Yesterday, Jack McCallum’s highly anticipated book “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles And The Greatest Team Of All Time Conquered The World And Changed The Game Of Basketball Forever” was released for purchase (you can get a copy here). A few of us here at FB&G were able to get an advanced copy of the book to review and, well, we loved it. What follows is our email conversation about the book…
Darius Soriano: First things first, what did you guys think of the book?
Phillip Barnett: Off top, it was just an absolutely fantastic read. I’m a bit younger than both of you, so I really only got to watch the tail end of the career of most of these guys (I was only five in the Summer of ’92). For me, I can only rely on ESPN Classic games and accounts like Jack McCallum’s “Dream Team” book to get a feel for how much this team meant to the game of basketball. That said, I think the best thing about this book is the format in which it was written. Instead of a long, drawn out chronological tale about how the Dream Team came about and how dominant they were, the book is broken down into 40-someting smaller chapters that allowed McCallum to tell a lot of the back stories that went into building this team and gave him the freedom to do a lot of character building — which isn’t always the case in non-fiction narratives. “Dream Team” reads more like a novel than it does a historical account of a hoops team, and it allows for younger guys like myself to learn a bit more about the individuals on the team, the relationships built and even some of the animosity between guys who were and were not on the Dream Team. Furthermore, the book takes a few “Where are they now” glances at some of the players with six interludes throughout the book which provide for some interesting — and some would even say juicy — nuggets in which the players didn’t hold back on their feelings on others on the team. In one of the interludes, Clyde Drexler suggested that Magic was getting the “benefit of the doubt” because people “kept expecting him to die” following his AIDS announcement and went on to suggest that there was nothing that Jordan could do that he could not. It was really those kind of anecdotes, and the more fun ones like Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing’s unexpected friendship, that kept me turning pages. Were there any back stories in particular that you two found more interesting than others?
J.M. Poulard: After reading multiple books on superstars who also happened to play on the Dream Team (Bird, Magic and Jordan), it always felt as though the 1992 Olympics served more as a footnote in their illustrious careers as opposed to one of its bigger events.
After reading “Dream Team”, that sentiment has been rendered null and void. McCallum covers all bases in order to give readers a detailed depiction of the team. Whether it’s the decision to finally allow NBA players to compete in the Olympics or the reasons that prevented the team from staying in the Olympic village; the author goes to great lengths for all to understand what actually transpired.
If there is one back story that struck me more than any, it’s the dynamic between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
Both were icons at the time and continue to be even today and the book captures that perfectly.
Magic had always exhibited a seemingly unparalleled ability to communicate with people — whether it’s teammates, opponents, coaches, media or fans — thanks in large part to his smile, charm and willingness to voice his opinions.
Michael on the other hand was known as a leader that practiced hard, led by example and chastised teammates whenever they failed him.
And yet in Barcelona, their personalities blended together as Magic serving as the team’s voice while Jordan was its motor and its heart. McCallum relates this perfectly and gives us the lenses to view the two leading alpha males on a team composed of such individuals.
It’s worth noting that “Dream Team” perfectly captures the pulse of the team through interviews and tales that were shared with Jack McCallum almost 20 years after the team won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics.
Darius: I couldn’t agree more about MaCallum’s approach to the book. By giving readers the backstories to the players and then providing fascinating tidbits of information about the dynamics between them in the lead up to and throughout the Olympics, he gives readers an insider’s perspective that takes you along for the ride.
And, I also completely agree about how the Magic/MJ dynamic proved captivating. Having just met in the Finals a year prior to the formation of the team, it was clear that there was both a healthy respect and rivalry still at play between the teams’ two top names. In fact, I think Magic’s portrayal in the book is one of the more interesting aspects touched on.
McCallum did an excellent job of giving the reader so many sides of a very complex man within the context of this extraordinary team. Not only was there the Drexler interlude that touched on Magic’s HIV, but there was also how his disease served as a backdrop for Magic’s hands on approach to leadership and how it (seemingly) drove him to prove that he was still at the top of his game (and thus still one of the team’s best players) after not competing in the league since that Finals loss to Jordan (outside the 1992 All-star game).
On the other side, though, was the respect that Magic had amongst his peers, how his mates saw him as a genuine leader – and mouthpiece – for the team, and how his past accomplishments (remember, at that point Magic had 5 championships to his name whereas Jordan only had 2 while Bird had 3) gave him some bragging rights within the group. All of this combined to create a complex character that could rub his teammates the wrong way and inspire respect.
