The magic rolls off the tongue as the eyes flit across the team picture (above): Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and so it goes on and on. Between them, and by the time they had all retired, the 12 men wearing the USA’s stars and stripes in Spain won a monumental 23 NBA championship titles and amassed 15 MVP awards and 117 NBA All-star appearances.
I have never experienced anything like it, I can tell you that. Larry Bird - Larry Bird
Nor had the watching world. Fans love to argue the merits of titanic figures and teams from contrasting eras, nations and sports, but there has long been a reverential acceptance that Bird and his compatriots in the USA’s men’s 1992 Olympic basketball squad represent the greatest collection of sporting talent ever assembled.
The 1992 Games were the first at which basketball’s NBA players could participate.
And the USA did indeed bring its Dream Team. For Bird, who was 35 years old at the time and coming to the end of his 13th season in the NBA, the call requesting his participation was the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition.
“My family were huge Olympic fans. As a kid it was all we watched every night,” the Boston Celtics hero said. “We’d heard about it (plans to admit professional basketball players), but I never knew if it was going to come to fruition. I was very happy it did, and I got the opportunity to play. It was something you always dreamt about.”
Bird’s own general manager at the Boston Celtics, Dave Gavitt, was instrumental in the complex push to get the world’s biggest basketball stars to the world’s biggest sporting spectacle.
Consequently, Bird was kept constantly informed of the state of negotiations and, alongside Magic Johnson, he was one of the first to sign up. With those two on board, the others did not take much persuasion.
The next step was the easy part: qualification. Johnson, Jordan, Bird and co. cruised to six victories out of six at the Tournament of the Americas in Portland, Oregon, winning each by an average of 51.5 points. But it was the clamour of fans and even opposing players, just as much as the dominance the USA displayed on the court, which proved to be a precursor of what was to come. The Cuban players even forced the start of the first match to be delayed, such was their demand for photographs with their heroes.
For the players themselves, it was the beginning of an unprecedented adventure.
“I had played with them and against them in All-Star games, and done some commercials with Michael and Magic, and been around Charles and Patrick Ewing, but not for a long period like that. We were together for 30-plus days, basically 12 hours per day,” Bird explained, with the USA’s finest also taking a week in glamour capital Monaco en route to Barcelona.
It was in Monaco that one of many myths surrounding the Dream Team was born. A practice match took place between the Whites (Jordan, Ewing, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen and Bird) and the Blues (Johnson, Barkley, David Robinson, Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner). And, fuelled by comments from Michael Johnson who reportedly said it was “the most fun he had ever had on court”, this scrimmage involving a selection of the best basketball players ever to grace a court grew into what Sports Illustrated labelled the “Greatest game nobody ever saw”. While Bird appreciates the magic of the tale, he disputes its veracity.
“I didn’t think it was much at all, to tell you the truth. If you asked three-quarters of the guys who were there that day they wouldn’t have thought much of it. It was just a normal practice with guys talking; everybody was talking more than playing,” Bird laughed. “When they came up with it (the title of the Sports Illustrated article) I was like, ‘Well when was that?’ I think it’s nostalgia talking.”
True or not, it gives a flavour of the hype and hysteria that accompanied the players everywhere they went. Such adoration and scrutiny meant that staying at the Olympic Village was not a viable option, with the Dream Team and all their incumbent security housed in a nearby five-star hotel. This, allied to the fact that coach Chuck Daly gave his all-stars all the freedom they needed, led to a surprisingly familial, laid-back atmosphere.
“Some guys played a lot of cards; we went to the pool; we would go out to eat, have dinners and things,” Bird said. “We spent quite a bit of time getting to know the families. They had an area in the hotel where you could take your kids and relax while they played. Someone would be in there all the time. We all had young kids.
We bonded – that was the special part of it. Larry Bird
Daly clearly got the balance just right. While Jordan reportedly played at least 18 holes of golf per day, the superstars knew when they had to turn it on.
“We just took care of business,” Bird said. “We could do whatever we wanted but, come time to play, we just had to go play. If we went and played hard and played together, we were going to win, we knew that.”
And so it proved. The USA had a run of 46 points against just one in reply in their opener versus Angola.
They went on to become the first team in history to score more than 100 points in each Olympic match, averaging 117.3 per game.
Bird, who was co-captain with Magic Johnson, managed to shrug off his creaking back and play a full part in leading the team to eight straight victories, with a winning average of 43.8 points per match. The final was as close as it got, with Croatia going down 117-85.
“Winning the gold medal has to be one of the greatest things you can ever do as an athlete,” said Bird, for whom the surroundings, even more than the teammates, were what made it a highlight of his career.
“The enjoyment for me was just being there for the Olympics. I had been on teams with some of these guys, but this was the Olympics. It was special.”