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Books | Sports

July 2, 2012

Reliving the Dream Team

Author Jack McCallum shares what it was like to cover the world's most famous collection of athletes on their way to making history.

Jeremy Repanich

Twenty years after they won the gold in Barcelona, we're awash in a wave of nostalgia for the Dream Team. First there was the NBA TV documentary, then the oral history in GQ and now comes the book Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever by Jack McCallum. In this case, the last is certainly not the least. McCallum's book is an engrossing chronicle of not only the Dream Team, but that era of basketball.

McCallum with Charles Barkley in 2002. Photo Credit: Walter Iooss Jr
"Anyone with an objective sense of basketball history would tell you that this was the golden age of the NBA."

McCallum with Charles Barkley in 2002. Photo Credit: Walter Iooss Jr

McCallum wrote for Sports Illustrated for 30 years, covering the NBA during the reign of Magic, Bird and Jordan. His original reporting from back then allowed him to tell the story of the Dream Team without having to look through the gauzy lens of history, the way the NBA TV documentary occasionally does. Along with recounting the tales that contributed to the Dream Team's mythic status in sports, McCallum also doesn't shy away from covering the messy parts like the behind-the-scenes struggles with the USOC and players protecting their own commercial interests.

Gelf spoke with McCallum about the Dream Team's origin, the internal dynamics of the squad, what it was like to follow them closely at the time and how they represented the culmination of a "Golden Age" of basketball.

Gelf Magazine: Was there a Dream Team myth you wanted to puncture?

Jack McCallum: This wasn't the idea of David Stern after we lost the 1988 Olympics. I wanted to set the record straight—this was not the NBA's idea. This was the idea of a guy in FIBA named Boris Stankovic. I was there when Stankovic started talking about it and I was there when Stern kept saying "we have enough problems, what are we going to put pros in the Olympics for?" But once Stern got his hooks into it, he did maximize it.
I also wanted to know if this really was one big happy family. There were enough things that I tried to put in the narrative, Magic, being the captain and his "this is my team" attitude. Bird didn't get specific, but he was the only one who said that if they were together any longer, that they would have been like any other team; that there would have been bitching and moaning about playing time. But most of these guys looked upon this so positively that even for a cynical journalist it was hard to find guys complaining about anything. And why the hell should they, it was the greatest time in most of their lives.

Gelf Magazine: It sounds like the USOC did the most complaining. Do you remember them being pretty frustrating at the time?

Jack McCallum: Yes, in many little ways. You'd ask a question about the team and they'd moan, "Why are you wasting all this time covering these guys?" I sort of got it in one respect. This was the time every four years you paid attention to the gymnasts and swimmers. Because the Dream Team was at a different hotel and because they were superstars and sort of governed by USA Basketball, USOC didn't have the hold on them and if there's one thing an amateur bureaucrat needs it's a hold on somebody.

Gelf Magazine: The team dynamics you reveal were really fascinating, especially the hierarchy of Jordan, Magic and Bird.

Jack McCallum: When Dream Teamers talk about the other team members, there's no question Jordan is the Alpha Dog. But there was a kind of reverence attached to Bird that all of these guys have. They weren't saying he's better than Jordan or saying he's better than Magic. Magic was the captain of the team, the ceremonial captain, and Michael was the warrior captain. These guys all had this reverence toward Bird that very much interested me that they did not feel toward Magic. And the extent they felt it to Jordan, it was basketball related.

I think Bird surprised people with his personality. I think they thought he'd be a standoffish pain in the ass, but he's funny—one of the funniest people I've ever covered. He said a funny line to me. I didn't get to interview him until the last moment. I was going to have prostate cancer surgery and the book was done, it was in galleys and it was driving me nuts that I didn't have everybody. I made one final call out there to his assistant and I said "Tell Larry that I'm going to have prostate cancer surgery and if I die on the table, he'll be the last person I interview," and Bird gets on the phone and says "Well, that ain't no damn honor!" Two days later I flew out and we had a great interview.

Gelf Magazine: It feels lost to history how the team was constructed, especially the fact that they originally left Clyde Drexler off.

Jack McCallum: It was a big deal and I think in retrospect they were really stupid to have done it that way. The fact that they were going to pick 10 of 11 NBA players and then make somebody "audition for it" exacerbated all of the drama about Isiah being added and I think that was a mistake. No matter how much Clyde couches it, he was very pissed off in retrospect that he wasn't added.

