Charles Barkley and Jack McCallum in Miami, 2002. Photo by Walter Iooss.
Twenty years ago, the greatest collection of basketball talent came together as one unit known as the Dream Team. For the first time, superstar American NBA players were part of the Olympics, which happened to coincide with the greatest era the league has ever known. Two decades on, you recognize the names on the back of the USA jerseys: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Chris Mullin,Â PatrickÂ Ewing, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, and (yes, really) Christian Laettner. Former Pistons coach Chuck Daly led the squad to a gold medal, demolishing teams as literal world-beaters, winning by an average of 44 points a game.
Jack McCallumÂ had a courtside seat for all of it, including late night Spanish revelry with Americaâ€™s beloved drunken uncle, Sir Charles Barkley. He tells the incredible story of the incredible squad in his new bookÂ Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever.Â McCallum,Â Sports Illustratedâ€™sÂ main NBA guyÂ from 1984 through the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, spent years writing about the guys who would become the Dream Team. His vast collection of knowledge, access, and anecdotes -- starting with aÂ crass Larry Bird fellatio joke, and taking flight from there -- makes this the authoritative work on the hardwood superpower. He joins us here for an in-depth Q&A.
What was the process for putting "Dream Team"Â together? Did you have all your old notes, articles, recordings, or was a lot from memory?
You can trust your memory a little bit, say five percent, but your mind plays tricks on you. YouÂ donâ€™tÂ remember, that was an important rule I had to follow, so getting interviews with all the guys from the team was the key thing. Itâ€™s a journalistic enterprise and wrangling the players dominated the process, so most of my angst was trying to get ahold of them. Itâ€™s not like I could say, "Monday Iâ€™m going to talk to Jordan, Tuesday Iâ€™ll get Bird..." So while I was doing that, I went back in and filled the holes, read every story I had written about these guys. Fortunately,Â Sports IllustratedÂ is a front-runnerâ€™s magazine, so I had spent most of my time from â€™84 to '92 writing about Jordan, Magic, Bird, Barkley...Chris Mullin was the only one I hadnâ€™t spent a lot of time on because he wasnâ€™t always on winning teams.
I got a lot of information from two books,Â Sam Smithâ€™s "The Jordan Rules"Â andÂ Jackie MacMullanâ€™s "When the Game Was Ours." Newspapers ran game stories and box scores, but the archival stuff wasnâ€™t that great.Â The New York TimesÂ andÂ The Boston GlobeÂ were useful, but there werenâ€™t that many people who covered the Dream Team from start to finish as I did. While gathering all this, I was talking to other people who were part of it, like NBA Commissioner David Stern. I ended up doing around 75 interviews, so that was a hell of a lot of the material right there. Of course, I had to check their memories as well.
From the beginning of the interviewing, how long did "Dream Team"Â take to put together?
Two years. I started in 2010, one of the first interviews was with Boris Stankovic, a former meat inspector [turned president of FIBA, theÂ International Basketball Federation]Â from Belgrade who played a key role in getting American pros into the Olympics. Originally, I handed it in July 2011, but I didnâ€™t consider "Dream Team"Â done until February 2012 because thatâ€™s when I finally got Larry Bird to talk. It was in galleys, but I had to add the Bird stuff. I felt speaking to every member of the Dream Team was essential.
"Dream Team"Â isnâ€™t a memoir, but you do pop up here and there. What was the reason you chose to include yourself as a character in the book?
The first thing I wrote was the prologue, which included Birdâ€™s X-rated reference to me as I got a photo with the team right before the gold medal game, "Hey Jack, later on, you wanna blow us?" I used that particular story because I wanted to set a certain tone. Everyone liked it, and an editor said, "You canâ€™t help but put yourself in it because you were along for the ride." Few people were lucky enough to be in that position. I let readers use my eyes. Selfishly, it also let me interject my opinions, like when I said Michael Jordan was dismissive of Harvey Gantt for saying "Republicans buy sneakers, too." I felt I earned my voice a little bit being there during this era. I donâ€™t love first-person books, and I am really hesitant to put myself in books, but it seemed necessary in this case. Plus, there were a lot of gaps I filled in that the guys on the team didnâ€™t know.
