Our trip down memory in celebration of the Dream Team’s 25th anniversary continues with a nod to Larry Bird. Twenty-five years ago today, Bird turned back the clock and delivered the last great performance of his legendary career.
When the Dream Team came together in the summer of 1992, Bird was 35 years old and had just finished his 13th NBA season. Though he served as a co-captain alongside Magic Johnson, Bird was on his last legs and dealing with significant back issues. As longtime NBA deputy commissioner and USA Basketball liaison Russ Granik told GQ in 2012, “He clearly wasn’t anywhere near what his peak had been, but if you were putting together such a historic team, you couldn’t leave him off.”
Bird was among the 10 players announced to the roster in September 1991. Though he had been an All-Star the previous season, Bird averaged fewer than 20 points per game for the first time in his career, excluding 1988-89 when he played six games and posted the worst Player Efficiency Rating of his career. Bird ranked 43rd in win shares and 20th in PER among players born in the United States. Although it probably sells Bird short to label his inclusion as merely symbolic — he was still an elite passer and shooter, and you could make the case that Bird’s presence had as much to do with respect for his place in the game as it did ability with respect to his peers.
Just don’t tell that to Germany.
On July 29, 1992, Bird had a team-high 19 points in the 111-68 win outplaying Detlef Schrempf, who was Germany’s best player and a future three-time NBA All-Star. It was Bird’s highest-scoring game in Barcelona and particularly surprising since it came on the heels of the team’s second game, against Croatia, in which Bird labored so much that rumors momentarily swirled he might leave early.
Instead of packing his bags, Bird instead sent Germany packing with a complete performance. He showed range, knocking down 3-of-7 from beyond the 3-point line, where his teammates combined to shoot 2-for-9 on threes. He blocked two shots, tied with Karl Malone for the most on the team and more than Germany had combined, while pitching in three steals. He did that without a turnover and even dived on the floor for a loose ball. Bird scored more points in the first half (13) than he did in the Dream Team’s first two games against Angola and Croatia combined (12).
As it turned out, the Olympics ended up being the last time he played alongside NBA players as Bird officially announced his retirement in August upon returning from Barcelona. For at least one night, Bird showed no ill effects and looked far more like a 12-time All-Star selection and three-time MVP than someone on the brink of hanging ‘em up.
Odds and ends
– With both Magic Johnson and John Stockton out with injuries, head coach Chuck Daly started Michael Jordan at point guard. The Dream Team didn’t miss a beat as Jordan finished with 12 assists, three more than the entire Germany team. Jordan’s 12 assists tied the U.S. men’s Olympic record done previously by Phil Ford in 1976 and Leon Wood in 1984. It’s since been tied twice more, by LeBron James in 2012 and Kyrie Irving in 2016.
– Speaking of point guards, Charles Barkley claimed that he was the Dream Team’s third-best option behind Jordan and Scottie Pippen due to the injuries. After the game, Daly offered up some perspective on the prospects of Barkley leading the offense. “I considered using Charles there for a few minutes but I didn’t think he knew enough about the offense.”
– Dirk Nowitzki was 14 years old during the 1992 Olympics and not yet competing for Germany’s national team. Several years after the Olympics, Dream Teamers Barkley and Pippen were part of a Nike contingent of NBA players traveling Europe and playing exhibition games. One of them was against an 18-year-old Nowitzki, who scored 52 points. Here is Barkley telling the story in a locker room alongside Nowitzki.