Number lie but actions don’t. That is why the final statistics from the 1992 basketball tournament in Barcelona don’t accurately reflect an undeniable truth. Those Summer Olympics marked the moment that the NBA indisputably became Michael Jordan’s league.
Some Michael Jordan stats are more meaningful than others
The 1988 Olympics were the proverbial last straw for basketball officials in the United States. Using its traditional lineup of college stars, the U.S. lost to the Soviet Union, 82-76, in the semifinals of the men’s tournament and had to settle for the bronze medal.
When 1992 rolled around, the United States brought the best of the best. The U.S. put 11 NBA stars, including Michael Jordan, and one recent college graduate (Christian Laettner of Duke) on the court and annihilated the competition. The Dream Team went 8-0, winning by an average margin of 43.8 points a game.
Coach Chuck Daly never called a timeout and the U.S. trailed for a cumulative 13:06 out of 320 minutes played. The biggest deficit came when the Americans fell behind Spain 4-0 in the preliminary rounds.
Contrary to how some might remember it, Michael Jordan wasn’t the leading scorer of that star-studded team. That honor belonged to Charles Barkley at a relatively modest 18.0 points a game as Daly spread the minutes around.
Jordan, by then a veteran of eight NBA seasons, was second on the roster at 14.9 points a game and was one of only two players – Laettner was the other – to shoot under 50% from the field. However, Jordan was also third on the team in assists.
The real competition came in scrimmages
The numbers in the 1992 Olympics were meaningless in the sense that members of the U.S. team knew that they were going to earn the gold medal before they even departed for Spain. Their toughest competition came against each other in practices.
Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson remembers that it was in a scrimmage that Michael Jordan confirmed that he was the greatest player in the world, a title that Johnson and Larry Bird each had a claim to at some point in their younger days.
Jordan had in fact already earned the title several seasons earlier, but Johnson remembers the day His Airness decided to officially claim it. According to Johnson in an ESPN interview on Monday, his unit was beating Jordan’s squad by double-digits in a scrimmage when he decided to mess with Jordan.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna go here and talk a little trash to him and see what’s going to happen’ right? And this is when the torch got passed,” Johnson said. “So, I said, ‘Look, M.J., if you don’t turn into Air Jordan we’re gonna blow you guys out.’ I’ve never seen a man take something so personal and then go out there and just take that scrimmage over.
“It was amazing to see him come out and just dominate, and I’m talking about dominate the best in the game. And that’s when we knew that the torch was being passed from myself and Larry onto Michael.”
Michael Jordan asserts himself
Dominating on the court that day after being prodded by Magic Johnson wasn’t enough. Michael Jordan had to make to remind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of something that was obvious. After the team returned to the hotel – the Dream Team didn’t stay in the Olympic village with the other athletes – players gathered in the lounge to relax.
Magic Johnson recalls Jordan sitting next to him and Larry Bird. “He put his hand on my shoulder, put his hand on Larry’s shoulder,” Johnson recalled. “And (he) said, ‘Guys, there’s a new sheriff in town.’ And so we was like, ‘Oh man, what can we say?’ We said, ‘You know what? You’re right. It’s your league now.'”