bookmark_borderWhen the Game was Ours

I already briefly mentioned “When the Game was Ours” in the post on Drive by Larry Bird. Former ESPN journalist Jackie McMullan wrote this book in 2009 along with NBA legends Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. And, of course, the book about those two. Bird and Magic remain intrinsically linked to each other to this day, first as rivals, later as friends.

When the Game was Ours

Many older NBA fans know that Magic and Bird once faced each other before their NBA careers. Their college teams Michigan State (Magic) and Indiana State (Bird) played each other in the NCAA Finals in 1979. What many don’t know, however, is that the two future superstars first crossed paths the summer before, but as teammates at the time. Both were part of a selection of the best college players in the country, who competed in several exhibition games against youth selections from other countries. Magic and Bird tended to sit on the bench (along with Sydney Moncrief, who was also part of the selection and later went on to have a very good NBA career). The coach of the college selection was the coach of Kentucky and relied on his own players in the starting five. However, the Magic/Bird duo dominated the Kentucky players in practice and, by all accounts, provided some highlight plays. In the book, many of his companions from that time also have their say.

A year later, as mentioned, the two met in the NCAA Finals. Magic won the first of many matchups against Bird and Michigan State walked away victorious. The road to the championship game is described in detail. Also, that both players were on each other’s radar that season, tracking each other’s stats. Then in the NBA, Bird and Magic were anything but friends at first. That was more Bird’s fault, according to the book. While they had the utmost respect for each other, they didn’t really like each other. The fact that they both played for the big rivals, the Celtics and Lakers, respectively, wasn’t exactly helpful.

The relationship between the two superstars changed in September 1985, when they filmed a commercial for Converse sneakers together. Both agreed only with reluctance. Bird only on the condition that the film shooting would take place at his home in Indiana. Magic agreed anyway and set off. In French Lick, Indiana he was immediately cared for by Bird’s mother, who was a big basketball fan, and was treated to a big meal by her. Bird then showed Magic his basement and they both chatted about old times. In the process, they discovered that they have a lot more in common than they thought. While they are quite different characters, their childhoods, their paths to the NBA, and even their attitudes toward basketball were very similar. Both came from poor backgrounds and had to fight hard for every step up the ladder.

At this point, both had reached the peak of their respective careers. However, the rivalry was not to last as long as one would have thought at that point. Bird had increasingly severe back problems and was therefore limited. And Magic’s story is well known. He tested positive for HIV in the summer of 1991 and ended his career. At the time, not much was known about HIV or even AIDS, and the two were often lumped together. Bird and also some other companions like Pat Riley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Jerry West stuck unconditionally to Magic, while others handled the diagnosis less well. For example, the friendship between Magic and Isiah Thomas, who questioned Magic in public, broke down as a result. Magic sounds very disappointed at times in the book about the behavior of his former best friend.

Their basketball careers together ended exactly as they began in the summer of 1978: as teammates. Bird and Magic were part of the Dream Team that won the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992 with overwhelming superiority. There are some more details about that in this book. Public opinion tended to be that Isiah Thomas was not nominated for the Dream Team because of Michael Jordan. However, Magic tells the story that nobody wanted him on the team. Even he himself did not stand up for his former best friend and was afraid for the team chemistry. The rest of the book then revolves around their time after their active careers. For Bird, it was primarily his three years as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. Magic attempted two brief comebacks as a player and also served for a short time as Lakers head coach. Above all, however, he is active as a businessman and with his foundation, which revolves around HIV/AIDS.

When The Game was Ours is one of the best NBA books I’ve read to date. That’s mostly because Bird and Magic had a hand in this book, so it’s not just a retelling from an outsider. It’s also very honest in its details. Both legends make no secret of the fact that they didn’t like each other at first and it was a difficult road to a good relationship. Also, a lot of former teammates, coaches and other companions have their say.

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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.

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Larry Bird – with the help noted Boston journalist and author Bob Ryan – wrote this book while he was still active. Since Bird missed most of the 1988-89 season due to injury, he had time to try out his literary skills.

Although a few chapters were added to Larry Bird’s career after the book was published (for example, his experiences with the 1992 Dream Team were still in the future at the time), this is a typical biography. It starts in Bird’s childhood and tells his first experiences with basketball and the steep rise in his youth. The early chapters are interesting and tell a lot about the problems and difficulties Bird and his family had to leave behind. Bird and his siblings grew up in poor circumstances and had to change homes frequently, sometimes living with their grandmother. The father committed suicide before Larry Bird played in his first game in the NBA.

The process of how Larry Bird came to the Boston Celtics in the first place is also interesting to read. He was drafted by them back in 1978 and decided to play one more year in college. The Celtics’ legendary general manager (and former title coach) Red Auerbach certainly took a risk here, as Bird could have re-entered the 1979 NBA draft, leaving the Celtics empty-handed. The contract negotiations before the 1979-80 season also turned out to be difficult and dragged on for a long time. Eventually however, Red Auerbach and Bird’s agent Bob Woolf were able to agree on a contract that satisfied both sides.

Despite some problems in the beginning, the relationship between Larry Bird and the Celtics was a success story from the start. In his rookie season, the Celtics won 32 more games than they had the previous season. Bird was named Rookie of the Year, well ahead of his rival and later friend Magic Johnson, and led his team to the Conference Finals, where they were defeated by the Philadelphia 76ers in five games. The Celtics won the title in just his second season. Prior to this title season, Boston drafted forward Kevin McHale and traded for center Robert Parish. The congenial trio shaped the franchise over the years and is still considered one of the best trios ever to stand on a basketball court.

What I would have liked to read more about was his relationship with Magic Johnson. The two rivals, who met on a big stage in the NCAA Finals before the NBA, later became friends after some bitter battles. Bird has few words about this, however. For those interested, check out Jackie MacMullan’s very good book When the Game Was Ours.

Bill Simmons, in his book The Book of Basketball, has a list of books he has read in the back appendix. He divides these into categories from “Influential Must-Reads” to “Not particularly helpful”. Drive he lists there in the “Helpful, not a total waste of time” category. One isn’t quite sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing at this point. Simmons, a longtime Celtics fan, is likely to have learned relatively little in this book that he didn’t already know about Bird.

Overall, the book is very interesting for basketball fans who would like to learn more about the history of Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics, and the NBA of the 1980s. However, it is not a must-read. It is written relatively soberly and does not polarize. You can tell that at this point – still during his active career – Bird didn’t want to piss people off. Maybe that would have looked a little different after his career, after all Bird was considered one of the biggest “trash talkers” in the league.

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