Having your voice in there makes "Dream Team"Â more than a book about the 1992 Olympics; itâ€™s a summation of an incredible period in the NBA.
One of my early worries was that the publisher and everyone involved would think that the most interesting part of my experience was Barcelona. To me, that was the most uninteresting part. It occurred to me to write what led up to the Dream Team and then the postscript. At one point, I said to my wife, "Holy shit, Iâ€™m up to page 133 and they havenâ€™t dribbled a ball together yet." I had access to these guys before and after Barcelona. Yes, some of the scenes in the book are recreations that came out of interviews, but I had firsthand knowledge from a lot of years covering the NBA. You canâ€™t beat that.
In the book, you say that your best moment came prior to the first exhibition game in Portland, Oregon, â€śwatching the team jog out.â€ť How much did that have to do with the fact that the Dream Team was so dominant that the games werenâ€™t remotely competitive?
It had a lot to do with it. That particular moment was special because my wife and two sons were there, and they didnâ€™t go to Barcelona, but I also remember thinking when they all came out together,Â this is it. Yes, I was sure they would win gold -- maybe not by 40 points a game -- but I had a sense then and there that nothing would beat seeing the Dream Team together for the first time in Portland.
Did the way the Dream Team dominated the games affect the way you structured the book, weaving stories in-and-out, mixing up the chronology?
The trickiest part of writing the book was finding a way to logically incorporate todayâ€™s interviews. I tired to find points to leap off from the past to bring it into the present. Take Jordan for instance, I used a card game back in Barcelona where the guys were trash-talking one another, and Magic kept going on about how he and Bird had the competitive history together. Jordan knew he never did have an equal, which lead to the 2011 interview where he discusses the differences between him and Magic today.
Is there a reason not every player has their own present-day â€śInterludeâ€ť as you call them?
I couldnâ€™t find enough interesting things to say about a few of them. In retrospect, it bothers me a bit that there arenâ€™t twelve set pieces, but why should the reader have to get through four pages ofÂ PatrickÂ Ewing if he doesnâ€™t have anything to add? I started out that way, but after reading his, it sounded like a "Catching Up withÂ PatrickÂ Ewing" newspaper story. Same with Karl Malone. They're in the book in other places, but their stuff wasnâ€™t up to the level of the other interludes.
I thought just about every guy, more or less, was the same guy we thought they were twenty years ago, except for Scottie Pippen. From my general fan standpoint, his stature grew as a result of this book more than anyone else.
Thatâ€™s how I felt about him too. I didnâ€™t know him all that well. I think he looked at me as one of those guys who favored Jordan and always wrote about Jordan, which happens to be the truth. It was the way to go at the time, but Pippen was right. He was the first guy Dream Team member I interviewed for the book, and the way he opened up and talked about the tough times in his life, I fell in love with the guy. And then everyone I talked to about him said good things. Grant Hill, who was part of the college squad that scrimmaged the Dream Team, went on and on about how nice Pippen was to him. Everyone had him in a positive light, which was a surprise to me. If Pippen hadnâ€™t talked to me, and others hadnâ€™t backed it up, he wouldnâ€™t have emerged the way he does in "Dream Team." Thatâ€™s why you interview people and donâ€™t totally depend on your own memory. Journalism 101.
One guy who didnâ€™t make the team, but plays a major part in the book is Isiah Thomas, who comes off as kind of a tragic figure.
