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Inside ‘Dream Team’: A Conversation with Jack McCallum

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There exist books on most every subject written from most every angle imaginable. There are do-it-yourself guides to construct your vessel to the afterlife. There is a definitive handbook on colloquial speech on the high seas. There are memoirs filled with irredeemable drivel, helpful travel guides written in anapestic tetrameter, and dizzying, sprawling novels drowned in an ocean of footnotes.

And yet 20 years after the historic Olympic Games held in Barcelona in the summer of 1992, only now are we able to appreciate the “Dream Team” in proper, bound, and fascinating form. Jack McCallum’s book on the subject, entitled Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, hits bookstores today. It’s not only the definitive book on the subject, but in so many ways makes the long wait worthwhile, as McCallum’s insight, countless interviews, and decades of perspective coalesce wonderfully into the kind of book the greatest team of all time always deserved. Bits and pieces of the text are floating around various online outlets, but those sections hardly do the complete product justice.

I spoke with McCallum about the book, his experiences covering the Dream Team for Sports Illustrated, and some of the greatest basketball players who ever lived:

ROB MAHONEY: Isiah Thomas’ non-selection still strikes a chord with so many people and so many basketball fans —  it’s kind of amazing how linked he is with the Dream Team lore despite not actually being on the team. What is it about that dimension of this story that makes for such compelling theater?

JACK MCCALLUM: Well, one of the factors is that there wasn’t an amazing amount of controversy once [the Dream Team] got together. There weren’t complaints about playing time. There weren’t issues during the games. Chuck Daly did a fantastic job of managing the egos. We are a society — and certainly I’m part of it — that looks for controversy, and this is one of the few things you have to latch on to. The second thing is that Isiah has always been a lightning rod; it doesn’t matter whether he’s in the league or whether he’s out of the league, he’s always been a guy to whom attention has flown. I understand it, because Isiah was a great player. But James Worthy, he was a member of four championship teams or five championship teams, and there was never that [controversy] over him.

MAHONEY: In the vein of controversy, I know Clyde Drexler’s comments in the book about Magic and HIV picked up some traction on Deadspin and through some other outlets — so much that Clyde came out to publicly deny the authenticity of the quote. I know you’ve covered that saga a bit on your blog, but was Drexler’s after-the-fact denial something that surprised you at all, or given the quote, did you kind of see it coming?

MCCALLUM: I kind of saw it coming because I’m sure he didn’t remember exactly what he said, and then the context in which it was put — that the Dream Team was sort of waiting for him to die — all of a sudden it hit like a ton of bricks. I’m sure Clyde honestly thought that I made stuff up. We’ve talked since then and I sent him the transcript. I didn’t send him the tape — I can’t let the tape out of my possession unless I have to — but I sent him the transcript trying to explain that I thought it came out clearer in the book. But his reaction, I suppose, didn’t surprise me. After he saw the transcript, he still was saying that I was fabricating quotes but I think he understands I didn’t, and I just hope the whole thing is clear in the book because I did not feel good about it. As much as people think ‘Oh wow, controversy sells books, blah, blah, blah,” I did not feel very good about it.

MAHONEY: Your book is about the Dream Team and the golden age of basketball, but it’s also a personal narrative throughout. What guided your decision to not only write about an event and an era, but to also write about your experience specifically, as it relates to those things?

MCCALLUM: I think it was mostly that — I don’t want this to sound bad, because the publisher would probably go nuts — in many ways, the experience in Barcelona when they were together was the least interesting. We had 14 games that they played — six qualifiers and eight in the Olympics — where there was literally almost nothing to write about. It was a little bit of a closed society over there; the Olympics had their restrictions on locker rooms and things, which we’re not used to in the United States. The hotel was a locked down fort. I mean, I got in there a couple times but the hangout factor in Barcelona was actually pretty low. So what I needed to do was actually use the access I had before that, and as I started writing I realized that the interesting thing to me was how these guys became who they became. So that’s how I decided to do it that way.

