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The 1990s: What a time it was for hoop fans! That era marked a pinnacle of sorts, one that culminated in the Dream Team — a world-class collection of NBA stars who suited up for the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team.

In the early ’90s, the NBA was riding the crest of its explosive growth during the previous decade. Legions of passionate fans began watching the game.

The hobby, already experiencing a surge of vintage and contemporary baseball collectors, also was enjoying an influx of basketball-focused buyers and sellers. And it made sense that these collectors found themselves stirred by Dream Team memorabilia. More on that in a minute. First, let’s review the events leading up to the Dream Team’s unprecedented roster.

BIRD VS. MAGIC

The arrival of Larry Bird in Boston and Magic Johnson in Los Angeles for the 1979-80 NBA season was momentous and pivotal. The pair’s spirited rivalry in the 1980s was the driving force behind the NBA’s escalating popularity. The “Bird and Magic” glory days saw pro basketball progress from being simply a major U.S. sport to international theater.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have some fun at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

(Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

Also See: Ranking the rookie cards of the 1992 Dream Team 

The NBA already had a crew of established stars entertaining fans. There was Julius “Dr. J” Erving and his high-flying dunks. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and those unstoppable sky hooks. Walt Frazier and his on-court cool. Pete Maravich and his passing wizardry. Bob Lanier, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone and their muscular play in the paint, and so many others.

But along came Bird and Magic on the heels of highly publicized college careers — Bird at Indiana State University, Johnson at Michigan State. As the 1980s unfolded, the duo’s heroics on the hardwood became legendary. They won six MVP awards combined (three each) along with eight championships between them (five for Magic).

Swirling around their accomplishments was a drama that hadn’t been seen in NBA annals. Publicists had a field day with the theme: the blue-collar, East Coast approach of Bird’s Celtics vs. the Hollywood-slick Showtime antics of Magic’s Lakers.

But make no mistake: Bird and Magic were more than just PR tools. This duo could do it all: Drive the lane. Hit fade-away jumpers. Drill long 3-pointers. Shoot from the foul line. Rebound. Play D. Pass.

Magic Johnson wowed basketball fans with his ball handling and passing at the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Magic Johnson wowed basketball fans with his ball handling and passing at the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Also See: Olympic medal won by Jesse Owens friend sells for record $488K

Oh, man, could Bird and Magic handle the ball. They wowed NBA crowds with an endless assortment of passes, whether connecting on behind-the-back, no-look or bounce passes or heaving a full-court bomb to a teammate for a breakaway layup. Bird and Magic were known for making everyone around them better, every game.

ENTER MICHAEL

In the mid-1980s, as Bird and Magic were at the peak of their powers, Michael Jordan came along and took individual heroics to a new level. Jordan combined the aerial thrills of Dr. J with Bird’s drive, determination and shooting and Magic’s passing, energy and sense of “game flow.”

By the summer of 1992, Jordan had become the biggest draw in sports. He led the Bulls to consecutive titles in 1991 and ’92, and he would win four more in the six seasons to follow.

Michael Jordan, the NBA’s most dynamic player, averaged 15 points per game in the Dream Team’s eight Olympic games.

Michael Jordan, the NBA’s most dynamic player, averaged 15 points per game in the Dream Team’s eight Olympic games.

During MJ’s ascent, Bird and Magic were winding down. Bird’s chronic back problems were starting to limit him, though you wouldn’t know it by his numbers. Magic contracted the AIDs virus and retired in 1991, though the draw of the Dream Team brought him back to the court.

OLYMPIC APPEAL

With that as a backdrop, consider the breakthrough ruling that NBA players would be allowed to play in the Olympics. Up until 1992, only amateurs were eligible to compete; typically, that meant a collection of collegiate stars.

Other nations often used their best professional players in the Olympics, but the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) had always ruled out NBA players. It was after a 1989 vote that FIBA finally welcomed NBA players into Olympic competition.

An iconic Sports Illustrated cover dated Feb. 18, 1991 speculated on what an Olympic squad could look like. It presented a group portrait of Johnson, Jordan, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing under the tag “Dream Team.”

Feb. 18, 1991 Sports Illustrated cover featuring the Dream 1992 Dream Team.

Feb. 18, 1991 Sports Illustrated cover featuring the Dream 1992 Dream Team.

Also See: Is Aaron Judge now most popular athlete among collectors?

Several months later, in September 1991, the official U.S. Olympic team began taking shape. Along with the selections of the five players pictured on S.I., the team took on Bird, Scottie Pippin, David Robinson, Chris Mullin and John Stockton. In May 1992, the team was rounded out with another NBA All-Star, Clyde Drexler (chosen over Isiah Thomas) and one collegiate player, Christian Laettner (chosen over Shaquille O’Neal). Bird and Magic were named co-captains.

Team photo of the 1992 Dream Team.

Team photo of the 1992 Dream Team.

“It was a big deal,” recalls Simeon Lipman, a sports auction industry veteran who has worked for Leland’s, Christie’s and Bonhams, among others. “The idea of all those guys playing together — almost all of them future Hall of Famers — was very cool.”

