Please visit our sponsor.
It's a joy to relive that greatness.
Jack McCallum's Chronicle of the Greatest Team of All-Time
Hardcover. 384 pp.
July 10, 2012. Ballantine.
Throughout this summer's Olympics in London, we -- well, those of us in the United States -- were once again proudly watching as our national basketball team routed almost every team they faced (despite a scare against Lithuania and a close final against Spain) to claim yet another gold medal. The 2012 USA basketball team, featuring LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony, among others, was so dominant that it invited comparisons to the first team of NBA stars that represented the United States in the Olympics -- the aptly-named Dream Team. The members of the 2012 team said that they felt they were good enough to beat the Dream Team. The members of the Dream Team vehemently disagreed.
Of course, we'll never know the true answer, but reading Jack McCallum's history of that original USA Olympic team full of NBA legends, I tend to agree with the old-timers. It was 20 years ago, in 1992, when the United States first sent professional players to represent the country in the Olympics. For years, the United States had dominated Olympic basketball, even with amateur teams made up of top college players. While the United States sent its amateurs, however, competing nations sent teams full of "amateurs" who just so happened to play full-time on their national teams and probably get paid a little something while doing so. 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 (July 2012, Ballantine) Jack McCallum traces the origins of the Dream Team and tells the history of the greatest basketball team ever assembled from his courtside seat and behind-the-scenes perspective from the legendary team's selection process to its competitive scrimmages and practices and dominant destruction of everyone it faced at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Oddly enough, it was a Yugoslavian member of basketball's international sanctioning body, FIBA, who worked assiduously to get the very best players in the world -- NBA professionals -- into the Olympics. McCallum shows how Boris Stankovic got NBA Commissioner David Stern to see the opportunities available to the league and its ever-growing brand by having NBA players take part in the Olympics. It was not an easy job by any means -- entrenched amateur organizations in the United States and internationally were adamantly against substituting NBA players for collegiate athletes in the Olympics. Originally, the NBA was against the idea, as well, but the Dream Team's formation ended up establishing the NBA as a global presence and a marketing juggernaut. One other reason that there was opposition to NBA players on the national team was because the United States had pretty much dominated Olympic basketball with amateurs. For years, we didn't need professionals to represent the country.
However, after decades of dominance (minus a controversial finish at the 1972 Munich Olympics in which the Soviet Union won the gold and the U.S. settled for silver -- the first non-gold medal performance for USA basketball since it became an Olympic event in 1936), the United States finished with a bronze medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The United States wasn't robbed in 1988. There was no controversy. The Soviet Union (gold) and Yugoslavia (silver) were simply better. And part of the reason was because the United States was the only national team which didn't feature professionals. The humiliating bronze medal finish in 1988 (which really wasn't all that humiliating considering the Soviet and Yugoslavian teams both featured world-class players who succeeded in the NBA as well as internationally) made it a little bite easier for USA basketball to accept the idea of NBA players on the national team.
After the decision was made to allow NBA players to join USA basketball, the difficult part was deciding which NBA players. This is where Dream Team becomes really interesting, thanks to McCallum's longtime coverage of the NBA, front row seat for the entire run of the Dream Team, and the fact that those players involved in 1992 are surprisingly willing to open up about controversies that took place twenty years ago. The obvious first pick was Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls, who was fresh off of an NBA Championship season. The first ten players chosen by USA basketball are now remembered amongst the greatest players in NBA history -- and in 1992, they were nearly all at their prime.
Joining Jordan was his Chicago teammate Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, Karl Malone and John Stockton of the Utah Jazz, Chris Mullin of the Golden State Warriors, Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks, Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers, and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, despite being diagnosed as HIV-positive in November 1991 and retiring from the NBA. To complete the team, USA basketball added two more players shortly before the Olympics -- Clyde Drexler of the Portland Trail Blazers and the lone collegiate representative, Christian Laettner of Duke University (Laettner beat out Louisiana State University's Shaquille O'Neal). Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly was named the head coach.
The biggest controversy surrounding the selection process was the fact that Daly's star player, Detroit guard Isiah Thomas, was snubbed by USA basketball. At the time, there were rumors that Jordan had refused to join the team if Thomas was selected due to a long-running feud between the two star players. Amazingly, in Dream Team, Jordan readily admits that he didn't want to play with Thomas and suggested that he wouldn't be a part of the team if Isiah was.
