Pippen recalls Dream Team's journey to gold
By Adam Fluck | 08.09.2012
Twenty years ago this summer, there wasn’t much time for Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to bask in the glory of their second NBA championship in as many seasons.
Following a grueling season with 82 games and 22 more in the playoffs, most of their teammates took a break from basketball or embarked on vacations with their families.
But for Jordan and Pippen, a journey to the 1992 Summer Olympics awaited as members of what would eventually be considered one of the greatest—if not the greatest—teams in sports history.
Pippen, who also won gold in Atlanta as a member of the 1996 men’s national team, sat down last month with Bulls.com to recall the events of that summer.
NBA stars initially reluctant about playing in Olympics
It started with a phone call from C.M. Newton, who was president of USA Basketball from 1992 to 1996. Newton was tasked with building an Olympic team with NBA stars, whereas previously only amateur players were allowed to compete. So he reached out to Pippen, among others, midway through the 1990-91 NBA season to gauge his interest in being on the team.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
It was a conversation that Pippen didn’t see coming.
“It wasn’t on my radar at all, so I was pretty surprised,” recalled Pippen. “It was during the season and I wasn’t even thinking about it. I didn’t know if it was something we had to try out for or what.”
Pippen quickly learned that he did not. He was also told of coach Chuck Daly’s strong interest in having him on the team. And though that team was being constructed with the height of the Bulls-Pistons rivalry not far behind in Chicago’s review mirror, Pippen had no reservations about playing for Daly, who coached the “Bad Boys” as they eliminated the Bulls in three straight postseasons in the late 1980’s.
“I simply decided to embrace him,” said Pippen of Daly, who passed away in 2009 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “Even though those were his teams we faced, I didn’t have any bad blood with Chuck. He was a great coach, very knowledgeable about the game and managing different personalities. He knew how to take care of professional players in terms of not overworking us, but also making sure the experience was fun for us and not a burden.”
Pippen was asked to keep his initial conversations with USA Basketball private, as in an era long before social media, it was actually possible to maintain secrecy about something as intriguing as the building of the soon-to-be heralded Dream Team.
Pippen held up his end of the bargain with one exception—he spoke with Jordan about the opportunity and each other’s interest level. Jordan has gone on record saying he wasn’t interested, even mentioning that he was formulating an excuse for when USA Basketball would call. After all, he had already won a gold medal in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
For Pippen, however, there was never a doubt. Aside from the obvious honor of representing his country in a quest for a gold medal, as a younger player, he was excited about joining some of the NBA’s other greats along the way.
“To have an opportunity to spend time with some of those guys and get to know them on a greater level was very appealing,” said Pippen. “But obviously, to represent our country and play for a gold medal is something that most every athlete dreams of at one time or another.
“When you watch the Olympic games, you place yourself in the shoes of the competitors and imagine what it might be like,” added Pippen. “But for me, coming from Central Arkansas, it was the furthest thing from my mind to ever actually happen.”
Aside from Pippen, several of the game’s icons were among the first ten to officially be announced as members of the team, including Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Charles Barkley. Thus, the decision for Jordan ultimately became an easy one.
“Once he saw that it was going to be a special team, he changed his tune and wanted to be a part of it,” said Pippen of Jordan.
Said Jordan in NBA TV’s The Dream Team documentary, “The biggest motivation to me was to spend time with guys I competed against.”
Rounding out the Dream Team roster was Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, David Robinson and John Stockton.
Shortly after Jordan and Pippen’s Bulls finished off Drexler’s Trail Blazers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on June 14, 1992, it was time to get to work.
Michael, Magic and Larry take the court for the first time
The road to Barcelona began in La Jolla, California, when the Dream Team’s first practice was held on June 21—just one week after Jordan and Pippen had clinched their second title.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
“It became a lot more real around then for me,” said Pippen as he recalled the first practice. “It sunk in that I was going to be part of a great team and it felt deserving because we were coming off the second championship. But we were ready. Michael and I had just finished playing, so our conditioning and basketball timing was still there. We were all excited to get on the court as a group and put our game on a global stage.”
The initial question was how well a team with 11 of its 12 members set for future enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame would gel. Competitiveness and egos would certainly enter the picture, but players would be asked to set those things aside for the greater good.
Pippen recalls the opening day on the court as a competitive one, somewhat of a getting to know you session for all involved. But everyone would quickly realize they were teammates from that point on.
“It was one of those days where we were finally able to match up alongside the one guy who was always our nemesis throughout our career,” said Pippen. “Whether it was me and Magic, Michael and Clyde, Charles and Karl, everyone had someone who they used to compete against and we all became teammates that day.
