They were called the “Dream Team.”
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Chris Mullin were among the best players the NBA had to offer. They, along with Christian Laettner (who had just been drafted out of Duke), became the first professional basketball players to represent the United States at the 1992 Summer Olympics, winning a gold medal in dominating fashion.
But for then-NBA commissioner David Stern, the dream didn’t end there. He envisioned a version of the game where the best players came from across the world, not just the 50 states.
“I don’t know how many people believed in that with him or thought it was something that couldn’t be done, but he made this game global, where the game is watched in over 250 countries over the world,” LeBron James said of Stern upon the former commissioner’s death in 2020. “He saw the game being so much greater than just in the States domestically.”
Now, 30 years after the Dream Team put on an unprecedented basketball showcase that changed the sport forever, Stern’s vision has come to pass. NBA dominance is no longer solely an American domain, and never has that been more evident than at this year’s EuroBasket tournament, which featured three of the five players on last season’s All-NBA First Team and the winners of the league’s past four MVP awards.
The rise of global superstars is one of the most remarkable trends in modern basketball, but it has been a gradual affair, and it is by no means complete.
WHEN THE DREAM TEAM led the United States to gold at Barcelona in 1992, they tipped off a basketball revolution, sparking a newfound passion for the sport in Europe and around the world.
Back in the 1990s, all the greatest players on the planet were Americans. The 1991 NBA All-Star Game featured just a single player born outside the United States — Ewing, who moved from Jamaica to Massachusetts when he was 12 years old. On opening night of the 1991-92 season, NBA rosters featured 23 international players from 18 countries, representing about 5% of the league.
In 2021-22, the league boasted 109 international players from 39 countries on the 30 opening-night rosters. Nearly one in every four NBA players last season was born outside the United States — and that includes some of the league’s very best.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP who led the Milwaukee Bucks to the 2021 championship, was born in Athens, Greece. Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, who has won the past two MVP awards, was born in Sombor, Serbia. Luka Doncic, who has been named to the All-NBA first team in three of his four seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Joel Embiid, a five-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection for the Philadelphia 76ers, was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Patrick Ewing recalls his time with the 1992 Dream Team and developing a bond with his teammates, especially Larry Bird.
Prior to the Dream Team, those four countries had combined to produce exactly two NBA players — Vlade Divac and Milos Babic, both of whom had been born in Serbia when it was part of the former Yugoslavia.
The league has included foreign-born players since its early days. Hall of Famer Bob Houbregs, who played five seasons in the 1950s, was born in Canada, as was Ernie Vandeweghe. His son Kiki, who starred in the NBA in the 1980s and is now an executive with the league, was born in West Germany. But players like that were few and far between, even into the early 1980s, when Johnson and Bird were in their primes. Pro basketball was gaining popularity but still had trouble earning the spotlight stateside, where Major League Baseball and the NFL still dominated the American sports discourse, let alone overseas, where soccer was and still is king.
That started to shift in 1984 thanks to a pair of events that changed the NBA’s trajectory. David Stern took over as commissioner of the NBA on Feb. 1 of that year, and then five months later, the Chicago Bulls used the No. 3 overall pick in the draft to select Jordan, who would become the biggest superstar in American sports and a global icon.
Jordan made basketball cooler than ever, and Stern made sure people knew about it. He turned the NBA into a media juggernaut, taking it from tape-delayed NBA Finals to a sport watched in more than 200 countries — with many now producing NBA players of their own.
Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon had demonstrated that foreign-born athletes could thrive in the NBA long before the Dream Team suited up, but both legendary centers largely developed their skills stateside, coming of age in the golden era of college basketball. Olajuwon, born in Lagos, Nigeria, became famous at the University of Houston, while Ewing dominated headlines playing for Georgetown.
Coming over to the U.S. and playing college basketball (sometimes even high school basketball) before going pro was the most common path for foreign-born NBA players prior to the 1990s. The other source of foreign-born talent was a slow trickle of Eastern European stars who came over after plying their trade in that region.
Soon after Jordan and the Dream Team put on a worldwide advertisement for hoops, basketball’s talent pool rapidly expanded in Europe and the rest of the world.
The erratic trickle of international players reaching the NBA has become a fire hose. Not only that, most of the best international players in the 21st century have honed their crafts in their homelands, eschewing American development programs and importing unique skill sets.
Of those four All-NBA international stars, only Embiid — who moved to the United States at 16 and played one season at Kansas — had any domestic experience before joining the NBA.
