* Welcome to the 58th installment of The Quaz Q&A. This feature—a question-and-answer session with a person from sports/entertainment/politics/whatever—will appear every week on jeffpearlman.com. If you have any suggestions/ideas for people to speak with, hit me up at email@example.com. I’m listening.
Jack McCallum is the best.
I don’t mean, specifically, the best writer, though he’s certainly very high on the list. I don’t mean the best editor, though when I worked with him on Sports Illustrated’s Scorecard section he repeatedly made my shit sound (somehow) intelligent and witty.
No, what I mean is Jack is one of those special guys people look to be around; one of those guys who—somehow, some way—makes you feel better about yourself. Back when we worked together at the magazine, few things brought me greater joy than listening as Jack told one story after another from his days covering the NBA (A tip: Get him to talk about Darren Daye. Trust me). The tales were always long, always hilarious and always priceless. Hell, I’d pay money to sit around a table with Jack, Steve Rushin, Rick Riley, Phil Taylor, Chris Ballard, Jon Wertheim, et al and not say a word. Just listen and laugh.
Although he is no longer employed by the magazine, Jack is still a player (and a playa) of LeBron-esque skills. I had the honor (it really was an honor) to blurb his new book, Dream Team, and it ranks as one of the best sports biographies I have read. Jack spoke with all 12 members of the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team, as well as myriad coaches, officials, etc. His gift comes (I have long believed) in his authenticity. There is no game to Jack; none of the BS phony dialogue too many of our peers seem to employ. He’s just a really good guy who you (or any athlete) would love to sit down and chat with. For young, aspiring scribes, there’s a lesson in that.
Here, Jack talks about Dream Team; about how he approaches a writing project and the moment when he felt too old to cover the NBA. He loves the New Jersey beaches, blueberries and Greg Kite; is certain Len Bias would have been a stud and is equally comfortable calling Kwame Brown a dud. One can visit his website here, and follow his Tweets here.
Jack McCallum, the Quaz is your court …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Jack, the first time we ever spoke was in 1995. I was a 23-year-old features writer for The Tennessean, doing a piece on the art of the sports autobiography. I called you to talk about Shaq Attack, the book you wrote with a then-NBA rookie named Shaquille O’Neal. This is a question probably only three of my 10 readers will find interesting, but how the hell does one get 250 pages out of a 24-year-old center who has done almost nothing in his life but played basketball?
JACK MCCALLUM: And you could add … with very little time to do it since Shaq’s peeps didn’t get around to signing the contract until mid-March. Anyway, you research every possible thing you can think of. I remember going through every game, not to talk about the games, but to find the “little things.” Maybe in one game you see that he shoved, say, Patrick Ewing. Well, you don’t care about the shove. You care about what he thinks about Patrick Ewing. You get him to riff on that. You ask if he watched Ewing growing up and even if he says no, you ask whom he did watch. You use the little things to get to the big things. You report the hell out of it and leave no stone unturned because—as you know—it is up to you to turn the stones.
J.P.: I’ve surely told you this before, but you’re one of my all-time favorite writers. Truth be told, you’ve had the career I’ve long aspired to: Distinguished, respected, uncompromising. I’ve never seen you screaming at Skip Bayless on ESPN or guest hosting the Best Damn Sports Show or bitch slapping Mike Lupica (which, for the record, I’d pay to witness). My question is, how would it have been different had you been a writer coming up in the early 2010s, as opposed to the late 1970s? Has Twitter and Facebook and blogs turned us all into whores? Can a guy just be a “writer” anymore?
J.M.: You probably say that to all the writers. But thanks. It would be completely different if I were starting out now, and that is becoming clear to me now because I’m pulling out all stops to flack my Dream Team book. I’ve done everything but put on a short skirt and sit in a window in Amsterdam. We’re just going to have to stop thinking about it in terms of being “whores,”—and I admit it’s tough for old-timers like me—but self-promotion is the new normal. It’s the way it is, and, to be frank, the more us old dudes are on the new stuff, the more we tend to like it. At least, that’s the case for this old dude.
J.P.: A college kid says, “Mr. McCallum, should I go into sports writing?” What do you tell him?
J.M.: I tell him he can call me Jack, first of all. (But not if he’s in one of my writing classes at Muhlenberg, my alma mater.) And I say, “Yes, absolutely go into it. But learn to write. Because if sports doesn’t work out, you can write about movies or food or celebrities or politics or plays or …”
J.P.: I know bits and pieces of the narrative, but how’d you get here? Born in 1949, graduated from Muhlenberg in 1971, hired by SI in 1981 … but how did it all happen? And, looking back, are you happy with what you’ve done and accomplished?