“We had to learn how to figure their game out in terms of how they can help you and how you can help them,” continued Pippen. “It was a competitive practice, and at first, everyone was being too unselfish and over passing the basketball. But all in all, it was an opportunity for us to feel each other out.”
As for Pippen, Daly and the coaching staff—which also included Mike Krzyzewski, Lenny Wilkens and P.J. Carlesimo—valued his youth and his remarkable versatility on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
At 26 years old, Pippen was one of the youngest players on the Dream Team, along with David Robinson, who like Pippen was drafted in 1987, though he didn’t enter the NBA until two years later after his military service, and the lone collegian, Christian Laettner. But with five professional seasons under his belt and having made a big jump personally in his previous two seasons, Pippen feels the timing could not have been better.
Furthermore, given his age, Pippen didn’t need to pull away from the game in the summer like veterans typically do, even though the Bulls had just finished up another long season. Rather, shifting from the NBA to the Olympics allowed him to stay fresh and at the top of his game.
“The timing for me was great,” said Pippen. “It was an opportunity to play with some veterans and continue to learn while also pushing myself in terms of getting better. It bridged a gap for me because I was able to continue working out at a high level over the summer and stay competitive. It carried right over into the next season.”
Daly teaches Dream Team a lesson
A few days after the team arrived in California, Daly brought in a group of nine select college players including Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Allan Houston, Bobby Hurley and Chris Webber for a scrimmage.
It turned out the kids could play. In their first meeting, they jumped out to a quick lead behind the playmaking of Hurley and strong post moves from Webber.
And though it was far from a formal game setting, it caught the Dream Team a little off guard. When it was all said and done, according to the scoreboard, the collegians came out on top. But the story that eventually came out is that the fix was in. Daly deliberately put his team in a position to lose, sitting Jordan for stretches and choosing not to make much needed adjustments.
(Neil Leifer/NBAE/Getty Images)
“We weren’t quite ready for it and didn’t expect a scrimmage,” said Pippen. “The guys came in, and as Chuck told it later, he set us up to get beat. We didn’t think much of it, really. We hadn’t been together that long and it wasn’t like it was a game; it was sort of an extended run up and down the court. They kind of got the best of us from that standpoint. As I look back at it, they came in and shot the heck out of the ball.
“I don’t think any of us took it that seriously,” Pippen added. “Certain players barely saw the court and it created some matchup problems with them. They were getting the ball up and down the court, and they shot the ball extremely well.”
If Daly wanted to send a message that his team could be beaten, it was well received. The Dream Team also learned a lot of about itself that day, seeing it could at times have problems with smaller, quicker opposing guards.
“It let us know we had to be ready,” said Pippen. “Teams were going to come out and jump on us pretty fast. It was a wakeup call for us that we had to get off to a good start and focus on defending.”
In NBA TV’s “The Dream Team,” Jordan agreed, saying, “It was gratifying to Chuck because we had to listen to him.”
The Dream Team and college select players would face off again the next day. It was no contest, with the pros easily handling the younger group, a nice tune up for what was to come.
But before the Dream Team would perform before a worldwide audience, six games at the Tournament of the Americas in Portland, where Jordan and Pippen had played just a few weeks prior, awaited.
Only one week after assembling in southern California, the Dream Team took on Cuba on June 28, 1992. The result foreshadowed the run that historic group would make.
Team USA won 136-57, a then-record 79-point margin of victory. Afterwards, Cuban players asked the Americans for photos and autographs. It was the first time that would happen, but not the last.
“We realized we were on a different stage,” said Pippen. “The attention that we began to receive was overwhelming. We knew it once we were in Portland, especially on the court. We became global icons in basketball.
“We not only saw how dominant we could be as a team, but also how visible we were,” Pippen continued. “For me, playing with Michael and winning two championships had already brought some of that. But we had guys like Magic and Larry with several titles each. It was a great time for basketball. The game was really starting to grow from an international standpoint.”
Team USA won its six games at the Tournament of the Americas by an average of 50 points, officially qualifying for Olympic competition. But what was scary is that the team was just starting to come together. Players who had enjoyed a bit of down time after the season were regaining their timing and rhythm. And bonds between teammates were beginning to grow and strengthen.
“The more time we spent together, the better we got,” recalled Pippen.
Dream Team takes its talents to the beaches of Monte Carlo
Before making their way to Barcelona, the Dream Team stopped off in Monte Carlo for some additional pre-Olympic training.
