In 1989, one year after Team USA’s men’s basketball team settled for bronze in Seoul, FIBA voted to change the rule barring American professional basketball players from participating in the Olympics.
In 1990, USA Basketball formed a committee to select the 12-man roster. The committee was headed by C.M. Newton, the University of Kentucky athletic director who had been an assistant coach on the 1984 Olympic team. The committee included Duke head coach (and future Team USA head coach) Mike Krzyzewski, P.J. Carlesimo, and NBA executives Rod Thorn and Jack McCluskey.
It was understood that the roster would be comprised of some combination of pro and college players. As an ode to amateur teams of the past, it was ultimately decided that the 1992 roster would include one collegian.
On Sept. 21, 1991, the first 10 members of the Olympic Dream Team — all future Hall of Famers — were revealed on an NBC selection show.
Eight months later, on this day in 1992, Team USA announced the final two spots on the squad heading to Barcelona: Portland Trail Blazers star Clyde Drexler and Duke’s Christian Laettner.
The 6-foot-11 Laettner was coming off consecutive national titles and Player of the Year honors, fresh off the most famous shot in college hoops history:
The committee looked at multiple standout college players, including Ohio State’s Jim Jackson, Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner from USC, Georgetown’s Alonzo Mourning, and LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal — the presumed No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft (he won Rookie of the Year in 1993).
In retrospect, the Christian Laettner decision is often lampooned considering Shaq and Mourning’s immense NBA success, but Laettner was, indisputably, the more prolific basketball player at the time. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Coach K was on the committee. Laettner averaged 4.8 points per game in eight appearances in Barcelona. (For what it’s worth, Laettner was a far more productive NBA player than people generally remember.)
O’Neal said he initially “was pissed off” and “jealous” about the snub, but he ultimately realized why it happened:
“I had come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player, but Christian Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was. Plus he stayed all four years and graduated.”
While O’Neal was mad, Isiah Thomas was the biggest Dream Team snub. Some believe Michael Jordan and other stars pushed to keep Thomas off the roster.
A youngster like Christian Laettner obviously didn’t deserve a spot over Thomas in terms of credentials, but since there was going to be at least one college star on this roster, it’s not like the Duke product actually made it over the Detroit Pistons legend.
If anything, it was the choice to go with Drexler over Thomas that should really raise eyebrows. Drexler was a terrific player, but he was no Isiah Thomas. There were clearly some politics at play, and Thomas is hurt to this very day by the snub.