Dream Team at 30 with P.J. Carlesimo

P.J. Carlesimo has led the best in the basketball world for decades. Carlesimo led Fordham University to their winningest season in history and upon graduating, served as their assistant coach from 1971 to 1975. Carlesimo then spent a season as head coach of New Hampshire College and six seasons at Wagner College, coaching the team to their first NIT tournament. In 1982, he became head coach of Seton Hall — establishing the dominant program over 12 years and leading the team to six NCAA tournaments before being named “Coach of The Century.” 

In 1994, Carlesimo went to the NBA, reaching three straight NBA playoffs as head coach of the Portland Trailblazers and coaching the Golden State Warriors for two defensively dominant seasons. Carlesimo championed both the sidelines and the press room as a broadcaster for Spurs Television, the NBA on TNT, ESPN and NBC Sports. After an interim focusing on broadcasting, he returned to the NBA sidelines. Between 2002 and 2007, Carlesimo won three NBA championships as assistant coach of the San Antonio Spurs. He then served as an assistant coach for the Seattle Supersonics/ (following the team’s move) Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors and as an assistant and interim head coach for the Brooklyn Nets. He led teams internationally: the 1988 Olympic Trial squad, the 1990 Goodwill and World Championship teams and the 1991 World University Games team. 

In a career-defining honor, Carlesimo assistant coached the 1992 U.S. gold-medalist Olympic “Dream Team,” which some call the best team ever assembled. Thirty years after their gold medal win in Barcelona, Carlesimo reflects on his time with that legendary team on the Legends Of Sport podcast. 

“That’s scary to think that was 30 years ago,” Carlesimo said. “And it seems like you know, like last week or two weeks ago…They called up and said, hey, you’ve been selected to be an assistant coach to… Chuck Daly… Mike [Krzyzewski] [Duke head coach, Olympic assistant coach] and I both got the calls independently… We call each other and it was like, Wow, do you believe this?” Carlesimo said. 

1992 was the first year that professional basketball players could play in the Olympics. Coaches and players did not take this new opportunity lightly.

“Magic [Earvin Johnson] and Birdie [Larry Bird] and Karl [Malone] and all those other guys… all of a sudden, for those guys to get the opportunity to play in the Olympics was enormous,” Carlesimo said. “There weren’t as many competitions in those days as there are now… if you didn’t play in the Pan Am Games, or the Olympics, or the World Championship, you didn’t get a chance to represent the United States. So I don’t think you can overemphasize how meaningful it was, especially to those… seven [professional] guys.”

Before the Barcelona Olympics, the Dream Team met three times: scrimmages in La Jolla, California, Tournament of the Americas in Portland, Oregon and Olympic training in Monaco. At their first meeting in La Jolla, the recently-solidified team lost a scrimmage to an NCAA team, causing a basketball media frenzy.

“Now, we’re 10 minutes left in the game. At that point, Chuck said ‘you know what, this wouldn’t be the worst thing if we lost this game’… He didn’t put Michael [Jordan] back in the game for the last three minutes, you know, some things he might have done to affect the outcome of the game, he kind of let it play out,” Carlesimo said. “And you know, he made the point after the game, ‘hey, you know, on any given day, if you guys are not going to be focused and not going to play this, this is not unheard of that something like this could happen’… The next scrimmage [in Portland] was about a 50 or 60-point beat down when we played college guys. So that message was sent.”

Even after the scrimmage loss, the basketball world foretold the Dream Team’s dominance in international play. Yet, like the players on the court in Barcelona, Carlesimo “never skipped steps.” He broke down game tapes minute by minute and conducted scouting reports of competitors. And while U.S. Olympians received requests from competing teams for pictures, they maintained a professional and focused attitude. 

“Chuck told [the players] the first meeting… ‘We’re the best team, we have the best players in the world. This is probably the best basketball team that’s ever been put together. Everybody thinks we’re going to win. If we do anything else other than win, you know, it’ll be a monumental shortcoming and you’re not gonna get a ton of credit if you win everybody thinks you’re gonna win and knows you’re supposed to win.’ Having said that, you know, the mantra you hear now sometimes it’s don’t skip any steps.” Carlesimo said. “Those guys didn’t skip any steps. They… bought in, they listened, they were professional.”

The Olympic Team did not have one star; instead, the team focused on team play and defense.

“When I think back to the team, I think, less than the offensive plays,… I think of incredible defense and the way they shared the ball and the way they played so unselfishly.” Carlesimo said. “Invariably, when the manager or an assistant or a PR guy comes in the locker room with the stats after a game, the players… [are] going to take a look at it. I don’t remember that team ever looking at a stat sheet after a game.”

Nevertheless, the team always sought to win.

“They didn’t want to lose, whether it was a drill or you know, a practice segment or whether it was an actual five-on-five scrimmage,” Carlesimo said. 

Throughout the 1992 Olympics summer, the U.S. team and family formed bonds and memories off the court. Carlesimo remembers the incredible friendships and fun: Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing (and their families) becoming “inseparable,” and daily tee-times with Michael Jordan and Chuck Daly. Carlesimo also remembers heading to the Ramblas (a Barcelona neighborhood for nightlife, arts and tourism) every night to check on Charles Barkley as he strolled the main drag. Carlesimo will never forget the small moments with the team or the major victories. Though the coaching staff does not receive gold medals, only rings and watches (from U.S. Basketball), he cherishes the moment the U.S. team won gold.

“We stood over there, myself and Mike [Krzyzewski] and Lenny [Wilkens] [Cleveland Cavaliers head coach, Olympic assistant] and Chuck [Daly]… When we had won… everybody’s hugging and celebrating, and it was great,” Carlesimo said. “But to see the guys get the gold medals was amazing. And to hear the anthem played, to hear the Star Spangled Banner played… as they raise the flag up, was just, you can’t, you really can’t describe it.”

Daly has witnessed the most iconic basketball moments of the last decades, but the 1992 Olympics may be his favorite. 

“But… as memorable as all of these events are every year, you hate to say it, but nothing touches what happened at summer ‘92,” Carlesimo said.

Hear more about Carlesimo’s incredible history and insider perspective on the summer of 1992 on this week’s Legends Of Sport podcast.

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