Thursday, August 23, 2012

Unrestricted: Jack McCallum's "Dream Team"

Until my recent reading of Jack McCallum's Dream Team, I had never given much thought to the USA men's basketball team from 1992. At nine years old, I was a fairly studious (read: nerdy) child, and my fascination with basketball didn't happen until I was thirteen or so. I've also never been one for watching the Olympics, but my girlfriend was hooked on the swimming, gymnastics, and volleyball games, so I found myself watching more coverage from London this summer than I had for any previous Olympic games combined. McCallum's book coincided with the 2012 Games and the twenty year anniversary of the formation and domination of the original Dream Team. I tend to go into sports books with a fairly heavy dose of skepticism, since I've long been annoyed with the majority of sportswriters in general. However, my scattered readings of McCallum's work have been enjoyable, and he's one of my favorite NBA writers (along with Sam Smith and J.A. Adande). I was curious to read more on the history of the players and the back story of the 1992 games, and at worst, I figured Dream Team would be my kind of breezy summer reading in between longer projects. Upon completion, I was fascinated by the angles McCallum focused on, and highly enjoyed his style, which strictly avoided what a lot of other writers would have done: he doesn't showcase the team with any needless grandeur, but rather allows the details, personalities, and game styles to provide their own mystique.

Up until the 1992 Olympics, professional basketball players were barred from participating for USA basketball, until a handful of influences worked to change that ruling: Boris Stankovic (the president of FIBA, or Federation Internationale de Basketball), NBA commissioner David Stern, and NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik first met in 1985 to discuss the potential for NBA players participating. McCallum details this meeting and also highlights the hypocrisy of American professionals being ineligible for the Olympic games.

"After a few get-acquainted moments, Stankovic went right to the point. 'I don't believe in these restrictions about who should play and who shouldn't play,' he said. 'The best players in the world should be playing in everything, including the Olympics. But I can't do that alone.'

In some revisionist histories, Stern--all-seeing, all-knowing--instantly grasped the importance of aligning with FIBA, envisioning a day when NBA players were the toast of the Continent and the league was flooding Europe and Asia with sneakers, T-shirts, and hoodies. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Stern, to his credit, has never claimed otherwise. It wasn't that the idea of NBA players in the Olympics slipped onto the NBA's back burner; it wasn't even on the stove. Yes, Stern saw the hypocrisy in the rules against competition--Germany's Detlef Schrempf, who played in the NBA for about $500,000 a year, was considered a professional, while Brazil's Oscar Schmidt, who played in Italy for about $1 million a year, was considered an amateur and eligible for Olympic play. Everyone saw the hypocrisy except the empty suits who ran the Olympics (McCallum 16)."

With much financial and loophole finagling, the sanctions were lifted, allowing NBA players to compete. However, a lot of questions remained: who would be the best fits (besides the obvious inclusions of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan)? What should the ratio of NBA and college players be (Christian Laettner ended up being the lone NCAA representative)? And would professional basketball players really be willing to give up their summers? The selection process did have some challenges. Then-Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly was named head coach of the Dream Team, and McCallum devotes a lot of exploration as to why Isiah Thomas was excluded (as it turns out, one of Jordan's requirements for participating was that Thomas not be on the team). The worry about NBA players being cajoled into joining the team quickly turned into players being upset about being last-minute selections (Clyde Drexler being the main example, being a phenomenal guard but not a guarantee to be included). With the exception of a play-by-play of a private practice game between the Dream Team, McCallum devotes most of the book to past memories of the individual players (as a writer for Sports Illustrated, he traveled with the team to Barcelona), as well as recent interviews conducted in conjunction with the book.

The Olympic games themselves were blowouts, and only a handful of pages are devoted to recaps of those matches. Instead, the reader is given insights into the careers and lives of the team members. With so much documentation and analysis already available, McCallum wisely attempts to create more rounded descriptions without any needless hyperbole. For example, the 1992 Olympics followed Johnson's revelation of his HIV-positive status, and it's handled honestly and emotionally. In a 2011 interview, Johnson explores the magnitude of his announcement and how it's still with him today.

"'The blessing was that I came out and announced and everybody started talking about AIDS openly, maybe for the first time,' Magic says. 'Then came the curse because kids started saying, 'Oh, I can get it and still be like Magic. He's all over the place. He's doing fine (McCallum 138-139).'"

Granted, given the spectrum of the team's singular personalities, some players were more fun to cover than others. Even today, McCallum's fascination and affinity for Charles Barkley is strong. As a writer, he's never openly in awe of his subjects, but Barkley's personality is such that a random night on the town in Barcelona seemed to be something out of a movie.

