Charles Barkley was prophetic before the Dream Team’s first game at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“I don’t know anything about Angola,” he said in a press conference, “but Angola’s in trouble.”
Two Angolans in particular. In a 116-48 showcase, Barkley shoved one player and elbowed another, drawing a technical foul for the latter that ended a 31-point U.S. run.
The elbow drew particular criticism and headlines referring to Barkley, and to some extent drawing in the rest of the Dream Team, as an Ugly American. It was the first Olympic game with NBA superstars. Aside from the expected blowout, it was not the first impression Americans had hoped for.
“We all tried to talk to him and say, hey, we still want to be liked,” Michael Jordan told NBC afterward. “That’s one of those moves that wasn’t quite smart. Hopefully we can get past that mistake.”
They of course did, steamrolling to gold to spark a new era for Olympic basketball.
But Barkley’s gesture endured, highlighted in Dream Team documentaries on NBA TV and NBC in 2012. Barkley continued to claim that the Angolan, 24-year-old economics student Herlander Coimbra, elbowed him three times before the Round Mound of Rebound had enough.
“That team played dirty,” Barkley, who had a 75-pound edge over Coimbra, said in the NBC film. “I said hey, dude, if you do that any more, I’m going to clock you. So he did it a couple more times, and I clocked him.”
To Barkley’s credit, he obliged to take a picture with Coimbra after the game, according to The New York Times, which reported that Angola had three gymnasiums in the entire country.
Still, U.S. Olympic Committee officials briefly considered sending Barkley home, according to Jack McCallum‘s book, “Dream Team.” They let Barkley stay in Barcelona, where he mingled regularly along Las Ramblas.
Barkley went on to lead the Dream Team in scoring as part of the greatest year of his career. He was also traded from the flailing Philadelphia 76ers to the Phoenix Suns that summer, then went on to win NBA MVP and reach the Finals, where the Jordan Bulls stopped him in six games.
He was one of four Dream Teamers to return for the 1996 Atlanta Games, winning another gold medal that he’s now planning to sell.
“Other players in Angola play against Charles Barkley, and they told us there’s like a kid, a fat boy who is very aggressive in the paint,” Coimbra said in the 2012 NBA TV documentary. “I think he acted like a bully, but maybe it’s his personality.”
Angola, though it has zero Olympic medals in any sport, actually qualified for five straight Olympic men’s basketball tournaments in the 1990s and 2000s and won games in 1992 and 1996.
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