When FIBA voted in 1989 to allow NBA players into the Olympics, it led to a new system of choosing a U.S. men’s basketball roster.
For the 1992 Barcelona Games, there were no tryouts for the first time.
The NBA season ran much longer than the NCAA — they used to put college players on the Olympic team — and the best pros’ abilities didn’t need to be dissected any more than watching the 82-game regular season and playoffs. Nor did they need to further risk injury at a tryout.
So USA Basketball formed a committee and a two-year process to choose the 12 players for the first Dream Team. It was headed by C.M. Newton, the University of Kentucky Athletic Director and an assistant coach on the 1984 Olympic team.
It included NBA executives, such as Rod Thorn and Jack McCloskey, college coaches including Mike Krzyzewski and P.J. Carlesimo (who would become assistants to Chuck Daly in Barcelona) and an NBA Players Association presence (Charles Grantham).
The committee was tasked with reviewing performances from the 1990-91 and 1991-92 NBA seasons.
The first 10 members of the Dream Team were announced on a selection show on NBC on Sept. 21, 1991. Those 10 players, in order of the reveal:
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Of those players, it was reported on the show that Bird and Jordan were initially reluctant to accept roster spots.
“Originally [Bird] said he would not compete in the Olympics because he felt the Games are more for the younger folks,” NBC’s Marv Albert said to Johnson (Bird didn’t appear on the show due to a prior commitment).
“If he hadn’t have been playing,” Johnson said of his longtime rival who had, in recent years, become a friend, “I don’t know if I’d be sitting here today, too, because a team wouldn’t have been a team without Larry Bird on it.”
Bird, turning 35, would be the oldest player on the team by nearly three years (and, to this day, the oldest U.S. Olympic men’s basketball player in history). The 1991-92 NBA season would be his last, in part due to back problems, but he accepted after two dozen phone calls from Johnson, according to the 2012 book, “Dream Team.”
Bird recalled growing up in French Lick, Ind., watching the Olympics on one of this two TV channels and hearing his dad glowing about what it would be like to stand on the medal podium, listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Jordan was coy about his participation that summer of 1991. He explained his reluctance here.
Everybody else seemed on board from the get-go. If there was any debate, it was over Mullin, whom Daly liked as a versatile shooting guard/small forward, and Barkley, for his less-than-sterling reputation, according to “Dream Team.” Barkley ended up leading the Olympic team in scoring, while Mullin had the most points for anyone who didn’t start at least half the games.
The last two players to fill out the roster were named nearly eight months later. It would include at least one collegian, an ode to the history of Olympic basketball, and perhaps another NBA player.
“In the next 11, 12 months, It could that another Scottie Pippen will emerge, be it Reggie Miller of Indiana, or it could be an Isiah Thomas,” USA Basketball President Dave Gavitt said on the NBC Selection Show in September 1991.
Obviously Thomas’ omission was much talked-about. He was the only 1992 NBA All-Star starter not among the first 10. He didn’t get the 11th spot, either.
That went to Clyde Drexler, who finished second in NBA MVP voting in the 1991-92 season. When Drexler was named to the team, he was leading the Portland Trail Blazers through the Western Conference Playoffs and to an NBA Finals matchup with Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Drexler was upset he wasn’t among the first 10, questioning being passed over for Johnson and Bird, who were on the decline, and Mullin, according to “Dream Team.”
Other than Thomas, the top players who didn’t make the Dream Team, based off All-NBA honors or All-Star voting in 1991 and 1992: Dominique Wilkins (All-NBA second team in 1991), Kevin Johnson (All-NBA second team and All-Star Game starter in 1991), Tim Hardaway (All-NBA second team in 1992) and Michael Adams (most 1992 All-Star votes among non-Dream Team players and Thomas).
The last spot had to go to a collegian: Duke’s Christian Laettner. He was the obvious choice after leading the Blue Devils to a repeat national championship and earning Player of the Year honors.
Shaquille O’Neal was upset, but he had one fewer year in college than Laettner and, admittedly, wasn’t as fundamentally sound. He would be drafted No. 1 over Alonzo Mourning and Laettner a month before the Olympics.
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