Twenty years ago, the NBA was coming off the first full season without Michael Jordan. After riding a decade-plus Michael-Magic-Larry ascension, the league was suddenly depicted by some as having lost its positive momentum, as captured by this memorable Sports Illustrated cover with the headline, "Why the NHL's Hot and the NBA's Not."
That season featured a trudging playoffs that were most memorable for Reggie Miller blistering the Knicks (with Spike Lee sitting courtside) and the NBA Finals being interrupted by the O.J. Simpson car chase. The league was by no means floundering or in peril, but it was definitely in transition.
With that backdrop, the NBA and USA Basketball faced the task of sending a team to Toronto to play in the FIBA World Championships. The team—which USA Basketball marketed as Dream Team II—had the added pressure of following up the original Dream Team, one of the most iconic collections of talent in sports history.
The roster featured perennial All-Stars, young cats at the beginning of Hall of Fame careers and vets nearing the end of theirs. They were a brash bunch that won the gold easily (the fiercest competition, as one might imagine, came during practice—specifically Pacific Rim-type battles between the squad's young big men) but battled apathy and some backlash from the public back home.
Bleacher Report reached out to the principal members of that team and others who spent time around it to get their recollections of that experience. What follows are their memories, as told to Vincent Thomas.
Titles, teams and ages found in the parentheses identify each individual at the time of the tournament.
The NBA and USA Basketball decided early on to field a roster with a mix of vets and young up-and-comers. They also didn't want to have any returnees from the original Dream Team.
Dream Team: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and John Stockton.
JIM TOOLEY (Director of men's national team): We had a committee made up primarily of NBA general managers and some former players. So [in the summer of 1993], we all met in La Jolla, California, and started talking about team needs. We didn't have a pool of players back then like we do now—not much continuity, which we know now is big.
We knew there were some players like Isiah Thomas and Joe [Dumars] and Dominique [Wilkins] that weren't able to be a part of the 1992 Dream Team, so we wanted to invite them. Then we talked about how to fill out the rest of the roster with a mix of generations and skill sets. We had kind of identified who we wanted. There weren't many heated discussions at all.
MARK PRICE (Cleveland Cavaliers, point guard, 30): Yeah, I mean, without a tryout process, there wasn't the option of beating someone out on the court like we have now. With it being handpicked, I definitely felt like I deserved to be on the team.
ALONZO MOURNING (Charlotte Hornets, center, 24): I thought I should have been the college player on the '92 team, truthfully. I mean, Christian Laettner was a good player, but I felt like I actually could have made an impact on that Olympic team. But when it came to Dream Team II, I was just coming off a dream rookie season where I hit that series-winner against the Celtics, and I knew this team was going to have some younger guys. So, yeah, I was expecting to get invited.
REGGIE MILLER (Indiana Pacers, zone buster, 28): I definitely felt like I belonged. I was just coming off that playoff run against the Knicks. The Pacers were entering our stage of being consistent contenders, the All-Star berths were about to pick up for me...I was entering my wheelhouse.
DOMINIQUE WILKINS (Boston Celtics, forward, 34): I would have been on the original Dream Team, I'm sure of it. But I was dealing with Achilles problems around then. So they invited me on Dream Team II to be the vet, one of the statesmen with Joe. They put together a hell of a team. We knew going in that we were gonna beat everyone by 20—at least. Let me tell you: That Dream Team II could play with any of the other Dream Teams.
Due to a few injuries (Thomas, Tim Hardaway) and some late replacements, the final 12-man roster had it all.
Mourning and Shaquille O'Neal were the young interior beasts. Derrick Coleman was a do-it-all big man who could get you with a turnaround from the block or rain lefty three-pointers. Larry Johnson was at the height of his post-UNLV "Grandmama" powers, his generation's Charles Barkley.
All foreign big men were helpless against Shawn Kemp's freakish athleticism. Kevin Johnson and Mark Price manned the point. Miller and Dan Majerle were zone busters. Steve Smith was a young, big guard in the Magic Johnson mold, and 'Nique and Dumars were the steady-hand old guard.
ROD THORN (NBA's executive vice president of basketball operations and part of the team selection committee): From the NBA's perspective, there wasn't a concern about them being called the "Dream Team II." While everyone witnessed the Dream Team's dominance in Barcelona, the rest of the world in 1994, from a competitive standpoint, still had some catching up to do, and the pressure was minimal on the USA team. The coaching staff had a lot of flexibility with varying lineup combinations based on the competition.
