Author: Rob Mahoney


Inside ‘Dream Team’: A Conversation with Jack McCallum


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.

Sixers edge Celtics with (surprise!) balanced offense

Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday

The Philadelphia 76ers’ 92-83 Game 4 win over the Boston Celtics may be remembered for many things: altogether brutal offensive play, defensive flurries, or even a pair of huge Andre Iguodala makes in the closing minutes of a game where points were precious.

Or, more realistically, this is exactly the kind of game that might be swept under the playoff rug altogether. Our basketball memories don’t exactly cling to these 48-minute slogs, and though this was a crucial win for a Sixers team fighting for the possibility of a potential upset, it was ultimately the kind of contest that holds more weight in narrative worth than it does in strategic or aesthetic relevance.

And if this game really is destined to be forgotten in the playoff mass, I only ask that a few important footnotes be worked into the total playoff tales of these two battle-hardened clubs. Friday night brought no revelation or reinvention, but if we cast a light on certain spots, it did offer bits of valuable affirmation.

  • The Sixers, scoring in balance: As mentioned above, Iguodala (16 points) was able to dole out the killing blows, but his late-game success provided a stark counter to his early ineffectiveness. The same could be said of Evan Turner (16 points), who was slow to start but ultimately instrumental. Or Lou Williams (15 points), who orchestrated the offense to startling effectiveness in the second half. Throw in Thaddeus Young (12 points), who functioned as the Sixers’ most productive big, and Jrue Holiday (11 points), and Philadelphia managed five double-digit scorers in a game where points were fairly rare. There was no anchor for the Sixers, save their defensive system; Iguodala may get to play the hero after laughing last, but it was the collective and persistent work of his team’s offense that finally pulled this game out. Philly’s offense may not be the most secure out there, but they managed to knock down the vaunted Boston D in the second half — a feat which shouldn’t be taken lightly.
  • The Boston Celtics are — even at their best — utterly inconsistent: The Sixers are by no means some monument to basketball stability, but their prospects also aren’t considered as seriously as Boston’s are. As such, Philly is allowed its flaws, while Boston must answer for its own. Due to prestige and familiarity, the Celtics are still regarded as something resembling an elite team; they hold the same core and the same Celtic green, and as such we’re apparently supposed to pretend that they still have a notable chance at this year’s title. It’s simply not so, and this is one area in which Boston’s regular season performance is particularly telling. These Celtics are simply too erratic to take a series against a more proficient opponent; it’s one thing to take down the Atlanta Hawks or even these Sixers, but the prospect of toppling the Heat or Pacers is incredibly slim, and the chances of beating the Spurs or Thunder even more so given Boston’s volatility.
  • Kevin Garnett’s carriage reverts to a pumpkin: KG had been among the finest performers of the postseason, and his offensive progression gave Boston’s offense a surprising buoyancy. With Garnett operating so consistently and efficiently from the block, the chronically injured Celtics were finally able to bank on the slightest offensive foundation, and build leads with something other than the strength of their ever-impressive defense. Not only did that defense break down a bit in Game 4, but so too did Garnett. KG finished the evening with nearly as many turnovers (seven) as points (nine), as the defense he anchors also ceded a ridiculous advantage to the creatively limited 76ers offense. Garnett’s hardly done yet, and if nothing else, we should expect the Celtics’ defense to bounce back in both spirit and scheme for Game 5 on their home floor. But it remains to be seen if he can hold up with such a substantial offensive workload going forward; Boston already relies on Garnett to maintain so much of their defense, and considering his wear and age, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see the Celtics’ star fade ever so slightly. As much of a unique joy as it’s been to see Garnett turn back the clock, these futile fights against time itself can only last so long.

NBA Playoffs: Hawks take Game 1, scoff at the notion of unsustainable offense

Josh Smith

After years of watching the Atlanta Hawks operate within a zone of improbability, you’d think we might be better prepared to see them again best a sure favorite.