MAHONEY: I thought that decision was interesting, especially because so many other stories about the Dream Team are solely about the Olympic team itself. All of these players are already so well known and so well chronicled already that other retellings seem to get by with a name drop and a citing of their credentials. But you really devoted almost a third of the book to setting the scene with each of those guys as imperfect, riveting characters. Is that solely because of the lack of access and drama in Barcelona, or were these just bits and pieces of so many other compelling stories that you felt needed a home?

MCCALLUM: I think the latter more than anything, but it was also this age. I don’t want to proclaim it the golden era just because I was there, but I’m going to proclaim it that. And it hadn’t been told in kind of a [book] form. Larry had biographies and Jackie MacMullan wrote a great book about Larry and Magic, but there wasn’t really a book in my opinion that put it all together. I will say that as I started doing it, I looked up one day and I said to my wife, “Oh my god, I’m 130 pages into this and they haven’t dribbled a ball together yet.” So yes, I was conscious of the fact that I was devoting an awful lot of time to it and I went back and cut some of it — you won’t believe that, but I cut some of it — because I’m sure some people would’ve gone, ‘Let’s get these guys on the court together.’ But to me, it was a foundation for the book that I couldn’t pass up.

MAHONEY: Definitely. You almost go out of the way in the book to explain that Christian Laettner isn’t a complete jerk. Was that a case in which you felt the general sentiment tilted in an unfair direction?

MCCALLUM: Yeah. Part of the reason that this thing worked is that things are different 20 years later, and one of the things that I realized 20 years later — probably because I’m older — is how tough this was on Laettner. What I thought back then, and what most of us thought, is how much of a jerk he was. We’d go up and talk to Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, who were literally the most famous athletes in the world, and they’d give you your time. They get the deal. They get it. And Christian Laettner just didn’t get it. Back then, I was more tending to think ‘What a jerk.’ Now, 20 years later, I’m more inclined to think ‘Yeah, he’s not blameless in the whole thing, but he was in a tough position.’

MAHONEY: The friendship between Patrick Ewing and Larry Bird seems like it would’ve made for a fantastic buddy cop setup, but what was it about their chemistry that was so peculiar and so interesting to you?

MCCALLUM: I think it spoke to the fact that both of these guys, Larry in particular, were perceived…and I got this from everybody, particularly about Larry. He was perceived as this kind of sleepy-eyed assassin and he kept himself a little detached on the court. And so now, they get together, and all of a sudden in a loose setting [the Dream Team members] discover what a lot of people have discovered about Bird: that he’s a pretty funny guy and that he has an incredible sense of humor. What made it funnier was that he had teamed up with the guy was seemingly closest to him in temperament, which is Patrick, and they were sort of this laugh riot. If you picked two unusual guys from the outside to be doing this, you’d pick those two. But if you kind of know them, it doesn’t seem all that strange.

MAHONEY: Similar to Bird and how people were surprised with how funny he was, do you feel like the players were surprised in a different way with Magic’s temperament? It seemed like he rubbed a lot of his teammates and people in the NBA the wrong way.

MCCALLUM: I think that idea that Clyde [expressed in the book]: the “This is my team. This is my stuff.” I think that affected pretty much everybody. But I later wrote on my blog that it only went so far; Magic could’ve been captain of that team for 350 games and there would have never been any kind of insurrection or any kind of revolt. Magic was a captain, and I think 20 years later these guys were sort of able to look at Magic with a half-smile and half-frown. I kind of look at him the same way; Mike Wilbon told me that he had literally never seen the guy in a bad mood. And with a person like that, I think we all kind of wonder: can this really be real? I still don’t know the answer. I love Magic, but I understand that if I were on his team, once in awhile I’d be rolling my eyes a bit.

MAHONEY: At any point during your interview process — either back in 1992 or more recently — did you ever feel like you weren’t getting the whole story on a particular topic? Kind of a collective and selective amnesia about some event in particular?