Besides the stuff on Magic, though, there were so many other parts of the book that stood out to me. The Bird/Ewing friendship, the Isaiah Thomas exclusion, the narrative surrounding how the NBA got involved in the Olympic process, and the behind the scenes descriptions of the now infamous practices and scrimmages were all so great.
What about for you guys? Was there one story in particular that stuck with you?
Phillip: Not to completely overdo the Magic aspect, but he really was one of the keys, not only in this book, but really in getting this whole team together. McCallum — and the Dream Team documentary a few months ago to some extent — spoke about how no one really thought the NBA’s brightest stars would buy into playing for the Olympic team. It was Magic who enthusiastically signed on first and helped push some of the other key guys (Bird and Jordan, namely) to join on as well. McCallum described Magic’s and Jordan’s leadership roles metaphorically when he said, “Magic was the Sun and Jordan was the North Star,” and there was a lot of truth to that. Like Darius noted, Magic was the vocal leader of the team and took on a lot of duties to make sure the — how do you say this — general ideology of who this team was revolved around him. There were anecdotes about Magic taking number 15 so his name would be called last and him holding the flag when the team was introduced for the first time. But as much as the team revolved around him in almost every aspect off the court, Jordan was the unquestioned leader on the court as the team seeked his direction once the ball was in the air. I found that dynamic fascinating.
I also ate up everything on Barkley. Even though I really only remember his career as a Houston Rocket, he’s always been my favorite NBA player after Eddie Jones. I continue to save a special place in my heart for undersized forwards who can rebound the ball, but Chuck was one of those special, once in a lifetime kind of athletes. He often seemed overweight, but got off the ground so easily, was deceptively quick in the open court and was nearly unstoppable when he got a head of steam going toward the basket. Then you get to couple that generational talent with one of the most unique personalities the league has ever seen and you’ve got yourself one of the most memorable ball players ever. McCallum has a few Barkley anecdotes that really stuck out — one of them being that Larry Bird said he was a student of Barkley’s game and even added a few of his tricks to his own repertoire. The fact that such a talent almost missed out on the Dream Team is hard to wrap your head around. But the fact that his talent generally overrode his off the court antics speaks volumes just to how great he was.
Darius: Ah, good old Chuck. He definitely was one of the choice “characters” in this book.
The anecdote about Barkley that stood out the most to me had nothing to do with his escapades on the town in Barcelona, how his selection came about, or even is rivalry with Malone. It was how often it was hinted at that he was one of the most dominating forces on the team. I can’t recall how many times it occurred but multiple times coaches and teammates said that if the Dream Team ever needed a basket they could just “throw the ball to Charles”. Considering that team had Jordan on it, I thought that was the highest compliment that could be paid to him and his skill level at the time of the competition. He was an explosive force of nature that could play an all court game. I’m convinced we’ll see countless players of Jordan’s “type” (athletic wing players) before we ever see another player that’s like Barkley.
J.M.: Not too get too much away from the book, but I recall watching the Dream Team when I was younger and Barkley was by far one of the most athletically gifted players on the court at all times.
There were times it seemed as though he could breeze by guards on a fast break and his size was problematic for everyone.
For those only accustomed to Barkley through his TNT gig, McCallum does a great job of bringing us back to his playing days. Indeed, the Chuckster was a lethal weapon — fun fact, he led the team in scoring — that no one had an answer for.
It’s clear from the details of the book that Barkley always knew he was a great player, but showcasing his talent with the Dream Team gave him some validation that perhaps few remember today.
With that said, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the non-story of David Robinson. I have long theorized that the Admiral should have been one of the greatest players ever but he seemed to lack something.
McCallum provides some terrific insight into the player, but more importantly the man; and although it gives the readers a greater of appreciation of Robinson as an individual; one cannot help but feel cheated about the Spurs center.
For all of the criticism thrown at Shaquille O’Neal for not putting more into basketball, Robinson not only deserves the same amount throw his way, but perhaps more.
As great as he was as a center, he never had the edge needed to carry his team to the promised land and put the fear into the hearts of his opponents. And to his credit, Robinson is perfectly at ease with who he is and shows no sign of remorse whatsoever about how his career unfolded. Nonetheless, the question “what if” still looms…
Darius: I think we could go on and on with anecdotes and insights gleaned from this book. McCallum simply did a fantastic job of giving the reader so much information in an easy to consume format. At this point though, I’d rather not give away too much more and just suggest that everyone go out and buy the book. You won’t be disappointed.