The 2012 Olympics are set to begin in London. But as much as the Games are about celebrating our great athletes of today, they also carry the weight of history – the victories, defeats, historical markers (from the Nazis in 1936, to American fists raised in triumph and defiance in 1968, to the Israeli hostages in 1972, among others)—and non-stories such as the US and Russian boycotts.
As the Olympic wheels grind back into motion for this summer’s competitions, much attention has been focused on the basketball team that competed in and dominated the 1992 games. After a disappointing 1988 Olympics, where a group of elite college players lost to the Soviet Union and had to settle for bronze medals, plus the notion of amateur Olympic athletes growing more and more outdated, it was decided that the NBA – and America herself! – was shooting itself in the foot by not allowing its best players to compete.
So Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, John Stockton and Christian Laettner (the Duke forward serving as the one concession to the college player days) took the court to represent the United States and laid a gold-medal smackdown on all competition that has never been seen in the history of the Games.
How did the notion of using NBA players come about? How were the players selected? How were rivalries (between teams and individuals) put aside? How did all these guys get along? What did they all do every night while in Barcelona? Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum answers all these questions and much more in his new book, Dream Team.
Ultimately, as most everyone will grudgingly acknowledge, we’re talking about a game of running, jumping and putting an orb through a circular hoop. But in 1992, with the glory years of the Celtics/Lakers just behind and the dominance of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls just ahead, NBA basketball was arguably America’s most popular export to the world. And McCallum imbues his book with all the dramatic tension, historical qualifiers, and day-by-day details to make the creation and execution of the Dream Team a fascinating sports and human story.
It’s very helpful that the 12 players profiled comprise some of the most fascinating characters in NBA folklore, and all of the stories/legends/myths of each – Magic’s HIV status, Bird’s aching back, Mullins’ alcoholism, Barkley’s… well, pretty much everything to do with Sir Charles – are chronicled, analyzed and/or debunked. Each player gets several chapters devoted to his backstory, and McCallum doesn’t shy away from portraying the good and the bad.
McCallum was there in Barcelona for the entirety of the 1992 games, conducting interviews, watching the games and practices, and recording the banter (sometimes friendly, often not) between the players. In fact, there are so many extended direct quotes, it’s easy to wonder how he managed to capture it all (or, more cynically, how accurate those quotes are). In his defense, he went back and interviewed each player for their hindsight observations, which often provide far more enlightening perspective on the events as they unfolded.
McCallum also understands that the greatness of the Dream Team story was that it was about more than sports, it was an account of how a group of men who traveled 12 wildly different paths to the Mt. Everest of their chosen profession put aside past clashes, learned to work together, and united toward a common goal of victory for their country. It’s also about fame and the burden that hangs over someone whose persona is known and revered by millions—possibly billions—of people in hundreds of countries.
Dream Team begins in the ‘80s, when the first germinations of using pros in the Olympics began. The building blocks to a great project or enterprise rarely make for interesting reading, hence the notion that while sausage is wonderful, you don’t want to see it made. But because of the personalities involved and the global stage upon which they stood, Dream Team’s best passages often deal with to whom invitations were granted and, more salaciously, to whom they were not. And thankfully, McCallum doesn’t skimp on this subject, which comprised what was, by far, the biggest controversy of the Dream Team.
Anyone who followed professional basketball in the early ‘90s knew that Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were the best team in the league. However, they also knew that just prior to the Bulls first championship in 1991, Isiah Thomas, the Detroit Piston’s highly charismatic and electrifying point guard, was at the pinnacle of the NBA, winning the 1990 Finals MVP award in his team’s second consecutive world championship. Yet Isiah was conspicuously absent from the roster of the Dream Team, whose head coach was Thomas’ own in Detroit, Chuck Daly.
Dream Team thoroughly explores the ins and outs of why Isiah didn’t make the trip to Barcelona (bottom line: everyone thought he was a jerk), and that’s the reason Dream Team is so good: McCallum marries heavily detailed insider basketball lore with gripping, dish-y elements to tell a highly entertaining story.
The book also features a thrilling account of “The Greatest Game That Nobody Ever Saw”. After an exhibition warm-up match against France, in which the American players only won by 40 points, Daly eschewed his usual practice of dividing scrimmage teams by conference and instead sent Magic, Barkley, Robinson, Mullin and Laettner out to play Jordan, Malone, Ewing, Pippen and Bird (Drexler and Stockton were nursing injuries at the time).
Like a great play-by-play man, McCallum narrates virtually all of the plays, moves and baskets made in this scrimmage, and he provides an enlightening and entertaining account of the shit-talking that went on between the players. This practice game probably featured the highest concentration of sports talent ever assembled on one floor. Plus, the scrimmage represented the only time that any of the players were actually challenged the entire time they were overseas.
Since the actual matches between the US and their various opponents lacked for any real suspense, McCallum wisely focuses much of his attention on the interactions between the players. For many readers, particularly fans of sports books, Dream Team covers ground that has already been heavily trodden upon. Why do I need to spend my time and money on a book about guys that have been chronicled more deeply elsewhere? Particularly when ESPN is running its ubiquitously promoted “Dream Team” special?
Well, the answer is that when a sharper focus provides fresh perspectives, unique angles and plenty of new information, it’s worth the trip. Jack McCallum has provided sports fans with a wonderful and addictive account of athletes that we thought we already knew everything about. And even if you think you do, reliving it in McCallum’s savvy journalistic voice will provide immense pleasure.