MCCALLUM: I would say some people held their opinions about other people, to a certain extent. I don’t think the chemistry was 100 percent; I think Magic — the idea that some people were eye-rolling at each other came out mostly on Magic. And in the last interview I did with Larry, I think I put it in the last chapter, Larry was the only one that said “Hey it’s a good thing this thing ended when it did.” There was starting to be “Hey, I only played six minutes.” “Chuck doesn’t like me.” There was starting to be a little bit of that, and Larry told me that without me asking. I tried to get him to say more, but he really wouldn’t do that. So I think there was a little holding back on the interpersonal relationships.

Going out at night, Charles was free then. Charles was kind of in a marital “interregnum” as I call it. But even then, there wasn’t a lot of hiding because the teams’ families were there. I’m sure some stuff happened that the public would love to hear about, but that wasn’t what I was exploring and probably wasn’t as scintillating as you might think because, as I said, these guys had brought their families along.

MAHONEY: So many of the players talk about how this was one of the greatest periods of their basketball careers. Did the coaching staff exude the same sentiment? Or was there more tension and pressure on them with such a star-laden roster?

MCCALLUM: Well, one of the unfortunate things was that Chuck [Daly] died before I got a chance to talk to him. But over the years, I had talked to Chuck many, many, many times, and I know what it meant to him. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. I know what that meant to that guy. He was a lifer. He grew up sweeping gyms, won two NBA championships, and then he was asked to coach the greatest team of all time. He couldn’t have been any more positive.

Lenny [Wilkins] and I only talked to a little bit. Lenny’s very much an old pro. He’s not going to show everything that he really thought about it, and I could not pull that much out of him. P.J. [Carlesimo] is a good friend of mine and he’s very exuberant — you knew what he felt about it.

But in answer to your question, the real guy was [Mike] Krzyzewski. Besides the players, Krzyzewski was the best interviews I did. This thing was so meaningful to him. He grew as a coach, he felt, because of it. He grew by watching Chuck Daly. He grew by watching how Magic, Michael, and Larry would “control” a team. He could not have been more into this experience. He wasn’t bullshitting me, either; I could tell that this was real emotion. A couple of times he even teared up talking to me. In this guy’s career, nothing was more important than being an assistant coach to Chuck Daly on this team.

MAHONEY: After reading through the book, I find that I’m almost more interested in the introverted stars than ever — the David Robinsons and the John Stocktons. it just seems like there’s typically so much focus in the traditional Dream Team story on Bird, Magic, and Jordan, that some of the other players get swallowed up. Did you feel like you needed to add the perspective of the other guys — the Chris Mullins of the team — who were forgotten in the fray?

MCCALLUM: It’s a good question. You always have regrets after a book, and one of my regrets — and I don’t know if it could’ve been any different — was that I didn’t get a lot out of Patrick [Ewing]. I think I got a lot out of Mullin and Stockton by going to visit them and I saw what that experience meant to them. John’s always on-guard, hands up and everything. But I was kind of able to write about that. And Mullin, with his alcoholism beforehand and what it all meant to him. Patrick I wasn’t able to unlock so much. But a basketball team is a microcosm. It’s the way a team operates. By the pure nature of it, even if it’s the most famous team in the world, it is going to revolve around the dominant personalities. This team functioned in the same way. Y’know,  just like the Los Angeles Clippers; they’ve got the leaders, they’ve got the focused guys, and they’ve got the supporting cast. In retrospect, one of the incredible things was how these Hall of Fame players did fall into that. David Robinson’s a perfect example of that; David scored 71 points in an NBA game once, and he was the complementary player on this team and that’s a credit to them and a credit to Chuck [Daly].

MAHONEY: Relative to your interviews at the time and brushing up again with guys more recently and fleshing out the story, who’s perspective on the dream team and the whole Olympic experience changed the most?

