When NBA TV broadcast ‘The Dream Team’, a 90-minute documentary that looked back at the 1992 US men’s basketball team, in June this year, I watched riveted. NBA TV’s production was cutting edge in the way that only American productions are. It gave viewers hitherto unseen footage of the 11 Hall of Famers – led by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan – who took the basketball world by storm en route to the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The documentary was slick, superbly edited and provided nuggets of information that even the most avowed fan of the ’92 team wouldn’t have known. I even reviewed the production for NBA.com/India here.
Jack McCallum’s Dream Team, released just last month, enhances the legend of that almost mythical team even more. McCallum’s account is even more engaging because not only is he a venerable name in the world of basketball, but because his access to the 1992 Dream Team, as a journalist with Sports Illustrated, was as intimate as a family member could get with any of the individuals on that team. Not only did McCallum cover the squad right from the first practice to the gold-medal triumph in Barcelona, he even contributed to its immortal name, although this, as he confesses in the book, was more accidental than creative genius on his part. Where the NBA TV production was more behind-the-scenes, interview oriented, McCallum’s view is ringside, personal and forthcoming.
A 90-minute documentary, by its very definition, is constrained by time. McCallum’s Dream Team knows no such limitations. From the very beginning, McCallum provides a vivid but crisp account of the Dream Team. For example, while NBA TV’s production makes only a quick reference to Boris Stankovic, McCallum actually begins his book with a chapter on this gentleman under the intriguing title, ‘The Inspector of Meat’. It is a solid opening, which, at once, reveals Jack’s expertise on the subject and his inclination to take the reader beyond the obvious in this exhilarating read.
At the very outset of the book, McCallum states that the ‘narrative unfolds in roughly (emphasis on roughly) chronological fashion.’ While this is true, McCallum’s interspersing the narrative with interludes from the present day is a masterstroke. These regular interludes, with Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, David Robinson before the last one with Michael Jordan, not only allow a proper sense of perspective and reflection, but provide the reader with human portraits of these larger-than-life players. The ones with Robinson and Stockton are particularly good because they present the two players for who they are instead of how we remember them for their basketball skills. Had Dream Team purely been a chronological narration of events, without the interludes, I daresay it would have lost its soul.
Experts, and this goes beyond the realm of sports journalism, often sit on the fence when it comes to taking sides. They possibly think of simply providing a commentary on events instead of passing a judgment on its protagonists. In doing so, they lose an opportunity to lend their own voice to the narrative and simultaneously rob the reader of gauging what the ‘expert’ himself thinks of the subject.
McCallum, fortunately, avoids this pitfall. He voices his opinion, brandishes his views quite unequivocally throughout Dream Team. While he gives us what Drexler thinks of Michael Jordan (‘I had a lot of success against Jordan. I beat him often. At his game. I was bigger, faster. I did everything he could do.’), he isn’t afraid of saying, ‘There was nothing that Jordan did that Drexler couldn’t do… except that Jordan did everything better.’ Similarly, when pondering over who was the better of Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, McCallum states the impressive case for Malone before concluding, ‘Charles had that ineffable something that Malone didn’t have. He was just better.’
This, however, leads me to one complaint I have of the book. There simply isn’t enough about Patrick Ewing in it. While writing about how the Dream Team was assembled in the initial one-third of the book, McCallum introduces each member of the squad through a chapter on each one of them. It is a nice touch as it allows for the casual reader to get better acquainted with some of the less popular names on the team in terms of their basketball pedigree and lineage. And so, you have one chapter each on The Shooter (Chris Mullin), The Christian Soldier (David Robinson) and even one on The Dukie (Christian Laettner). But Ewing and Malone are conspicuously absent. Also, while McCallum makes up for the absence of a separate chapter on The Mailman (Karl Malone) by regularly bringing him up when Stockton, Barkley and even Magic Johnson are discussed, there just isn’t enough about Ewing.
Ewing and his New York Knicks, we must remember, had clashed in an epic seven-game series in the 1992 Eastern Conference semi-finals, which Jordan and Chicago eventually won enroute to a second NBA title. It was a bitter, physical series, speaking on which Jordan had once even remarked, ‘I was ready to go to blows with them [The Knicks].’ Getting Ewing to open up on that series, then, even as Jordan and he had joined hands on the Dream Team shortly afterwards in Barcelona, would have been priceless. Equally, while McCallum lets us in on the rivalry (or competitiveness) between Malone and Barkley or Jordan versus Drexler, he leaves the reader wondering what the equation between David Robinson and Ewing was. Remember, Robinson and Ewing were two of the three best centers in the league at that time (alongwith Hakeem Olajuwon). It is, to my mind, a golden opportunity missed.
The other problem I have is concerning the chapter, The Greatest Game That Nobody Ever Saw. If the title of the chapter suggests that the intra-squad scrimmage between the Dream Team members in Monte Carlo to be what it was, then the play-by-play style of McCallum to describe the game jars with the tone of the rest of the book. It is as if McCallum wants to force upon the reader that the scrimmage was indeed The Greatest Game… The player-by-player score at the end of the game, however, is a priceless pearl that McCallum provides to conclude the chapter.
But these are minor criticisms of what is truly an engrossing read on the greatest team ever assembled. From providing incisive insights (‘Magic and Earvin are two different people’), to peppering the book with dollops of humour (‘When you mess with a man’s [NBA player’s] wallet, you’re asking for trouble), to putting the entire Dream Team’s legacy in proper perspective (the full chapter titled, The Impact), McCallum’s writing is at par with the Dream Teamers’ basketball talents. Among my favourite chapters is the one titled, Aftermath, which talks about the different twists in the lives of the Dream Team’s three principal stars, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird after the ’92 Olympics. Only McCallum, with his supreme writing talent, could have provided such a poignant curtain call on a book, which is otherwise sure to leave you delighted.
You can pick up your copy of Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, here.