Jack McCallum, Author of Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, is joining the conversation during today’s guest spot. His book focuses on how the Olympic team 20 years ago changed the way we view the NBA forever.
Be sure to join the conversation at 3pm to see what Jack McCallum has to say.
Excerpted from Dream Team by Jack McCallum Copyright (c) 2012 by Jack McCallum. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“You have a tape?” Michael Jordan asks. “Of that game?”
“I do,” I say.
“Man, everybody asks me about that game,” he says. “It was the most fun I ever had on a basketball court.”
It is reflective of the enduring legend of the Dream Team, arguably the most dominant squad ever assembled in any sport, that we are referring not to a real game but to an intrasquad scrimmage that the Dreamers played in Monte Carlo before the 1992 Olympic Games. The United States engaged in fourteen games in that summer two decades gone— six in a pre- Olympic qualifying tournament and eight as they breezed to the gold medal in Barcelona— and the closest any opponent came was a fi ne Croatia team, which lost by 32 points in the gold medal fi nal. The common matrices of statistical comparison, you see, are simply not relevant in the case of the Dream Team, whose members could be evaluated only when they played one another.A video of that game is the holy grail of basketball, and the account of it is here, in Chapter 28.A perfect storm hit Barcelona in the summer of the Dream Team. Everything came together. The team members were almost exclusively NBA veterans at or near the apex of their individual fame. The world, having been offered only bite- sized nuggets of NBA games, was waiting for them, since Barcelona was the first Olympics in which professional basketball players were allowed to compete. They were a star- spangled export for a country that still held a position of primacy around the world.
It couldn’t have been scripted any better, and when the Dreamers finally released all that star power into a collective effort, the show was better than everyone thought it would be … and everyone had thought it would be pretty damn good. They were Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, Santana at Woodstock. “If it would’ve happened today,” says Larry Bird, “it would’ve been one of those reality shows.”
The names (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley) remain familiar to fans two decades later, their cultural relevancy quotient still quite high. It’s not just that an engaging Dream Teamer who’s now an A- list TV star partially inspired Danger Mouse and Cee Lo Green to christen their hip- hop duo Gnarls Barkley. Or that Magic Johnson (Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kanye West), Scottie Pippen (Jay- Z), Karl Malone (the Transplants), and Michael Jordan (impossible to count the references) have been subjects in song. Consider this: the name of John Stockton, a buttoned- down, no- nonsense point guard, is on a track in a 2011 release by Brooklyn rapper Nemo Achida, and the popular NBA 2K12 video game features Jordan, Magic, and Bird on the box cover, not contemporary players such as LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, and Derrick Rose.
The Dream Teamers are never far from the news, even the crime news. Not long ago a convict tattooed Jordan’s Jumpman logo onto his forehead, and an accused rapist in Arkansas, in an interview after he was captured, described his run from the cops this way: “I was like Michael Jordan, man. Gone!” An armed robber asked that his sentence be increased from thirty years to thirty- three years to honor Larry Bird’s number.
Yet the written record of that team and that time is not particularly large. The Dream Team, like the dinosaurs, walked the earth in the pre- social- media age. Beyond newspaper stories, there is no detailed daily log of their basketball activities (“Bird shot around today but his back is sore”) and no enduring exclamations of chance meetings around Barcelona (“OMG, jst met ChazBark at bar & he KISSED me on cheek; hez not rlly fat LOL”). There is much of the story to be told in the fresh light of history.
There is little doubt that the Dream Team, like that red- hairedlass you met years ago at a pub in Dublin, looks better in the soft- focus blur of nostalgia. “This is now the Dream Team of blessed memories,” says NBA commissioner David Stern. “They were the guy with the piccolo and the scrappy band of revolutionaries marching off to war. They forget Charles elbowing the Angolan, Michael and the others covering up their logo, the cries of ‘Why are we sending these teams? You’re just trying to humiliate the other nations.’ Over the years it’s become beatified.”
None of that is forgotten in these pages, Mr. Stern. The Dream Team was indeed forged amid conflicts athletic and bureaucratic and touched by tragedy and controversy when it returned home after an Olympics that, yes, was layered in a gauzy romanticism. All that is part of the story. The book is in fact a panoptic survey of that entire generation, in large part because the members of the Dream Team represented the central characters in the compelling drama of pro basketball from the mid- 1980s to the early 1990s, a golden age for the NBA that ended when the fairy- tale world of the Dream Team itself ended in August 1992.
The narrative unfolds in roughly (emphasis on roughly) chronological fashion. It struck me as crucial to give definition to the players before they were Dream Teamers— Michael Jordan as the young hero of the 1984 Olympics, Scottie Pippen as the neophyte struggling to play alongside his infinitely more famous Chicago Bulls teammate, Charles Barkley as the unbridled wild child, and, of course, the 1980s rivalry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Then, too, the selection process— how the team came together— is in some ways more riveting than the games themselves. It was political theater, a kind of convention without the pom- poms, a process in which backstabbing and rivalries current and ancient all played a part.
But it was also important to provide glimpses of the players as they are now, some in their hometowns (Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, Spokane), some in their places of business (Charlotte and Orlando). These are defined as “interludes.” So there are stops and starts to the narrative, which emerges as more like a Magic yo- yo dribble than a Barkley straight- ahead, bowl- over- any- obstacle dash to the hoop.
Like all of us, in later life they have found failure, some as husbands or fathers, others as coaches, general managers, or businessmen. But from a basketball perspective they approached perfection. They are history writ large, the greatest team of all time by such a wide margin, says Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson, who coached against them in the Olympics, “that I can’t even think of who’s in second place.”
The best barometer of what this team meant to history is limned by the words of one of its most prominent members, a man who won five NBA championships, three MVP awards, one NCAA title, and an untold number of popularity contests.
“For me, the Dream Team is number one of anything I’ve donein basketball,” says Magic Johnson, “because there will never be another team like it. There can’t be.”