"The best beat for any reporter in the '92 Games was the Charles Barkley beat. I was on it for a couple of nights, trailing him down Las Ramblas, where I would've been in any case, getting paid for hanging out, the journalist's dream. Other players visited Las Ramblas--that's where [John] Stockton found the tourist in the Dream Team shirt who didn't recognize him--but rarely in darkness, when the place was teeming with night crawlers and the potential for trouble everywhere. On the nights I followed Barkley, there were some strange moments. An older man, speed-freak skinny and crack-pipe crazy, walked in front of him for a while, pointing and laughing like a hyena, but Barkley kept going, sipping his cerveza and eventually outlasting him (McCallum 242)."

This seems to be the closest McCallum comes to appearing like a fan rather than a writer, and even so, it makes for vivid imagery. Again, the historical implications of the best players in the world coming together on one team has so much potential for a writer to explore in mythical, other-worldly tones, but McCallum works like a storyteller. The facts and the outstanding dominance of the team doesn't need emphasis. McCallum comes close in his assessment of the little-seen scrimmage match between two teams of Dream Teamers, and this is completely understandable. Johnson and Jordan co-captained teams for a legendary practice, the game film of which has never been released to the public. This mythical, dramatic game is told in a sort of breathless tone, and McCallum does so to highlight the rarity of such a game, especially since it was closed to outsiders as a way to get the team truly focused on the upcoming Olympic games. It's a story of lead changes, a hapless Italian referee, and stunning trash talk between the two sides. It reads like a well-written screenplay, and McCallum's imagery makes imagining this contest somehow even better than seeing it live or on tape. In an age with instantaneous access to videos, Tweets, and low attention spans, it's great to see a writer engaging a reader's mental imagery.

"Michael Jordan's White Team 31, Magic Johnson's Blue Team 26.

Now mostly what you hear is Jordan's voice, exhorting his team, sensing the kill. Magic backs into the lane, Malone guarding him on a switch. The gentleman from Italy blows his whistle...and the Mailman blows his top.

'Oh, come on, man,' he yells. 'Stop calling this fucking bullsheet.' Jordan comes over and steps between Malone and the ref.

'Forget it, Karl,' says Jordan. 'Don't scare him. We might need him.'

'Fuck him!' yells Malone.

As Magic lines up at the foul line, the whistle in [assistant coach] P.J. Carlesimo's mouth actually moves. That's because his face is twisted into a grin.

Magic shoots the first, which rolls around as Jordan, hands on shorts, yells to [Patrick] Ewing, 'Knock it out!' Too late. Magic swishes the second.

Michael Jordan's White Team 31, Magic Johnson's Blue Team 28.

[Scottie] Pippen pops out from behind a Ewing screen and swishes a jumper. At the other end, [Chris] Mullin loses his grip on a Magic pass and Bird recovers. Jordan begins a break, motions Ewing to join him on the left side, and watches in delight as Patrick takes a few pitty-pat steps and makes a jumper.

'That's a walk!' a couple of voices yell. But no call is made (McCallum 224-225).'"

Some of the later sections of the book were uninteresting to me. There are details of the Dream Teamers hanging out in their hotel, playing cards, ping-pong, and forming cliques based on their championships, and trash talking. As has been detailed countless times with Michael Jordan (and detailed again in this book), this is done to emphasize singular competitive nature, with the players unable to handle losing off the court as well as off of it. With very rare exceptions, unless it's a detailed look at a significant event, I've always been uninterested in the private lives of athletes. However, even off-the-record and private details in this book aren't done with any gossip or "juicy revelations" in mind: McCallum is merely detailing the excitement and the everyday actions of what was the most famous team in the basketball world. I don't feel the need to offer citations of the Olympic game recaps (as I mentioned, McCallum rightfully offers only brief synopses rather than needlessly expansive ruminations), and I doubt that a citation about the life of John Stockton is relevant to this review. I'm happy that I read this, since I'm more interested in that team now than I was when I was a child. McCallum later explores the biggest aftereffect of the Dream Team's international recognition, that of international players, children themselves at the time, being inspired to work on their games and become NBA players in their own rights. And much like today's technological world allowing access to information and video clips, the 1992 Olympics was the first worldwide exposure for American professional basketball. The historical context was felt in unexpected ways, and McCallum's documentation shows this without being obvious or spending too much time on subjects that even casual basketball fans already know. I'm relieved that good sportswriting can still flourish today, with a good balance of reporting and rational opinions.

Work Cited:
McCallum, Jack. Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever. Copyright 2012 by Jack McCallum.

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