Speaking of the coaching staff, despite higher profile candidates with championship pedigrees (like Pat Riley or Phil Jackson), Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson got the call.
TOOLEY: We certainly looked at other candidates, but Nellie sort of rose to the surface. He was an animated guy, a creative guy. His son, Donnie, had been coaching with the Lithuanian national team. It was pretty clear he was the guy.
DON NELSON (coach): I really don't know why they chose me, to tell you the truth. But I do know I always wanted to coach a U.S. national team. I didn't really have any conversations with [the league or USA Basketball] in advance of them choosing me. But, heck, it was an honor.
A year prior to his selection, Nelson had won the 1992 Coach of the Year award. His '93 Golden State squad didn't fare too well, dealing with injuries to four of its five best players. It bounced back, winning 50 games in the '94 season.
A hallmark of those Warriors squads was that they played what would become known as "Nellie Ball," a blitzkrieg version of basketball that eschewed true centers and big men in favor of highly skilled perimeter players (Hardaway, Chris Mullin, Sarunas Marciulionis, Latrell Sprewell, Billy Owens, etc.)—a progenitor of today's "small ball."
They were unique in the early '90s, a period dominated by slugfest squads such as the New York Knicks. The irony is that heading into international competition, Nellie wouldn't have much use for "Nellie Ball"—no need to trot out a KJ-Price-Miller-Dumars-Wilkins lineup to throw his competition off guard.
MILLER: Nellie was known for doing a lot of switching and coming out with these bastard lineups. But he didn't have to use all those freaky lineups because now he actually had traditional players at their positions, and it freed him up coach in a more traditional sense. He had penetrators, he had shooters, he all kinds of big men. [Dream Team II] was probably Nellie coaching as his truest self.
NELSON: I didn't have any roster input. It's not like now where Mike [Krzyzewski] and Jerry [Colangelo] collaborate. I just took the guys they gave me. And, well, they were all really, really good. I had the best guards in the tournament, the best shooters in the tournament—and definitely the best big men.
The World Championships, especially to the European teams, have always been considered more important than the Olympics. Such is not the case for American players or public.
So without the public spectacle that is the Olympics and with international competition still years away from gaining any real significance for the American players, the highlight of the tournament for almost all the Team USA players involved were the practices.
KEVIN JOHNSON (Phoenix Suns, point guard, 28): The battles in practice were part of what made the experience so incredible. ... I certainly enjoyed the international competition but may have enjoyed the day-in, day-out battles against my teammates even more.
MILLER: Our practices were the ultimate pickup games. I mean, they were officiated and structured, but it's in terms of you going against guys at the top of each position. One of the guys I always looked up to and always had problems guarding and being guarded by was Joe. I picked his brain. You were picking everyone's brains because you knew you had to play these guys the next seasons—I was looking for tells.
PRICE: Reggie, Dan and I did have some epic shooting battles after practice.
MILLER: The international three was nothing for us. We'd just keep on taking steps back to see who had the ultimate range.
PRICE: By the time we were finished, we'd be at half court. Those guys were bigger than me, so they had an advantage.
MILLER: If we're being honest, in terms of range, it was Dan. But if we're going range and accuracy, well...yours truly.
WILKINS: We all went at it in the practices, but let me tell you, Shaq and Zo had some of the most intense big-man battles I had ever seen.
NELSON: Those two were still young, and I mean, they just went at it. And I'd add Derrick to those battles, too. They'd be banging and really going after each other. It was like this in every practice. Battles you could only dream of seeing.
MOURNING: We never really played each other in college, but we always had that rivalry of being the two best young centers of our generation. We were drafted together. He was picked first, me second. The NBA kind of highlighted every game we played. He won Rookie of the Year, I was runner-up even though I felt like we should have shared the honor with me getting my team into the playoffs. So, yeah, everyone there was trying to prove something in those practices. And with me and Shaq, when practice started, boy, we'd butt heads like some bulls.
We were all alpha males. You were carving out space, saying, "This is my territory."
NELSON: And we can't forget Shawn. That's actually one of the things we focused on in practice. All my small players were really good and could make shots. But I knew the competition's big men couldn't keep up with our bigs, so I wanted to make the power forward the "runner." Kemp was the best at doing that—running the lane and making plays. He was the most important player to starting our fast break and putting pressure on the transition defense. That really opened everything else up.