But the stories as Pippen looks back were more about what happened off the court as much as what happened on it.
“It was a lot of fun and things were really starting to come together by then,” said Pippen. “Between the attention we were getting and the hype of the Olympics, everything got really exciting.”
Jordan rarely slept and frequently golfed with Daly. Most, if not all, players found their way into the casinos. The team dined with royalty and enjoyed the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. And then there were the late night card games in Magic’s room, when Jordan, Barkley and Pippen would play until 5 a.m.
Quite simply, the players felt it was a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity, and they were determined to enjoy every minute of it. At the same time, they kept focused on the task at hand.
“All the guys were excited to be on the team together,” said Pippen. “Michael, Magic, they all wanted to find out what it was like to be around each other and didn’t know how to do it all those years. Finally, an opportunity came about and it wasn’t just an all-star game where we were weekend warriors who went back to being opponents again the next week. It was just us and we truly came together.
“We all realized we had a responsibility, but guys were also there to enjoy themselves,” added Pippen. “It was fun because there wasn’t that much pressure on anyone. Guys could do whatever they wanted, then come game time, get some rest and bring some energy. We had enough players and enough talent where if you each bring a little and you put all those littles together, you still ended up with a lot.”
Eventually, though, the Dream Team tired of pushing one another on the practice floor.
“We got to the point where we were all ready to get to Barcelona,” said Pippen. “We wanted to get the games going.”
Bringing home the gold in Barcelona
The celebrity of the Dream Team had yet to peak, but Olympic organizers had a sense of what to expect before the team arrived in Barcelona. So they planned for the team to come into the city via a remote location unbeknownst to the public.
“But when we got there,” recalled Pippen, “it seemed like 100,000 fans were waiting. It was exciting though and it reminded us of what was to come, as well as what to look forward to.”
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
Hoards of fans would follow the team everywhere it went, waiting outside its luxury hotel along Las Ramblas and hoping to catch a glimpse, even if for just a moment as the players went to and from the arena for competition.
Eventually, the focus would return to the reason for their presence—basketball. And when it did, the Dream Team didn’t disappoint, opening play with a 116-48 rout of Angola.
Next up was Toni Kukoc’s Croatian team, which figured to be Team USA’s toughest competition. Kukoc, who was drafted by the Bulls two summers earlier, was widely regarded as Europe’s best player. Because of his size (6-11, 235 pounds) and versatility, he often drew comparisons to Magic Johnson.
In that first meeting between USA and Croatia, Jordan and Pippen took turns defending Kukoc. They competed with a little additional intensity and focus, sending a message to those who were watching.
“We had a plan to just go out and play hard,” explained Pippen, who became friends with Kukoc during their playing careers and remains so to this day. “It didn’t necessarily have anything to do with Toni—we tried to destroy every team we played. Yes, we did focus more on Toni, but only because we knew his name. But we tried to shut down every team we played.”
Jordan, Pippen and the Dream Team did just that, winning 103-70. Blowouts at the hands of Germany, Brazil, Spain, Puerto Rico and Lithuania would follow before a rematch with Croatia for the gold medal.
While Croatia would put up the toughest fight of any Dream Team opponent—losing by “only” 32 points—the inevitable quest for gold had finally come to fruition.
“It was the best feeling,” said Pippen. “And to be honest, we were ready for it to be over. We had played so much basketball, and for at least Michael and me, we were ready for a break from the game.
“Winning a gold medal was special, definitely up there with winning an NBA championship,” Pippen continued. “The praises came in from around the world, rather than just in your city. And there is no comparison to the recognition that we gathered from playing on such a big stage. To be able to accomplish what we did with that group of guys and do it for the first time was an unbelievable feeling.
“You get caught up in it when the moment is there,” Pippen added of the medal ceremony. “You don’t expect to get emotional or know how things will turn out, but it’s a special point where you look back and remember so much about how you got there. For me, getting the gold even brought back childhood memories from when I watched other Olympians get their medals.”
In the end, the Dream Team was as good as advertised, if not better, winning by an average of 43.8 points in the Olympics. They set a standard that future men’s national teams will try to match, though it may not be possible. And so the debate began as to whether the 1992 gold medal winners formed the greatest team of all time. Ask Pippen—or likely any other original Dream Team member—and you can imagine what they’ll tell you.
“It was a team that was a symbol of a decade in which basketball really took off,” said Pippen. “The game became globalized and we were able to do it with some of the biggest names to ever play. I truly believe that was the best team that could ever be put together in any sport.”
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)