It was a delicious sports spectacle, he adds. “Just the idea of a dream team was exciting. It made the Olympic basketball competition a fait accompli.”

Throughout the 1991-92 NBA season, hoop fans were giddy about the prospect of seeing the Dream Team in action. Yet the development wasn’t welcomed by everyone.

As Lipman says, “It was like a PR stunt — and it got interest. But in terms of competition, I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is just ridiculous, having all that talent on one team.’”

Some onlookers regarded the Dream Team with outright disdain. Among them: noted author Roland Lazenby, who has written books on Jordan (including “Blood on the Horns: The Long Strange Ride of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls”) and Stockton and Malone (“The Rise of the Utah Jazz”) along with Kobe Bryant, Jerry West and Phil Jackson, among others.

“I thought it was a mistake, setting up huge mismatches in an event that already had long featured huge mismatches for USA teams,” Lazenby says. “I didn't see the PR benefit of the move. We now see, in retrospect, that in every way, from every TV show and league pushing gambling and betting shamelessly, it was all about the money in sports.”

Yet Lazenby also acknowledges that the Dream Team “helped tremendously in the global growth of basketball.”

Lipman corroborates: “More than anything else, the Dream Team popularized the sport worldwide. The excitement and publicity surrounding the team is directly responsible for the growth of basketball around the world. And that’s why the NBA did it — that’s why it happened.

“Along the way, it gave us great theater,” he adds. “It was like seeing Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron all playing at the same time on the same team. Pretty cool.”

LET THE GAMES BEGIN

Once the 1991-92 season ended, with Jordan’s Bulls taking the NBA Finals over the Portland Trailblazers, the Dream Team’s work began. Assisting head coach Chuck Daly were NBA legend Lenny Wilkens (then coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers) along with college coaches Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and P.J. Carlesimo of Seton Hall.

The team’s practice sessions are the stuff of legend. In fact, author Lazenby’s favorite Dream Team moment isn’t anything fans saw during competition.

“It was the competitive battle that almost nobody saw — Jordan's team vs. Magic's team in practice. It says a lot that the Dream Team's greatest competitive moment is preserved mostly as a rumor.”

As for their run to the gold, it was never in doubt.

“I expected huge blowouts, and that's what we got,” Lazenby says. “These guys had been primping together at the All-Star Game for years, so as competitors on the same team, they were well prepared to set differences aside and dance through the blowouts together.”

The Dream Team started its journey by playing six games in the Tournament of the Americas in June and July 1992. They dusted their opponents in every contest by an average margin of 51.5 points.

They went on to Barcelona for the Olympics and achieved similarly decisive results. The Dream Team won their games by an average margin of 43.8 points.

Despite the mismatches, it was a major kick for hoop fans to watch. If you’ve forgotten what it was like, get your fix at YouTube, where you’ll find entire games posted by the Olympics organization. (It’s a rabbit hole, for sure, but well worth it.)

COLLECTING THE DREAM TEAM

During the Olympics and on the heels of the team’s climactic gold medal game and ceremony, collectors were hungry for anything and everything related to the Dream Team.

If you include the countless items produced in the years after the Olympics, there’s a healthy supply of Dream Team collectibles. However, memorabilia produced prior to and during the Dream Team’s run to gold is more scarce. After all, the team had a short journey — mere months, from June through August of 1992. 

“It was a moment in time — a finite moment in time,” as Lipman puts it. As such, memorabilia rooted in that period isn’t exactly plentiful. Nor is it inexpensive.

Here’s a look at big prices paid for Dream Team treasures in recent years.

• $230,041 for a painted and signed game-used ball from the Dream Team’s gold medal–winning win over Croatia in 1992. The ball was autographed by Daley and 11 of the 12 players (only David Robinson’s signature is missing). The two white-painted panels include artfully inscribed details of the gold-clinching game. (SCP Auctions, 2015)

Game-used ball from the Dream Team’s gold medal–winning win over Croatia in 1992. The ball was autographed by head coach Chuck Daley and 11 of the 12 players (only David Robinson’s signature is missing).

Game-used ball from the Dream Team’s gold medal–winning win over Croatia in 1992 autographed by head coach Chuck Daley and 11 of the 12 players. 

• $216,000 for a signed Michael Jordan game-worn Dream Team jersey. Jordan autographed the “home” (white) jersey on the front, next to his No. 9 uniform number. (Robert Edward Auctions, 2020)

Signed Michael Jordan game-worn Dream Team jersey.

Signed Michael Jordan game-worn Dream Team jersey.