The squad opened the tournament against Spain. But unlike the current Spain roster that features the Gasol brothers, Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Serge Ibaka, Victor Claver and at least three other players who spent time in the NBA, Spain's '94 team featured zero. Yet behind Jordi Villacampa's 28 points, Spain clawed back in the second half, and when the buzzer sounded, Dream Team II had only won by 15.
NELSON: You'd have thought we lost the game based on how upset the media was. Well, we learned our lesson with the expectations; we better win by 25.
The next game, Team USA beat China 132-77, and the cakewalk was on. Price and Miller shot a combined 10-of-12 from long range in a 130-74 route over Australia. Miller hit up Puerto Rico for 26 first-half points on eight treys. After halftime, Shaq went for 25. Team USA won by 51.
By the time Team USA met Russia (which had upset the Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja-led Croatian squad) in the finals, the team was clicking. It shot 72 percent in the first half and never looked back.
NELSON: Shaq was our leader. He set the tone. He kept everyone committed, but loose, too. His Shaq Fu stuff was out then, and he always had jokes. But it was playful in the right way because when the games started, boy, was he dominant. And I also always had the issue of minutes when dealing with a team that talented, and he even helped in that way by volunteering to come off the bench some games. He really made my job easier.
MILLER: A lot of those European teams played zone. And with Big Shaq out there and Zo and D.C. and Grandmama wreaking havoc down low and KJ penetrating and everything else...I was wide-open all tournament, and man, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
PRICE: I don't really recall a lot of the games. So many of them were over by halftime.
Even though Dream Team II dominated competition as expected, it couldn't escape the shadow of the original squad. What was clear is that some of the younger players had approached the tournament less beholden to the ambassador mission of the original Dream Team.
Zo was reared by John Thompson's "Hoya Paranoia"; L.J. was the dominant personality on a mean, counterculture UNLV championship squad that paved the way for a lot of the ethos exhibited in teams like Michigan's Fab Five. Two members of the Fab Five (Jalen Rose and Chris Webber) grew up in Detroit getting a lot of their bravado from players a couple of years their senior like Coleman and Steve Smith.
What resulted was some of the introductory glimpses into a cultural aesthetic that would define the late '90s and early '00s NBA: snarling after rebounds and dunks, hanging on the rims for punctuation (Kemp infamously grabbed his crotch after one dunk, something he had done many times before in NBA games but seemed untoward in the diplomatic context of international play), chest-bumping, trash-talking.
It was a new breed, and the public and media perception of the squad fell along cultural, but more specifically, generational, lines. This new generation of NBA players coincided with hip-hop's increasing impression on American culture (the list of classic, culturally defining albums released in 1994 is legend), and folks were startled and none too complimentary.
For instance, as a postscript for Sports Illustrated, Phil Taylor wrote, "This year's Dream Teamers were constantly compared with their predecessors and found wanting, not because they couldn't match the originals' 43.8 average margin of victory but because they could not duplicate their mystique. Where the first Dream Team had an aura, the second had mostly attitude."
The Advertiser (a daily in Adelaide, South Australia) ran a piece with the headline, "Dreamers a Nightmare for Opponents and Fans," which contained this character summation: "Their talent and ability is unquestioned. But so far, at least half the players are on the record raving about the team's invincibility, their overwhelming arrogance suggesting the world is not only about to see the best in basketball but also the worst of the Ugly American syndrome."
MILLER: Nellie allowed us to be our own individual selves. If guys were a little brash, a little cocky, well, hey, we're representing the best country in the world— I want the soldiers to be a little brash.
WILKINS: The change had begun. For most of my career, there was a certain type of celebration that we wouldn't get into, the popping your jerseys after dunks and all that, and I think the younger guys got into a little too much of that.
TOOLEY: We—USA Basketball—were the ones that decided to dub the new team "Dream Team II." Whereas the first time, it was media that gave the original team that nickname. And we kind of put the second team in an unfair position.
I don't think they liked being compared, to be honest. So much of the original team was about ambassadorship, and the new team just couldn't live up to it. Some of the younger guys didn't quite understand etiquette. We'd be up 20, and guys were showing out after dunks. I remember Nellie telling the guys, "Come on, act like you've been there before."
NELSON: That was an issue. Some of our guys wanted to show off a little too much. I'm from old school, and I didn't want that. We had several conversations to curtail it. Shawn and I had a talk after that one celebration of his. A few guys still wanted to show off a little bit.
