Jack McCallum's new book,Dream Team, chronicles the success and worldwide impact of the 1992 U.S. men's Olympic basketball team. SI.com's Macklin Woodruff caught up with McCallum to discuss how the book came together and why the team had such a big effect on the sport.
SI.com: What inspired you to write this book about the Dream Team?
McCallum: I'd like to say I was smart enough, but it wasn't even my idea. An editor from Random House called me up a couple of years ago and said, "Hey, in 2012 it's going to be 20 years since the Dream Team. Do you think there's a book there writing about their impact and the experience then and what's become of them and everything?" And right away I said, "Yeah." So I guess the honest answer is, What inspired me is someone else inspiring me. A lot of times, the best ideas you don't come up with yourself. What can I say? I owe him.
SI.com: What did you set out to accomplish by writing this book?
McCallum: When people would say, "What's your angle?" my answer would be "everything." No. 1, it was 20 years ago. A lot of people don't even remember who was on the team. No. 2, the written record of that time is not that large. There's a book that came out right after the Olympics about the Dream Team, [but] it didn't have much about the Olympics even. There wasn't social media, websites, tweeting. So we didn't have a sort of daily record of these guys. Newspapers had covered it, but it wasn't the same kind of thing as today. So that's kind of the reason to do the history of it.
Beyond that, I thought these guys had remained such compelling characters that you can tell about them now. Then when I started writing the book I realized that it could be about the whole era. Starting with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird [in the NBA in the 1980s] and kind of ending with the Dream Team, that was sort of the glory of the most successful era of basketball. So, my idea was to include everything in it. And I hope it worked.
SI.com: How did the book evolve as you began getting more and more information?
McCallum: The No. 1 thing is getting everybody [to talk]. You start out with that mission because you know it's going to become the hardest thing. These guys got inducted en masse into the Hall of Fame in 2010. So that was the unofficial start of it. I went up there [to Springfield, Mass.] and tried to tell all of them that I was doing it. And that meant that I could plant the idea and get a couple of phone numbers. Once you have that, you start trying to pick them off one by one, but the hardest thing is getting them. I didn't want to interview any of them there; I wanted to see them on their own turf. So that process basically took two years. I interviewed Larry Bird when the book was in galleys in February of 2012.
You always have those interviews, but then the way I started was to go back and read every story I had written about these guys since 1984. Do whatever kind of research you can do. I read a number of books, certainly Jackie MacMullan's book about Bird and Magic and Sam Smith's book about Jordan, because I sensed from the beginning that they were going to be the dominant characters. So you're doing all of this research and as you get somebody, you go back and fill in the blanks. You do not do a book like this on page one and then the end, page 330. It changes all the time, goes back and forth all the time. The beginning becomes the middle, the middle becomes the end, and the end becomes three quarters of the way through, based on the information that you get from the guys during the interviews.
[Photo Gallery: Classic pictures of the Dream Team]
SI.com: You didn't get Bird to talk until that late in the process?
McCallum: I thought that Bird, Magic and Michael [Jordan] would be the hardest guys. But of those three, I figured Bird would be the easiest because he's kind of a captive audience there -- he's working for a team [Bird was the Indiana Pacers' president at the time; he stepped down in June]. But for some reason we just had trouble hooking up -- he didn't want to do it, he blew another interview off, one time I went out there and he wasn't there. So he turned out to be the hardest, when I thought it would probably be Michael.
Michael never does interviews anymore. He almost never talks. And he had this ancient fight with Sports Illustrated about the cover line for a story about him when he was playing minor league baseball. I tried to make it clear in the email I sent that it didn't have anything to do with Sports Illustrated, and Michael and I had always had a good relationship. When Michael talked to me -- I think it was late June of 2011 -- that was major. He was really good, too. He was very honest and candid.
SI.com: Why do you think the Dream Team still has so much relevance today?
McCallum: Somebody asked me the other night, "Did you have to change the audience that you wrote for or try to explain these guys?" I said� that I began with the implicit idea that everyone knew these guys, that I was not reintroducing them. That generation,� it loomed above all others. Even if you didn't know who those players from 1992 were, and you were a fan of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, you endlessly heard LeBron and Durant referred to as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and any white player who comes around, maybe Kevin Love, is referred to as Larry Bird. So the frame of reference for basketball always seems to be these guys. You could tell me better, not whether that's accurate, but it seems that it is. These guys were accepted as basketball royalty, and therefore you didn't have to over-explain it. That's very helpful for a writer when he can be writing for someone who is 70 years old and hopefully be writing for someone who's 20."
SI.com: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
McCallum: Getting the guys, by far. I've been doing this for 40 years and if I'm not pretty good at writing or if I'm not pretty good at interviewing, I should have got out of the business a long time ago. But the mechanics of getting someone to sit down in a place where you can talk to them without them being distracted, with the idea that they're going to pay attention to nothing but you for one hour, or two hours, or three hours� or whatever you have them for, that process remains difficult. I remember the minute that Michael Jordan walked into the room, and we were talking in a quiet room in Charlotte, I thought to myself, "The book is over. I will have a great interview with Jordan. He will be honest. And I will be able to write the hell out of whatever that comes out of this thing."
SI.com: How did the players react when you approached them about their Dream Team experience?
