For decades, the NBA has been a star’s league. But even among the stars, there’s an exclusive club. Russell and Dr. J. Bird and Magic. Jordan. Kobe. They’re all part of a select group that paved the way for the NBA superstar of today. And in Icons Club: The Evolution of the NBA Superstar, Hall of Fame reporter Jackie MacMullan explains how some even shared secrets with each other along the way.
Here’s an excerpt from Episode 5, which details how the Dream Team experience helped some of the NBA’s biggest rivals form friendships.
The Dream Team descended on the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona surrounded by armed guards packing Uzis. They stayed at the Ambassador Hotel, under strict orders not to leave the building without protection.
Larry Bird, a huge baseball fan, discovered a side door, discreetly jammed a cap over his head, and took the metro to the Team USA baseball competition.
Charles Barkley was less subtle. He strolled the Ramblas—a large boulevard that stretches through the heart of the city—with a trail of adoring fans close on his heels. Russ Granik recalls running into him one night and asking incredulously “Charles, where is your security?” Sir Charles merely shrugged and went on his merry way.
Bill Walton, who was less than enthused with his own Team USA experience in 1970, argues Barkley was the most significant Dream Teamer of all when it came to diplomacy.
“But what Charles Barkley did in terms of being the ambassador and being so willing, because Larry, wasn’t going outside to talk to the fans,” Walton tells me. “Michael, wasn’t going out, Patrick Ewing, they weren’t going out to talk to the fans. But Charles Barkley said, ‘Let’s go,’ and he was like the Pied Piper. He was Johnny Appleseed, and he was just wandering around the streets of Barcelona, having the time of his life. And people said, ‘Look at how fun this is. We got to be a part of this.’”
Welts happened to run into Barkley one night as he mingled among a throng of giddy fans who couldn’t believe their luck.
They were with Charles! Basketball royalty!
“But it really to me crystallized the potential impact this team was going to have on the sport of basketball because I don’t even know how all these people knew who he was,” says Rick Welts, the former chief marketing officer of NBA Properties.
“I think that’s the first time it really clicked with me like these two weeks in Barcelona is going to move kind of the NBA’s agenda and the sport ahead 20 years.
Magic Johnson also took to the streets with a flourish, flanked by a horde of security. He would stride through the lobby into a sea of feverish Spaniards who simply wanted a glimpse of the great Lakers star. Magic—who nine months earlier thought his career was over and his life in jeopardy after being diagnosed with HIV happily obliged, smiling and waving and reveling in his role as the team’s front-facing goodwill captain.
Russ Granik, the former deputy commissioner of the NBA, says there were no incidents that ever set off alarms in terms of the players’ safety. While the security teams in Barcelona might not have been able to move mountains for the Dream Team, they did, according to Granik, have no trouble moving automobiles.
“I can remember one time being on the team bus and coming back from a game, and you couldn’t make a right turn because a car had parked a little too close to the corner,” Granik says. “These people got out and lifted the car and put it on the sidewalk.”
Just before the Dream Team’s first Olympic game against Angola, Barkley was asked about the matchup. He quipped, “I don’t know anything about Angola. But Angola’s in trouble.’’
Sir Charles was correct. Team USA beat them by 68 points.
The Americans steamrolled overmatched opponents and then posed for photos afterward. Referees solicited autographs during breaks in the action.
Chuck Daly’s goal of not calling a time-out was easily met. The players recall only drawing up three plays. It wasn’t a basketball competition; it was a basketball coronation.
During their down time, a private room on the second floor of the Ambassador Hotel became the team’s meeting spot. Jordan, Barkley, Pippen, Ewing, and Magic played tonk, a card game popular among NBA players, for hours. Bird often showed up to watch, sipping his suds and adding his own sly commentary.
Wives and kids came and went. The atmosphere was congenial, playful. Any lingering tension from previous NBA encounters had dissipated.
“Everybody kind of let it go,” Clyde Drexler says. “And it was one of those deals where everyone was kind, you had the wives and the families there. So we were all one. And it was great because back then, guys, if you were on a different team, they really didn’t like you.”
One night the conversation turned to who was the best player in the game. Jordan, chomping on a stogie, had been waiting for this discussion.
“And Bird was over there drinking beer, and we were just totally relaxed,” Michael Jordan tells me. “Then, we started talking about how we won back to back, and it’s in the ’90s, and you know, Magic wouldn’t let it go. He wouldn’t let it go. ‘We got five championships. Me and Bird, we were the ’80s. Blah blah blah.
