Dirk Nowitzki, just 14 in the summer of 1992, watched the Barcelona Olympics with NBA players competing for the first time and gravitated toward the spectacular U.S. Dream Team featuring some of the biggest stars to ever play: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird.
“I had just started playing basketball in ’90, ’91,” Nowitzki said. “I was about 12, 13. I was just starting to be an NBA fan. MJ just won his first championship in ’91. Then ’92 happens, and I remember I was watching every game. It had a huge impact on me, and I wanted to be like these guys and I wanted to be in the NBA. That was a huge moment. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Tony Parker dribbled a basketball and soccer ball, but followed the joys of the hardwood, also enamored by the star-studded American team.
Pau Gasol, a Spaniard and Barcelona native, had the Olympics in his backyard and followed with wide-eyed awe.
“Definitely a huge impact (on) basketball and it transcended basketball as well,” Gasol said. “I wasn’t able to go to any of the games. But just knowing that they were there and I was following the games and seeing that the display of basketball that they put together and the dominance that they showed the world, it was inspiring.
“It gave me the ability to dream and visualize what I wanted to pursue and one day hopefully be in that league (and) play with those guys.”
The seeds planted by the NBA and FIBA to grow basketball on a more global scale three decades ago has continued to harvest immense rewards.
Nowitzki, Parker and Gasol were among the many international players who were captivated and influenced by the 1992 Olympics and turned into NBA stars.
All three will go into the Hall of Fame on Saturday, the best class of international players to enter the Hall at the same time.
“Just think back to the original Dream Team in 1992 and the number of international players that were in our league then, and today, 25% of our league being born outside the United States and having the impact that they’re having,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told USA TODAY Sports. “They’re changing literally the style of play, the style of the game.”
Nowitzki, Parker and Gasol weren’t the first international NBA players and others have an impact, too. But they were among the first to feel the impact of the 1992 Olympics and the push to expand basketball’s popularity and power throughout the world.
Let’s take a look at their careers:
Dirk Nowitzki, the German great
Nowitzki admits his early days in the NBA were difficult. “It was hard for me at the beginning to get adjusted off the floor,” Nowitzki said. “Then also of course, on the court as well. The game was so much faster and different.”
He entered the league as the No. 9 pick in the 1998 draft, and the league wasn’t used to 7-footers who could shoot, play offense on the perimeter and bring the ball up the court.
Luckily for Nowitzki, he had a coach in Don Nelson who embraced offensive ingenuity. Nelson saw the future in Nowitzki.
“I’m so glad that he was my first coach because you never know if I would’ve gone somewhere else, maybe they would’ve bulked me up or made a more traditional power forward out of me,” Nowitzki said. “And so to come in the league to Nelly, who always saw the game different, I couldn’t have drawn it up any better, honestly.”
In Nowitzki’s third season, he averaged 21.8 points, beginning a stretch of 12 consecutive seasons with at least 20 points per game. He was a 14-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA selection, 2006-07 MVP and 2011 Finals MVP.
The year he won regular-season MVP, Nowitzki averaged 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists and made the 50-40-90 club, shooting 50.2% from the field, 41.6% on 3-pointers and 90.4% on free throws. In the 2011 Finals, the Miami Heat, freshly built with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, had no answers for Nowitzki.
Nowitzki concedes he played in an era that saw rules changes favoring the offense, but he couldn’t have done what he did without elite skills and talent.
One of the game’s greatest players, Nowitzki became the first international star to score 30,000 career points and is No. 6 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list at 31,560.
“If me, Tony and Pau helped motivate or inspire some kids along the way − if we are part of somebody else’s journey to pick up a ball − obviously that’s super humbling to hear,” Nowitzki said.
Pau Gasol, the sensational Spaniard
Gasol came to the NBA three seasons after Nowitzki, and while he didn’t have the same shooting range or touch from the outside, Gasol had offensive skills that were developed in Spain. Like Nowitzki, Gasol was another 7-footer and wasn’t pigeonholed into a limited skillset.
He was an offensive force from the start, averaging 17.6 points in his rookie season (2001-02 rookie of the year) with Memphis and averaging at least 10 points in his first 17 seasons, including a career-high 20.8 in 2006-07, his last full season with the Grizzlies before they traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
It didn’t take long for Gasol and Kobe Bryant to find success. The Lakers reached the Finals in 2008 but lost to Boston, and then the Lakers won consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010.
He posted double-double averages in points and rebounds in 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12, 2014-15 and 2015-16, was an efficient 50.7% shooter from the field and had a power move to the basket that often resulted in a dunk.
Gasol made six All-Star and four All-NBA teams but the sum of his career can’t be measured just in NBA success. He was a vital part of Spain’s national team, helping collect two Olympic silver medals and one bronze, one FIBA World Cup gold and three EuroBasket golds.
“If the Olympics had happened in, I don’t know, Shanghai (in 1992), I don’t know if it would’ve had the same impact on me at least,” Gasol said. “But it did, and it (was) very special.”
Tony Parker, the fabulous Frenchman
Tatum recalled reading a story where Parker said he wore No. 9 because that’s the number Jordan wore at the 1992 Olympics.
“I always think about that because Tony Parker, this young kid growing up in France at the time, probably would’ve been a professional soccer player,” Tatum said. “But when he saw the Dream Team, that inspired him to bounce a ball versus kick a ball. That changed how the trajectory that he was on, where he probably would’ve gone to play for a soccer academy team, but he decided to go play basketball.”
Parker is the first Frenchman to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame and his impact is global.
Similar to what Gasol did for Spain, Parker did for France. He put the country on the basketball map. Parker helped France to a EuroBasket gold in 2013, a silver in 2011 and bronzes in 2005 and 2015. While Parker never won an Olympic or World Cup medal, his influence on France’s teams that won silver medals at the 2000 Sydney Games and 2020 Tokyo Games and bronze medals at the 2014 and 2019 FIBA World Cup was evident.
Parker was the No. 28 pick in 2001 by San Antonio, the last pick of the first round because Minnesota had to forfeit its first-round pick. The Spurs won the title in 1999 with David Robinson and Tim Duncan leading the way and sought additional talent late in the draft from the international stage. First Manu Ginobili (Argentina) and then Parker.
Parker, a steady and heady point guard, was a mainstay in the Spurs lineup for 17 seasons and helped the Spurs to four more titles − 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014.
He was a six-time All-Star, made four All-NBA teams and was the 2007 Finals MVP, averaging 24.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists and shooting 56.8% from the field in a sweep against Cleveland. He was an efficient scoring point guard, comfortable running the offense and distributing but knowing when he had to score.
“Pau, Tony and Dirk, there’s no doubt,” Tatum said, “that they are having that same effect on this next generation of international players.”
Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Basketball Hall of Fame: How 1992 Dream Team impacted 2023 class