Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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“Dream Team” revisits basketball royalty
Posted Jul 10, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Jul 10, 2012 at 10:30 PM
Twenty years ago, the greatest basketball powerhouse ever assembled gathered for the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. The United States had dominated basketball at the Olympics before, but its 1992 squad was the first that included professional athletes.
The roster included NBA megastars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley. It was a team populated by 11 alpha males and a head coach who knew how to keep their egos in check.
This was truly the “Dream Team,” which not only set high standards at the Olympics, but also helped grow the NBA into an international sport.
Commissioner David Stern told the Los Angeles Times this week that the NBA was televised in 80 countries in 1992; it is now shown in 215. In ’92, there were only a handful of international players in the NBA. There are 80 now.
Jack McCallum understood the impact of the Dream Team when he covered them in the Barcelona Games for Sports Illustrated. He draws upon his experiences that summer in Spain and presents an intimate, behind-the-scenes view in “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever” (Ballantine Books, $28, hardback, 354 pages).
McCallum spent two years researching and doing fresh interviews for “Dream Team,” presenting the players and coaches as he perceived them in 1992 and then again as he did a round of “what are they doing now” interviews.
What follows is a detailed, earthy and compelling story about a team that had its share of high moments and controversies. There was Magic Johnson, the sunny face of the Dream Team and acknowledged leader of the squad — at least from outside appearances. Johnson was playing on the team despite the revelation that he was HIV positive, and that caused some consternation among some players, particularly Clyde Drexler and Karl Malone.
Johnson was the outside face of the team, but Michael Jordan was at the height of his basketball powers and the unquestioned star. Larry Bird was playing in pain and near the end of his career, but his trash-talking and intensity helped set the tone for the team.
Charles Barkley created his share of controversy during the Olympics (“I don’t know nothin’ ’bout Angola. But Angola’s in trouble.”) but also was the most engaging and popular Dream Teamer among fans who attended the Games. Barkley’s night-crawling antics along Las Ramblas (“a 24/7 carnival”) and free spirit only enhanced his popularity.
And Barkley reveled in it. “So let’s do the math,” McCallum writes. “Live chickens, unicycles, pickpockets, open containers, prime hashish from Amsterdam, lithe and callow señoritas with dewdrop eyes, and a famous American who’s not afraid to drop-kick drunks. What could possibly go wrong?”
The Dream Team was coached by Chuck Daly of the Detroit Pistons, who had the savvy and the foresight not to micromanage. McCallum recounts Daly’s advice to his Olympic team assistants, college coaches Mike Krzyzewski and P.J. Carlesimo: “The first thing I want you to do is learn to … ignore.”
“Follow my lead, and don’t go nuts about little things.”
The biggest controversy about the Dream Team concerned who didn’t make the team — specifically, Pistons star Isiah Thomas. In addition to “the Golden Tripod” (Jordan, Johnson and Bird), David Robinson and Patrick Ewing “were locks,” as were Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen. There had been some spirited discussion about Barkley’s inclusion, but he made the cut, too.
John Stockton and Chris Mullin were named to the team, and Christian Laettner was the lone college player chosen. Thomas did not get the call. It left a bitter taste.
“Had Isiah not been so unpopular among other players and committee members, he would’ve made the Dream Team, and Stockton would’ve been left out,” McCallum writes. “That’s just a fact.”
Jordan certainly had a say about keeping Thomas off the team, McCallum writes. He quotes Jordan telling NBA executive Rod Thorn, who helped pick the Dream Team: “Rod, I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.”
Another interesting — and controversial — part of “Dream Team” was the comments by the 11th man chosen to the squad, Clyde Drexler.
McCallum writes that the Glide told him Magic Johnson was given a spot on the Dream Team because of sentimental reasons stemming from his HIV diagnosis.
“He couldn’t play much by that time. He couldn’t guard his shadow,” McCallum quotes Drexler as saying. “But you have to understand what was going on then. Everybody kept waiting for Magic to die. Every time he’d run up the court everybody would feel sorry for the guy, and he’d get all that benefit of the doubt.”
Drexler has since denied saying that, calling the quotes attributed to him “totally ludicrous.” Even if he was misquoted, there is no denying that what was known about HIV and the AIDS virus in 1992 was a mere fraction of what we know now. Johnson is still alive and well, but in 1992 there were no guarantees. Even the hint of AIDS in the 1990s was similar to receiving a death sentence.
Back to basketball. McCallum gives a blow-by-blow description of “the greatest game ever played.” No, it did not take place during the Barcelona Games; rather, it was a Dream Team intrasquad scrimmage in Monte Carlo between Johnson’s Blue Team and Jordan’s White Team.
“In many ways,” Jordan told McCallum, “it was the best game I was ever in. Because the gym was locked and it was just about basketball.”
“It was about the passion that those guys put into the game, the importance they placed on winning and personal pride,” McCallum writes. “At times it was childish in the strictest sense of that word. But they were playing a kid’s game, after all, and pursued it with a childlike determination to come out on top.”
The Olympics were anticlimactic, except for the medal ceremony, which McCallum revisits in detail. There was never any doubt what team would win.
Looking back 20 years later, it’s hard to find a team that contained so much basketball royalty. McCallum gives credit where it is due, is not afraid to criticize, and even manages to poke fun at himself. “Dream Team” is a breathtaking, private and very personal look into one of sport’s greatest teams.