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. Ballantine, 352 pp., $28.
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It's been 20 years since the "Dream Team" was a phenomenon, a group of rock stars in basketball uniforms that turned the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona into a spectacle never before seen. Jack McCallum's fascinating new 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," explores that team, which easily won the gold medal, from all angles. It featured NBA superstars Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the extremely talented but often controversial Charles Barkley, along with seven other Hall of Famers.
McCallum, who covered the NBA's golden age of the 1980s and '90s for Sports Illustrated, was embedded with the team from the first practice to the medal stand in Barcelona. For this book he went back and interviewed the players to get a fresh perspective.
He wisely does not waste time detailing the games. The Dream Team hardly broke a sweat in winning the qualifying tournament and then defeating its eight opponents in the Olympics by an average margin of 43.8 points. Instead, he takes readers behind the scenes to card games among the players; Barkley's late-night excursions down Las Ramblas, a popular street in Barcelona, with fans tagging along; and to various golf courses where Jordan spent most of his time. Readers learn how the players put their huge egos aside to pursue gold, and the friendships that developed, including the odd couple of Bird and Patrick Ewing of the Knicks.
The selection of players, McCallum writes, is "one of the stickiest subjects in the history of the NBA." An invitation from the selection committee validated a player's status as one of the NBA's elite. Plus, the first Olympic team to feature pro players would always have a special place in history. As McCallum writes, Magic committed early and helped set the tone. But "no one would be on the team if Jordan didn't want him on the team." That is where Detroit's Isaiah Thomas comes into the story. Thomas, a perennial All-Star coming off two NBA titles with the Pistons, had some bad history with Jordan. (Some believed Thomas was the main player responsible for an All-Star Game freeze-out of Jordan, when teammates would not pass to the young Bulls superstar.) The Dream Team had to have Jordan; Thomas was left out.
McCallum devotes an entire chapter to the scrimmage that team members played in Monte Carlo. As McCallum writes, "The gym was all but locked down." The media saw only the last part of the historic practice, but McCallum was able to get a tape and does a masterful job recreating what was essentially the greatest pickup game in history, complete with heated trash talk between Jordan and Magic, who were on opposite teams. As McCallum writes, "It was a closed universe, a secret little world, when ten of the best basketball players in the world began going at each other."
The United States will send superstars such as Miami's LeBron James and Laker Kobe Bryant to London this month to try to win gold. But as McCallum's book points out, there was only one Dream Team, an unprecedented collection of talent that included some of the greatest players in the game's history.