You walk into your neighborhood bar. The room is all dark wood and the bartender has a handlebar mustache that seems fitting rather than garish. You sidle up to the counter next to an older gentleman in a tie and rolled up sleeves.
He smiles as he looks up from his pint and says, in that way that lets you know he’s got a good one, “Did I ever tell you about the time I was hanging out backstage at Saturday Night Live with Michael Jordan?”
That’s pretty much the experience of reading Jack McCallum’s Dream Team (order here), repeated a few dozen times.
McCallum wisely chose to break up the 330 page book into more than 40 small chapters, a decision that allows him to trace straightforward narratives from the Dream Team era while splicing in “where are they now” style interludes with six Dream Teamers about, well, whatever was on each of their minds at the time.
The effect is one of accumulation. The story never really builds to anything resembling a climax — how could it, Team USA won each game by an average of more than 40 points? — but the tightly wrapped anecdotes make you hungry for the next nugget.
Let me cut to the chase: If you’re reading this to find out whether you should buy the book, the answer is “Yes.” Dream Team an indispensible account of a seminal moment in basketball history that spawned the league and game we know and love today.
And it’s right that McCallum is the one to tell it. The author is a true authority — perhaps no one has the panoptic (his word) perspective McCallum brings to this story. He spent the 80’s as a celebrated NBA writer for Sports Illustrated, getting to know each star individually before traveling with the Dream Team throughout its journey from San Diego to Portland to Monte Carlo and finally Barcelona for the 1992 Olympic games.
McCallum himself crops up plenty in this book. Which is great, because he’s not only a trustworthy guide but one we’re happy to be following. His humor and self-awareness imbue his telling with a convivial tone that paints him as a subject of fate rather than intrepid reporter. McCallum’s involvement is “an accident of timing,” he almost protests. I’d imagine that’s a conceit designed to make the reader feel like a lucky insider, and it works.
Early on, when McCallum relates how often Larry Bird chides him for “blowing” Magic Johnson and other players in laudatory articles, it seems McCallum is building trust with the reader: he’ll be praising these men to high hoop heaven, yet he’ll also let us in on this sort of dirt to assure us he isn’t trying to protect a legacy, but explain it.
The book delivers some headline attractions like a point-by-point breakdown of that famous Monte Carlo scrimmage in which the best players in the world really went at it, almost calling their own fouls as a terrified Italian ref regurgitated his whistle only at the urging of a particularly intense glare from Jordan or Magic.
But in my estimation the really juicy stuff is found in the aforementioned interludes and in the moments when McCallum relates how the Dream Teamers felt about each other now and back then. They almost all (John Stockton is almost too heartbreakingly politic to be interesting) speak from the critical eye that gazes upon competition and seeks out weaknesses.
In what other light could David Robinson, a two-time champion who relentlessly sculpted his body and game, be seen as uncommitted?
For his part, Robinson, a devout Christian who has achieved a truly admirable second career as an educator since leaving the NBA, seems to think Jordan is a borderline-psycho (with well-worn tunnels into psycholand) who doesn’t get what life’s really about.
McCallum relates some real talk from lesser voices like Clyde Drexler, who was literally an afterthought (he was added after the original 10 NBAers were selected). Drexler goes in on Magic, cold-heartedly assessing Johnson’s game as unfit for any All-World team that was created without ceremonial concerns.
These are some of the moments that complicate the legendary individuals that meshed so effortlessly on the court. McCallum is sympathetic even to Michael Jordan, who has always been impenetrable to me. Through both his efforts to humanize the Dream Teamers with a mix of anecdotes and editorial asides on their idiosyncrasies and his sharp basketball eye, which brings their supreme talents into magnificent focus, McCallum succeeds in adding depth without knocking off too much luster. Pretty much everyone besides Karl Malone comes off as a broadly likalbe fellow.
In 1992, eight of the Dream Teamers were at the apex of their powers: Jordan, Pippen, Drexler, Barkley, Ewing, Stockton, Mullin and Robinson. McCallum can turn a phrase – he caught me completely off guard when he called Jordan NBA fandom’s “pet rock” — and well-considered descriptions of these athletes are in themselves fascinating.
Perhaps that’s the easy part. But McCallum also pulls off the feat of turning the “how this team came to be” narrative (one of five or six strung throughout the 42 segments) into reasonably compelling theater. He speculates on the root of the Isiah Thomas controversy, investigates the infamous moment when, as they received their gold medals, the Dream Team chose to cover the Reebok logos on their team jackets, and lambasts the myopic bureaucracy of the US Olympic Committee that was none too keen on letting professional Americans compete in Olympic basketball.
However, if you’re looking for revelations, you’ll find none here. Dream Team is decidedly not an expose. Rather, McCallum brings a microscope and an incisive wit to a team we know now as a myth in goofy poses on wrinkled posters and vintage t-shirts, or in the soft light of highlight-filled memory. The legend of the Dream Team is fixed and its moment is lost to the past. This book takes us to that moment in personal but not granular detail (and Lord knows McCallum had thousands and thousands more words to share … maybe in a second edition?).
McCallum reserves one of his most elegant lines for when the Dream ended and the twelve players backed their bags and flew back to their respective homes, writing: “It was like the day after your birthday, when the world seemed a little less bright, the fine edges of joy scrubbed flat.”
Dream Team achieves the opposite sensation in the reader. Without being diminished, the expansive, vague legends of the Dream Team are made more defined and real by McCallum’s telling. And we are happier for it.