The Brazilian Larry Bird Single-Handedly Beat Team USA and Forced Them to Assemble the Dream Team
The 1992 United States men’s Olympic basketball team, otherwise known as the “Dream Team“, was the greatest collection of talent in the sport’s history. Led by 11 NBA Stars and future Basketball Hall of Famers, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, and more, the USA rolled through all eight of their matchups in Barcelona to win the gold medal.
It was a glorious moment for the U.S. men’s national team. But it was also sweet revenge against one player in particular who single-handedly defeated them in a historic upset five years earlier.
Oscar Schmidt and Brazil upset the USA in 1987
The 1987 Pan American Games were held in the United States for the first time since 1959. Although the collection of talent wasn’t quite at the same level as the Dream Team in ’92, the USA roster featured college stars and future NBA talents like David Robinson, Pervis Ellison, Danny Manning, Willie Anderson, and Rex Chapman. The team rolled through their first six games, setting themselves up for a gold medal showdown against Brazil and their star player Oscar Schmidt.
Schmidt, a 29-year-old who played professionally in Italy, torched the United States in their own backyard. In front of over 16,000 fans at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana, the 6-foot-9 forward nicknamed Mão Santa, or “Holy Hand”, scored 46 points to lead Brazil to the 120-115 upset and gold medal. Brazil was down by as many as 16 points as Schmidt scored 35 in the second half alone, handing the US team their third ever loss in the 36-year history of the Pan-Am Games.
“That game was the best part of my life because we proved to the whole world that it was possible to beat them,” Schmidt said during the 2016 Olympics held in his native Brazil. “And we were afraid to lose by 50.”
The United States never won gold again in the Pan-Am Games, while Brazil would win four more times after 1987. But the U.S. would soon turn their attention to the Olympics, where they would once again come face-to-face with Holy Hand.
The Dream Team helped the USA get their revenge on Schmidt
One year after Schmidt and Brazil upset the Americans, Team USA settled for bronze in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. After back-to-back disappointing international showings, FIBA changed the rule in 1989 to allow the U.S. to use professional players in competition instead of amateurs. From there, the assembly of the greatest team ever to take the court began.
By the time the ’92 games came around, the Dream Team was widely expected to dominate the competition. But first, they had to go through Schmidt and the Brazilians. While many of the NBA players on the U.S. team had never competed in the Olympics, it was Oscar’s fourth go-around, as the prolific scorer had competed every four years beginning in 1980.
The two teams met after the United States blew past their first three opponents. Of course, they did the same to Brazil, handing them a 127-83 loss on their way to a gold medal. But Schmidt, who scored a team-leading 24 points at 34 years old, looked back at how his upset of the Americans five years prior changed international basketball forever.
“When we beat them, everybody saw it and said, ‘If they can win, we can win,'” Schmidt said in 2016. “So they put the Dream Team together.”
Schmidt is one of the greatest scorers in basketball history
Schmidt wasn’t just a player who got lucky one day and handed the United States a historic loss. He is one of the greatest players in international basketball history, and perhaps basketball history in general.
Mão Santa’s career went nearly 30 years, ending with the Brazilian as the all-time leading scorer in Olympic basketball history. He is also the unofficial leader in points scored professionally with 49,737 in his club and national team career, over 10,000 more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 2013, he was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame, immortalized alongside the same players he went up against on the Dream Team.
“The big Brazilian was like a guard in a power forward’s body, and he ran and jumped with equal prowess,” Schmidt’s Hall of Fame bio reads. “His rebounding was overshadowed by his ability to put the ball in the hole. His passing made him a complete player, a Brazilian version of Larry Bird.”
As impressive as Schmidt’s career was, there will be few things better than setting the wheels in motion to allow NBA players in the Olympics. Without his performance in 1987, it’s entirely possible the Dream Team never exists.