Toward the end of his book, Dream Team, Jack McCallum is writing about Michael Jordan when he says, "I always considered Jordan's ultimate achievement to be that he was better than his hype, which was not easy when you're hyped the way he was." That seems like it would apply just as well to the Dream Team, too.
I say "seem" because I was too young in 1992 and never watched the Dream Team play live, so I won't try to testify one way or the other. But there are plenty of others who will gladly fill in the gaps. This summer's the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team's Barcelona arrival, and it's already provided heaping doses of nostalgia in 100 different ways. You're almost definitely sick of this stuff by now.
We get it, they were great, they changed everything, etc.
But McCallum's book resonates on a deeper level than the rest. He was embedded with the team for the entire time, having covered all of its stars for their entire careers leading up to those Olympics. He CAN testify, and he offers as much shameless awe as details.
McCallum was a reporter then, but 20 years later he's looking back almost like a fan, where his book reads like a bunch of notes from a friend, trying to explain what exactly made all this so amazing.
But then, it's probably most important to say that on a basic level, Dream Team is one of the funniest sports books you'll find anywhere. It's an encyclopedia full of insight into the greatest team ever, yeah, but in practice, it's as much about endless shit talking and ridiculous egos as any profound thoughts about greatness. And even the profound stuff will make you smile.
For instance, you have Patrick Ewing talking about Larry Bird.
Though Ewing grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and idolized Celtics legend Bill Russell, he was not a fan of Bird or the contemporary Celtics. .... "All through high school," says Ewing, "my friends and I hated him and hated his team." But something changed when Ewing entered the league and faced those flinty eyes of the HIck from French Lick. So he picked up the phone and dialed his friends.
"You know all that shit we were talking back then?" Ewing told them. "Well, forget about it. This motherfucker right here is the truth."
Or there's Chris Mullin speaking on his early days.
"I liked being in the gym alone. No, I loved it. I'd put a tape player or radio near the floor, put on some Springsteen, really blast it, shoot it, get your own rebound, shoot it, get your own. I loved that."
Jordan, on Christian Laettner's performance in scrimmages.
"Anybody who had Laettner on the team lost. He was the weak link and everybody went at him."
Karl Malone and a helpless Italian ref during the infamous Monte Carlo scrimmage.
"Oh, come on, man," he yells. Stop calling this fucking bull-sheet." Jordan comes over and steps between Malone and the ref.
"Forget it, Karl," says Jordan. "Don't scare him. We might need him."
"Fuck him!" yells Malone.
Magic Johnson learning a lesson.
They did take up the offer of Miami Heat owner Micky Arison for an afternoon on his yacht. When they arrived, they were informed that the air-conditioning was down, so Arison was bringing over his other yacht.
"That was a valuable day for me, a lesson in life," Magic told me years later. "The difference between being rich and being wealthy. The man had a backup yacht."
Chuck Daly's pep talk, and Barkley's response.
So Daly told them of two Spanish-owned Mediterranean islands: Majorca, a much-desired destination, the kind of place Dream Teamers would take their wives and girlfriends, and Minorca, which Daly described as a dark and dismal place with a high suicide rate. (Note to the Spanish Tourism Commission: I have no idea if this is true. I'm telling a story about a coach.)
"If we lose in Barcelona," says Daly, "we won't get beyond Minorca."
I have no idea if Daly came up with that himself. But it wasn't bad. ... Anyway, Barkley had something to say. "Coach, we ain't going to no motherfuckin' Minorca," he said.
Team USA's life in Monte Carlo, and curfew.
The team's daily schedule called for two hours of basketball followed by twenty-two hours of golf, gambling, and gaping at the sights, nude beaches and models always a three-point shot away, sometimes closer. "I'm not putting in a curfew because I'd have to adhere to it," said Chuck Daly, "and Jimmy Z's [a noted Monte Carlo nightclub where Jordan, Barkley, Magic, and Pippen spent many hours] doesn't open until midnight."
The reaction of the locals.
...a deliveryman pulling up to the Loews caught sight of the Dream Team boarding a bus. He was so entranced that he got out to gape, forgot to set the emergency brake, and watched in horror as the truck began rolling down a hill and crashed into two cars, knocking them through the window of a fashionable shop.
... And on and on. There were hundreds of those little throwaway anecdotes all throughout Dream Team. Other highlights include David Stern the expert ping pong player, Jerry West's reaction to the NBA's drug problems in the '80s, Charles Barkley's horror driving around the ridges of Monte Carlo with McCallum, everyone's reaction to the '94 and '96 Dream Team sequels, and pretty much any Michael Jordan story. (Example: The night before the Gold Medal game, he stayed up all night playing cards, then spent most of the next day filming a documentary, then squeezed in 18 holes of golf, before finally going sraight to the team bus.) (Never forget: Michael Jordan was a psychopath.)
The best part about the Dream Team experience were the stories, and whether we're talking about Bird, Magic, MJ or anyone else on that team, McCallum tells their stories with an insider's details and an outsider's disbelief. 20 years and a thousand legends later, the tone is perfect.
So what exactly made all this so amazing? You have to go back to where we started. "I always considered Jordan's ultimate achievement to be that he was better than his hype."
It was true of Jordan and probably the Dream Team, but not just them. Anyone who watched Jim Brown play running back would say the same thing. Or Randy Moss during his rookie year in Minnesota. Or not just sports, even. It's true of anything incredible that happens once, and can't happen again. Concerts, parties, a perfect date ... anything. These experiences stick with us forever, and no matter how much anyone hypes them afterward, anyone who didn't experience them can't totally understand.
It's why we do stupid things like stay up till 2 a.m. to watch west coast basketball games or pay for $100 concert tickets. Because you never know when you're going to see something truly incredible, and you'll silently regret it for a lifetime if you miss it.
So with that said, think of the Dream Team like Basketball Woodstock. It came at the end of a golden era, brought in all the biggest names from said era, and even as it was happening, most everyone knew nothing like it would ever happen again. Of course it'll be romanticized forever.
Everyone can relate to that feeling of awe and gratitude and giddiness that happens when you experience something truly incredible. Except that instead of 500,000 people in upstate New York, closer to 100 million people experienced the Dream Team worldwide. This is probably why so many people are still blown away by the whole experience. You can go right down the line.
- Magic Johnson: "For me, the Dream Team is number one of anything I've ever done in basketball, because there will never be another team like it."
- Michael Jordan, on that scrimmage in Monte Carlo: "Man, everybody asks me about that game. It was the most fun I ever had on a basketball court."
- Chris Mullin looking back: "Normally you don't talk about the past when you're in it, but that wasn't the case here. We talked about how it was all going to look later. We were aware it was special even as it was going on."
- Grant Hill, on his few days as a Dream Team practice dummy: "It was unbelievable. I mean, with all due respect to the birth of my children and my marriage, it was the best week of my life."
- Dirk Nowitzki, on his memories as a kid in Germany: "For a long time I thought basketball was a woman's sport because my sister and mom played. That doesn't make any sense, I know, but that's how I thought. I started shooting around when I was maybe twelve or thirteen and then--boom!--the Olympics hit and everything changed."
Dream Team is well-written and exhaustively reported, and it's hard to imagine a more addictive basketball book. It's worth your time for the stories alone. But as far as the Story?
For 300 pages, McCallum and 100 other characters try to explain what made the Dream Team experience so special, and all it does is make me wish I'd experienced it myself. Read one gushing testimony after another, and you eventually realize that the players -- and even McCallum -- can never totally do it justice for anyone who didn't experience it. So the book is a reminder, then: All the greatest things in life are like that.