J.M.: I started at a small newspaper and learned how to do everything. After six or seven years, I knew I could do this pretty well and sent out clippings to bigger places. And a guy at SI named Jerry Tax, a legendary editor, liked some of my stuff and asked me to try a free-lance piece. The first one worked. So did the second and third. I wrote about 10 pieces free-lance, had some successes and some failures and got hired in 1981.
Hey, the way I started, with the money I made at a small paper? ($510 a month.) I never thought I would make a decent living, never mind doing it at one of the great magazines in the world. It’s a cliche’ but I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Okay, maybe George Clooney’s luckier. But he’s good-looking.
J.P.: People tend to view the sports eras of their childhood as the “golden” eras. In basketball, I look back longingly to the 80s—Magic vs. Bird, the emergence of Jordan, the rise of Uwe Blab. You were covering hoops during this time. Am I just a kid waxing nostalgic, or was there something special and unique about it all? Something … different?
J.M.: I’m glad you said it first because I would sound like it was just some guy talking about how great it was when he was there. But it was better. It had the individual stars it does now but it also had the team competition thing, the rivalries. And the perception that the guys were better guys and played harder and all that crap was there, too. For a writer, to a certain extent, you are only as good as your material. Tom Wicker got famous because he was there for the JFK assassination. He might’ve been good anyway but that was a break. Did any sports writer ever have better material to work with than I did? I’m serious. The guys were great, they were reasonably accessible, the public loved them, they understood the process, and SI put them on the cover.
J.P.: What’s your approach to writing? What I mean is, let’s say Sports Illustrated calls and says “We want 2,500 words on Shane Battier.” What’s your approach to reporting and, then, to writing? Do you pull a last-minute overnighter? Do you write at home? In a coffee shop?
J.M.: From the moment I start my reporting, I’m thinking of a lead, whether it be a scene or a setup or whatever. That way, when I start writing, I don’t sit there for an hour doing nothing. I can’t do it that way. It’s too hard. I have to have what’s going on the page in my head, and if I don’t have it, I get up and walk around, eat a popsicle, watch a Law and Order re-run and keep thinking about it. Then I sit down and write. And I don’t stop to look things up. That bogs me down. I put in TK KOMING [Jeff’s note: At Sports Illustrated, and other places, TK stands for “To come.” And, no, I’m not sure why it’s not TC] and go back to it, so I keep the flow going. But you gotta get your reporting in first. The writing gets easier; the reporting never does.
J.P.: I had the pleasure of reading your biography on the Dream Team before it was released, and thought it was truly fantastic. How did you come up with the idea? What were the obstacles? Who was the easiest, and who was the hardest, to get to talk? And was Christian Laettner as big an ass as I perceive him to be?
J.M.: On Laettner … pretty much. He’s trying to be a good guy as he gets older. But he got off to such a great start in the other direction that it’s hard for him to completely change.
As for the idea, I should’ve thought of it, but an editor at Random House came up with it and called me. I said yes in about seven seconds or less. (Whoring continues.)
I’ve been blogging on jackmccallum.net (whoring redux) about the background to my interviews. None were easy to set up and all were pretty damn good. But at the end of the day you have to get the big boys, and I really enjoyed what I pulled out of Jordan (some stuff about his dad) and Bird (some ruminations on the beauty of basketball in general.)
J.P.: I have often used this space to ask athletes about the aging process; what it’s like to be Shawn Green hitting .230 … how does it feel to be Phil Nevin, 34 and surrounded by a bunch of 20-year olds. But I’ve never asked a writer. So, eh, Jack, you’re 62. Many of your contemporaries have retired. Some are, well, dead. Was there a point where you were like, “Ugh, I’m chasing people half my age?” Or a point where you got tired of the grind, the road, the game? Or, on the other hand, does writing sports keep you spry and involved?
J.M.: For me, it happened when I was talking to LeBron when he first came into the league. I’m talking to him, and he’s kind of listening to me but kind of zoning me out, and I realize, “Holy shit, I’m old enough to be his grandfather. Not his father; his grandfather. Better Chris Ballard to get to him. Or Ian Thomsen. Or Lee Jenkins, who did get to him and did a helluva piece a while back.”
