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Summer Reading: Jack McCallum's "Dream Team"

If you've read Jack McCallum's excellent book he wrote after shadowing the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns, "Seven Seconds or Less", you know what a great storyteller he is. He leverages his access, gained from years as an NBA reporter, to give fans a view from behind the scenes of basketball, showing the human side of the game by painting a picture of the personalities involved. His latest book "Dream Team" tells the story of what is generally considered to be the greatest basketball team ever assembled, the 1992 US Men's Basketball Olympic team, AKA "The Dream Team".

McCallum traveled with the team to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and had a front row seat to the cultural phenomenon that was the US's first Olympic squad comprised of professionals. This cast included larger than life figures Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Chris Mullin. Every member of the team went on to the Basketball Hall of Fame except for Christian Laettner, who was a college superstar at the time after he, along with Grant Hill, led Duke to two national championships.

If you were alive at the time and witnessed it, the Dream Team was a force of nature. With the benefit of hindsight, it was also a turning point in making basketball an international game.

Jump it for my book report.

Michael Jordan seemed omnipresent when he was the NBA's greatest player. He dominated the league and had major endorsements including Nike and Gatorade. The "I wanna be like Mike...if I could be like Mike" sentiment was everywhere, but McCallum asserts that, if anything, Jordan was underrated for how great he was as a player. For all the endorsements he had (and could still have, if he chose to), he turned down even more.

For all the hype, and it felt overwhelming at times, he more than lived up to it. In 1992, he was staking his claim as a legend: his Bulls had won the previous two NBA championships, and Jordan league MVP both times. His drive and competitiveness were never in doubt, but McCallum also shows how Jordan had a superhuman energy level.

The players all stayed in the same hotel in Barcelona and had a family room where they hung out, some players more than others. In that family room, they'd play cards and talk trash to each other late into the night. The next day, Jordan would play 18 holes of golf and then the basketball game. On the night before the Gold Medal game, Jordan stayed up as late as anyone, shot a commercial the following morning, golfed 18 holes, then played in the championship game with virtually no sleep. The US team beat Croatia by 32 points in another dominating effort, and that was their smallest margin of victory at The Games.

As titular co-captains, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had similar roles, and similar situations as superstars seeing their careers wind down, Bird due to a chronic back problem, and Magic due to HIV. When Magic announced in 1991 that he was HIV-positive, it was a bombshell revelation. The assumption, based on available knowledge at the time, was that Magic would grow ever more sickly, and die within a few years. 21 years later, Magic's kicking HIV's ass, but the story's not as big as it should be given his outlook at the time.

On that team, Magic and Bird were captains, but Jordan was the real leader. Magic flexed his muscle where he could and acted as team leader with Jordan's consultation, while Bird took the approach of, "I'm supposed to direct these guys how to be great? They've obviously already figured that out for themselves."

Bird was also more willing to cede the title as "The Greatest" to Jordan than Magic was. They were both nearing the end of their careers, and Bird retired after The Games. Jordan was the best player at the time, and in the following years he'd remove any doubt about that. One of my favorite parts of the book was reading the way Bird and Ewing became close friends on the team after Ewing disliked Bird at the onset, believing, as many did, that Bird's popularity was due in large part to his race. The differences melted away within the context of two competitive men who lifted themselves from disadvantaged upbringings through hard work.

The Suns player on that team, Charles Barkley, had yet to play a game in Phoenix, traded from the Sixers earlier in the summer. He'd go on to win league MVP the following season in leading the Suns to the NBA Finals against Jordan's Bulls, but first he made his presence felt on the Dream Team. Barkley was an unstoppable force in the post against weaker competition, and a superstar personality on a team stacked with them.

Barkley, as did the rest of the Dream Teamers, relished the chance to participate in this historic event. "I don't know anything about Angola, but Angola's in trouble," Barkley famously quipped before their first game in the Olympic tournament.

The Dream Team's performance was memorable not only for its dominance, which was unquestionable: they beat the best teams the rest of the world had to offer by an average margin of 44 points over 8 games. There were some who believed the uneven level of competition in those Olympics would discourage young players in other countries from pursuing basketball, but the opposite happened. Of course, they were awestruck by the amazing American players, but the Dream Team didn't deter them from stepping up; it challenged them to, and international competition responded.

For young fans, it might seem as if international players playing prominent roles in the NBA has been a regular occurrence. But it wasn't always that way, and the Dream Team helped to foster in a new era. The dominance of the US in international basketball started to slip as soon as 1996, when the next Olympic team won the Gold Medal but in much less impressive fashion. Just 10 years after the Dream Team, the US finished sixth in the World Championships in 2002, due to US complacency coupled with dramatic improvement from international competition. The US wouldn't win the Gold Medal in 2004, and rose again only after former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo assumed control of the organization, insisting that the team be built as a true team and not a collection of individuals.

Look around the NBA now: German Dirk Nowitizki, French Tony Parker, Argentinian Manu Ginobili, and Spaniards Pau and Marc Gasol, are all-stars. The current Suns roster includes Polish Marcin Gortat, Slovenian Goran Dragic and Argentinian Luis Scola. It wasn't always this way. International players used to be a novelty, and only the best non-American players like Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis and Detlef Schrempf made it to NBA rosters.

The Dream Team didn't make it easy to play with the world's best, but they did make it possible, and the game of basketball is an international game today largely as a result. The Suns had a pretty good player from Canada once, right?

This book is a great read, documenting a landmark in modern basketball history: a summer read in this summer that saw the US Men's Basketball team win another Gold Medal.The 2012 US Olympic Gold Medal winners were a great team, but they were no Dream Team.

Anybody else read the book? Or has Dream Team memories to share?

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