBA players also. But they could only put at most like five NBA players out there. And when we went to the bench, that's when we always went crazy because we brought in four more All-Stars while they brought in some kids, and there was a real dropoff in level of talent."
Barkley said Bird and Ewing bonded as buddies in Barcelona, while he, Jordan, Pippen and Johnson spent most nights in the team's game room playing Tunk, a card game.
Eventually, cabin fever got the best of Barkley ("you can only play so much cards and so many games of ping-pong"), and Barkley made an executive decision to go out late each night, by himself without any security guards, and walk the Ramblas to mingle with the fans and other athletes.
"What I figured out was, No. 1, if someone is going to kill us, they're going kill us. And I said to myself, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, me being at the Olympics, and man, the people couldn't have been nicer. This was one of the best places I've ever been in the world. So I started going out at night, and it was awesome. Everybody was awesome, and I had a blast -- one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was cool meeting other U.S. athletes, they went out and had fun, and I was getting tired of being in that damn hotel, to be honest with you."
After winning the gold medal, Barkley returned home and placed it in a safe deposit box, where it remains to this day along with his 1996 gold medal. (Barkley said the only trophy he keeps at home is his MVP trophy from the 1992-93 NBA season.)
What was unclear to the Dream Team as the players said their farewells after that flight back from Barcelona, but has become crystal clear in the years since, was how much of an impact they had made on the global game.
The 1992 team's success would spur an unprecedented development in the sport around the world, and many the very same kids who were being exposed to the sport on a grand scale would be inspired enough to make it to the NBA -- and to the gold-medal podium -- themselves.
"That really started the foreign invasion, and it really worked out good for everybody," Barkley said. "That was the best thing; it started it for the generation of [Dirk] Nowitzki, [Manu] Ginobili, [Steve] Nash, Tony Parker. I mean, there's just so many good players now, and I think that was really the coolest thing about it."