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Bird's Dream Team recollections worth the wait

Reprinted with permission from Jack McCallum's blog. McCallum is the author of the new book, Dream Team. Purchase it here.

I can still hear Larry Bird's words when he saw me standing outside his office in Bankers Life Fieldhouse (do I really have to call it that?) in the winter of 2010, posting him up as it were.

"No, I ain't talking to you for your damn book" about the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, he said.

That was a semi-normal Bird greeting, so it put me off my game only a little bit. But it did tell me that he had been aware of my numerous interview requests, none of which had drawn a response. That collective silence had forced me to fly to Indianapolis to see him, unannounced, always a risky proposition. Still, I figured that my corporeal presence -- impressive as it is -- combined with the fact that we had always had a solid professional relationship, would force him into an interview.

"I got almost everybody for the book," I said, "and I can't finish ..."

"You haven't talked to Michael [Jordan] yet," he said.

"No, but I'm planning on getting ..."

"So that ain't everybody," he said.

"What, do you and Michael talk on the phone about it or something?" I said.

"No," he said. "I just know he probably won't talk to you."

[Photo Gallery: Larry Bird through the years]

I wasn't sure what was going on in Bird's head. The major hurdle when I began researching Dream Team was to get Jordan, Magic Johnson and Bird, then the Indiana Pacers' president, to sit still for a long conversation. They presented different challenges, Bird's being that he can be grumpy, which is what he was being at that moment, and not always willing to talk about himself, which is admirable but regrettable if you come in search of information.

We shot the breeze for a while, and I told him, basically, that I couldn't finish the project without him, and he hemmed and hawed and finally agreed to meet me the next afternoon in his office.

The next morning his assistant, Susy Fisher, called and canceled.

A couple of more calls and emails. Nothing. I flew back out on draft night 2011, when I knew he had to surface, and cornered him at midnight, after a long, long day. By then, I had bagged all my quarry except one.

"OK, I interviewed everybody," I told him. "Michael, Magic, everybody. Everybody but you."

"I'll call you," he said.

Nothing. The book was due in six weeks.

You have to understand something about this process: It wasn't like the book was dead if Bird didn't talk. I had 99 percent of it written by that point. So many of his teammates had talked about him, and there were so many Bird quotes and anecdotes on the historical record, that readers probably would not have noticed if I hadn't interviewed him.

But it just bugged the crap out of me ... and continued to. I finished the book with no Bird interview and turned it in. The editor loved it.

"I got everybody but Bird," I told him, to which he said: "Tell you the truth, I never noticed."

[Photo Gallery: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson]

I turned in the "Acknowledgements" section with an angry paragraph about Bird, then changed it to not mentioning it at all, then changed it to an amusing take on not getting Bird.

Time passed. In the larger scope of things, obviously, this was a particle of disappearing dust. But it was my private hell.

More time passed. The book went into galleys. I got a diagnosis of prostate cancer. An operation loomed. I lost sleep. I was ticked off at Bird. One morning I got out of bed to give it one more shot.

"Tell Larry that I'm going in for cancer surgery," I told the reliable and always-friendly Fisher, "and if I die on the table, my last thought will be that he blew me off."

"He'll call you back," she said.

He did. This time I said, "See, if I die, you'll be the last person I'll ever interview."

"Hell, that ain't no honor," he said. "Go ahead. Fire away."

"I can't do it on the phone, Larry," I said. "It just doesn't work. I interviewed every single subject live and in-person. I even did most of the non-players that way. Only way I can do it. Let me come out there. I gotta get this done soon."

[Dream Team Excerpt: The greatest game nobody ever saw]

We met in his office at the appointed hour. I never asked why he was reticent. He never told me. We talked for an hour. It was great. He talked about the severe back pain he had experienced throughout the Olympic experience. He talked about his relationship with Magic. He talked about what the Dream Team had meant to him, and his retirement and what he was thinking about on the gold-medal podium, and his father and lots of other things. It's all in Dream Team.

It was a great interview. As I stood by the door on my way out, we talked about our respective prostates.

"Good luck with the operation," he said.

Now that I had the Bird material, one problem remained. Publishers don't like extensive changes in galleys, which are designed to be a kind of cursory final check before publication.

"I have lots of stuff to add," I told Mark Tavani, my editor.

"Can't you just add all the Bird stuff in one block?" he asked, not unreasonably.

"Can't do it, Mark," I said. "Too much good material. I have to change several things in the body of the thing."

[Photo Gallery: Classic pictures of the Dream Team]

As I transcribed the tape, though, I had another idea. So much of what Bird said´┐Ż -- about playing through pain, about getting along with his teammates, about the meaning of the whole thing, about his memories of his father -- seemed to sum up the whole Dream Team experience.

"I still gotta make some changes," I told Mark, "but, look, Larry can be the epilogue. We weren't all that happy with it anyway."

The original epilogue had gone into the Dream Team's effect on the international game. I wanted to somehow get it back to the players and this seemed like the way to do it.

So that's how I did it, and when I read the last words of this book, I feel good it happened this way. I also realize: I did need Bird.

More, apparently, than I needed my prostate.

Jack McCallum is the author of Dream Team. Purchase ithere.

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