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.

Steve Kerr on military displays at games: “Sometimes, it’s really inspiring… sometimes it feels like we’re being patronized”

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Things changed in sports after 9/11. The national anthem had always played before sporting events, but in the wake of our national tragedy American sports leagues turned to patriotic and military displays before games as a way to help unify fans. In a small way, some sporting events helped heal the country after that life-altering event.

However, those militaristic displays have continued on 17 years later, with some leagues buying in more than others, and not everybody in the sports world is comfortable with that.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr, never someone shy about speaking out about political and social issues, was asked about the displays at sporting events as part of a wide-ranging interview with Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area, which can only be seen in full on the new NBC Sports My Teams app, but we have a clip.

“Sometimes, it’s really inspiring. You see a mother and daughter or a father and son reconnected after a tour of duty, and everybody gets emotional. And sometimes it feels like we’re being patronized. Like this is being used. We’re just playing a sport here, and it feels sort of nationalistic, if that makes sense. So we are kind of wandering down a dicey path on this front.”

Kerr speaks out on politics — usually to bash President Donald Trump — and likely will do more of that with the midterm elections coming up. However, don’t think he takes that step lightly, or that he thinks it’s for everyone. Kerr has a nuanced view and understands the risks of what he does.

“First, you have to feel comfortable with what you’re talking about and what you’re discussing. So if you’re not comfortable with speaking about social issues, then I don’t blame anybody for not doing so. But there’s also a sense, when you’re in a job like this, that you’re working for people. You’re working for a league. You’re working for an owner. You’re working for an organization. And almost everything you say is going to be looked at two different ways. You start to worry about offending people. You start to worry about ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ ‘Am I going to get fired?’ ‘Am I going down the wrong path?’ ‘And I really like this job and I like coaching basketball and I just want to coach. So you sort of leave that alone. I’ve got no problem with that.”

Kerr can speak out because he’s in a secure space (same with the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich). For a lot of coaches, the backlash from speaking out may not be worth the hassle, not from just fans but from within the organization.

Kerr also teamed with Rock The Vote to try and get more people to use their voice at the ballot box. Kerr also knows his megaphone is larger than that, and he’s not afraid to use it.

Did Suns deserve all 35 of their assists? (video)

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The Suns had 35 assists in their season-opening win over the Mavericks last night.

That’s their most assists since… their final game last season, when they also dished 35 assists against Dallas. But the Mavericks were tanking hard. Before that, Phoenix last had 35 assists with Steve Nash at point guard.

How did they Suns do it?

They moved the ball well and knocked down shots.

They also appeared be quite generous in scorekeeping.

The NBA defines an assist as a “pass that directly leads to a basket. … An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player’s pass led to the field goal being made.”

Would you say all four of these assists led directly to a basket?

Many scorekeepers systematically award assists if the shooter took two or fewer or dribbles after receiving the pass. Those above plays are not egregious in league-wide context, though maybe a couple of them should be.

But this Deandre Ayton pass really stretches the limit (hat tip: Carter Rodriguez of Fear The Sword):

Again, maybe we just have to live with a hard-and-fast two-dribble rule. Even though Josh Jackson turned and hesitated a couple times while using both dribbles, this technically falls under the threshold.

But then explain this Trevor Ariza assist to Jackson, who took three dribbles:

That looks like more of an assist than some of the two-dribble plays above. So, maybe the standard is fitting the spirit of the definition OR a player shooting within two dribbles. That casts quite a wide net.

But remember, don’t cast stones at the Suns from inside a glass house. They’re not alone in their loose assist-granting.

LeBron James set to make debut for Lakers at Trail Blazers tonight

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PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) — It’s not going to be just a game when the Los Angeles Lakers invade Moda Center Thursday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular-season opener for both teams.

It will be a happening.

It’s the first game in the splendid 16-year NBA career of LeBron James that the future Hall of Famer will be wearing the uniform of a Western Conference club — the Lakers, with whom he signed a free-agent contract during the offseason.

Members of the national media and a TNT audience will be watching along with a full house at the 20,000-seat Moda Center. And James has caught the fever.

“The season is here,” James told reporters after a recent practice. “First of 82 (regular-season games). It will be fun.”

