BARCELONA - It wasn't so much a game as it was a coronation, a final celebration honoring the greatest basketball team ever assembled.
There's little doubt that Croatia had the second best men's basketball team in the world in 1992, and their place in the gold medal game at the Summer Olympics was well-deserved. Most of the best Croatians to ever play basketball were on that team, including a handful that would make a splash in the NBA.
But they didn't have a chance in the gold medal game. They knew it, and so did everybody else.
The 1992 gold medal was sealed in 1989, when FIBA, basketball's international governing body, allowed professionals to compete in international competition. Immediately, the United States, embarrassed by a bronze medal in 1988, began plans for putting together the best team it possibly could, a Dream Team. No longer limited to college players, USA organizers began cherry-picking the best NBA players.
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley were the first four, making fans salivate. It didn't really matter who made up the rest of the lineup - just having those four gave the United States the best Olympic team ever built. In fact, 10 of the 12 players who made the roster would be named to the NBA's top 50 players. The team soon came to be known as the Dream Team.
Arriving in Barcelona, the Dream Team instantly became the talk of the Olympics. Before their games, players from other teams, players were supposed to be preparing to play against them, would instead approach the Dream Team members to request autographs and photographs. They were star struck.
Oh, and some basketball was played, The Dream Team, not surprisingly, dominated like no team before or since, winning every game by an average of 43 points a game. They were so untested that coach Chuck Daly didn't bother to call a single time out during the entire Olympics.
Croatia had given the Dream Team its closest game, losing by "only" 33 in the group stage. Entering the gold medal game on August 8, Croatia had already won its gold medal game, winning a thrilling 75-74 semifinal against the Unified Team to advance to the gold medal game. The final game the Dream Team played was its closest, as the U.S. won by only 32.
While the 1992 Olympics were anything but competitive, the Dream Team did more to help international basketball than anybody realized at the time. While the rest of the world was being awestruck by the pure talent on the American team, they were also learning. The United States had set the benchmark; they had shown the world the best basketball had to offer and shown everybody exactly how far they had to climb.
Since the 1992 Olympics, international basketball has improved exponentially. Players from more countries than ever before are playing in the NBA, and the gap between the United States and the rest of the world continues to shrink. In the 2004 Olympics, the United States lost three times, struggling to a bronze medal, despite again having a team made up entirely of NBA players. The world had caught up, and the legacy of the Dream Team was officially complete.