• $190,373 for a pair of sneakers worn by Jordan during the Tournament of the Americas gold medal game in July 1992. The sneakers were consigned by a team staffer who received them from Jordan right after the game. Note: The staffer also received Scottie Pippen’s and Magic Johnson’s sneakers and consigned them in the same Leland’s auction. Surprisingly, the Pippen sneakers sold for a higher price ($29,557) than Johnson’s ($26,870). (Leland’s, May 2020)

• $79,709 for Coach Chuck Daly’s official Barcelona Molten basketball signed by all Dream Teamers except Chris Mullin. Molten was the ball used in the 1992 Olympics. The ball was part of the Daley Estate auction offered by Daley’s widow, Terry Daley, in 2015. Chuck Daley died in 2009 at age 78. (SCP Auctions, 2015)

• $61,200 for a signed full Jordan Dream Team game-worn uniform — both jersey and shorts. Manufactured by Champion, the road uniform (dark blue with red trim) features Jordan’s autograph on the back of the jersey, inked vertically within the No. 9. (Goldin Auctions)

Signed full Michael Jordan Dream Team game-worn uniform.

Signed full Michael Jordan Dream Team game-worn uniform.

• $52,580 for signed Jordan 1992 Olympic game-worn Nike Air Jordan shoes. (Heritage Auctions, 2016)

Signed Michael Jordan 1992 Olympic game-worn Nike Air Jordan shoes.

Signed Michael Jordan 1992 Olympic game-worn Nike Air Jordan shoes.

• $43,050 for a team-signed Dream Team T-shirt in a framed display. The item was gifted to former North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano in 1993 during his fight against cancer. (Goldin Auctions, 2020)

• $40,630 for a signed presentation basketball featuring painted panels that highlight details like the score and date of the gold medal game. (Heritage Auctions, May 2016)

A presentation basketball signed by the Dream Team featuring painted panels that highlight details like the score and date of the gold medal game.

A presentation basketball signed by the Dream Team.

• $28,732 for a 1992 signed official Molten basketball. All 12 players plus coaches signed the ball. (Leland’s, June 2021)

• $26,290 for the Olympic gold medalist ring presented to the squad’s team physician. (Heritage Auctions, 2016)

An Olympic gold medal ring presented to the squad’s team physician.

An Olympic gold medal ring presented to the squad’s team physician.

• $21,510 for signed Magic Johnson 1992 Olympic game-worn shoes. The sneakers are white Converse models with “15 Magic” embroidered on the outer ankles. The right shoe is personalized “To Dove, Take Care, Magic Johnson #15.” (Heritage Auctions, 2016)

• $20,912 for a signed Michael Jordan 1992 Olympic game-worn jersey. MJ’s autograph appears vertically on the uniform number (9) on the back. (Heritage Auctions, 2013)

• $18,000 for a team-signed Spalding basketball autographed by all Dream Team players and coaches. The ball came with a cover letter from Dave Gavitt, a longtime college coach and the person who — as the listing notes — “innovated the concept of a professional ‘Dream Team’ during his five-year term (1988–92) as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.” Gavitt also served a stint as president of the Celtics (1990–94) and the NCAA Foundation (1995–97), among other accomplishments. He was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and died in 2011. (Heritage Auctions, 2019)

• $17,925 for signed Larry Bird 1992 Olympic game-worn shoes. Bird autographed both sneakers, personalizing one sig “To Dave.” They came from the collection of David A. Fischer, MD. Dr. Fischer was team physician in both the Tournament of the Americas and Barcelona Olympic games. (Heritage Auctions, 2016)

Signed Larry Bird 1992 Olympic game-worn shoes.

Signed Larry Bird 1992 Olympic game-worn shoes.

• $11,808 for Daley’s USA Basketball game-worn warm-up jacket. (SCP Auctions, 2017)

• $11,306 for game-worn Michael Jordan Nike Air Jordan special edition shoes. (SCP Auctions, 2015)

• $1,757 for a signed Sports Illustrated cover, Feb. 18, 1991. The cover photo was a shot of Jordan, Johnson, Barkley, Ewing and Malone. (Leland’s, March 2017)

EASIER ON THE WALLET

If you want more budget-friendly mementos of the Dream Team, you’ll find a huge supply of affordable items. Examples:

• Trading cards. The major sets of the time got the Dream Team into their base sets. They’re not terribly expensive if ungraded. However, three-card Dream Team subsets from SkyBox’s 1991 set can get into the hundreds if graded Gem-Mint 10. Also, SkyBox issued a 110-card Dream Team set in 1992 — an item you can buy even now for $15 to $25.

• Unsigned photographs. These are plentiful and inexpensive — under $25. They’re ideal if you know you’ll be encountering a Dream Teamer at an autograph show.

• Magazine covers. You can build an impressive collection of early-1990s magazines, from Newsweek and Sports Illustrated to Sport and Inside Sports to such hobby publications as Tuff Stuff and Beckett. Find those magazines for prices under $20. There was also a Dream Team Tour official program that can be had for under $20.

Newsweek covering featuring Dream Team stars Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

Newsweek covering featuring Dream Team stars Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

• T-shirts and replica jerseys. You can find replica jerseys with numbers and names of Dream Teamers, from Jordan to Magic to Bird and beyond, for $30 to $75. T-shirts with Dream Team graphics and photos? Usually $20 or less.