MCCALLUM: Good question. I’d say the answer to that is probably [Scottie] Pippen. Scottie has gotten himself in trouble over the years; he’s said some strange stuff, he’s had some money problems. He’s a little bit of a tabloid headline. And when he got the role as a Dream Team guy, he couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t say it then, but he couldn’t believe it. He had won two championships by then, but this elevated his career in his mind and I don’t think he really saw it then. But 20 years later, he was the one that talked — they all talked a little movingly but Scottie really talked movingly — about what this meant to him, how important this was, and how it kind of validated him as a player.

I would say in second place — or 1a there — was Mullin. Mullin, as you alluded to, was a little bit out of the spotlight to begin with, and a lot of people said, “What the hell is Chris Mullin doing on the team?” Well, Daly wanted him from the beginning. When Chris went over there, and he was a terrific addition and he liked the guys, it validated him as a player. What he told me is that it had validated the way he had started to approach life — to stop drinking and get your stuff together. So I would say Pippen and Mullin in that respect.

Watch Brad Stevens remain completely stoic after Avery Bradley’s game-winning 3 (video)

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Avery Bradley hit a perfectly dramatic shot Friday – a 3-pointer down two with time expiring against the conference’s best team.

When it fell, the Celtics justifiably went wild.

Well, not all the Celtics:

Tweet of the Day: Stephen Curry and crying Jordan

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Stephen Curry is a Carolina guy and a huge Panthers fan — he’s been that way since childhood, this was not a bandwagon jump.

Before the Super Bowl Sunday, he got to pound the drum for the Panthers (who also gave him a locker for the day).

We all know how the game went, it wasn’t a good day for Panthers’ fans. Curry handled it beautifully in this tweet.

Five Takeaways From NBA Sunday: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant at Super Bowl

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Sunday was all about Coldplay… was there something else going on? If you didn’t watch Sunday’s NBA games because you were prepping for a Super Bowl only someone who bet the under could love, here is what you missed from around the NBA Sunday. Which includes some Super Bowl talk.

1) Stephen Curry pounding a drum was not enough for the Panthers. Curry is a Carolina guy — he did not just jump on the Cam Newton/Panthers bandwagon, he’s been a fan for a long time. The Panthers rewarded him on Sunday with a locker and jersey.

They also let him pound the drum for the team pregame. Turns out, that was not enough (apparently Curry cannot secure a win without some help from Draymond Green). But he handled it beautifully on Twitter after the game.

2) Kevin Durant joined the media for a day to be a photographer at the Super Bowl. Kevin Durant’s relationship with the media has been about as smooth as a Kardashian marriage, but since he was in the Bay Area this weekend to take on the Warriors (another Golden State win), he decided to join the media for a day and be a photographer for the Players Tribune. You know, the website that will break Durant’s plans this summer. Follow this link and you can see his account and his photos.

Associated Press
Associated Press

Now, on to actual basketball….

3) Nikola Vucevic saves Magic with fade-away game winner. Orlando looked to be in control of their game with the Hawks, up 11 entering the fourth quarter and leading by eight with 3:30 left in the game — then Atlanta went on an 8-0 run. A Kent Bazemore three with :48 left tied the game at 94-94 (Bazemore finished with 23 points on the day).

But as he had done earlier in the year, Vucevic hit a game-winning fade away (this time over some good defense from Al Horford), and Orlando got the victory.

4) Chris Paul starts slow, finishes fast and Clippers pick up a road win in Miami. Chris Paul and the entire Clippers team started this game out looking like they had the South Beach Flu (after a night on the town). CP3 opened the game 0-of-9. But Paul was 6-of-10 in the second half, and when his shots fell it opened up the roll for a couple of huge DeAndre Jordan alley-oops.

The Clippers got 22 from CP3, another 20 from Jamal Crawford off the bench, and the Clippers kept right on winning with a 100-93 victory against Miami. If you want to nit-pick this team and how the teams above them in the West might attack flaws in the playoffs, go right ahead, but you’ll be missing a fantastic show in the meantime. The Clippers are playing well on the offensive end and just keep winning without Griffin in the lineup.