“And then, Pip was there to cosign with me. These are the ’90s. There’s a new kid on the block. Magic wouldn’t let it go, and Bird looked at him and said, ‘Magic, we are ... our time is over and done with. We got to just step aside and let them take over.’ It took a while for Magic to let that go, and we argued and argued until about 1, 2 o’clock in the morning.’’
Chris Mullin saw it coming long before that late-night debate. Magic regularly flaunted his championship pedigree during team workouts and Bird, who was often on the sidelines trying to loosen up his back, would glance at Mullin and roll his eyes.
“A lot of times Larry was either riding the stationary bike or stretching, and he’d be like, ‘It’s over, dude,’” Mullin says.
“But God bless Magic for hanging on, though. There was a respect factor with Magic, as well, like he was not going to just hand it over to Michael, but it was clear as day at that point in time who the best player in the world was, and it was not close.”
Jordan says the banter he shared with Magic broke down some of the barriers between them. They were both driven, prideful, and relentlessly competitive— that was established when Jordan was a rookie and Magic chafed at MJ’s instant celebrity—but over time, they had become respectful of each other’s legacies, and what it meant for the next generation.
Ensconced in their little bubble in Barcelona, they finally allowed themselves to talk as teammates, companions, and friends.
“I became actually closer with Magic during that time,” Jordan says. “We spent a lot of time together bullshitting around—and Bird too—talking about all the competitive conversations, who’s on top, who’s not on top, who’s the big guy in the league now. I don’t know, we seemed to hit it off.
“It’s good to have those arguments with guys who, who been there, you know? It makes it so much easier, and the conversation can get really deep in terms of how you approach mentally, physically, you know your coaching, your certain strategies. It’s about what you did in a certain moment, and those moments are very, very similar to each and every one of us, because we’ve had those moments in the highest pinnacles of the season or games. So those conversations are very, very in depth.”
Team USA capped off their incredible show of force by crushing Croatia for the gold medal, 117-85.
This was particularly satisfying to Pippen. Bulls general manager Jerry Krause had been in hot pursuit of 23-year-old Toni Kukoc, throwing millions at him while refusing to give Pippen a raise. The skinny Croatian, unaware of the discord, was manhandled by both Pippen and Jordan the first time the two teams met, early in the Olympic bracket.
While Kukoc acquitted himself much better in the gold medal game, Croatia was no match for the NBA’s finest.
The pageantry that preceded that final game was unlike anything the players had ever seen. The city of Barcelona had officially gone bonkers over the Dream Team. Mullin was in awe of the thousands of fans who gathered to wish them well.
“The first two games, we had a motorcycle escort, then we had motorcycle and cars, and then we had motorcycle, cars, and vans,” Mullin says. “Then we had motorcycle, cars, vans, and helicopters! To where, the last game, there were so many people and so much security, they blocked the highway and we had the clear lane all the way to the arena to where we passed the opposing team. We drove right past them. They moved them out of the way.”
Gold may have been a formality, but in the moment when they were standing on the podium in front of the world to receive their medals, the Dream Team beamed in unison. They shared a long, emotional group hug as the ceremony ended—and then went back to their cutthroat NBA lives, including systematically trying to take down each other for bragging rights as the league’s best.
Jordan hadn’t lost his edge, but he did walk away from Barcelona with renewed respect for many of his comrades, primarily Drexler, the man he seemed hell-bent on tormenting when the journey began.
“I spend more time with Clyde Drexler, playing golf with Clyde Drexler, knowing that the competition in ’92, we was Portland against Chicago, who’s better, who’s blah blah blah,” Jordan says. “We play golf, we joke around, we text each other. To me, that’s the product of what the Dream Team did.
“We talk all the time.”
Drexler finally earned his rightful place at the “ring basket” in 1995, when he joined Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston and beat Shaq and his young Orlando Magic team in the Finals.
Clyde sees Jordan regularly, he says. And their competition has shifted from the basketball court to the golf course.
“If I’m in Florida, I’m definitely going to call him,” Drexler says. “Or if we meet anywhere, if he happened to be in Pebble or Cabo or any of the places where we go to play, we’ll always touch bases and see if we can hook up.”
The Dream Team managed something no one could have envisioned: It melded a roster of fiercely combative, ego-driven rivals into a tight-knit collection of teammates who actually became friends.
They were lovable, relatable, and became even more famous than ever.
This once-in-a-lifetime assemblage of basketball supernovas injected their sport with a jolt of popularity and prestige that completely altered its place in the sports hemisphere.
And because of it, basketball was changed forever.