Twenty years ago, on July 22, the Dream Team began its training camp in La Jolla, California. By the time this edition of the U.S. national basketball team secured a gold medal a month and a half later, it had set a standard many people think will never be broken. Yes, the 44-points-a-game winning margin was impressive. Even more impressive, though, was the talent: 11 of the team’s twelve players have been individually inducted into the Hall of Fame. Had the team chosen Shaquille O’Neal instead of Christian Laettner for its requisite rookie representative, an unbreakable mark would have been set.
By 1992, it was clear Arkansas native Scottie Pippen was on a path toward a Hall of Fame career. As a key member of the two-time defending Chicago Bulls, he had already established himself as one of the league’s best all-time defenders. Since his 1987 rookie season, Pippen had sharpened his skills by playing plenty one-on-one against teammate Michael Jordan and the payoff soon became apparent: In 1990, he joined Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as one only three NBA players to record 200 steals and 100 blocks in the same season; a year later, he helped slow down Magic Johnson enough to help the Bulls win Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the first of four consecutive wins ending in the Chicago’s’ first title.
Despite that loss, Magic Johnson still believed he was the league’s alpha dog by the time summer 1992 rolled around. Jordan, again with the help of Pippen, rather vigorously disabused Johnson of this notion during a series of game in one Dream Team practice. Video footage of these scrimmages are one of the most interesting parts of NBA TV’s new “The Dream Team” documentary, which next airs on July 4.
Other interesting excerpts, with a focus on UCA’s Pippen, follow:
1. On his invitation to join the Dream Team – “I didn’t feel like I truly deserved to be called, but I truly wasn’t gonna tell them that.”
2. On Isiah Thomas, leader of the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” and top nemesis of the Bulls: “Isiah was the general. He was the guy who’d yap at his teammates and say ‘Knock ‘em on their ass. Do what you gotta do.’ I despised the way he played the game.”
Not surprisingly, Pippen didn’t want Thomas [then a 10-time All-Star] to be invited onto the Dream Team. While Jordan hasn’t been as open regarding this situation, Pippen insinuates he was on the same page: “I can’t speak for Michael, but I don’t think he wanted him on the team.”
3. On the Dream Team’s 62-54 loss to a team of collegians during its first practice session:
“We didn’t know how to play with each other. We didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes or hurt any egos so these young kids, they were killing us.”
4. While many of the Dream Teamers took their families to Europe, Pippen appeared to travel solo in the film [his first marriage had ended in 1990]. It’s probably best no significant other tagged along with the 26-year-old Pip on this one, too, considering the absolute oogle-athon he holds on the sandy shores of Monte Carlo. At one point, he’s seen sweeping his home camcorder across the beach’s skin buffet. At at another point, during an on-camera interview, he smiles wryly while eyeing a topless woman:
“The scene at Monte Carlo was great. It was just breathtaking. I was just down on the beach, trying to enjoy some of the scenery.”
[Pippen’s fondness for Mediterranean women would become even more apparent a few years later when he married Larsa Younan, who has Lebanese heritage]
5. In 1989, Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause spearheaded the team’s drafting of Croatian star Toni Kukoc. The forward didn’t join the NBA until 1993, but as his reputation and dominance grew in Europe, so seemingly did Krause’s infatuation with him. This rankled Jordan, not a fan of Krause anyway, and he decided the use the Americans’ first showdown with Croatia as an opportunity to send a message: “We were not playing against Toni Kukoc,” Jordan said. “We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatian uniform.”
Pippen, as always, wanted to chip in, and this time he had something of his own chip on the shoulder. The Bulls’ contract offers to Kukoc were reportedly much higher than that of a proven NBA superstar like Pippen. And so, he relished the chance to lock down the young buck: “We knew the world was watching. We knew everybody was ready to see what Toni Kukoc was like, and we were gonna give him the worst experience he ever had on the basketball court,” Pippen said. He drew the initial defensive assignment on Kukoc, hardly allowing him a shot attempt. “We were gonna guard him on the bench,” he said. Kukoc later recalled it was difficult crossing halfcourt, even without the ball. The U.S. won by 38 points.
6. Pippen on receiving his first Olympic gold medals:
“Man, it sent chills down my spine. It was a reward I thought I’d never achieve. To do it on that stage with that group of guys, it’s a memory I’ll never forget.”
There will never be another Dream Team. Which isn’t to say there couldn’t be a team with more talent or versatility. A future Olympic team featuring the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love and Anthony Davis (who could emerge as the NBA’s best defender since Pippen) would likely beat the original Dream Team in a head-to-head matchup.
But that 1992 team accomplished so much more than a series of blowouts. It set the stage for the expansion of the game to unprecedented levels, ultimately setting up basketball as the second-most popular sport in the world. For all the points the Dream Team scored, its influence is perhaps best seen in this one assist.
A team-first player from Hamburg was in the middle of it all.