Just so weâ€™re clear, tragic isÂ yourÂ word [laughs]. When I finished the book, I was concerned there was too much Isiah, but Iâ€™m amazed about how him not being on the team is still an issue. I tried to balance him against John Stockton, who brought Isiah up with him when he went into the Hall of Fame, but yes, I think the arc of his career would have been different had he been on the team. Isiah was a fantastic clutch player who won two championships in â€™89 and â€™90, and nothing good happened to him professionally after that. He didnâ€™t make the Dream Team, he stormed off the court when the Bulls finally beat them, he blew out his Achilles, keeping him out of the 1994 World Championships, he dragged the Continental Basketball Association into bankruptcy, screwed up the Knicks... Itâ€™s like not getting on the Dream Team arced him downward. The irony is -- as Bill Laimbeer pointed out -- had it been two years earlier, it would have been impossible to keep Isiah off the team. He turned into a semi-tragic figure, which Isiah would say is too strong, but thatâ€™s how his career went after the Dream Team exclusion.
On the flip side, nobodyâ€™s career arc benefited more from being on the Dream Team thanÂ Charles Barkley. Seems like Barcelona was his greatest achievement; he was off and running and hasnâ€™t stopped.
No question. The 1992 Olympics served to validate his career. He says the experience made him a much better player. He was MVP for the Phoenix Suns the following season and had an amazing year. It propelled him, and twenty years later, in terms of popular culture, Barkley is the only one of those guys who is far, far above where he was in 1992. Itâ€™s not even close. Jordan will always be Jordan, but you could argue that right now, Barkley is the most famous guy from the Dream Team.
You mention Jordanâ€™s defensiveness in the book, and that at least in public -- Â for example hisÂ Hall of Fame speechÂ -- he doesnâ€™t seem to be enjoying his post-career years.
I think thatâ€™s true. I was glad to interview him, but I havenâ€™t been around him at all in a long time. I would say heâ€™s unsatisfied. Hereâ€™s a guy who did nothing but win, and with the Wizards and Bobcats, heâ€™s done nothing but lose. Itâ€™s got to take its toll. Heâ€™s still smart, engaging and heâ€™sÂ Michael freaking Jordan,Â so thereâ€™s nothing like being around the guy, the aura that he has. But it was interesting to me that the things I got out of him -- like "Magic has to spread his name all around, I donâ€™t have to do that," and "I didnâ€™t want Isiah on the Dream Team" -- Jordan brought all that up. He wasnâ€™t angry, but heâ€™s aggressive, in a way he didnâ€™t used to be off the court. I donâ€™t think Jordanâ€™s life has been a laugh riot. Iâ€™d guess heâ€™s not the happiest member of the Dream Team these days.
One thing that isnâ€™t surprising on its face, but was still fascinating because of where his career was at in 1992, is the sheer reverence everyone, even Jordan, had for Larry Bird.
I was taken aback by that, too. Throughout my career, it was always Magic and Bird, Magic and Bird, Magic and Bird, but for whatever reason, I always felt slightly closer to Bird. I always wondered if I favored him a little bit because heâ€™s white; was there a subconscious racial element to it? But thatâ€™s not it with this guy, which is something I got from everybody on the Dream Team. It has something to do with the fact that Bird is his own man. They came in expecting a cold guy because of his court demeanor, but heâ€™s not that way. Bird is funny, quick, and down-to-earth. Twenty years on, Clyde Drexler recounted a story about how much he loved drinking beer with Bird. Funny part of it is, Drexlerâ€™s initial point was that Bird and Magic hadnâ€™t done anything that season and shouldnâ€™t have been on the team, but he only brought the conversation back to Magic. Thatâ€™s how they all felt about Bird. My warmth towards him was reinforced by both black and white players.
Thinking back to that time, the most incredible thing about Magic Johnson is that heâ€™s alive and well, we all assumed he wouldnâ€™t be around for long.
