Dream Team: Tales from Chronicling Michael, Magic and the ’92 Olympic Hoops Team

A Q & A with Jack McCallum, author of a new book on an all-time team

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Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE / Getty Images

Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan of the United States celebrate their win against Croatia during the Gold Medal Basketball game at the 1992 Olympics on August 8, 1992 in Barcelona, Spain.

On Saturday, USA Basketball officially named the roster for the Olympics men’s basketball team, and it’s a good one: any team with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant, not to mention Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Blake Griffin, should never lose. Still, the 2012 Olympic team – and all future ones, really – will always live in the shadow of the original Dream Team. Especially this summer, the 20th anniversary of the legendary ’92 team that stormed through Barcelona, beating opponents by an average of 43.8 points per game.

For the first time, NBA players were allowed suit up for the  USA. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Co. inspired kids around the globe to give basketball a shot, and the game’s popularity exploded: so much so, that a dozen years later, Team USA returned home with just a bronze medal. The world caught up.

Jack McCallum, former NBA writer for Sports Illustrated – which, like TIME, is owned by Time Inc. – chronicled the Dream Team that whole summer from training, to exhibition to the finals. He emptied his notebooks and memories, and caught up with all 12 members of the squad, for his new entertaining, addictive 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, out July 10. McCallum unveiled some irresistible nuggets:  game tape of an intense intra-squad scrimmage that he dubs “The Greatest Game Nobody Saw,” comments from former Portland Trail Blazers star Clyde Drexler, the 11th man named to the team, that seemed to disparage Magic Johnson, and the back-room politicking that kept Isaiah Thomas, leader of the two-time NBA champion Detroit Pistons, off the team (essentially, Jordan didn’t want him).

TIME talked to McCallum, via email, about his interview with Drexler, the future of NBA players in the Olympics, and the unlikely man who dreamt up the Dream Team idea.

First off, I can’t remember a book with a more memorable prologue. I won’t give away all the details – unless you want to in your response. But it involves Larry Bird asking you a graphic – though hilarious – question before the gold medal game. Why did you decide to open the book with that anecdote? And has Bird given you any flak for including it? I’d bet not, as he doesn’t  strike me as a guy worried about his “image.”

Athletes are notorious for not reading books, so I’m sure Larry will have no comment unless somebody brings it up to him, and then he’ll say something like, “McCallum is full of shit.” But I never forgot  the anecdote.

I guess it says something about tone-setting. I didn’t see the book as some ponderous thumb-sucker on the meaning of it all. I’m not smart enough to write that book anyway.

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It’s no surprise that Clyde Drexler’s comments in the book about Magic Johnson caused a stir: he said, for example, that Johnson “couldn’t guard his shadow” and that “everyone 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.” You’ve addressed those remarks  here and here. When Drexler said those words during your interview, were you shocked, at least at their politically incorrect tone? And did you anticipate that they would blow up like they did?

I wasn’t shocked because, to some form or another, I had heard them before from others. But I was a little surprised that Clyde did not attempt to give them more context and do the old “Magic was my role model, etc.” Had he done that, maybe I would’ve given them more context, though I hope it’s fully explained in the book.

I know Clyde always insists that he’s not mad about being the 11th man added and all that. But he was mad about it, and is mad about it, and I’m not even sure I blame him. He was runner-up for the MVP that year and 10 guys made the team before he did.

Everyone who gets victimized by something in a book or article says the predictable: “you only did it to sell books.” Trust me, when I turned this in a year ago, I never dreamed that a couple paragraphs said by Clyde would blow up like this. And I wish they hadn’t.

It’s become gospel at this point: the Dream Team is responsible for the NBA’s global expansion over the past 20 years. But do you think the Dream Team’s role is that global growth is overstated at all? Something struck me in reading your book: if these guys were treated like the Beatles wherever they went in ’92, they were obviously known around the world. And since they were already known around the world, did the Dream Team really make them more recognizable? Did kids in Germany and France suddenly learn who Michael Jordan was in 1992, and thus start playing basketball? Wouldn’t they international explosion of the NBA have happened regardless of the Dream Team? 

There is no way to prove this, of course, but my sense is that–to the REAL players–the [Dirk] Nowitzskis, [Manu] Ginobilis, Tony Parkers–it demystified the game. Yes, everyone slobbered all over them. But what the player saw, in essence, was pure basketball. They found out HOW TO PLAY IT. It wasn’t about identifying Jordan as any more rockstar-ish than he was; it was about watching him go right, step back and hit a jumper. Furthermore, it helped the coaches, the people really responsible for teaching and spreading the game.

Plus, it was a numbers game. Five million? Ten million? More people get interested in basketball and decide that, hell, this is cooler than futbol. So a million of those take it up. Five hundred become really good. Another hundred become really, really good. Again, I can’t prove it, but the premise that the Dream Team grew the game is one that I believe.

(Of course, maybe that’s because I had a whole chapter about it.)

In April, Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen said that the pros should be paid for playing in the Olympics. Mark Cuban argued that by since Team USA plays for free, the NBA is blowing a business opportunity by giving away its assets. And NBA commissioner David Stern has expressed interest in creating a basketball  “World Cup” on par with the soccer, and limiting the Olympic competition to players 23 and under, like the Olympic soccer tournament does.  What’s your reaction to this general anti-Olympic vibe?  Good or bad for basketball if pros no longer participated? 

Sports is a cycle of beginnings and ends. We’ve been 20 years in this “business model,” and it was bound to end and another take its place. I bear no enmity toward those who would suggest athletes should be paid. The current Olympians are getting nothing like the acclaim and satisfaction the original Dream Teamers got. The competition is tougher, the attention is less pornographically positive, the rewards diminished. I don’t think basketball needs the bump of the pros because it is now established on a global basis. I’m a little out of my element here, but I don’t believe that Olympic soccer does much for soccer, not nearly as much as the World Cup or even the Euro Cup.