McCallum: I was lucky in that respect. Once I got them, it was easy for them to talk because what I was asking about was such a major part of their lives. There is a point 20 years later -- they're all established, they're all icons, so they were all pretty honest, even when talking about the controversial stuff.
SI.com: Did you ever expect to get Jordan to admit his role in Isiah Thomas' omission from the team? How did that come about?
McCallum: Jordan was actually the one who brought it up. I was trying to find a way to edge into the subject, but he mentioned it before I even tried.
Jordan was the guy. [U.S. team organizers] needed Jordan, Jordan didn't need them. He didn't need the endorsements. He was the busiest person in the world, and he was already the biggest star in the world, and he didn't want to spend his summer playing basketball with someone he didn't want to play with. He didn't want chemistry issues in July and August.
SI.com: How much of the hype surrounding the Dream Team was situational, in the sense that it was the first time that non-college players could participate?
McCallum: I would agree with you, but I wouldn't really define it as hype. No. 1, people forget that� there was a legitimate news angle here: "Hey, what's going to happen? Are they going to win by 90 points or are they going to get challenged somehow?" So people were curious about the kind of mix of oil and water that was going to go on.
No. 2, what was also situational was that Europe at the time was an incredibly fertile ground. They had the NBA, but they really had it in bite-size nuggets. They really had only the appetizer, and what they were waiting for was the main course. So there was sort of a mystical, easy thing about the NBA, and now they were going to see it in real life.
And finally, these players, in terms of a sporting culture, were as big as you could get. I think probably you could put LeBron in that category now. Maybe Kobe and Shaq when they were together. But you're talking about a time in our sport when guys like Magic, Michael and Larry were as famous as any athletes, and the NBA was at the top of the sporting culture.
You combine those three things, and there's no doubt that the Dream Team had a situational advantage.
SI.com: Do you think that athletes now aren't perceived in the same light because they are more accessible and humanized through social media channels like Facebook and Twitter?
McCallum: Yeah, I do think that. You need no further example than Michael Jordan. Here's the odd thing about it, though: Michael since then, yes, he has become completely humanized. He kind of failed with the Washington Wizards, he's really struggling with the Charlotte Bobcats, he's gotten divorced. He has not become a tabloid headline, but he is not the 'Michael Jordan' of the committee room that he was as a basketball player. But what is odd, as I go back and do the research, is that his reputation as a basketball player, and pretty much all of those guys with the exception of Christian Laettner, is as good as it ever was. In other words, there doesn't seem to be a tendency in our culture to start sniping away at their basketball careers. We say, "Jordan has been a real failure in the front office, but that guy was still great on the court." I think people still give them their due as basketball players while realizing that things off the court have done a lot to humanize them.
SI.com: Do you think there will ever be a team with the same larger-than-life aura surrounding it?
McCallum: No, and it was for the reasons that you said. The world has become too small. You send Kevin Durant over there now� -- yeah, he's a fresh face, he's young, he's fun, good-looking and smart. But they've seen 10,000 videos of Kevin Durant;� there's no mystery. There's not this distant magic aspect to these people anymore. It just doesn't exist, it just couldn't happen. The Dream Team came along at just the right time to be doing this.
SI.com: In one section of the book that was excerpted in Sports Illustrated, you write about the Dream Team scrimmage before the Olympics. What made that scrimmage the so-called "best game nobody ever saw"? Does the mystery of it play a role?
McCallum: I'm not about to proclaim it the best game ever played, just the best game "nobody ever saw." It is unbelievable the way that it grew in legend�, but even Magic says in the [recent NBA TV] documentary that� the level of play in the game is overblown. However, the mystery of it, and the fact that I was able to get this tape and that it exists as a record, and the extent that it shows the competitiveness between Magic and Michael, that part of it is not overblown. That's why it was so culturally significant. The combination of things -- the mysteriousness of it, the fact that nobody really saw it, and how hard these guys played and went at each other within this silent gymnasium -- is a really nice historical bit of footage."
SI.com: The cover of your book says that the Dream Team changed basketball forever. How did these men manage to do that?
McCallum: What went on was a basketball revolution in other countries. And this didn't really become clear to me until I talked to Dirk Nowitzki. I think I talked to Dirk pretty early, so I kind of got that idea and was able to explore it, and that was that most of the world was looking at this like, "What a slaughter! We're losing to these guys by 50 points. Aren't these guys great? But what the hell are we getting out of it?" Well, the kids who were basketball players then, who were 13 years old and living in Germany and Lithuania and Argentina and Turkey and France, they saw something different. They saw that suddenly the game was kind of demystified. The United States was really good at it.� "Michael Jordan is really freaking good. But he does the same things we do! He comes down, he spins, he fakes right, he backs his man in, he steps back, he shoots a jumper. He just does it 100 times better than we do. Maybe if we practice we can get it to 10 times better than we do, and by the next generation, we're doing it the same."
Plus, it was a numbers game. It was suddenly 100 million people are watching this team, well maybe five million of them start playing basketball instead of soccer. And maybe one million of them start becoming really good. And maybe 100 out of that million get to the NBA level. This isn't just me theorizing it; the NBA has done research on what happened and why the game evolved into an international game and where the international players can thrive. The No. 1 reason by far was not marketing, not touring teams, not clinics, not television proliferation -- although all that happened. The No. 1 reason they list for why the game began to grow was the advent of the Dream Team in '92.