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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Recalling a two-decade old 'Dream'

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I was seven years old when the '92 Summer Olympics began in Barcelona, Spain. As a kid who commonly woke up extra early before kindergarten to watch SportsCenter, I was pretty excited about the whole affair.

I didn't fully understand the proceeding or what it meant, but several ideas stick in my memory: Jackie Joyner-Kersee running and jumping (upon researching, apparently she was in the heptathlon); Jennifer Capriati winning a tennis gold at only 16; Dan and Dave ads; collecting Olympics trading cards.

But most vividly I remember the Dream Team.

Basketball being my favorite sport at the time, I was familiar with all of the players involved (except Chris Mullin. Christian Laettner I knew because he'd just beaten the Fab Five). I also knew that there were no Pistons on the team and despite not being aware of any evidence to support it, I believed that to be wrong.

At the time, Bird and Magic were the most significant players to me, both from fame and basketball standpoint, but the He-Man physiques of David Robinson and Karl Malone appealed to my love of action figures.

Nostalgia probably means more to a seven-year-old than a seasoned, middle-age writer in most cases. But not always.

Jack McCallum's book "Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever," (Ballantine Books, July 10, 2012) is a change for the author.

McCallum is known for his NBA books in which he follows around a team for a season ("Seven Seconds or Less," "Unfinished Business"), details the highs and lows, describes new anecdotes he gains from the coaches and players and generally changes the way you watch a team.

After reading "Seven Seconds or Less," for instance, it was impossible to watch the Steve Nash-era Suns and not feel like you had special insight.

"Dream Team" is different, intentionally so, because McCallum's perspective is not journalistic, but fanatic.

He was there, and he surely gained special insight, and he wrote about some of that at the time while working for Sports Illustrated. But "Dream Team" is not about that.

Given the team's domination on a nightly basis, it would probably be uninteresting to hear about what it took to get each win -- to describe the obstacles the players overcame to hit that last corner three (In most cases, the obstacle was having stayed up all night playing cards the night before, then playing 36 holes of golf that afternoon).

McCallum seems more in awe of the team 20 years later than he was as they were winning. That makes the story more about nostalgia than accomplishment.

His fondest memories are being verbally destroyed by Larry Bird's trash talk and following Charles Barkley around the clubs of Barcelona. The games themselves, important at the time, perhaps, are seldom mentioned: More is written about the bronze medal game between Lithuania and Russia than the gold medal U.S. game.

The first half of the book details a two-decade process, beginning in the 1970s, of how the team came to be. Each member of the team is given a chapter (usually five to seven pages) on why they were selected (Except, curiously, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone, who are barely mentioned at all).

Pistons All Star/superstar/Finals MVP Isiah Thomas, snubbed from the team, is mentioned in the first half more than anyone who was actually chosen. Each chapter seems to propose a different reason for his exclusion from the view of a different player (mostly they just didn't like him). My childhood grudge is validated.

After making the team, each player has a role off the court more important than his role on it.

Magic is the leader (and spokesman for his recent HIV diagnosis), Barkley is the joker who doesn't take anything seriously, etc.

Bird (his degenerative back limiting his action most days) is the star of the book, because the book is not about the games. His biting, ludicrous, incisive one-liners pepper the text -- unfortunately most of them can't be printed here.

His competitiveness is so strong that when it can't be fueled on the court it must be extended to other things. When he is told the fastest any player had signed a room full of basketballs was 15 minutes, Bird does it in four.

The premise proposed in the book's title is only half successful. It is clear that they conquered the world, but the "changed the game forever" part is mostly assumed.

Mostly the story is about how fondly McCallum recalls that period of his life. The book (probably) won't make you feel differently about the team or respect them any more, but it (probably) will help you remember the world of 1992, the Olympics (with the patriotism that invokes) and just how dominant, famous and globally altering one particular entity can be.

It's nice to remember a time when people had accomplishments, then became famous.

7.5 out of 10