bookmark_borderDream Team

After 7 Seconds or Less, Dream Team is the second book by journalist Jack McCallum that I’m featuring on this blog.

Dream Team by Jack McCallum

It’s probably not particularly hard to guess what a basketball book called Dream Team is about. The term Dream Team is used in the world of sports at times – and sometimes outside of it – but it is inextricably linked to the team that the United States sent to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Many today still consider this collection of great individual players to be the best sports team ever.

But Jack McCallum describes the actual basketball tournament of the Barcelona Olympics in only a few chapters here. And why should he? The story is quickly told. The U.S. team dominated the tournament at will, the closest game being the final for gold against Croatia – which the United States won by 32 points. Much more exciting was the story of how the Dream Team came to be, which McCallum describes in detail in the first chapters. As recently as the 1988 Olympics, no professionals were allowed to compete. While some European teams got around this by giving players fake jobs so that they were considered amateurs (sometimes despite six- or seven-figure salaries from their clubs). For NBA professionals, however, this door was closed. Until 1992, the US had competed with college players. Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, for example, won the gold medal in 1984 before going to the NBA.

Even the selection of the athletes was controversial. To this day (for example in the Netflix documentary “The Last Dance”), there is debate about why Isiah Thomas was not part of the team. The book gives a clear answer to this: Michael Jordan made a non-invitation of Isiah early on a condition for his own participation. But Thomas had no advocates among the other players either. When John Stockton was injured in preparation for Barcelona and threatened to be sidelined, there was brief consideration of choosing another player in his place. According to McCallum however, Dream Team coach Chuck Daly (who won two titles with Isiah as coach of the Detroit Pistons) would have opted for Joe Dumars – also a Pistons player – in this case.

The author also goes into detail about Magic Johnson’s participation. Magic had announced only a year earlier at a press conference that he had tested positive for HIV and would have to end his active career. The expectation in the sports world at the time was that he didn’t have long to live. Still, there was never really any question whether Magic would participate in the Barcelona Olympics. While a possible return to the NBA before the 1992-93 season was discussed much more controversially (by Karl Malone, among others) and ultimately had to be cancelled, the Lakers star had the backing of his teammates here. Magic’s former archrival and later friend, Larry Bird, also went to Barcelona despite severe back problems and pain that subsequently ended his career.

A highlight of the book is a detailed description of a practice game that took place before the start of the Olympic tournament. This game is a true myth in NBA circles and was described by participants as the best game they had ever attended. Since no press was allowed, there is only one video of this game (The caption of the chapter is “The Greatest Game That Nobody Ever Saw”), which was provided to Jack McCallum by Chuck Daly’s video coordinator. In this game, Team Jordan (Jordan, Malone, Ewing, Pippen, Bird) won against Team Magic (Magic, Barkley, Robinson, Mullin, Laettner). The author describes the game and especially the trash talk between Jordan and Magic very accurately and even provides a box score at the end.

As I said, there was little to report from the games during the tournament itself, but there are some nice anecdotes. Jordan spent the night before the final game playing cards, shot a video for the NBA in the morning without sleep, played 18 rounds of golf before the gold medal game and then scored 22 points against Croatia. There are also some very funny anecdotes about Barkley, when he repeatedly drove the security service up the wall by escaping from them and wandering alone through Barcelona’s nightlife. McCallum knows these stories not just from hearsay. He was there himself in Barcelona and during the preparations in Monte Carlo, even staying in the same hotel as the players and playing golf with some of them in his spare time.

Get Dream Team at Amazon

bookmark_borderPlaying for Keeps

The Jordan biography “Playing for Keeps” is the second NBA book by author David Halberstam, which I present on this blog. The first one was The Breaks of the Game. And Playing for Keeps is as good as Breaks of the Game.

Playing for Keeps

Halberstam wrote Playing for Keeps after the 1997-98 season – Jordan’s last for the Chicago Bulls. That timing evokes some associations, as the 2020 ESPN/Netflix documentary “The Last Dance” also tells the story of that season. And if you start reading the book, you’ll feel directly reminded of The Last Dance. Playing for Keeps, like the documentary, starts in Paris as the Bulls participate in a tournament in Europe before the NBA season begins. And Halberstam also describes early on the differences between the team and Coach Phil Jackson on one side, and General Manager Jerry Krause and Owner Jerry Reinsdorf on the other. Scottie Pippen was chronically underpaid as one of the league’s best players, Jordan tied his future to Jackson’s future, and Krause felt that his accomplishments were not appreciated enough.

Like the documentary however, Playing for Keeps is more than the story of one season. Halberstam here chronicles the steep rise of a young Michael Jordan, his beginnings in high school, his three years in college at North Carolina, his individually outstanding but nonetheless disappointing start in Chicago, and his rise to GOAT status. And it also is more than the story of one player. Although it’s a biography and Michael Jordan is the main character, you also learn a lot about Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause.

It is interesting to see the contrast between North Carolina and the early days of the Bulls. Here it becomes clear what high status college sports have in the USA (this is probably obvious for Americans, but for Europeans like me it can be quite surprising) and what low status basketball had in Chicago at that time. Jordan made his mark on the NBA right from the start, but the Bulls were a mess at the time, pretty much the opposite of Dean Smith’s team in North Carolina.

What followed were the years in which the Bulls regularly failed to beat the Detroit Pistons. David Halberstam also describes the rise of the “Bad Boys” to two-time NBA champions in great detail and in an exciting way. After the archrival was defeated in the playoffs for the first time, however, the Bulls’ rise to dynasty knew only one direction. In three consecutive years, the Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns (with Charles Barkley) were defeated in the Finals. Jordan and the Bulls had reached the peak of their game.

With the rise, however, came not only athletic success, but Jordan’s rise to perhaps one of the most famous persons in the world. Jordan was in the public eye like few other people and at the same time tried to escape it. This, the death of his father in the summer of 1993, and mental exhaustion after three titles and a summer with the Dream Team in 1992 led Jordan to hang up his shoes for the time being at the peak and devote himself to his first great love: baseball.

The rest is history. Jordan returned after a little less than two years and won three more titles with the Bulls. Halberstam also describes the conclusion of this outstanding career – Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz – from the perspective of many longtime companions: Jordan’s high school friend Leroy Smith, his college teammate and roommate Buzz Peterson, or his “Dream Team” coach Chuck Daly. At the time, Halberstam could not have known that Jordan would once again lace up his sneakers for the Washington Wizards.

Buy Playing for Keeps at Amazon