For years, the 1992 men’s Olympic basketball team — the Dream Team, the greatest collection of basketball talent, and maybe overall sporting talent, to wear the same uniform — has spawned all sorts of urban legends. Stories about intense scrimmages. Stories about Michael and Magic playing horse and sizing each other up. Stories about a loss to college kids.
Now there’s footage to back it all up. Dion Cocoros, one of the executive producers of “The Dream Team,” the excellent new documentary that premieres tonight on NBA TV, helped dig up that footage. In an interview with Keeping Score, Cocoros talks about how he got all 12 Dream Team members to sit down for interviews, why Isiah Thomas, the most prominent player left off the team, didn’t want to talk, and how the NBA would be different without the Dream Team.
How did this project start?
We knew the 20th anniversary of the team was approaching, and we also knew that we had this great archival footage because we had followed the team back in 1992. It was a project that we knew eventually we were going to undertake. It was just a matter of getting all the players together.
In going through all this footage and interviewing all the players, what were you most surprised by?
These guys really didn’t know each other. These are huge egos and mega-stars that were coming together, and it really was a building process. I think people might feel like they all knew each other personally, and they really didn’t. They all kind of say it to a man that that experience allowed them to find out who they were as people.
Was it difficult getting all these guys to sit down for the documentary?
They’re all busy people, but it was a topic where you felt like you weren’t rehashing stuff they had talked about over and over again. Everybody felt like they just were enjoying reliving it as much as we were enjoying asking them about it. You didn’t get the feeling that it was worn-out material.
Isiah Thomas really gets negatively portrayed in the documentary. He essentially didn’t make the team because a number of players didn’t want to play with him. Did you try to interview Thomas?
We asked him and he declined, which is his prerogative. In his mind, he doesn’t have anything to say. He didn’t make the team. But obviously the players thought that the selection process in general was an important story line.
There have been stories about a legendary Dream Team scrimmage, with Michael Jordan leading one team and Magic Johnson leading the other. Did you know that footage existed?
Yeah. Chuck Daly’s USA video staff had recorded these practices, and no one’s ever seen them before. The practice footage is incredible. Everything lives up to the legend of how those scrimmages really were more competitive than the games.
That single scrimmage seems like the most intense basketball game ever played.
Even early on in the film, in La Jolla when they’re trying to feel each other out, when [Charles] Barkley dunks over Karl Malone, the way [Christian] Laettner describes it, I think it was always building, but I think they hadn’t practiced in a while. And after they kind of lost their focus a little bit in Monte Carlo, [Coach] Chuck [Daly] needed something to make sure they were ready for Barcelona. It’s easy to look back now and see how they easily won all the games. But they didn’t know what was going to happen in Barcelona. So I think that they were always practicing hard, but there wasn’t that much practice time until Barcelona, and I think that was the last chance to make sure they were in game shape. That’s why that practice in particular was so physical and so competitive.
There’s also some incredible footage of the collegiate team, led by Bobby Hurley and Chris Webber, just giving it to the Dream Team. It’s shocking. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was an assistant under Daly, says in the film that Daly threw the game. Do you believe that?
Well, that’s Krzyzewski’s take on it, just to be clear. My take is that they were getting beaten, and knowing Chuck, it was probably a good wake-up call for them. But I just want to be clear, that was Krzyzewski’s take all these years later. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. But I feel like the college team obviously woke them up, and it became a wake-up call for them.
Just as fascinating are the segments showing competing teams kneeling in front of the Dream Team before the game for pictures. One player takes photos of the team during a game, and one guy even shakes Magic’s hand right before he shoots a free throw. Have we forgotten how awe-inspiring this team really was?
There’s a little thing that didn’t make it into the film where Larry Bird talks about the bus on the way to the gold medal game. The opposing team’s bus pulled over so their bus could go past them. And even Larry Bird, he was almost embarrassed by it. They’re going to fight for a gold medal and the other team’s already deferring to them on the road to the game. Things like that really blew those guys away.
A big story line back then was Charles Barkley because of some of the comments he made and the fact that he elbowed one of the Angolan players during the very first game. When you interviewed him, was he remorseful at all for his actions?
In typical Charles fashion, I don’t think he’s apologetic about it. The point was, he lost his temper. What I think is most interesting about that is his teammates’ reaction 20 years later. These guys were basically like, Come on, Charles. What are you doing? We’re trying to not be the ugly American.
After that, there were basically no other issues with Barkley, right?
No. He had had this reputation, and he acted out in the very first game. But in fact, he had the best Olympics basketball-wise.
So you’ve got all these iconic players with enormous egos who had never played together before. How did they play so well as a team?
The whole beauty of the Dream Team is no one cared who got the ball. My guess is that as one guy is playing that way, it just starts to permeate throughout the team. And nobody wants to be the guy to screw up the chemistry.
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Who was that one guy?
Magic. I think everybody would agree that Magic set the tone. He’s such a great ball distributor. I think things like Larry having his last stand, people wanted to see him do well. So let’s give Larry the ball. And Michael recognizing from the beginning that he didn’t need to be captain. Those are little things that each guy did. Each guy gave something up. Maybe going into camp they didn’t feel that way. But by the time they were on the gold medal stand, I think they all felt like it didn’t matter who got the glory, they were going to win as a team.
If you took today’s probable Olympic team – LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant – and put them up against the Dream Team, who’d win?
I’ll leave that for the experts. I don’t want to take away from this team’s legacy by comparing them. I think there’s only one Dream Team. But I will say this current group of guys is the first since the Dream Team to even approach that level.
Do you think it’s a good idea to allow professionals to play in the Olympics?
The world’s best are competing, and if you want the best competition, I think you should let the best players play. Some of these guys wouldn’t have had a chance to play in the Olympics if it wasn’t for a changing of the rules to allow them to play.
What’s the Dream Team’s ultimate legacy?
The players from around the world that are stars in the NBA now, they were kids when the Dream Team was playing. Barkley says that guys like [Manu] Ginobili and [Tony] Parker and Dirk [Nowitzki] tell him all the time that their love of basketball started with the Dream Team. I think the legacy is being the greatest team ever but also opening the door for so many international players to play the game at such a high level.
So the NBA would look markedly different without the Dream Team?
I’m sure it would. If you go by the fact that some of these international players wouldn’t have been so drawn to the game, who knows what it would be like?