But I will say this: Writing-wise, not only do I feel like I have not lost anything, I feel that I’m better than ever. Sorry if that sounds conceited. And I believe this: The digital age should improve writing, not the other way around. I make references now that I wouldn’t have before because readers should be able to find that reference in a split-second. Everyone reads with his or her device turned to Google. We should be getting better, more sophisticated, more diverse, both as writers and readers.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career as a writer? Worst?
J.M.: Greatest: Well, they put me in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Whether it was a mistake or not, my name is on a plaque in Springfield. The lowest: Well, I referred to ex-Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien as the “late Ted Stepien” in a story, and he was still alive. He called me about it and I had the presence of mind to reply, “Where are you calling from?”
J.P.: Your book on the Phoenix Suns is wonderful. I’ve never been embedded with a team for that long of a time. I’m wondering, is it hard to be unflinchingly honest? What I mean is, you see these guys every day. You develop bonds and, I’m guessing, friendships. If you thought Mike was a shit coach, could you have written so? And were there any hurt feelings post-publication?
J.M.: In answer to the last question, lots of hurt feelings, particularly on the part of Shawn Marion, who, after the book came out, confronted me about it. He never physically threatened me, but he was pissed.
I know this sounds weirdly unlikely, but I picked the right team. I knew a lot about them, and I knew I would like them and that’s part of the reason I asked them. This would not have worked if you didn’t like the vibe. I liked all the coaches, I liked most of the players—that includes Shawn, by the way, who’s a good person—and, fortunately, they had a great season.
Now, by the time the book was over, Mike D’Antoni had become a pretty good friend of mine and remains so. So did the other assistants. I have admitted in print that it would be hard for me to write about D’Antoni objectively. Anyone who claims he can write about friends honestly is lying. That’s why you shouldn’t hang around a beat forever. You start to cultivate certain people, you celebrate them (on or off the record) and you forget about the new people.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JACK MCCALLUM:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Byron Scott, the Christmas City Classic, Taylor Swift, Admiral Stockdale, fresh blueberries, getting edited, Steve Nash, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Celine Dion, your Twitter account, Eric Show.: Xmas City Classic, blueberries (I’m from Jersey and once picked them in 113-degree weather), Steve Nash, Byron Scott, Twitter account, Stockdale, Taylor Swift (she once hung out in Stone Harbor, N.J., where I do in the summer), Eric Show (at first I thought it was a typo and you meant Eric Snow), getting edited, Ketchup (don’t put it on anything; I’m a mustard guy). Celine Dion. (Dion of Dion and the Belmonts might be first, though.)
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I was in the head, flying to Mexico City, and the plane dipped and—I kid you not—my head hit the ceiling of the plane. As I was up in the air, I thought, “Don’t forget to flush.”
• Five most naturally gifted writers you ever worked with: Saying someone is gifted might imply they don’t work hard. I want to make sure that that’s not what I’m saying. 1) Steve Rushin—not even close. No one even thinks of the stuff that Steve thinks of, far less writes it; 2) Richard Hoffer—dark sensibility; 3) Scott Price and Gary Smith—they both work their ass off on reporting, but it still comes out looking like genius; 4) Bill Nack—takes pains—and I do mean pains—to get it right … and he gets it right; 5) Frank Deford—hey, it’s Frank Deford.
• The five worst NBA players you’ve ever seen?: Michael Olowokandi; Joe Barry Carroll, Kwame Brown, Jack Haley, Greg Kite (Greg was a great guy, by the way, but that’s not what you asked. The first three make the list because they had potential and did squat with it.)
• Does Michael Jordan have what it takes to be a successful NBA executive?: Yes, if he would get a guy in there who would stand up to him and say, “No, Michael, we should do it this way, not your way.” But Michael has always been the Alpha Dog. Chuck Daly used to say—and he’s probably not the first one—”Your greatest strength is usually your greatest weakness.” I really believe that. Alpha Dogdom worked on the court, not in the boardroom.
• If there’s one Jack McCallum article people should read, it’s …: I’d like you to read the piece I wrote about my best friend who died in Vietnam, which I paired with a young man who died in Afghanistan.
• Miley Cyrus recently announced she’s getting married. How do you feel?: I feel the over-under on her divorce is seven months.
• If Len Bias had lived, what sort of NBA career do you think he would have had?: No way he wouldn’t have been great. No way. He had everything. No weakness. Blake Griffin-like athleticism with a fundamental game. Think Durant with fewer points but maybe a slightly better floor game.
• Funniest joke Tom Verducci has ever told you?: That he was going to hit a 5-iron out of a trap from 200 yards away and get it to the green on the 16th hole at Architects. Then he did it.
