Sources of Joy: Jack McCallum on the Dream Team

This year’s Olympics are drawing to a close, and the United States appears on its way toward garnering the most gold medals as well as the most medals overall.

Tomorrow the men’s basketball team, headlined by MVP LeBron James, scoring champion Kevin Durant, All-World point guard Chris Paul and an aging but still dangerous Kobe Bryant, will take on Spain in a rematch of the scintillating 2008 final contest for the gold and in an effort to add to the national medal haul.

There is some concern in American circles about the potential damage Spain’s frontline, which features brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, could do to the U.S. front court which only has Tyson Chandler as a legitimate center.

That their rivals have no fear of the United States and consider themselves capable of beating the defining Olympic champions is neither news nor a surprise.

Indeed, it’s been that way for at least a decade, when Argentina handed the U.S. its first of three consecutive defeats while using professional players.

But it was not always so.

Twenty years ago, in Barcelona, the “Dream Team” dominated its opponents by an average of 44 points on its way to reclaiming the gold medal after the last squad of amateurs coached by John Thompson earned only a bronze in the 1988 games held in Seoul.

Hall of Fame sportswriter Jack McCallum was in Barcelona that glorious summer, and had covered the NBA for years before while working for Sports Illustrated.  He golfed, drove, caroused and, oh yes, attended the practices and games played by the team stacked with 11 Hall of Famers and coached deftly by the late Chuck Daly.

As such, McCallum was in an ideal, if not unique, position to take us behind the scenes and show us the selection process, the players’ careers before they joined the team, the build up to the tournaments and the time in Barcelona as well as updates about where they all are now.

Fortunately for us, in Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, he does just that.

McCallum pays tribute to Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons in the acknowledgments, and, beyond his inclusion of quotes from The Book of Basketball, Simmons’ 700-page tome on the game, Simmons’ impact can be seen in the perspective McCallum brings to his work.

I had previously read and written about Second Seconds or Less, McCallum’s chronicle of the 2006-2007 Phoenix Suns season.  Like Dream Team, that work had plenty of intimate moments.

But Dream Team differs from the earlier work in three different respects.  It’s a slice in time, rather than a more integrated look at the players’ lives. McCallum himself is more present in the work.  And, because of this, while it doesn’t go so far as Simmons’ defining himself essentially as a fun, it’s easy to see and feel just how much fun McCallum had during this unique experience.

The pleasure the author conveys  at this, yes, dream assignment is one of the most aspects the book has to recommend it.

McCallum addresses the question of why Isaiah Thomas was left off the team-after years of public denials, Michael Jordan admitted that he had said he would not play if Thomas was on the squad-gives us a blow-by-blow description and box score of the legendary scrimmage at Monte Carlo in which Jordan asserted his dominance as the team’s true alpha male, and shows us what each person brought to the team’s experience on and off the court. He also sprinkles in plenty of personal nuggets about the players that basketball lifers are guaranteed to gnaw on for years.

For example, he writes about his conversation with Jordan in which he gingerly raises the issue of his father’s murder in 1993 and asks the consensus greatest player of all time if he might need help (Unsurprisingly, Jordan says no, but his answer has an unexpected element.).

He shares Charles Barkley’s tactics for rolling around Las Ramblas while attracting a crowd but without having an incident.

And he describes Chris Mullin’s reaction to tieing his idol Bird in a post-practice game of H-O-R-S-E.

Bird is an intriguing presence throughout the work.

One can feel McCallum’s visceral admiration of his grit, his intelligence and his authenticity.  At three or four points in the book, he uses the structure of saying  that Bird’s actions do not make a war hero, but they are impressive nonetheless.
He even writes that while Magic Johnson had a better overall career than his arch-rival, Bird generated more spectacular plays.

He also had a deeper acceptance that his and Johnson’s run at the game’s peak had come to an end and Jordan’s had begun.  Ever the realist, Bird also speaks in the book’s final chapter that the much-vaunted team harmony in which stars accepted reduced minutes was starting to fray by the time the final game arrived.

McCallum’s update chapter contain some of his most elegant writing, with the one about Thomas, who he describes as a lightning rod who produced two championships and so many magic moments, being perhaps the most poignant.
The section highlights McCallum’s ability to seamlessly bring together the game, the player and his life trajectory.

We’ll see tomorrow if LeBron, Durant and company can fulfill their golden destiny by again defeating their Spanish opponents.

Whatever the result, true hoops fans will be well rewarded for the time they put in reading Jack McCallum’s Dream Team.

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One response to “Sources of Joy: Jack McCallum on the Dream Team

  1. Well, we have another gold! I hope you had a chance to see some of the game. I’ve read of McCallum’s book and am intrigued. I read his Seven Seconds or Less after you blogged about it, and I loved it. I toyed with the idea of buying Dream Team even though it’s in hard cover, but I guess I’ll have to wait. Speaking of Olympic reading, have you seen The John Carlos Story by David Zirin? I haven’t yet but it looks very promising.

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