Gelf Magazine: The other late add was Christian Laettner. Does he feel like he still has to justify his inclusion on the team?

Jack McCallum: I would think it's almost a cross to bear. He told me that he was a better NBA player because of it. He wasn't bad, but he had injuries and he just wasn't on the level of these other guys. But he'll tell you that this really helped him because his indoctrination to the NBA was a lot better than it would have been. Dream Team inclusion wasn't easy back then and 20 years later people can't remember why there was one college kid on there. Those who do remember say, "Why the hell wasn't Shaquille picked? He was fifty times better than Laettner." I totally defended Christian. He was one of the 15 greatest college players ever. He had paid the dues for USA Basketball. He was coming off two national championships. He had maximized his potential in a way that Shaq never did in college.

Gelf Magazine: A guy who risked exclusion for his behavior was Barkley. Why did he end up becoming the most important Dream Teamer to you?

Jack McCallum: We get over to Barcelona and the one thing you don't want to do is come across as an ugly America. There's already resentment about them, and the USOC is pissed off about this team, although the fans were in an absolute orgiastic exhilaration about these guys. The press was looking for things to write about them and first thing he does is elbow an Angolan. And he doesn't really apologize for it. He claims that the guy elbowed him. I told him "Charles, you're full of crap." But by the end of the games, he's met more people than any single Olympian. Everybody wanted to talk to him. He went out every night on the Ramblas and people saw him and to a certain extent Charles really mitigated the standoffishness of the team. He almost singlehandedly became an ambassador for them.

Gelf Magazine: Did that really increase Barkley's popularity when he returned? And how did being on the team affect other Dream Teamers?

Jack McCallum: Absolutely. Guys told me this experience improved them as basketball players. That was one of the most surprising things I heard. Michael didn't tell me that and Larry and Magic were at the end by then, but Barkley, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Stockton, Malone and Chris Mullin told me that just the experience of playing with the team gave them not only basketball tips, but it gave them confidence. "Hey, I'm a Dream Teamer. I just played with the best team that ever was, and I was good on it."

Gelf Magazine: You've called the Olympic qualifying tournament in Portland the last pure moment for the team, was that your favorite time with them?

Jack McCallum: That was one of the greatest seven or eight days of my career. My family came out, my kids were at an age when they were watching these guys and the USOC had not quite officially taken command of them so we had good interaction and access. It was the first time they played together so you could really pay attention to the games and you could say, "Wow, there's Scottie Pippen setting a back screen to free Mullin—who knew they were going to do that?" You could watch Pippen and Jordan in tandem on defense. You could watch Charles maneuver his way and really see how good he was. After that, the games really don't stick out that much to me. The first time these guys came out together is one of the great moments that I've had. It was just the idea that you had all this build-up and now it's happening and when they played together they were really good. They really tried, they really wanted to play with honor, play it hard, not insult their opponents by half-assing it or throwing bounce passes. They didn't do that crap. They didn't turn it into the All-Star Game.

Gelf Magazine: Why write about the Dream Team 20 years later and not back then?

Jack McCallum: I was actually going to do a book then. I had a contract and halfway through the people didn't want to do it anymore. Believe it or not, the guy who signed me was so dumb that he thought somehow that the team would be together the whole year. To do it now, honestly, wasn't even my idea. I was too dumb to think of it myself, it was the idea of an editor at Random House. It seemed natural to do it now. After 20 years guys had gained perspective and fortunately for me, they're still in the mainstream.

Gelf Magazine: The story you tell isn't just about the team's time together though. The book is almost more a history of that era of basketball that led to the Dream Team.

Jack McCallum: Barcelona was great, don't get me wrong. But, to me, that just seemed like sort of a boring story—we went out and beat Croatia tonight by 30 tonight, we beat Lithuania too—it didn't seem there was enough there. In order to get at these guys, you needed to tell the story of how they became what they were. I thought this would be a good way to take what I like to call a really rich snapshot of the guys, which culminated with the Dream Team and the drama after Barcelona. How much they fell apart when they came back to the states. So it struck me to tell the whole story. It would have been boring to just tell about the time they were together.

Plus the fact that this was by far the most interesting era of basketball. That's easy to say, "I was there, therefore it was interesting." But anyone with an objective sense would tell you that this was the golden age of the NBA.

