A look inside the best basketball team ever: Jack McCallum’s Dream Team

Reviewed in this essay: Dream Team by Jack McCallum. Ballantine Books, 2012.

The Dream Team is one of the most iconic teams in sports history. It was packed with household names like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley, not to mention Michael Jeffrey Jordan: the centerpiece of the team and just maybe the most famous athlete ever. It was one of the most talented teams ever put together: they won every game in the 1992 Olympics by at least 32 points.

In his new history of this team, Jack McCallum explains not only was it the greatest collection of talent ever on one team, but was one of the most important too, and its impact on the world of basketball is only just starting to be felt.

His history of this remarkable team covers it all, from the European official who started working to modernize the Olympics in the 1970s, to a look behind the scenes at the Olympics, to how they inspired a generation of NBA talent. Between his skills as a journalist and his access to these superstars, he’s written a book that shines a new light on a familiar story.

One example is how the team was put together: it was a collection of all the NBA’s stars, save one: guard Isaiah Thomas who was disliked by Bird and Jordan. Here, McCallum explains the back-room dealing that kept Thomas off the team and the baggage that came with his replacement, Clyde Drexler, who knew his role all too well.

Dream Team, by Jack McCallum (2012)

And when McCallum covers familiar ground, like Bird reluctantly accepting a role on the team or Jordan covering up a Reebok logo with a flag during the medal ceremony, he sheds new light on these stories with his access. Everybody involved, including McCallum himself (who covered this team for Sports Illustrated), remembers everything clearly, from on-court play to playing off of it, in all-night high-stakes card games at the hotel. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look.

He’s uncovered a few gems too: he found long-lost tapes of a legendary scrimmage against college athletes (the only time they lost a game) and of an intra-squad game between the Dream Team. In these chapters, he walks the reader though the action, pausing to allow the players to look back, nearly 20 years later. Their different reactions show an insight into what they each brought to the team; Larry Bird remembers being in pain and barely able to make routine plays, while Jordan vividly remembers Bird as a game changer:

“I remind Jordan of the play. He grows animated. “That was the game winner, right?” he says. Not exactly, I tell him. But Jordan is amped up, not even listening to me. “That’s Larry, man, that’s Larry,” he says. “Making a great play like that. That’s Larry Bird.” (pg 224)

Dream Team doesn’t finish with the Olympics, either. The 1992 Olympics was the first time most of the planet saw these players, let alone playing together. McCallum shows how this team influenced a generation of current NBA stars, like Dirk Nowitzki, Jose Calderon and Canada’s own Steve Nash. It popularized the league around the world almost overnight: coach Donnie Nelson compares it to The Beatles coming to America. The NBA went from a handful of international players in 1992 to 86 in 2011 or about 20 per cent of the league.

With his detailed look at an iconic team and at its global impact, McCallum’s Dream Team is a fun and informative read. Recommended for all basketball fans, especially those old enough to remember this team.