Magic did one of the most astounding socio-cultural things anyone could ever do. He changed the dialogue from "How are we going to die from HIV?" to "How are we going to live with HIV?" Magic did that himself. And he did it in nine months, from his November announcement to the Olympics. I wrote a bit of it in the book, but I thought a lot more about afterward.Â On November 7, 1991, we were all considering our pre-obituaries, trying to figure out how to write one for a guy who was still alive. By the time he got to Barcelona, Magicâ€™s HIV wasnâ€™t even the story. It was a backdrop, but it didnâ€™t dominate the headlines at all. Nobody has ever done anything like that. It was extraordinary.
From a basketball standpoint, "Dream Team"Â is grounded in a renowned little-seen Monte Carlo scrimmage between teams captained by Magic and MJ. It plays so perfectly that this was the most competitive game throughout the Dream Teamâ€™s run.
One of the first things I thought of was that I had to find a tape of that game.Â I got ahold of a guy in Detroit who had worked as Coach Dalyâ€™s video guy with USA Basketball. He said he had a copy, but I had to go look through the stacks of VHS tapes with him. Turns out, the guy had the wrong game, he thought I wanted the scrimmage of the college kids beating the Dream Team. We kept looking, and I found it -- a trueÂ Eureka!Â moment. I actually thought about structuring the whole book around it like John McPhee did with a U.S. Open tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in "Levels of the Game." I wasnâ€™t skillful enough to do what McPhee did, and Iâ€™m glad I didnâ€™t because the scrimmage wasnâ€™tÂ thatÂ captivating. I probably covered too many pages of it as is, but I thought it was a fascinating anthropological look at the Dream Team. Well, that and being able to say, "A-ha, I found it!" So many us had written that this tape didnâ€™t exist...It was a fantastic rush to dig it up, Iâ€™ll tell you that.
Is there anything about the Dream Teamâ€™s place in sports history today that surprises you, or have your views changed over time on what their legacy is?
It was clear that the book couldnâ€™t be solely about the team, it had to be about their impact. I thought about it, but it didnâ€™t hit me until I started interviewing international guys like Juan Antonio Orenga, a coach in Spain who played against them, and Dirk Nowitzki. It quickly evolved that the teamâ€™s impact lies in how it demystified the game for a generation of international players who were just coming along. Itâ€™s the generation we now recognize as genuine NBA stars. I didnâ€™t recognize that back then.
The other thing that surprised me from the latest interviews was how much these guys learned from each other. Pippen told me that watching Karl Malone working out made him realize "I wasnâ€™t really working out." David Robinson said he took what he learned about how to lead a team -- the demand for excellence from Magic and Michael -- back to San Antonio.Â Even Bird, who was at the end of his career in 1992, got so fired up watching Pippen and Jordan play defense, that in 2012, he was still animated and excited describing what he saw. I was unaware that this was going on in 1992, so it was unexpected and fascinating in 2012.
I love the section where you note which Olympic events guys from the team attended. Besides playing cards late into the night, did you get the sense the guys on the team enjoyed their Barcelona experience?
Absolutely. They enjoyed it. Iâ€™ve never walked into a packed stadium where all the activity stops, and everyone rises and claps their hands at me, but thatâ€™s gotta be a rush, right? No, seriously, these guys are sports fans. Bird loves baseball, loves it, which led to him riding way too far out on the metro -- Â he missed his stop. Malone is a legitimate boxing fan, so he went to the fights. I think they were all into it. I also think the team understood that they were part of the United States team on the whole. They were the cool guys, putting their arms around the less cool, but I do feel that they understood their responsibility. They knew that if they showed up at a venue, their fellow Olympians would be happy, and I donâ€™t think it was fake. Honestly, I think the guys had more fun doing stuff like that than playing basketball. The games in Barcelona got to be a pain. They didnâ€™t enjoy thumping everybody by so many points. They got up for the gold medal game against Croatia, but by the end, the Dream Team was ready for the train to stop.
At one point, you say that athletes are frozen in time, but with a few exceptions like Stockton and Malone, the Dream Teamer members are everywhere -- as big as the NBA itself -- to this day.
