DREAM TEAM How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever
This is the 20th anniversary of the “Dreamers,’’ and Kobe Bryant celebrated it by saying that the star-studded team America is sending to the London Olympics this week could have beaten the one with 11 Hall of Famers. Bryant noted that his team was younger (he’s 33, but never mind), and a lot of the Dreamers were at the end of their careers.
There’s no way to know who would win. Oddly enough, the whole idea of fantasy matchups playing out in real life forms the premise of “Dream Team,’’ Jack McCallum’s examination of the 1992 US Olympic men’s basketball team. McCallum follows the creation of the squad and demonstrates that all the debate and discussion surrounding it during its two-week world domination was at least as compelling as the games themselves.
For readers, the book’s immediate attraction comes from the same impulse that makes you ask whether Ali was better in his prime than Tyson, whether the Hulk could beat the Thing, whether Jay-Z or the Notorious B.I.G. is the greatest rapper of all-time. And in a strange way it probably explains how MTV managed to squeeze six seasons out of “Celebrity Deathmatch.”
But McCallum offers more than these pleasures. He also explains how much better this team was than any before, how pivotal the time period was, how it shaped the game over the following two decades.
The book is divided into two sections — “Before the Dream’’ and “The Dream Unfolds’’ — and explores both the personalities on the 1992 team and the era in which they played from as many angles as possible. “The members of the Dream Team represented the central characters in the compelling drama of pro basketball from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, a golden age for the NBA.”
The “Dream Team” is packed with golden nugget after golden nugget, and it is hard to fathom in our status-update society that there could be so much we didn’t know about so many of the greatest players in the history of the game.
It wasn’t just that they gleefully steamrolled teams by an average of 44 points. It was the boldness of it all, like someone explaining the legend of Brazil’s Oscar Schmidt to Charles Barkley and Barkley saying something like this: “I guard Larry Bird and James Worthy and Kevin McHale . . . and a dozen other guys during the season. Why . . . would I be worried about Oscar Schmidt?” The greatest game of that summer, the one that McCallum devoted a chapter to, wasn’t the 32-point blowout against Croatia in the gold medal game, it was the intrasquad scrimmage between Magic Johnson’s blue team and Michael Jordan’s white team, a game seen by few. “A video of that game is the holy grail of basketball,” McCallum writes.
That these bits were still undisclosed underscores the difference between then and now. That dichotomy, in fact, forms a kind of sub-theme in the book.
McCallum makes fun of today’s excessive, social-media-fueled, minute-by-minute coverage of teams, players, owners, coaches, housewives, girlfriends, children, cars, cribs, and mistresses in sports — and especially the 140-character orgasms that flow nonstop on the social network of your choice. (McCallum’s mocking, made-up example: “OMG, jst met ChazBark at bar & he KISSED me on cheek; hez not rlly fat LOL,” and the only part that’s implausible is the semicolon — everyone knows it would be an ellipsis that’s six dots too long.)
McCallum’s tone is conversational but always insightful, drifting into first-person occasionally, but doing so through the lens, as he describes it, “of a minor-league Cameron Crowe’’ from “Almost Famous.” He’s able to write in a way that examines greatness without resorting to hero worship.
Take, for instance, his retelling of one of his favorite Jordan stories, the one about his dilemma over reporting in a Sports Illustrated story that Jordan had a baby out of wedlock. He notes that he took heat from some for not making a bigger deal of it and from others (including Jordan) for writing it at all.
That it was a problem then seems almost quaint. In the age of oversharing, how many athletes have secrets? What isn’t on Twitter? Babies (LeBron), X-rays (Arian Foster), toenails (Dwyane Wade): all fair game.
Early on Bird says about the Dream Team: “If it would’ve happened today . . . it would’ve been one of those reality shows.” And you can clearly tell he’s never seen a second of “Basketball Wives,” and you’re happy for him.
It’s a ringing endorsement of the team and the time period.