Dream Team Book Q/A: Best show ever in basketball; landing an interview with elusive Jordan

Jack McCallum was witness to one of the greatest miracles in sports: He saw me make a birdie on the par 3 12th hole at Augusta National. I dropped a six-iron to within four feet and actually made the putt. Not bad for a 15-handicapper who was playing like a 30 prior to that hole.

“Pretty good shot,” said McCallum, recalling our round the day after Jose Maria Olazabal’s victory in the 1999 Masters.

While it was the highlight of my pitiful sporting career (note: this is my blog and I will try to tell that tale as often as possible), McCallum has seen much greater feats of athletic prowess. Perhaps none were greater than the collective talents of the original “Dream Team.”

Twenty years later, the long-time Sports Illustrated writer is out this week with what should be the hottest sports book of the summer: Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry and Charles and the greatest team of all time conquered the world and changed the game of basketball forever.

It seems like every sports book these days has the “changed the game forever” kicker. Publishers must think it adds some gravitas to entice sales.

Often the label isn’t deserved, but not in this case. The Dream Team did change basketball, and sports for that matter.

It was an unprecedented, and never duplicated, array of transcendent superstars playing for the same team; 11 of the 12 players are in the Hall of Fame. The Dreamers featured Michael Jordan, fresh off a second NBA championship with the Bulls, trying to grab the torch away from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, two aging stars who saved the NBA in the 80s.

McCallum writes, “It couldn’t have been scripted any better, and when the Dreamers finally released all that star power into a collective effort, the show was better than everyone thought it would be…and everyone had thought it would be pretty damn good.”

McCallum, who covered the team from beginning to end, brings his A-game in telling the many stories and taking readers behind the scenes. He includes personal moments of covering the team, including the time he and fellow David Dupree asked to get a picture taken with the team.

McCallum writes that the moment was incredibly awkward, leaving him open to some good-natured verbal abuse from Bird. “Hey Jack,” drawled Bird, “later on, you wanna blow us?”

On that note, here’s my Q/A with Jack:

There’s no talk about this year’s U.S. Olympic team. What made that team so special in 1992?

It’s a cliche, but it was the perfect storm. There was the first time news angle. Then there was the fact that the international stage was set for them. All of sudden at a time (when overseas fans) were experiencing the NBA as an appetizer, here comes the whole entree in the form of the greatest team ever.

I think it was the only time in the sporting culture where NBA players were the biggest stars. LeBron James is huge, but I don’t think, fair or not, he has the same positive impact across the culture like they did back then.

Those guys truly were rock stars. What was it like to travel with them?

I had seen a mini-version of it with Jordan. The best way to describe it is when they got to Barcelona, there was thousands of people surrounding the hotel. I thought, OK, maybe it will be like this for a day or two. On day 17, they were still there. To this day, I still have a hard time trying to figure it out.

In the book, you revisited many of the players and did portraits of their lives today. Why did you take that route?

As you know, access sucks at the Olympics. I was not inside the bubble. I needed to talk to the players to get information on what occurred during the Olympics.

I also wanted to see what they’re doing now. I wasn’t looking to do a Boys of Summer. These are famous guys even in retirement. But I still knew I could find out something else about them. For instance,  to see David Robinson run his school in San Antonio, that puts him in perspective.

Michael Jordan doesn’t do many interviews these days. How difficult was it to get him?

It was difficult. He’s at war with Sports Illustrated (for mocking his attempt at baseball), although that didn’t have anything to do with me. I made it clear this was not a SI project. Finally, I got, ‘Michael Jordan will see you. But it only will be for 15 minutes and you must keep your questions to the Dream Team.’

I knew I was OK. He’s not Charles Barkley, but he’s pretty honest. Michael is an incredible bullshitter and I knew he’d talk about anything. I also knew it wouldn’t be for 15 minutes. The key was getting in the room. It was a great interview. Afterward, I had a sense of relief wash over me. I got him.

Talk about Jordan’s teammate, Scottie Pippen.

He surprised me. Pippen always got the shortshrift. Every time, I came to Chicago, I’d wind up writing Jordan. One time I came in to write Horace Grant and still wound up writing Jordan.

I found a guy in Pippen who you could clearly see how this experience meant so much to him. He couldn’t believe it when he got invited. The way it validated his career was interesting. Chris Mullin said the same thing. Karl Malone, in his own way, did too. It was interesting to me to see how much these guys needed that validation.

What is the legacy of the Dream Team?

All the players wanted to make the point that there was only one Dream Team. Don’t get into this BS about a Dream Team II. As accomplished as they were individually, they all knew they were on the one team that was different. They knew not only how meaningful it was to them, but also across the entire history of basketball.