At a reading, someone asked me if I had to consciously think I was writing for a different audience, like twenty-somethings. I said I didnâ€™t feel like I needed to reintroduce these guys. I donâ€™t know why, but I felt it unconsciously, and that was correct. The reception to "Dream Team"Â has astonished me. This isnâ€™t false modesty. I think itâ€™s a good book, and Iâ€™m proud of it, but the reason itâ€™s been so overwhelming is because fans loved these guys, and they love that NBA era. LeBron is as good as any of them...well, not Jordan, but heâ€™s damn good. But there is no way in 2032 that his thing will be as interesting to people. It just isnâ€™t going to happen.
Everyone says it, but I donâ€™t think itâ€™s just nostalgia to say the basketball being played back then was better. Was it truly the golden era?
It is both reality and perception. The basketball was better because the competition between teams was better. It wasnâ€™t Kobe versus Lebron; it was 76ers versus the Celtics, Lakers versus Celtics, Bulls versus Pistons, and so on. There were so many ways to get your mind around the game that donâ€™t exist now. Because of that, the perception, which comes from my generation of old white men, is that these guys were better guys. These guys played harder, these guys loved their mothers more... LeBron and everyone else canâ€™t live up to that. Itâ€™s perception more than reality, but I think, ultimately, it stems from the quality of basketball.
Youâ€™ll be covering the Olympics for the NBC Olympics website in London; what should we look for in this yearâ€™s Olympic tournament?
Iâ€™ll be covering a lot of events, including basketball in the later rounds. Itâ€™s actually the first full-time job Iâ€™ve had since I went toÂ Sports IllustratedÂ in 1981. I would say just one thing to American basketball fans: Forgive them if they donâ€™t win. Trust me, their challenge is a lot more formidable than anything the Dream Team faced. You have to give them a break if they donâ€™t bring home gold. In 1992, the Dream Team went up against the best players in Spain. In 2012, Spain starts three NBA players, two all-stars in the Gasol brothers, and point guard Jose Calderon. Thatâ€™s three-fifths of a starting NBA roster, which is a totally different caliber of player than what the Dream Team faced.
The clichĂ©Â goes that â€śyouâ€™ll never see the likes of this team again,â€ť but in this case, it feels one hundred percent true. Could the Dream Team ever be matched or replicated?Â
No. To use another clichĂ©, it was the perfect storm. It was the first time it ever happened, so there was a novelty value to it. The international sporting world was ready for it. They knew the NBA, but as an appetizer, theyâ€™d only gotten jalapeĂ±o poppers, but now they got the whole meal. The popularity of the NBA was at its peak. It was the golden era. Plus, social media has overwhelmed everything. Itâ€™s not LeBronâ€™s fault that weâ€™re all sick of him by June. Heâ€™s been Tweeted about a million times, sized up on 100,000 blogs, ESPN has mentioned him 50 times in a broadcast...that didnâ€™t happen with the original Dream Team. There was no Internet. I wrote three stories forÂ SI, period. Thatâ€™s all I did. Now, Barkley on Las Ramblas would have been Tweeted and 10,000 people would have shown up. The players were well known, but there was still a lot of mystique to the Dream Team. Fortunately, when I wrote the book, there was enough material out there that hadnâ€™t been told in a thousand other places.
On that note, one last question that I hope nobodyâ€™s asked you yet.Â If you could have seen any guy from Jordanâ€™s first retirement until today play with the Dream Team, who would it be?
Kobe in his prime. Heâ€™s always been a guy with a personality that doesnâ€™t quite fit, but at the same time, he has a temperament that Jordan, Bird and Magic would have loved. Kobeâ€™s a confident guy who always gets after it. It would be fascinating to see how or if he ceded his testosterone to Magic and Michael. I think Kobe would have set screens, tried to lock down guys on defense, and fit in chemistry-wise. Internationally, Kobe is a huge star. I would have liked to see him in the mix.