Twenty-five years ago Thursday, the Dream Team’s first game in the medal round proved to be a bizarre affair, both on and off the court.
After scoring the game’s first 17 points, it looked like the United States would waste no time putting away Puerto Rico. Instead of lying down, Puerto Rico answered with a 13-0 run of its own, a strange twist that suspended the inevitable and provided perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the monumental upset that wouldn’t come for another 12 years.
But this was Barcelona in 1992, not Athens in 2004. And Carlos Arroyo wasn’t walking through that door. As Jordan eloquently put it, "In the first half, it's kind of like a playoff game. Then once you get up by 30 points, it's kind of like a charity game."
Jordan certainly didn’t get buckets like it was a playoff game as he played perhaps the worst game of his career, finishing with four points on 1-of-11 shooting in 22 minutes. Including the regular season and playoffs, Jordan played in 1,251 games in the NBA and never shot worse than he did on this day against Puerto Rico. In fact, thanks to Basketball-Reference.com’s unrivaled record keeping, we can definitively say that he shot worse in this game than he ever did in three seasons at North Carolina and scored fewer points than he ever did in his varsity high school career at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina. If you’re a Jordan fan, it’s worth taking a look.
Barkley, the team’s leading scorer, also labored through his worst game of the tournament, picking up a technical foul and finishing with six points and just a single rebound in 10 minutes as he was saddled with foul trouble. Barkley and Jordan combined to shoot 3-of-15 for 10 points, scoring fewer than 12th man Christian Laettner who managed 11 points, his only game in double figures in Barcelona. It was a weird game.
The best players in red, white and blue in the quarterfinal against Puerto Rico were Chris Mullin and David Robinson who picked up the scoring slack. Mullin led all players with 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting while Robinson added 14 points to go with 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals. It was the most points that either of them scored in Barcelona as they came into Puerto Rico averaging a combined 19.4 points per game.
Stranger than the game itself was the war of words that took place off the floor, specifically with regards to incoming U.S. Olympic Committee president LeRoy Walker. Leading up to and throughout the Olympics, there was often at times friction between critics and supporters of the Dream Team, who certainly brought a different level of celebrity than typically seen at the Olympics. Right or wrong, critics of the Dream Team would point to accommodations at a luxury hotel (instead of at the Olympic village) and ramped up security as signs of preferential treatment over other athletes.
Walker, a former track and field coach for the United States, openly questioned the need for NBA participation and called into question whether it would continue at the 1996 games in Atlanta. It reached a point where USOC’s executive director reassured NBA commissioner David Stern that there would not be a return to the old format of using college players while executives from the International Olympic Committee were calling Stern to offer thanks and reassurance for NBA participation.
Instead of celebrating the most dominant run by any team in basketball history, members of the Dream Team often spent more time defending their mere presence. Even Magic Johnson, the team’s captain and unofficial ambassador seemed to get fed up. “The U.S.O.C. hasn’t been working well with us. It’s been more of a power struggle. Walker needs to come and understand what it is like for us, he needs to see the crowds. I went to walk my son in a stroller today and there were a hundred people following us. We're not trying to be different. We're not trying to be arrogant. We've been in the village. We've supported the other athletes, but we're the bad guys."
For all of the dazzling displays of basketball wizardry on the court and larger than life celebrity off the court, the back-and-forth between the Dream Team and its own Olympic committee serves as a reminder that the road to basketball canonization wasn’t always a walk in the park for the Dream Team.