Basketball and its star athletes are more popular and more global than ever, and EuroBasket 2022 is the strongest proof to date that the sport has fulfilled Stern’s dream.
UPON HIS RETIREMENT from the NBA in 2014, Stern gave a wide-ranging interview to the New York Times, in which he said that one of his most cherished memories during his time as commissioner “was what the Dream Team represented, this much-maligned group of players and sport, on the march to the gold medal stand, being feted like a combination of the Bolshoi, the Philharmonic and the Beatles.”
The Beatles led the British Invasion that forever changed pop music in the United States; the Dream Team returned the favor three decades later on a very different stage.
“It was like Elvis and the Beatles put together,” said the late Chuck Daly, who coached the legendary squad. “Traveling with the Dream Team was like traveling with 12 rock stars. That’s all I can compare it to.”
Daly was also at the forefront of predicting the impact the Dream Team would have on basketball across the world.
“There will come a day — I’m not saying it will happen anytime soon, mind you, but it’s inevitable that it will happen — that they will be able to compete with us on even terms,” Daly said of international teams, most of which were completely overwhelmed by the team the United States put together for the 1992 Olympics. “And they’ll look back on the Dream Team as a landmark event in that process.”
That day came sooner than anyone could have expected. The United States team that was put together for the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis was far from a Dream Team, but was still led by NBA stars like Paul Pierce, Reggie Miller and Ben Wallace, all of whom would end up in the Basketball Hall of Fame. The team was coached by another Hall of Famer, George Karl, and was expected to breeze to another gold medal. Instead, just 10 years after coasting in Barcelona, Team USA fell apart on its home court and finished sixth.
A 25-year-old Manu Ginobili, who had yet to play in the NBA, and his Argentinian teammates became the first team to beat Team USA since the Americans began using pros in 1992. Then Team USA lost to Divac’s Yugoslavian squad. Then they lost to a Spain team led by then-Memphis Grizzlies rookie Pau Gasol.
“I have always said that globalization would come upon us,” Stern said in 2013. “I was mocked in 1992 when I suggested to critics of the Dream Team that the only way for the world to catch up with us would be to play at our level.
“… It happened faster than I thought.”
Two months before Team USA fell in Indianapolis, China’s Yao Ming was selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft, becoming the first top pick who hadn’t played college basketball. Since then, there have been seven additional No. 1 picks born outside the United States, representing Australia, Italy, Canada and the Bahamas.
Victor Wembanyama, the French 7-footer who has been called the most exciting NBA prospect since LeBron James, could make it eight. And while an injury kept him from playing at EuroBasket, he could be part of a French team that has already challenged Team USA multiple times and will also be adding Embiid to the roster just in time to host the Olympics in Paris in 2024.
A PIONEERING GENERATION of foreign talent, led by players like Yao, Ginobili and the German-born Dirk Nowitzki, infused the NBA with homegrown skills and playing styles that reformed the best basketball league in the world.
Ginobili, who had won championships in European club play before making his NBA debut, is credited with changing the fundamental choreography of rim attacks. He did not invent the Eurostep, but he showed the world that it could make attacking wings virtually unguardable in the paint.
Nowitzki, who led the Mavericks to a title in 2011 and is the sixth-most prolific scorer in league history, became the best-shooting big man the league has ever seen, forever elevating the skill standards for his position.
“I’m actually really proud of where the game has gone over the last 20 years,” said Nowitzki, who has been traveling around EuroBasket as an official FIBA ambassador. “When I first started in the late ’90s, the 4s and the 5s were bigger guys that were banging and rebounding, and now the 4s and 5s can bring the ball up, initiate the offense, shoot, roll, and pass off the dribble.
Size and strength are still important in pro basketball, but Nowitzki says an explosion in skill has raised the quality of play around the world.
“The skill level over the last 20 years has gone through the roof, there’s just been tremendous development of the game over the last two decades,” Nowitzki said. “It makes us proud.”
That global influence has created unprecedented depth across the league. Today’s superstars are influenced by 75 years of league history and a catalog of scoring moves, techniques and styles that originate from American stars such as Jordan and James but also international icons like Nowitzki and Ginobili.
Antetokounmpo has become the league’s most dominant interior scorer by blending the old-school physicality of Shaquille O’Neal with the choreography of Ginobili.
Together with Jokic, Embiid and Doncic, Antetokounmpo is heading into the upcoming season as one of the greatest players in the world. A generation after Jordan and the Dream Team dazzled in Europe, international superstars are now returning the favor in a profound way.