What's really impressive about McCallum's book is that it jumps back-and-forth between the exciting formation of the team in 1992 and its dominating run through Barcelona and to the Dream Teamers in 2012. McCallum's reporting is first-class, and every single player who participated is surprisingly honest about how they felt then and how they feel now -- about themselves, about their peers, and about their experience on the Dream Team. With the exception of Laettner, every member of the Dream Team is a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, as well as three of the team's four coaches. The team itself was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a collective (one of just eight teams in basketball history to be honored) in 2010. Yet, these legends who were part of perhaps the greatest team in the history of all sports, readily admit their petty rivalries, jealousies, and grudges. There is some bitterness, but overall, they all treasure what they did in Barcelona and understand now -- as they even understood then -- that they were a part of something incredibly special.
We see how the team deferred to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as captains, how Charles Barkley was simultaneously the league's worst nightmare and greatest ambassador in Barcelona, and get a surprising glimpse at how the Dream Teamers relaxed in Barcelona, like family members -- really wealthy and competitive family members -- in what basically sounded like a luxurious frat house during the Olympics. Perhaps the best part of Dream Team is when McCallum recaps a legendary intrasquad scrimmage in Monte Carlo prior to the Olympics. If the Olympics weren't very competitive for the Dream Teamers, the practices certainly were, especially this particular scrimmage, which McCallum calls "The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw" and featured Jordan, Malone, Pippen, Ewing, and Bird vs. Magic, Barkley, Robinson, Mullin, and Laettner. It's an incredibly fun chapter with every bit of trash-talking and one-upsmanship that you would expect from some of the most competitive athletes to ever play a sport.
There has never been a team like the Dream Team which rolled through the 1992 Barcelona Olympics by an average score of 44 points, and there never will be again. NBA players have played in every Olympics since 1992, and a funny thing happened in the past twenty years -- the rest of the world got a hell of a lot better. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the U.S. team again dominated en route to a gold medal, but it didn't have the same magic (or "Magic"?) as the '92 team. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, another gold medal went to the United States, but NBA players were seriously tested for the first time in two games against Lithuania. In 2002, the U.S. prepared for the 2004 Olympics by hosting the FIBA World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis and basketball fans across the country were stunned when NBA players lost in international competition for the first time and the U.S. finished in sixth place.
Beginning in 2000, top NBA players declined spots on the national team and it became disappointing to see some of this country's biggest basketball stars turn down an opportunity to represent their country. It was indicative of some of the high-paid, somewhat pampered NBA players of that era. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the United States was routed by Puerto Rico by 19 points, lost to Lithuania, and became the first Olympic team featuring NBA players to fail to win the gold medal, settling with the bronze. The 2004 Olympic team featured young NBA players such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade, but the team never quite clicked.
After the disastrous 2002 World Championships and the 2004 Athens Olympics, USA basketball revamped their organization, installed Duke's Mike Krzyzewski as head coach, and sought commitments from top NBA stars to build a solid national team in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. James, Wade, Anthony, and Kobe Bryant were among the leaders of what was named the "Redeem Team" to reclaim USA basketball's supremacy at the Olympics and they did so in Beijing. Many of those same players committed immediately to play in this summer's London Olympics (Wade was forced to drop out due to an injury) and, as noted earlier, the 2012 Olympic team even drew comparisons to the 1992 Dream Team chronicled by Jack McCallum. Two weeks after his second gold medal, LeBron James has already mentioned his interest in once again representing his country in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero -- a far cry from the players of the 1998-2004 era who looked at the national team as almost a burden.
Yet, it all begins with those twelve legendary players (well, eleven legendary players and Christian Laettner) who went to Barcelona twenty years ago at the height of their popularity, the peak of their basketball skill, and the apex of their fame, and came together as perhaps the greatest team of athletes to ever play a sport. I was 12 years old in 1992 and I will never, ever forget the Dream Team absolutely dominating star-struck opponents who asked for photos prior to tipoff and then were summarily destroyed by their heroes. I'll never forget Charles Barkley's classic quote prior to the Dream Team's game against Angola: "I don't know nuthin' 'bout Angola. But Angola's in trouble." (Barkley was right, final score: USA 116, Angola 48) I'll always remember Jordan and Pipper eviscerating their future Chicago Bulls teammate Toni Kukoc, just because they were tired of hearing about him. I'll never forget the fact that Dream Team coach Chuck Daly went through the entire tournament without ever calling a timeout.
And for everything that I didn't remember, or never knew, we have Jack McCallum's awesome chronicle, Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever to pull back the curtain and show us just how great the Dream Team actually was.
Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever by Jack McCallum is available now from Ballantine Books. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Jack McCallum was a longtime member of the Sports Illustrated staff and covered the 2012 USA basketball team during the London Olympics for NBC. He also wrote a wonderful book in 2006 about a season with the Phoenix Suns called :07 Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench With the Runnin' and Gunnin' Phoenix Suns (BOOK KINDLE). McCallum's website is http://jackmccallum.net and he is on Twitter @McCallum12.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.