Book Review: “Dream Team” by Jack McCallum
I was one of those millions of kids around the world who was awestruck and inspired from watching the Dream Team — the first US Olympic basketball team featuring NBA players — obliterate their opponents at the 1992 Barcelona games. Oh sure, I didn’t quite make the NBA like Dirk Nowitzki or even Pau Gasol, superstars who credited their careers to the Dream Team, but my love for the game grew exponentially after seeing these 11 Hall of Famers (in particular legends Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) plus one college legend (Christian Laettner) take the floor together.
I didn’t totally grasp the significance of the Dream Team back then, but the recent 20 year anniversary (which coincided with the team’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a collective unit) reignited my interest in the historic team (especially as there was a plethora of articles and documentaries dedicated to them).
If you love basketball, or even just sports in general, then I would highly recommend Jack McCallum’s 2012 non-fiction book Dream Team (which has a super long subtitle: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever). McCallum is a Sports Illustrated veteran who was one of the privileged reporters who managed to get up close and personal with all members of the Dream Team when they were in Barcelona. The book is unique not only because of McCallum’s front-row access at the time, but also because he re-interviewed all of them again, nearly 20 years later, on how they look back upon that experience from where they are today.
It’s a book that, apart from the obvious reasons, could not have been written shortly after the Olympics, or even 10 years ago. Writing the book 20 years later — as their careers ended and the Kobes and LeBrons entered the league — provides the just the right amount of perspective on how the team has gone down in history. The original Dream Team (there really only should be one) is compared and contrasted with the US basketball teams that would follow, and it makes you realize that there has never been anything like this immense collection of special talent (on and off the court) and there never will be again. It was particularly amazing to read about how the play of these 12 basketball players in Barcelona inspired a whole new generation of ballers from around the world.
The tone of such a book is undoubtedly difficult to get right — but McCallum does it. His writing style is effortless and easy to read, and the story is told straight — without hyperbole or excessive sentimentality — but infused with a healthy dose of nostalgia, making the book at times poignant and even goosebump-inducing. Bill Simmons’ legendary and encyclopedic Book of Basketball, one of my all-time faves, is a massive book filled with tiny nuggets of gold. Dream Team, on the other hand, is one giant nugget with many more tiny nuggets growing out of it. Having seen several documentaries and read many articles about the Dream Team I thought I knew it all, but there were so many fascinating tidbits and anecdotes in this book, described as vividly as though they happened yesterday. Every quote is a gem that unveils something about that person’s character — it could confirm some preconceptions you may have had, or it could contradict your biases against them.
It’s not a gut-bustingly funny book like say the Book of Basketball, but McCallum does have a razor-sharp wit and there will probably be a lot of chuckles and smiling shakes of the head as you read some of the vignettes he recreates on paper.
The book is broken down into 36 chapters of varying lengths plus a number of interludes that provide mini-profiles of the Dream Teamers. The narrative thread, at first glance, feels like it jumps around aimlessly, though once you get into it it becomes clear that a lot of thought went into planning the structure and the pieces eventually fall together to build a complete portrait of the team and its parts.
Naturally, the three biggest stars of the team, Jordan, Magic and Bird, get the most attention, but every member of the team has their moments, including the late great coach Chuck Daly. Parts of the book are dedicated to the history of how the team is out together, including the man behind the idea of having NBA pros playing in the “amateur” Olympics, the man warmly referred to as the “Inspector of Meat.”
Various other sections focus on Isiah Thomas, the HOF Detroit Pistons guard whose remarkable skills should have landed him on the Dream Team, but whose penchant for burning bridges and his icy relationship with the top dog, Jordan, denied him a place in history. But if you want to know exactly how all this stuff went down, you just have to read the book.
And of course, there’s the ancillary stuff, like the money, bureaucracy and squabbles, as well as security concerns surrounding the team’s presence in Barcelona. All of this is dealt with in the book, or at least craftily touched upon.
My favourite chapter of the book is the blow-by-blow (in the competitive sense, not the Wilt Chamberlain sense) account of the scrimmage between the Dream Teamers in Monte Carlo before the Olympics, a game McCallum described as the “greatest game nobody ever saw.” Guys like Jordan and Magic have called it the greatest game they have ever been a part of. Just imagine it — 10 (2 guys were injured) future HOFers and alpha dogs duking it out for ultimate bragging rights. I would give my right ball to have watched that game in person, but reading McCallum’s brilliant account of it isn’t half bad either.
I learned a thing or two about each of the Dream Teamers from reading this book. I didn’t realize how badly Magic Johnson was refusing to give up his throne to Jordan, even though he had just been handed what was believed back then to be a death sentence by becoming infected with HIV (annoyingly referred to as the AIDS virus by McCallum a few times). I forgot that John Stockton broke his leg in the team’s first outing (before the Olympics) and barely played in the games. I found out that Karl Malone was pretty much a black redneck who had no qualms with speaking his mind, for better or worse. I was fascinated to read about the team’s most controversial and possibly “best” player, Charles Barkley, being Charles Barkley. I was astonished to discover that Chris Mullin was an alcoholic for most of his life and it wasn’t until he got sober that he took his game to a new level. I never knew David Robinson was such a saint (he really is) but also an outcast because he’s too intelligent. I had no idea that Clyde Drexler was the last NBA player added onto the roster, a fact he resents, and that he also believes he is as good as Jordan. I gained a few insights into Scottie Pippen as a player and his relationship with Jordan, and his hatred towards Tony Kukoc because the Bulls held off giving him a multimillion dollar extension so they could sign the talented Croat. I was amused by Patrick Ewing’s unlikely friendship with Larry Bird, as they became the odd couple known as “Harry and Larry.” Of course, there’s also the college kid who never could fit in, Christian Laettner, who actually beat out Shaquille O’Neal (then in college) for the final roster spot, and turns out was quite the pratty dickhead back in those days.
The book’s descriptions of Larry Bird confirmed what I have come to appreciate (especially in the last few years): that while Jordan may be the greatest player of all time, Bird is the greatest f%*&ing legend to have ever lived. It’s not just his play, but the bravado, the trash talking, the wisecracks, the one-liners, the team-first mentality, and the genuine humility he radiates, even if he did love to ask McCallum regularly whether he has “blown Magic yet.”
Last but not least — well, Jordan is just Jordan, the man whose endless energy baffled even his fellow Dream Teamers. This was someone who could play cards all night until 6am in the morning, go play 36 holes of golf and come back just in time to catch the team bus to the game venue, and put up 20 points and shut down the opponent’s best player without batting an eyelid.
Most of all, I learned about the amount of respect they all had for one another, for their opponents, and most of all, for the game of basketball. That’s what made them so great. The greatest.
I devoured this 384-page book in four days (60% of it on a day where I caught two short flights and a handful of public transport), which is miraculous for me considering how little time I have to read on most days. It’s a testament to what a page-turner this book is.