Yet here we are, as dumbstruck as the now 0-1 Boston Celtics. Atlanta didn’t stumble into a revelation of efficiency or make a crucial late-season addition. They merely played the same illogical brand of basketball that has marked the franchise for the last half-decade, and by way of talent, energy, and flat-out good fortune, they pounced on a Celtics team that wasn’t quite ready to begin their playoff run. I won’t submit into cliché and say that the Hawks “just wanted it more,” than the Celtics, but they certainly wanted to work more than their breathless opponents; Boston practically began the game hunched over, while Atlanta started their night with a 31-point rampage. That contrast speaks for itself, and although the game eventually leveled out, that almost seems beside the point.

By the time Atlanta’s shots stopped falling at such a ridiculous rate, the damage had been done and the game had been sufficiently mucked up. Although the Celtics typically benefit from uglied games minimized to single-possession battles, the Hawks — with their grit and uncanny ability to hit contested jumpers — too have managed to make this style their own.

That approach may have been epitomized by the odd success of Atlanta’s makeshift rotation of bigs. Josh Smith still provided his expectedly dynamic contributions, but beyond Smith were Jason Collins — whom Hawks head coach Larry Drew again elected to start as a defensive counter — and Ivan Johnson, two big men skilled in basketball’s dark arts, and thrown into relevance due to injuries to Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia. The decision to play an offensive liability like Collins against one of the best defensive teams in the league was an odd decision by Drew, but one that ultimately paid off; Collins played a huge role in erasing Kevin Garnett during the first half, and in his own detour into the impossible, actually converted three field goals — a feat he’s accomplished just seven times in the last four seasons.

For his part, Johnson contributed a surprisingly beneficial four points and five rebounds. That output may not seem like much, but considering that the Hawks only managed 83 points total (in a win, mind you), that Johnson himself matched the scoring total of Boston’s entire bench, and that three of his rebounds came on the offensive end in a game where extra scoring opportunities were much-needed, his impact stretched well beyond what those underwhelming numbers might imply.

It was micro-level contributions like those of Collins and Johnson that fleshed out Atlanta’s otherwise baffling performance, and gave it the texture to make it something other than what it was. The Hawks were on top of the world for minutes at a time, but as is usually the case with this team, every brilliant play was eventually met with several highly questionable ones. Only zeal was left to fill in the gaps; whether by feeding off of an earned home crowd or drawing from a self-instilled bit of confidence, the Hawks approached this game as one they could steal. They stared down a team that had been playing brutally effective defense over the last several months, drove into the paint at their whim, and dared try to beat Boston with Collins in tow and spot-up jumpers from Smith as a consistent weapon.

And it worked, because these are the Hawks, and this is just what they do. They render discussions of offensive sustainability completely irrelevant with their style and audacity, and the mitigate the importance of defense by managing to create shots in spite of it. Nothing is easy and nothing is aesthetically pleasing, but they manage to win in spite of themselves and our better judgment.

Even if all we can do is shake our heads in disbelief, the Celtics are undoubtedly left doing the same.

Closing thoughts:

  • Just to make things that much worse for Boston, Rajon Rondo — the single Celtic who managed to put together a decent game — decided to fully embrace the game’s madness and make physical contact (a chest bump, but still) with official Mark Davis. Davis had all but killed Boston’s hopes for an endgame comeback with his correct determination that Josh Smith was fouled on what Rondo thought should have been a jump ball, and Rondo responded with harsh words and foolish action. The NBA doesn’t take any player making contact with an official lightly; it seems very likely that the Boston will be without both Ray Allen (ankle) and Rondo for Game 2, making things that much more fun for the struggling Celtics.
  • Joe Johnson did some nice work defensively against Paul Pierce, but was absolutely miserable as a spot-up shooter. Smith, Kirk Hinrich, and Jeff Teague were able to get some nice penetration against Boston’s defense, but when they looked to the perimeter, they often saw Johnson standing more than a foot behind the three-point line. Even with the understanding that nothing that these Hawks do makes sense, I’m not sure how to even approach the peculiarity of Johnson’s placement. (On a related note: Johnson finished 0-of-9 from beyond the arc.)
  • Smith is a tremendously fun — if curious — player, but I’ll never quite understand how he manages to have such great court awareness without having even the slightest bit of self-awareness. He’s a wonderful practitioner of the “extra pass,” and yet many of his shot attempts betray the basketball savvy that seems to inform his more altruistic efforts. You remain an enigma, Mr. Smith, and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Danny Ainge is still waiting for the Celtics’ identity to emerge

