In 1992, basketball officially became a global pastime, and the NBA craze became a global phenomenon. The gold medal-winning United States of America “Dream Team” dominated the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games and showed the world the athleticism and fun of great basketball. The team was the first United States Olympic Team allowing NBA players and featured twelve basketball legends: Magic (Earvin) Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Christian Laettner, Clyde Drexler and Chris Mullin. Coached by Chuck Daly, PJ Carlesimo, Mike Krzyzewski and Lenny Wilkens, the team won each Olympic game by an average of 43.8 points and hit the decade mark in each match-up.
Throughout the 1980s, the NBA played exhibition games across the world—Israel, China, Germany, Russia and Italy. Players from around Africa and Europe came to the U.S. to star on NBA teams as international play grew in popularity. Over the years, global basketball competition expanded from the 1935-founded FIBA (International Basketball Federation), which, largely centered around South America and Europe, ran elite international basketball competition. With basketball talent globally exploding and manifesting in United States’ 1988 loss to the Soviet Union in the Olympic games, the United States first allowed NBA competitors on the Olympic court in 1992.
The Olympic team became the Dream Team when in 1991, Bird, Johnson, Jordan, Ewing, Barkley and Malone took the front cover of Sports Illustrated reading “Living the Dream.” Captains Larry Bird and Michael Jordan had a combined 10 NBA championships, eight season MVP honors and seven finals MVP honors. The team was star-studded, and head coach Chuck Daly reported that traveling with the team was “like Elvis and the Beatles put together. Traveling with the Dream Team was like traveling with 12 rock stars.” Global press and sports fans turned their eyes towards the iconic crew of MVPS, all-stars, record-breakers, media icons and leaders. Scrimmages became news.
The team first (physically) went international to train for the Olympics in Monte Carlo. When the team arrived at the Loews Casino, dozens of international fans, photographers and reporters awaited the players. While in Monte Carlo, players frequented the casinos, beaches and clubs at all hours of the day and night and drew a crowd wherever they went. In an exhibition game attended by Prince Rainier, Prince Albert and 3,5000 fans, the Dream Team beat France 111-71, with Jordan and Barkley scoring 21 points each. Jordan foresaw the sport’s boom, and told interviewers that he “could sense, two years ago when I was here for Nike, they were awaiting it. I knew [the international basketball scene] would be larger than anyone expected or even dreamed about.”
Talent peaked in the training days, as the best players scrimmaged one another in private games in intense preparation for the Olympic arena. Trash-talk flew and players aired out NBA grievances on the court as they fought for every play. “You didn’t have to motivate them,” Carlesimo said. “If anything, you had to be careful that it didn’t get out of hand. Because again… they didn’t want to lose whether it was a drill or… a practice segment or whether it was an actual five-on-five scrimmage.” The Olympic arena was a different level of play, and Carlesimo remembers Daly saying that the world expected the Dream Team to dominate. Nonetheless, Carlesimo noted that the U.S. worked hard and focused on team play and improvement throughout the Olympic Games.
Once they reached Barcelona for the Olympics, the U.S. stars continued to explore Europe and increase in stardom. In eight games in Barcelona, the Dream Team wowed the world. The team ran the court, leading the score for over 306 of their 320 minutes of Olympic play. The coaching staff never called a single time-out. Some of the NBA’s biggest rivals played as one as they faced their Olympic rivals. Though the statistics were striking, with Charles Barkley setting a then-Olympic record of 30 points in a single game (against Croatia), the team was not focused on individual wins. They were there to represent their country, share their love for the game and have fun doing it. Carlesimo remembers the many friendships formed in training and at the hotel, and that no players checked the statistic sheet following the games.
In Barcelona, the international athletics community saw basketball stars at the height of their professional stardom. American cultural icons like the always-styled generational star, Michael Jordan, became celebrities overseas. Bernstein, in his podcast with Carlesimo, recalls international players handing him personal cameras for a shot with the opposing team. Every night, Barkley strolled Las Ramblas in central Barcelona, drawing hoards of fans following his trail. Although the team lived outside of the Olympic Village, Ewing, Malone, Mullin and Pippen visited to greet the world’s best athletes, many of whom were already fans of the U.S. stars.
The world’s expectations did not make the Dream Team’s gold medal win, a 103-70 victory over Croatia, any less exciting. Carlesimo remembers how honored the players were to compete for their home country in the Olympics—many of them never foreseeing the opportunity to play on the most important court in the world. Carlesimo remembers the team standing proud on the dais as the anthem played. Bernstein remembers the victorious moments following the ceremony, when every player kept on their uniforms or medals for hours of celebration. The moment was unforgettable.
The dazzling Dream Team further globalized basketball while keeping it centered around U.S. professional play. The star players inspired young people to watch, play and love basketball as much as Americans. Today, the international level of play increases every year, and the best players continue to strive for (and eventually face off in) the NBA.
1992 marked the entry of the NBA into foreign hearts, minds and markets. The world not only now loved basketball, but they also loved the NBA. The NBA’s popularity expanded globally following the 1992 games and the continued inclusion of NBA athletes in the Olympics. In 1994, the first Chinese state broadcasters aired the NBA All-Star game in China for the first time. In 2016, over 400 NBA games were broadcasted in China for free. In 1993, the NBA held its first overseas preseason in London, England. Today, the NBA has a massive headquarters in London which broadcasts throughout Africa, the Middle East and Europe. In 2021, the NBA launched NBA Academy Africa, a league for NBA prospects. The international growth of the NBA shows the increasing presence of international talent in the league. Chinese number one 2002 draft pick Yao Ming, Nigerian standout center Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, German Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki and today’s “Greek Freak,” Greek-Nigerian phenom Giannis Antetokoumpo revolutionize the league and give their hometown fans favorite teams. In the 2021-2022 season, 109 of the NBA’s 608 players came from (39) foreign countries. Every time the United States is defeated in international play (like the 2004 Olympic Games, in which they received silver and Argentina took the gold) only proves the increasingly global nature of the sport.
Much has changed in the game of basketball and sports since the 1992 Madrid Olympics. In early training in La Jolla, Bernstein captured the first official shot of the Dream Team in the basement of an arena with a found American flag. This team photo, commemorating one of the greatest teams in sports history, quickly became one of the sport’s most iconic photographs. There were no smartphones to report a celebrity sighting and photographs with players were prized possessions. Now, the game of basketball and the NBA is a global social media and streaming obsession with a constant social media presence. The NBA has the most followers on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram of any sports league in the world.
The NBA is an ever-expanding global brand, but none of this would be possible without the 1992 Dream Team and the generation of international basketball players and fans it inspired.