WILKINS: Joe and I had to talk to the guys and say, "OK, let's tone it down. Let's be respectful." The young guys, they were just a little too amped, I guess. [Laughs]
SHAUN POWELL (Newsday, NBA reporter covering the team in Toronto): I don't like to use the word "cultural" because that has so many connotations. What exactly does that mean? I like to use the word "generational" because I know what that implies. And there was a generational shift around then.
There was no rookie scale, so a lot of the young players would be untested but already making more than vets. ESPN really started showing a lot of highlights back then; so the dunking and chest-bumping and self-promotion was becoming more of a thing. I think that was even the year that a magazine like Slam became popular. The younger players were definitely more into showboating.
None of these guys did anything wrong off the court. There was no international incident. Nothing of the sort. But, look, no one even knew what the World Championships were. It was basketball in August, there was no Olympic medal at stake. For a lot of these guys, it was about promoting their own profile.
MOURNING: There were a lot of eyes on us, man. They wanted to see what we were gonna do and how we would represent our country. We were younger, yeah, and somewhat immature. But, hey, we were out there having fun. That was just the way we did it.
Some of people said some of the antics were classless, that we should have held back. But when I'm out there screaming after rebounds and dunks—those are primal noises. It's no disrespect. When I would flex after a block...that's me enjoying the game. That's a release.
Yeah, we could have held back. But the bottom line is we won, we won big, and we enjoyed ourselves.
PRICE: I think we never really got the respect for how good we were as a basketball team. When you follow a team full of legends, no matter what, you probably won't get your just due. That's probably my biggest beef because we were really good.
POWELL: Everything about that team was kind of destined to fail. Not in hard-line sense, but in comparisons with the original. It was marketed completely wrong by NBA and USA Basketball. They should have retired that "Dream Team" term with Magic, Michael and Larry. But the powers that be were so swept up with the success of the original that they tried to push terminology that this was a superteam. It was wrong from very beginning—before the first dribble or shot.
If the Beatles are the opening act, how do you follow that? How do you follow up Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder. You can play and sing the best notes of your career, and you'll still get booed off the stage.
After Dream Team II's gold-medal run, Bob Ryan wrote in The Boston Globe: "The basic theme of the Dream Team I experience was 'Beat Me, Whip Me, Take My Picture.' The basic theme of the Dream Team II experience was 'Beat Me, Whip Me—If You're Man Enough To Do It.'"
Russian point guard Sergei Bazarevich told Newsday after the gold-medal loss that he could see a team dethroning the USA in 10 years.
"Everybody is scared to play them the first time," he said. "Eventually, there will not be as big a gap."
In Ryan's Globe column, Kevin Johnson, who was tasked with staying in front of Bazarevich, the quick Russian guard, was quoted as predicting a possible USA loss by "as early as 2000. The competition is getting better and better. By playing against us, they have benefited so much. They see how we do it, and they go back and work on things. They ask, 'How can we get better?' and they do something about it. This whole experience is great for them."
Well, we know now how things progressed. The 1996 Olympic team—a team then-USA Basketball President C.M. Newton said he wanted "with character, not characters" perhaps in backlash to Dream Team II— bum-rushed the competition again.
1998 was the summer of the NBA lockout, so it didn't feature any of the league's players. By 2000, the world had indeed began to catch up, with the U.S. barely beating Lithuania (85-83) in the semifinal and then narrowly (for them) beating France, 85-75.
In 2002, with many stars turning down invites and others injured, the U.S. finished sixth on its home soil in Indianapolis. It took the NBA and USA Basketball—led by Colangelo, Coach K and recommitted players—six years to reassert world dominance.
Meanwhile, in the timeline of Dream Teams and Redeem Teams and whatnot, the 1994 squad is sometimes overlooked. What do the players remember?
WILKINS: One of the best teams ever assembled.
MOURNING: I played on the 2000 Olympic team, too, and '94 was better. An amazing team.
NELSON: It was probably the top experience that I had as a coach. To stand up there and see your flag raised is a special thing.
JOHNSON: What I took away from the experience as a whole was how special it is to represent your country on the international stage. I know that my teammates all felt that way, too. It was a very special feeling to get that gold medal around your neck.
And another important thing I took away was that it was much easier to have Shaq on your team than as your opponent.