It’s been almost 28 years since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics where the original Dream Team dominated the competition in an unforgettable fashion and won the gold medal.
But with NBA superstars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird expectedly dominating the competition in Badalona there is still much talk who should had filled the lone Dream Team roster spot reserved for a college player? The USA Basketball Board eventually named Duke’s power forward Christian Laettner to the team.
Back then, at the very beginning of the 1990s, the only NCAA player who could straight up outplay Laettner each and every time they faced was the LSU center – Shaquille O’Neal.
However, faced with an incredibly tough decision, the Board choose Laettner for a number of reasons:
-he led his collegian team to a couple of consecutive NCAA championship titles (1991, 1992)
-he was voted as the National College Player of the Year in 1992
-he stayed at college all four years and graduated
-in the case of injury during the tournament he could cover both forward and the center position
-he was considerably better outside and free-throw shooter than O’Neal; this ability was an asset when facing the top international competition
-one of the Dream team’s assistant coaches was Laettner’s collegian coach Mike Krzyzewski, who previously coached the USA in the 1987 World University Games and 1990 FIBA World Championship
But Laettner, a member of the 1990 USA basketball team at the World Championship in Argentina, had a quiet showing in Barcelona – coming in from the end of the bench he played the total of 61 minutes in 8 games, and thus recorded the totals of 38 points, 20 rebounds, 8 steals and 3 blocked shots.
This eventually heated the rumors on why blue-collar Laettner was invited over unstoppable O’Neal. Two decades later, back in 2012 Shaq finally addressed the choice
“I was pissed off. I was jealous. 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.”Shaquille O’Neal, Sports Radio Interviews
Now, in The Last Dance aftermath Shaq gave an exclusive interview to the Da Windy City Podcast in which he stated that Laettner was better player than him in collegian ranks.
“Christian Laettner was better than me in college. He really was so I’m not going to cry about that. Fundamentally he was better. He had a bigger impact at Duke than I had at LSU. I’m just going to go on the record and say that. He earned it fair and square, I’m not going to say I should have been cause Duke was winning championships, I was getting knocked it out in the first or second round, therefore he was a better player than I was.”Shaquille O’Neal, Da Windy City Podcast
Shaq’s dominated Laettner throughout his entire NBA career. Overall, Shaq’s teams won 17 out of 19 games vs. Laettner’s teams. In those games Shaq Diesel averaged 28.4ppg on 56.1 shooting from the field, to go along with 12.7 boards, 2.8 assists, and 2.8 blocked shots. In contrast, Laettner averaged 13.2 points on 44.6 shooting from the field, to go along with 7.1 boards, 2.5 assists, and 1.2 blocks per game.
Today, we can only imagine Shaq playing with the original Dream Team, eventually forming a ‘twin towers’ combination with Patrick Ewing or David Robinson, and dominating in the middle. Just imagine all those boards and swats leading up to even more effective fastbreaks led by Magic, MJ, or Sir Charles.
Shaq finally got his chance to shine on the international stage at the 1994 FIBA World championship in Canada. There he averaged 18ppg and 8.5rpg while convincingly leading the tournament in field goal percentage, shooting an outstanding 71.3% from the field!
The Dream Team II won the gold medal and O’Neal was voted to the All-Tournament team alongside Sergei Bazarevich (Russia), Dino Radja (Croatia), and teammates Reggie Miller and Shawn Kemp.