"Dream Team" - A Conversation with Jack McCallum
When Jack McCallum's fantastic 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 came across my desk a few weeks ago, I was definitely intrigued. I'm a big basketball fan (I play it. I watch it. I'm even in a long-standing fantasy basketball league) and I'd been following the US men's Olympic basketball team with some interest, so I figured the book was worth dipping into over the weekend. On Saturday afternoon I started reading, and by evening I was surprised (and slightly disappointed) to realize that I'd finished the book. I did not want it to end.
I started telling my basketball friends about the book, and as they began talking and trading emails, discussing how the current Olympic team would stand up to the '92 team, I got an idea. Why not see if Jack McCallum, arguably the #1 authority on the Dream Team, would answer their questions? Turns out he's quite a sport. Thanks to members of my fantasy basketball league for providing the questions. And thank you, Jack!
Note: I started off with three questions of my own.
Q: In the sports world, the creation of the Dream Team is a real historical event. It was certainly a big deal at the time, but did you realize how big it would be 20 years later?
Jack McCallum: We all knew at the time that the phenomenon of this whole thing would endure, and we knew that would augment the NBA's coffers overseas. What we didn't see was the electrical shock it set off in the basketball world, how so many great foreign players would get not only charged up but educated by this team, and that they would use the lessons of humiliation to get better.
Q: It’s clear from the book that being a member of the Dream Team was fun. Did you have as much fun covering the team?
McCallum: Work is never quite as much fun as it seems. But it was a lot of fun primarily for this reason: I didn't have that much work to do. No website. No social media. I was free to roam around and write once a week for Sports Illustrated. I remember feeling guilty about it. But not THAT guilty. It would be entirely different these days.
Q: Who were your favorite Dream Team members—as players? As people?
McCallum: I know this sounds impossible, but, with the exception of Laettner, who I didn't know all that well, I liked all these guys. I was probably closest to Jordan, Barkley, Malone and Drexler. But you really didn't hang with Michael; he existed in a different world, so "close" probably isn't the right word. Journalistically, I could always get something out of him. The only guys I went out with were Barkley and Malone, and I played golf with Barkley and Drexler in Monte Carlo.
(The remaining questions are from members of my fantasy basketball league.)
Q: If the international competition back then were as good as it has been in the last 10 years, who would have been the most important Dream Teamers other than Jordan?
McCallum: In this order: Barkley, Pippen and Robinson. Part of that is timing. They were all at the hight of their careers and did different things that would be necessary. Charles’ low-post scoring, Pippen’s defense and his running the team as a point forward, Robinson as a defensive presence inside.
Q: Did the Dream Team have better basketball IQ than the current superstars?
That is probably what set them apart. You have to understand where they were in their careers. First of all, they were all great and smart players, but this wasn't a young team. They were hardened, experienced veterans who came into an NBA that was less diffuse from expansion. Which is not to say that the 2012 team is dumb; it isn't. Kobe, LeBron and Chris Paul, to name just three, are every bit as smart as the Dream Teamers.
Q: How would the current stars mesh with the Dream Team?
McCallum: Well, there would be 24 guys and that's a lot of playing time to dole out. I'll answer it in the next one.
Q: How are the hierarchies different on the current team vs. the Dream Team?
McCallum: The important thing on all-star teams that have to play together for a while is, in fact, figuring out the hierarchies. I'm not as close to the 2012 team, but it seems to operate under the leadership of Kobe and LeBron. Kobe, oddly, has become Magic, more of the ceremonial leader. He is the go-to guy at interview sessions, etc., and is much, much, much more popular overseas than he is in our country. LeBron is Jordan. He is at the top of his game. This team will live and die with him.
Q: Forgetting Isiah, who was the biggest omission from the team?
McCallum: James Worthy, easily. Multi-time champ, low-post scorer, could run the floor, good guy, winner.
Q: How about that legendary pickup game they played? What part is myth what part is fact?
McCallum: Well, since I devoted a couple dozen pages to it in DREAM TEAM I hope it's mostly fact. The biggest myth is that it was superb basketball. It wasn't. It was PRAC-TISS, as Allen Iverson would say. What wasn't myth, though, was what it demonstrated--the competitiveness of all these guys and the undercurrent of Alpha Male competition between Magic and Michael.
Q: Was Laettner abused in any way? Would Shaq have been abetter choice?
McCallum: Within the cocoon, the team took care of Laettner very nicely. Any bit of trouble he had was his own doing. Of course Shaq would've been a better choice because he's more fun. But Laettner was the CORRECT choice. If they were going to take one college player, he deserved to be the guy.
Q: Would Barkley be a good politician?
McCallum: If we had a monarchical system, Charles would be great. Or he would be a great mayor. But as far as a congressman or senator or something like that? No way. Charles is not a huge detail guy and wouldn't sit in session for more than 15 minutes. That could be a problem.
Q: Kobe was right, wasn't he, about this current USA team? They could beat the Dream Team couldn't they? LeBron? Durant? Kobe? CP3? Respect for our elders, yeah. But the Dream Team was old (other than Jordan).
McCallum: I talked to Kobe over here about what he said. What he said was, his team COULD BEAT the Dream Team. He never said it was BETTER. That is a crucial difference. Here's what I think: 10 games, the 2012-ers win two. The Dream Team was experienced but, Bird notwithstanding, was not old. They would crush the 2012 team inside. No contest. But LeBron and Kobe and Durant would be good enough to get it done a couple times.