The basketball world is intrigued to find out how well the 33-year-old James will mesh with his mostly younger teammates, and how much he can help them improve on their 35-47 record of a year ago. Thursday at Moda Center is the first step, but Lakers coach Luke Walton isn’t taking it as a giant leap for mankind all in one swoop.

“We’ve got four years,” said Walton, referring to James’ contract, which calls for three years guaranteed and a player option for a fourth. “We want to make sure we’re not only playing our best come the end of the season, but that he is fresh. It’s a goal for us, and it’s not a one-year journey.”

James, who led the NBA with 36.9 minutes played per game in 2017-18, likely won’t match that average this season. Even so, he figures to be on the court a lot Thursday night.

“If my body is feeling good, then I’m out there,” James said. “If my body is not able to perform at the level I would like to play for my teammates, then I won’t.”

The Lakers could have drawn an easier first opponent that the Trail Blazers, against whom the Lakers have had no success in recent years. Portland holds a 15-game win streak in the series dating to March 2014, and has won seven in a row at Moda Center.

The Blazers mostly stood pat after going 49-33 and earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs a year ago, then getting swept in four games by New Orleans in the first round. Portland added a pair of low-cost free agent guards, Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, to bolster its perimeter shooting game. The Blazers may also have a more significant role available now for 7-1 stretch forward Meyers Leonard, who shot .783 from the field and .727 from 3-point range in the preseason.

“Seth and Nik give us a totally different element with Meyers, the way he shot in the preseason,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey said. “We brought in guys who could have more of an impact at the offensive end.”

The Blazers may be without their starting small forward, Moe Harkless, who missed the entire preseason while rehabbing from knee surgery. His place will likely be taken Thursday night by third-year pro Jake Layman, who averaged 12.0 points and shot .512 from the field and .500 on 3-point attempts through the preseason.

“We’re pleased with the way Jake has seamlessly stepped into that role,” Olshey said.

Report: Clippers “have a better than not chance of getting” Kawhi Leonard next summer

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This line of thinking has gone from a quiet buzz around league circles to a rumor to the point where the game’s top news breaker — Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN — is reporting it as 50/50 or better:

Kawhi Leonard could be coming to the Clippers next summer as a free agent.

Here is what Wojnarowski said on a podcast with Zach Lowe:

“What the Clippers are doing right now is very below the radar. What they’ve done to put themselves in position. They didn’t gut themselves and they’re not tanking. They’re putting a competitive team on the floor. I think, right now, with Kawhi Leonard, they have a better than not chance of getting him. We know things will change. He could love Toronto…

“The Clippers are in great position with him. They have two max slots. They will be heard from again, I think, in these Jimmy Butler trade talks.”

The Clippers name came up in the Butler trade talks early, but Minnesota (read: Tom Thibodeau) reportedly asked for Tobias Harris and the Clippers shot that down cold. The talks have gained no traction after that, according to sources. The Clippers like Harris (who is a free agent this July and wants to get paid) and ideally want to keep him, but there will be serious roster overhaul in Los Angeles this summer and what happens to Harris will depend on a lot of other variables. Leonard included.

What Wojnarowski is reporting here is along the lines of what a lot of people around the league are talking about. This isn’t out of left field.

I can hear Lakers fans now: He is coming to us. (Knicks fans may be thinking that too, unless they are busy dreaming about Kevin Durant.) But there are a couple of reasons the Clippers make sense over those other markets.

First is the shadow of LeBron James. Not everybody wants to play in it. If Leonard — or, more accurately, the people around Leonard — want to build his brand and have him become the center of a marketing machine, being in that shadow could be seen as stunting his growth.

Them there is just fit with an organization. By his nature, Leonard does not seek out the brightest lights, he is not on social media, he does not dream of being part of the celebrity culture, and Leonard does not like a lot of drama in and around the locker room. All of those things come with signing a Lakers’ contract, and the same thing with the Knicks. While the Clippers are in Los Angeles and players there can seek out all those distractions if they want, the Clipper brand isn’t doesn’t bring the same intensity of spotlight that the Lakers with LeBron would.

All of those reasons — plus one extra guaranteed year at north of $40 million — could keep Leonard in Toronto if the team does well this season. However, if next July he’s looking to move on, the Clippers really could be his new home.