SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Larry Bird had the last word in the debate between two great Olympic champions.
Bird stopped just short of calling his Dream Team the best squad ever assembled. But he seized on remarks by Jerry West to take a dig at their gold medal predecessors and fellow Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductees.
West had talked about the difficult conditions his team faced 50 years ago in Rome, when the players were housed in dorms without air conditioning and had a $1 per diem.
"I don't know who had the best team, but I know the team in 1960 was a hell of a lot tougher than we were," Bird said. "I couldn't imagine the '92 team getting in a covered wagon for eight days, going across the country, jumping in the Atlantic Ocean, swimming for six days, then walking 3,000 miles to the Coliseum in Rome for a dollar a day."
The members of the 1992 Olympic champions joined Bird on stage Friday at Symphony Hall, the final inductees of the night. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and the rest of the famed squad were Bird's teammates in his last competitive games, a powerful and popular group widely credited for the growth of international basketball.
"Pretty good way to go out, winning the gold medal," Bird said.
Fighting a bad back and nearing retirement, Bird had to be talked into playing in Barcelona by Johnson, his friend and a rival since their college days.
"I called your butt up and I said you're going to play, we need this thrill one more time," Johnson said.
The 1960 Olympians, a college team led by Oscar Robertson and West that was nearly as dominant as the Dream Team, were enshrined earlier in the ceremony.
"We were really special. It was wonderful," Robertson said. "It was great to be beside Jerry and all these guys. We had a great time."
Dream Teamers Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone also were inducted as individuals.
Pippen opened his acceptance speech by praising Jordan, his fellow six-time NBA champion from the Chicago Bulls for being "the best teammate."
"MJ, you have touched so many people's lives, but none quite like mine," Pippen said.
A little-known player from Central Arkansas when the Bulls got him in 1987, Pippen was the first player inducted. With Jordan standing nearby on stage as his presenter, Pippen said he would "cherish their relationship forever."
"Who knew that No. 23 would be here 23 years later presenting me to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame?" Pippen said.
The presenter does not speak, and Jordan also didn't speak when the Dream Team assembled on stage. His remarks last year during his enshrinement speech drew some criticism after he singled out individuals whose slights had provided him with motivation.
Malone struggled with his emotions throughout his speech, especially at the end when he recalled his mother, saying she had died seven years ago Friday.
"I'm here because of her," he said.
Malone also thanked late Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller for believing in him. Malone is a two-time MVP and second on the league's career scoring list, and said his success came from staying true to his Louisiana roots.
"I hope I did it the way my peers did it before me," Malone said. "I didn't do anything but try to play hard."
Cynthia Cooper, the first Hall of Famer from the WNBA, recalled a time when she lacked confidence in herself before going on to become the league's first star.
"Something special happens when you believe in yourself," she said. "Every time I stepped on the court, I wanted to be the best player, the best person I could be."
Coach Bob Hurley of St. Anthony's High School in New Jersey, and Lakers owner Jerry Buss also were inducted. Dennis Johnson, former Baltimore Bullets star Gus Johnson and Brazilian Maciel "Ubiratan" Pereira were enshrined posthumously.
Dennis Johnson, who died in 2007, was a favorite teammate of Bird's and respected for his tenacious defensive play. His wife, Donna, cried during a morning press conference at the Hall of Fame as she tried to offer thanks for her husband's long-awaited induction.
The focus this year was on teams more than individuals. All the living players from the 1960 champions were in Springfield, including Hall of Famers Walt Bellamy and Jerry Lucas.
West said he believed his group of college players that won its eight games in Rome by 42.4 points per game was "the greatest amateur team that ever played."
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about those days," West said. "The greatest thrill of my life was to win a gold medal, not to win an NBA championship."
Robertson, a co-captain of the team along with West, urged all players to take part in the Olympic experience if they have the chance.
"I think that any time an athlete gets an opportunity to play for your country, he should accept it," Robertson said.
Charles Barkley, the leading scorer in Barcelona, might agree. He called the summer of 1992 one of the greatest times of his life, and pointed to the Dream Team's 10 individual Hall of Famers as proof of its greatness.
So were the team's eye-popping stats: 117.3 points per game, a victory margin of 43.8 per game. Still, Barkley said it wasn't quite that easy.
"That was probably one thing that we never got credit for. It's easy to sit there and say you're going to win every game by 40 or 50 points, but we went out and actually did it," he said Friday morning during the press conference. "We knew we were going to win the games, but to play at such a high level the entire time was incredible."