Boston Celtics' Pierce and Garnett react when the team was called for a technical foul against the Chicago Bulls during NBA basketball game in Chicago

This we know of the 2011-2012 Boston Celtics: They’re inconsistent as hell, and “inconsistent as hell,” doesn’t quite work against the likes of the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls. Boston has a long way to go before their championship prospects are treated with any kind of legitimacy, and the first step in that process is undoubtedly the establishment of some kind of collective identity. At the moment, it’s impossible for observers to discern exactly who these Celtics are — not because their true nature is disguised in the insanity of a lockout season, but because even the Celtics themselves are figuring out what kind of team they’re capable of becoming.

We know that the Celtics are among the league’s oldest teams. We know that Rajon Rondo’s play can be a bit erratic, that Paul Pierce is doing what he can with a slowed first step, and that Kevin Garnett doesn’t even attempt to take opponents off the dribble anymore. We know that their bench is filled with role players of varying competency, but that the Celtics as a collective unit are a bit lacking in terms of overall talent.

But we’re still determining how all of those interactive factors manifest themselves in a holistic form — how the combination of all that the Celtics are manifests itself on a day-to-day basis. We’re still waiting to see the best that these Celtics can muster, and Boston general manager Danny Ainge (per WEEI in Boston with Dennis and Callahan and via Sports Radio Interviews) is apparently waiting for that very same thing:

“Well, right now we’re, I don’t even know, we’re a seven or eight seed. That’s who we are. There’s no denying that. Every team has plunges in this sort of crazy season, so that’s who we are right now. But do I think we can be better? Yeah. We haven’t played to our capabilities yet. We haven’t been at full strength. I’m not sure who our team is honestly at this stage. So we’re waiting to see that. But we need to get to the playoffs and find out. But I’m not really afraid of who we play in the first round, or the second round. It’s going to be tough no matter who we play. And I’m not afraid of playing the best teams in the first round.”

Ainge has every reason in the world to insist that his team can play better, but in this case it’s hard to find fault in his general assessment that we haven’t seen the real Celtics just yet. Some may disagree that Boston is better than its current standing, but the flashes of truly effective basketball — which have lasted from a string of plays to entire games this season — hint at a pretty decent team that’s merely struggling to execute. That doesn’t mean that the Celtics will ever figure out a way to stabilize, but the contrast between Boston’s highs and lows has only served to accentuate both poles.

That said, I’d disagree with one particular aspect of Ainge’s assessment: we have seen the Celtics play to their capabilities thus far. It’s just been for short bursts bookended with incompetence, framed in such a way to make it more exception than rule. Boston has been both better and worse than the seventh or eighth seed this season, and though we may spend the entire campaign trying to figure out where the Celtics’ baseline really places them in the context of the Eastern Conference, prolonged inconsistency may speak more to the team’s nature than their peaks and valleys ever could.

There they stay: Framework in place to keep Kings in Sacramento


Much regarding the basketball future of the Sacramento Kings remains up in the air, but this particular Monday brought an unequaled security to the franchise, its city, and the Kings’ legions of ardent fans. According to Sam Amick of, the Monday meeting held to discuss arena funding plans in Sacramento has produced the “framework of an agreement going forward,” per Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. Amick also reported that the Maloof family will initially contribute more than $70 million to the aforementioned funding plan, in addition to further financial contributions throughout the life of the deal.

We’re beyond the point of dissecting what sports teams mean to fans on a personal level, to communities on a collective level, and to cities on an economic level. This is a huge, huge day for every person involved in each of those tiers — from the die-hard who won’t be able to wipe that smile off of their face for the next week to the business owner who created a model dependent on the ripple benefits that having a nearby NBA team provides. This development puts the city of Seattle that much further from getting the NBA team it deserves, but in the process prevents Sacramento from becoming the next Seattle — maligned by the swift exit of their cherished club and sadly jaded by having loved and lost.

There are still countless steps between Point A and Point B, but the important thing is that Point A exists at all. The Kings’ future in Sacramento was in serious jeopardy just a few months ago, but Johnson, the Maloofs, NBA commissioner David Stern, a fervent social media campaign, and the efforts of an entire city have further rooted the Kings in the city they call home.