Chicago Bulls

The Last Dance: Michael Jordan talks Dream Team, Isiah Thomas, Toni Kukoc, Reebok logo at Olympics

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“The Last Dance” documentary on the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls packed four major story angles from the Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics into about 17 minutes on Sunday night.

First, and, if any of them, somewhat revelatory, was Isiah Thomas‘ omission from the 12-man roster (tackled in detail here).

It was the most significant news of the original roster selection and reignited with Dream Team documentaries in 2012 (20th anniversary in conjunction with London Olympics) and a previous “Last Dance” episode on the Bulls-Pistons rivalry.

In previous interviews in 1992 or more recently, both Jordan and Rod Thorn, a USA Basketball player selection committee member in 1992 who called Jordan to offer him a team spot, gave different answers about whether Jordan or Thorn said it first: that Thomas wasn’t going to be chosen for the team. Or whether either said it at all.

The new wrinkle from Sunday’s interview: Maybe Thomas’ name wasn’t uttered at all.

“Before the ’92 Olympics, Rod Thorn calls me and says we would love for you to be on the Dream Team,” Jordan said. “I said oh, who’s all playing? [Thorn] says, uh, what does that mean? I say who’s all playing? He says, well, the guy you’re talking about or, you’re thinking about, is not going to be playing.

“I respect Isiah Thomas’ talent. To me, the best point guard of all-time is Magic Johnson, and right behind him is Isiah Thomas. No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game. Now it was insinuated that I was asking about him, but I never threw his name in there. … You want to attribute it to me, go ahead, be my guest, but it wasn’t me.”

Thomas repeated that he didn’t know why he was left off.

“The camaraderie that happened on that team, it was the best harmony,” Jordan said. “Would Isiah made a different feeling on that team? Yes.”

DREAM TEAM: Why Jordan Nearly Said No | Roster Decisions

The rest of the Dream Team segment, split into two parts by a commercial break, looked at the famous practice game in Monte Carlo. With Clyde Drexler and John Stockon sidelined, the teams were: Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing against Johnson, Chris Mullin, Charles Barkley, Christian Laettner and David Robinson, according to Jack McCallum‘s 2012 book, “Dream Team.”

Johnson, who said it was the best basketball he was ever a part of, and his team led by as many as nine points. It also involved a level of trash talk befitting the occasion.

Johnson said he, at one point while leading, said, “If you don’t turn into Air Jordan, we’re going to blow you out.” Jordan then willed his team to an eventual victory.

“After that game everyone kind of acknowledged we were in a new era,” NBA PR executive Brian McIntyre said. “Michael Jordan was the alpha alpha, period.”

From there, the episode moved to the “Kukoc Game,” when the U.S. faced Croatia in group play. It was the first time Jordan and Pippen went up against Toni Kukoc, the prized recruit of their hated Bulls general manager, Jerry Krause.

The Kukoc game, and how he earned Jordan’s respect, is covered in detail here.

“Jerry paved the way for a lot of hell for Toni Kukoc,” Pippen said. “Every guy on that Olympic team looked at that kid and felt like he may not even think about coming to the NBA after he played against us. It wasn’t anything personally about Toni, but we were going to do everything we could to make Jerry look bad.”

Lastly, the segment touched on Jordan famously covering up the Reebok logo on the official U.S. Olympic medal podium jacket. Jordan, after insulting then-USOC executive Harvey Schiller while riding in a car, teased that he had a big surprise. He ended up draping an American flag over his right shoulder.

Other players also wore flags or zipped their jackets so the Reebok logo was hidden.

MORE: MJ’s note to Knight at 1984 Olympics | Why Jordan skipped 1996 Olympics

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Why Michael Jordan didn’t return for 1996 Atlanta Olympics

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For all the celebration of the 1992 Dream Team, there were few reports in major media about Michael Jordan potentially returning for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

After the U.S. roster of 12 was announced for the Centennial Games, Jordan explained why he passed: to let others get their chance at a gold medal.

USA Basketball officials don’t recall any discussions about Jordan being part of the second Olympic Dream Team (or Dream Team III, if you count the 1994 World Championship squad, which many would rather forget).

It’s not surprising.

For one, Jordan considered declining the 1992 Olympic invitation. In part because he “had done the Olympic thing before,” taking gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games before starting his NBA career.

In January 1993, The New York Times reported that Jordan, if he had to do it over again, would have passed on the Olympics. It noted the commitment taking up a large chunk of what would normally be offseason rest.

“I think it’s going to be easy to get guys to play, but your top players, it may be a different story,” Jordan said, according to the report on 1994 World Championship team selection. “I don’t know if the clubs will want them to do it. You see those of us who played getting the nagging injuries, getting banged up so early in the season. You have to give some of that to playing in the Olympics.”

