In case you didn’t know, the unofficial theme of the unforgettable 1992 Team USA Basketball “Dream Team” experience was “Beat Me, Whip Me, Take My Picture.”
Beating the US was not going to happen. Being There was all the fun, and as Exhibit A I give you Argentina guard Marco Milanesi.
On July 1, 1992, in Game 4 of the Olympic qualifying tournament known as the Tournament of the Americas, the US was en route to what was by then the standard 41-point (128-87) thrashing of an opponent. At one point in the second half, Milanesi, a fairly decent 6-foot-5-inch swingman, was posting up Magic Johnson on the box closest to the Argentina bench. Milanesi was a frantic young man, for in addition to signaling for the basketball with one hand he was waving to the bench with the other as he called out for someone to, quick, por favor, take my picture!
Such goings-on were not regular occurrences in NBA games.
I was there for the whole thing, from the first practice with the College Select team in La Jolla to the Tournament of the Americas in Portland to the week practicing in Monte Carlo — yeah, I know, tough duty — to the entire Olympic experience. There were 15 games in all, if you count the Monte Carlo exhibition game against France. Those 15 games, as non-competitive as they were (the US trailed only Croatia in the gold medal game, and that for as long as it took for the ball to get to the other end of the floor for the restorative hoop), were the most important basketball games ever played on an international level. Those games awed and inspired young men and women throughout the world, even as they annoyed Americans, who mistakenly thought the presence of NBA players in this competition stamped them as bullies, rather than the ultimate basketball ambassadors they were.
So, yes, I was there, but I wasn’t there the way Jack McCallum was there. As Sports Illustrated’s man on the NBA, McCallum had access I could only have dreamed of, and he has produced the absolute definitive work on the subject, a perfectly wonderful once-you-pick-it-up-you-won’t-be-able-to-put-it-down book called “Dream Team,” subtitled “How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, And The Greatest Team Of All Time Conquered The World And Changed The Game Of Basketball Forever.” It is out there right now, waiting for you to entertain and educate yourself on what has been America’s most misunderstood sports topic of the last two decades.
Start with the reason there even was a Dream Team in the first place. It had nothing to do with a giant American pout over losing the 1988 gold medal game to the then-Soviet Union (otherwise known as the Lithuanian All-Stars, Plus Friends). It had nothing to do with David Stern wanting to make money (that came later). The answer comes on page 9, when McCallum writes, “But whatever revisionist history might eventually be written, remember this: The Dream Team resulted from the vision of Boris Stankovic.”
Stankovic, a Serbian, was the head man of FIBA, the international governing body of all basketball outside the NBA. He thought the only way to elevate the rest of the basketball world to anything close to the level of the American professionals was for them to be confronted with them directly. You know, feel the dragon’s fire, and all that. It was that simple.
The Stankovic profile included a background in veterinary medicine, which had led to a job as a meat inspector. McCallum’s repeated references to the head of FIBA as the Inspector of Meat are amusing, but that, of course, is one reason why the book is so readable. McCallum, one of the great basketball writers of all time, is a very funny man.
He was able to track down all the principals for fresh interviews — a formidable feat in itself — and in so doing was surprised to discover what a profound impact the Dream Team experience had on them, surprising in that 11 of them are in the Hall of Fame and the 12th, Christian Laettner, should be in as a college immortal.
“In general terms,” McCallum explains, “what amazed me was how much this experience resonated with these guys. I heard time and again that ‘this was the greatest experience of my life.’ In the case of guys like [Chris] Mullin, [John] Stockton, and [Scottie] Pippen, this basically certified their careers.”
The only key person not heard from is, of course, coach Chuck Daly, who died in 2009. “Fortunately, in terms of the institutional memory from a coaching viewpoint, [assistant coach, now head coach] Mike Krzyzewski had total recall,” McCallum reports. “But the idea of doing a Dream Team book without hearing from Chuck Daly makes me sad right now. Everybody loved that guy.”
The roster selection process alone makes for a great story. No one knew for sure how the idea would be received by the great stars of the day, starting with the idea of giving up a summer. And then there was the controversial omission of Isiah Thomas. Fearing that he would have to tip-toe into the issue when he sat down with Michael Jordan, McCallum was pleasantly surprised when Michael got right to the point. “I told them from Day One that I did not want to play with Isiah Thomas,” said Jordan.
That settles that.
Jordan insisted that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson be cocaptains, and that he be left out of it. He would make his only needed statement in the famous Monte Carlo scrimmage, which Daly ordered after the team’s lackluster performance against the French, and which had Michael on one side and Magic on the other. McCallum breaks down the play-by-play of this legendary knock-down/drag-out affair.
We learn just how superb Daly’s people skills were and how he was the perfect man for the job. Would anyone else have scheduled Monte Carlo practices around Michael’s tee times? Chuck’s ego never got in the way.
Quick aside: Chuck and I are laying side-by-side in chairs at the rooftop pool of the Loews Monte Carlo. Once upon a time Chuck had been the head coach at Boston College and I had been a kid sportswriter invited to dinner with his wife and infant son. “Bob,” Chuck said as we gazed out onto the Mediterranean, “what are we doing here?” (Can’t let McCallum have all the stories).
Larry was the last to submit to an interview, and now Larry should feel a bit foolish, because McCallum saved his biggest journalistic smooch of all for Larry (I loved Larry saying that if he had played with Jordan and Pippen, “I’d have averaged 15 steals a game.”). Well, I’m laying the big smooch on Jack’s entire book.
If you want to know what the Dream Team was really all about, then and now, you need this book. I’m not jealous of McCallum for writing it, but I sure am envious.