David Stern’s challenge, though, is to somehow convince everyone that an NBA-driven global tournament is not an NBA-driven crusade for bucks. Good luck on that.

Back to ’92: when players from other teams were asking for autographs from the American players, and lining up to take pictures with them before games,  was there a feeling of  “this is really weird?” or “this is kind of inappropriate?” Or was that kind of reverence expected, given how iconic the Dream Team was at the time? 

It was just part and parcel of the whole thing, the over-the-top, once-in-a-lifetime-holy-crap-what’s-going-on phenomenon. It was weird, but I understood it, and, in retrospect, it was an irresistible part of the Dream Team story. Heck, I was a cynical journalist and I remember standing the first time they came out in Portland [for an exhibition game against Cuba], and looking for my sons in the stands, finding them, and being happy that they were there to witness it.

Now, having said that, for myself and others like me, the feeling wore off very quickly. “Let’s get the damn game started” was our attitude. But the phenomenon never waned. The attention devoted to these guys kept increasing in Barcelona. That was the amazing part.

The Dream Team idea came from Boris Stankovic, an exec with the FIBA, the international basketball federation, and a former Yugoslavian meat inspector. Why would a non-American FIBA exec want the rest of the world to be crushed by a bunch of NBA players? And does the Inspector of Meat, as you call Stankovic in the book, deserve as much, or even more credit, for “growing the game” than David Stern – who, aside from Michael, Magic and Larry themselves, usually gets all the credit?  

There was both selflessness and selfishness in the Inspector of Meat’s forward-thinking idea to include NBA players in the Olympics. It bothered him that his organization, FIBA, the supposed head of basketball, had absolutely no say in what went on in the NBA. He saw an international world order for basketball that wasn’t there, he wanted one and he wanted a say–a BIG say–in it.

At the same time, he knew that international teams would only improve by playing the best. He remembers the moment when he saw the collegiate Bill Walton play. Walton was such a contrast to the Erector-Set centers of Europe that it was striking. Stankovic wanted HIS centers to play like that and only by engaging the Waltons of the world in competition was that going to happen.

Stankovic is absolutely one of the most overlooked figures in the history of sport. I cannot tell you how many times I have read over the past 20 years that the NBA was upset about failing to get the gold in 1988, so they “put” their NBA players in the Olympics. It just didn’t happen that way, and it drives me nuts.

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Aside elbowing an Angolan player during a 68-point victory, are you surprised that Charles Barkley did not cause some kind of international incident while playing Pied Piper, and drinking beer, on the streets of Barcelona? 

I’m a little surprised because, yes, there was much potential for trouble out there on Las Ramblas. I remember this crazy guy following the Barkley group one night and even Charles getting a little worried. But, all in all, there was just this pleasant vibe around him, at least every time I was there. He was smart enough not to drink too much. And I never saw anyone able to drink, talk, ramble, keep moving and make everyone feel a part of a group with the facility of Barkley. It is a true gift … and he still has it.

Since crowds flocked wherever they went, the players seemed a little cooped up in their hotel room in Barcelona. Aside from Barkley and a maybe few others, do you think members of the team took full advantage of the Olympic experience? You can stay up to 5 AM in a hotel playing cards, and play golf all day, anywhere in the U.S.  Do these guys isolate themselves too much? Or did they really have no choice, given the hysteria?

I never heard anyone say that he missed out on anything. In fact, one of the most interesting things to me was hearing the players describe how much they enjoyed getting to know each other, spending time in each other’s company. Yes, Stockton knew Malone and Pippen knew Jordan because they were teammates, and Bird knew Magic from Converse commercials. But in actuality none of these guys had spent much time together pre-Olympics. They were, to an extent, strangers, and they didn’t tire of hanging out. Perhaps they were a little paranoid in retrospect. But even Barkley says that Jordan could never have gone out like he did.

Now, Bird was the one guy who did tell me that the experience went on just long enough. A few more days and they could’ve become like every other team, little arguments, little annoyances, complaints about playing time. Part of what gave the experience its tone was its brevity.

What lessons can be learned from the Dream Team experience – both in basketball, and otherwise? 

Basketball-wise that you can play, in Chris Mullin’s words, “ultimately,” and not offend anyone. You can be professionals. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist today. LeBron James is an absolute professional on the court. So is Kevin Durant. So are many others. But you put together a group of THE greatest players of all-time and they doled out lessons in fundamentals without being jerks about it. That is a very, very hard thing to do given the celebratory culture that pervades our sports these days. (Not just basketball.)

Otherwise, it’s the lesson of Stankovic. Take your lumps, keep your eyes open, figure out why your opponent is better than you, go back home and refine your skills … and one day you will be with them.

What does the Dream Team say about America, both as it was in 1992, and now, still so fascinated and deeply invested in this iconic group of basketball players?

Americans always cling to the past with sentimentality, right? Things were always better BACK THEN. From a purely basketball standpoint, fans do remember that era with affection because not only were there iconic stars, but there were iconic competitions between those stars. The whole GAME mattered, not just the individual players. I hope LeBron and Durant can get that back.

Speaking strictly for myself, it was fascinating that, almost as an accident of history, these guys were together at one time. I have a section in the book when I conjure up this famous photo that Art Kane took of those Harlem jazz musicians back in the 1950s. It’s incredible. Dizzy Gillespie. Count Basie. Monk. Sonny Rollins. Did they all just happen to be at their height at one time? Or did the greatness of a couple of the earlier ones (the Birds and Magics of jazz) rub off on some of the younger ones (the Jordans and Barkleys). I do know this: You’ll never get that collection of icons on one team again.

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