Whether Jordan would consider playing for Team USA again was rendered temporarily meaningless later in 1993, when he retired from basketball and then took up baseball.

Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls in March 1995. That summer, as Jordan prepared to film “Space Jam,” the first 10 members of the 1996 Olympic team were announced, including four returnees from 1992:

John Stockton
Penny Hardaway

Reggie Miller
Scottie Pippen
Grant Hill
Glenn Robinson*
Karl Malone
David Robinson
Shaquille O’Neal
Hakeem Olajuwon
*Replaced by Gary Payton due to injury.

DREAM TEAM: Why Isiah Was Left Off | Jordan Nearly Said No | Roster Decisions
The Kukoc Game | MJ’s 1996 Olympic Choice

In the Dallas Morning News story first reporting those invites, this line in the 14th paragraph confirmed what was made clear by the list: Jordan had indicated he didn’t want to participate in Atlanta.

Charles Barkley, another original Dream Teamer, and Mitch Richmond were the last two selections named in April 1996.

During the June 1996 NBA Finals against Seattle, Jordan reportedly questioned why Sonics star forward Shawn Kemp was left off the Olympic team. In doing so, he gave a peek into his reasoning for sitting out the Atlanta Games.

“To leave Kemp off, I really don’t understand,” he said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “That’s one of the reasons I chose not to perform … to give people like him a chance to play.”

Jordan did reportedly visit Atlanta during the Centennial Games — to address some 500 guests of Sara Lee, which sponsored Jordan and the Games, traveling under the alias “Frank Gordon.”

“I kind of miss [the Olympics],” Jordan said then, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I stand by my reasons for passing it up to let other players experience it.”

MORE: Michael Jordan’s note to Bobby Knight before 1984 Olympic final

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Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen tormented Toni Kukoc at Dream Team Olympics

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It began on the bus ride to the arena. Actually, it began when the U.S. drew Croatia in the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball tournament. It got serious on the bus ride.

Michael Jordan spoke. The rest of the Dream Team was silent in its seats.

“He said, ‘Toni Kukoc, I got him tonight,'” Magic Johnson recalled in a 2012 NBC documentary. “‘He’s not going to get one basket on me.'”

That set the table for “the Kukoc game.”

In its second contest of the Olympics, the Dream Team spanked the silver-medal favorite Croatia 103-70. Kukoc, a 23-year-old considered the world’s best player outside of the NBA, received the brunt.

Jordan, and perhaps even more Scottie Pippen, ruthlessly defended their future Chicago Bulls teammate. They picked him up before halfcourt. They face-guarded him. They denied him the ball and, when he did receive it, made Kukoc regret it.

The result: the man known as the European Magic Johnson scored four points on 2-of-11 shooting, with seven turnovers.

“I’ve never seen that kind of defense before,” Kukoc said afterward, according to The New York Times, adding years later in Jack McCallum‘s 2012 book, “Dream Team,” “I thought that was the way they guarded everybody.”

It wasn’t. Jordan and Pippen, as another famous Chicago duo would have said, were on a mission.

Pippen hadn’t met Kukoc before Barcelona, but he despised him for years.

That’s because Kukoc was the sought-after prize of Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Krause and Bulls management had refused to renegotiate Pippen’s contract in part to save money to try and sign Kukoc, who wouldn’t leave his Italian club for Chicago until 1993.

“That’s like a father who has all his kids, and now he sees another kid that he loves more than he loves his own,” Jordan said in a 2012 NBA TV documentary. “So we were not playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatian uniform.”

DREAM TEAM: Why Isiah Was Left Off | Jordan Nearly Said No | Roster Decisions
The Kukoc Game | MJ’s 1996 Olympic Choice

Jordan may not have been directly financially impacted by Krause’s pursuit of the kid from Split, but he of course sided with Pippen in the management battle. Krause, in trying to woo Kukoc from Italy, had asked Jordan to give the Croatian a phone call.

“I don’t speak no Yugoslavian,” Jordan told him, according to longtime Chicago Tribune Bulls beat writer Sam Smith.

Kukoc fared much better in the teams’ rematch in the gold-medal game.

Though the U.S. won 117-85, he had 16 points, nine assists, five rebounds and, reportedly and most of all, Jordan’s respect.

Still, the final word should be reserved for Pippen, who let his feelings be known after that first meeting.

“Toni Kukoc could be a good player. But he’s in the right league,” in Italy, Pippen reportedly quipped. “Now they can see he’s not ready for NBA competition.”

Kukoc would go on to become a key role player for the Bulls’ last three championships, earning NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 1996.

MORE: Michael Jordan’s note to Bobby Knight before 1984 Olympic final

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