Looking back at the famous USA “Dream Team” basketball roster from 1992, Christian Laettner’s name sticks out as a strange inclusion among Hall of Fame talents.
In context, though, his appearance on perhaps the greatest squad of all-time is somewhat defensible.
The 1992 Olympics was the first year in which NBA players were allowed to compete, but Team USA reserved one spot on the team for a college player, so Laettner didn’t take a place away from an NBA star. He had just won the Wooden Award and back-to-back national championships at Duke. His Elite Eight buzzer beater against Kentucky that year remains iconic.
So while Shaquille O’Neal (LSU) and Alonzo Mourning (Georgetown) were probably better players at the time, Laettner did have star power of his own.
Laettner didn’t play much as the “Dream Team” rolled to a gold medal finish, averaging 4.8 points per game in his eight appearances. As a result, the forward has downplayed his participation on the historic team. He said keeps his medal in a safe at home and almost never takes it out.
“It was not even me who did it,” Laettner told the “Rich Eisen Show” last year. “It was someone else.”
O’Neal and Mourning went on to become dominant NBA centers, and there’s a strong case one of them should have been named the “Dream Team” youngster regardless of how well Laettner performed at Duke. Hindsight certainly makes the decision look strange.
Laettner, by the way, was no NBA scrub. He averaged at least 16 points and seven rebounds in each of his first five years in the league. It’s just compared to his counterparts, he accomplished little at the pro level.
O’Neal has said that while he was frustrated to be left out, he understood the choice.
“I was pissed off. I was jealous,” O’Neal said in a radio interview during the 2012 NBA Finals. “But then I had to 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. … I just think it helped me grow as a player.”