5) Brad Stevens gets the most out of the talent he has in Boston, George Karl does not in Sacramento. So that matchup went as you would expect. Brad Stevens has proven to be one of GM Danny Ainge’s best moves — and Ainge assembled a title team. He has a team of nice role players as the third seed in the East, with a fantastic defense and enough offense from Isaiah Thomas to get the job done. On the other side, George Karl’s job is in jeopardy in part because he can’t get buy-in from a team with some good talent (except for Rajon Rondo, who likes Karl because Karl has given him carte blanche in the offense). This game was just a contrast of organizations, and as you would expect the Celtics won handily 128-119.

Also, know that Thomas can play a little defense — he blocked a DeMarcus Cousins‘ shot.

Paul shakes off awful start, leads Clippers past Heat 100-93

Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) drives to the basket past Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) and forward Amare Stoudemire, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
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MIAMI (AP) — Chris Paul had the worst possible start to his shooting day.

His finish, however, was perfect.

Paul’s consecutive 3-pointers in the final minutes were daggers to a Miami comeback, and his game-high 22 points helped the Los Angeles Clippers hang on to beat the Heat 100-93 on Sunday.

“I kept shooting it,” Paul said, “because sooner or later it had to go in.”

J.J. Redick scored 14 points, Wesley Johnson had 10 and DeAndre Jordan and Cole Aldrich grabbed 11 rebounds each for the Clippers, who won despite a 1-for-15 start from the field and swept the two-game season series with Miami.

“That was a team win because nobody really had it going,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “But our defense really had it going all game.”

Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic all scored 17 points for Miami. Luol Deng added 15 points for the Heat, and Hassan Whiteside finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.

“They did to us what we’ve been doing the last few games, just grinding an opponent,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s what they did to us, then made the bigger plays down the stretch.”

Paul was 0 for 7 in the opening period, the worst one-quarter shooting performance of his NBA career, and was 0 for 9 before he finally got a shot to fall. But his 3-pointers in the fourth snuffed out a Miami rally, and his lob that set up Jordan for a dunk was the clincher for the Clippers – who, after that horrid start, shot 55 percent the rest of the way.

Redick made a layup on the game’s first possession and the Clippers proceeded to misfire on their next 14 shots, but recovered to win for the 11th time in their last 13 road games, most of that with Blake Griffin sidelined by injuries.

“We’re just trying to hold it down until our big fella comes back,” Paul said.

Miami went to the oft-used strategy of intentionally fouling Jordan in the third quarter to slow the Clippers’ offense. And while it worked to a point – Jordan went 3 for 10 from the free throw line in the quarter – Miami couldn’t score. The Heat were 4 for 20 in the third, got down by as many as 11 and never led again.

“They made big plays down the stretch,” Wade said. “That’s the way we’ve been winning of late, so we can’t be mad at that. We got a little taste of our own medicine.”

TIP-INS

Clippers: G Austin Rivers will miss four to six weeks with a broken left hand. For now, the Clippers aren’t planning on making any roster changes to add depth. “We may have to make a decision but we’re just going to try to ride it out,” Doc Rivers said. … Paul has faced the Heat 19 times, and his teams are 13-6 in those games.

Heat: Whiteside took his first charge of the season. … Wade’s first point of the day gave him outright possession of 41st place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He came into the game tied with John Stockton at 19,711 points. … Deng has scored at least 15 points in five of his last six games.

 

SUPER SATELLITE

The Clippers were using a different plane than usual for their postgame flight from Miami to Philadelphia, for Super Bowl 50 reasons. They changed planes in order to have satellite television access so they wouldn’t miss any of the Carolina-Denver game.

“It’s really nice of the NBA to have us play today and then travel during the Super Bowl,” Doc Rivers said. “Just really a great move. But at least we get to watch it.”