Gelf Magazine: Did that allow you to put in details from your SI reporting that you didn't get into stories before?

Jack McCallum: It did. Going back to my old notebooks I got a chance to fill in things I didn't get to write back then. I started reading my old stories starting in 1984-85 about these guys and thought, "this is actually what's interesting." How did Jordan become Jordan? What was the Jordan-Drexler rivalry? What kind of trouble was Barkley in before Barcelona—how hard was it for the committee to pick him?

As for the games, this was the most famous team in history, but this was the pre-internet age so when I went to Barcelona personally, had there been an SI.com, I probably would have filed two blogs per day and then a story. As it was, I didn't even write that much from Barcelona. I wrote a story about some bullshit thing about their picture captions. I wrote what was almost a Magic Q&A and then a story about Charles on the Ramblas. Honestly, there wasn't really that much else to write. We couldn't see practices and you couldn't get in the locker rooms, so these little things you didn't get a chance to do.

Gelf Magazine: Had Barkley been on Las Ramblas today, everyone would have Instagram'd, Tweeted and posted videos to YouTube. You may not have had the chance to write that story as a great narrative in a magazine. Everyone would have already known.

Jack McCallum: There would be literally live feeds of Barkley on Las Ramblas from the Olympics. The fact I was able to get there and we were able to get some photos and they weren't everywhere in the world before they were in SI wouldn't happen now. I was lucky to have really covered this in the pre-internet age. Jordan and these guys, no matter what they say, loved being on the cover of Sports Illustrated—it meant something to them. So I had a lot of access to them because of the power of Sports Illustrated. That was the last age where there was an implicit understanding among the athletes that they should cooperate. They wouldn't get pissed off if you wrote one sentence in a 500-word thing that they didn't like. You could go back to them, trust them; you had a relationship. I was lucky to have been in sports journalism during that time because now that kind of intimacy just really doesn't exist.

Gelf Magazine: The access seemed crazy to me. I mean, you're hanging out backstage on Saturday Night Live while Jordan hosts and having dinner and cracking wise with Karl Malone.

Jack McCallum: I played golf with Barkley and Drexler in Monte Carlo too.

Gelf Magazine: Could you feel that access slipping away and the tide turning with the 1994 World Championship "Nightmare Team"?

Jack McCallum: I definitely did. It was right around that time, and I believe it was Shaq's rookie year. I sensed a difference in the generation. Part of it was my fault, I was 42 or 43 and I didn't feel like they were my guys. I felt like it was a generation coming along that thought, "here's what Jordan did, I want that now."

I've said this line a million times, but the greatest thing about Jordan and most of those guys is that they were better than their hype. The generation after was not invested in helping the league the same way Magic, Michael and, in his own way, Bird did. Magic and Bird saved the league, that's no exaggeration. These younger guys came into an NBA that was healthy and thought "What do we need to be invested in the league for? The NBA is making a billion dollars."

Gelf Magazine: Should they ditch the Dream Team concept and go with a U-23 team?

Jack McCallum: I don't care. It's not that I don't care about the subject. I mean, half of what Mark Cuban says I roll my eyes at, but when he started saying, "Why the hell did I want to send Dirk Nowitzki over to play for freaking Germany for eight weeks, have him be tired and have him not really round into shape until January?" I really got that. So if they've come to the point in the league that they've decided that it's not quite worth it, I don't have a problem with it. If they do same thing and LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Durant are going to play in this World Cup and they were just not doing the Olympics for profit motive—which is what seems to be going on because the NBA is going to have more of a say with this World Cup competition—then I might look at it a little differently.

Gelf Magazine: How would the Dream Team do against today's international competition, when teams are more interested in beating the US instead of having their pictures taken with them?

Jack McCallum: They would still win. Would they have to play harder? Sure, but you have to understand, they played these games with Jordan playing 16 minutes. And they were playing also with Larry and Magic, who were not in their prime. Pippen and Jordan were tandem defenders like there never were. Robinson and Ewing are still more skilled big men than they would have today. So instead of 40-point victories, they'd have 15 to 20-point victories. Once Michael Jordan started to win in the NBA, he never lost, so there's no reason to think he'd lose against these international opponents.

Jeremy Repanich

Jeremy Repanich is a writer for Sports Illustrated Kids.







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Article by Jeremy Repanich

Jeremy Repanich is a writer for Sports Illustrated Kids.

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