• Five reasons someone should make Bethlehem, Pa his summer vacation spot: You shouldn’t. Go to Stone Harbor. 1) The beach; 2) Nothing happens there so you can relax; 3) The cinnamon smell at the Bread and Cheese Cupboard; 4) Springer’s Ice Cream; 5) 96th Street basketball courts. South Jersey beaches are one of the most underrated treasures in America.
THIS IS FROM ED SHERMAN’S WEBSITE. HE’S A CHICAGO JOURNALIST
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.
FROM GELF MAGAZINE
Reliving the Dream Team
Author Jack McCallum shares what it was like to cover the world’s most famous collection of athletes on their way to making history.
Twenty years after they won the gold in Barcelona, we’re awash in a wave of nostalgia for the Dream Team. First there was the NBA TV documentary, then the oral history in GQ and now comes the 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 by Jack McCallum. In this case, the last is certainly not the least. McCallum’s book is an engrossing chronicle of not only the Dream Team, but that era of basketball.
McCallum wrote for Sports Illustrated for 30 years, covering the NBA during the reign of Magic, Bird and Jordan. His original reporting from back then allowed him to tell the story of the Dream Team without having to look through the gauzy lens of history, the way the NBA TV documentary occasionally does. Along with recounting the tales that contributed to the Dream Team’s mythic status in sports, McCallum also doesn’t shy away from covering the messy parts like the behind-the-scenes struggles with the USOC and players protecting their own commercial interests.
Varsity Letters July 5th: Olympics Night
You can hear McCallum read from and talk about his work—alongside Kate Buford, author of Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe and David Davis who wrote Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze—at Gelf’s Olympic-themed Varsity Letters event, at 7:30 pm at The Gallery at LPR in Manhattan’s West Village (map).
Gelf spoke with McCallum about the Dream Team’s origin, the internal dynamics of the squad, what it was like to follow them closely at the time and how they represented the culmination of a “Golden Age” of basketball.
Gelf Magazine: Was there a Dream Team myth you wanted to puncture?
Jack McCallum: This wasn’t the idea of David Stern after we lost the 1988 Olympics. I wanted to set the record straight—this was not the NBA’s idea. This was the idea of a guy in FIBA named Boris Stankovic. I was there when Stankovic started talking about it and I was there when Stern kept saying “we have enough problems, what are we going to put pros in the Olympics for?” But once Stern got his hooks into it, he did maximize it. I also wanted to know if this really was one big happy family. There were enough things that I tried to put in the narrative, Magic, being the captain and his “this is my team” attitude. Bird didn’t get specific, but he was the only one who said that if they were together any longer, that they would have been like any other team; that there would have been bitching and moaning about playing time. But most of these guys looked upon this so positively that even for a cynical journalist it was hard to find guys complaining about anything. And why the hell should they, it was the greatest time in most of their lives.
Gelf Magazine: It sounds like the USOC did the most complaining. Do you remember them being pretty frustrating at the time?
Jack McCallum: Yes, in many little ways. You’d ask a question about the team and they’d moan, “Why are you wasting all this time covering these guys?” I sort of got it in one respect. This was the time every four years you paid attention to the gymnasts and swimmers. Because the Dream Team was at a different hotel and because they were superstars and sort of governed by USA Basketball, USOC didn’t have the hold on them and if there’s one thing an amateur bureaucrat needs it’s a hold on somebody.
Gelf Magazine: The team dynamics you reveal were really fascinating, especially the hierarchy of Jordan, Magic and Bird.
Jack McCallum: When Dream Teamers talk about the other team members, there’s no question Jordan is the Alpha Dog. But there was a kind of reverence attached to Bird that all of these guys have. They weren’t saying he’s better than Jordan or saying he’s better than Magic. Magic was the captain of the team, the ceremonial captain, and Michael was the warrior captain. These guys all had this reverence toward Bird that very much interested me that they did not feel toward Magic. And the extent they felt it to Jordan, it was basketball related.
I think Bird surprised people with his personality. I think they thought he’d be a standoffish pain in the ass, but he’s funny—one of the funniest people I’ve ever covered. He said a funny line to me. I didn’t get to interview him until the last moment. I was going to have prostate cancer surgery and the book was done, it was in galleys and it was driving me nuts that I didn’t have everybody. I made one final call out there to his assistant and I said “Tell Larry that I’m going to have prostate cancer surgery and if I die on the table, he’ll be the last person I interview,” and Bird gets on the phone and says “Well, that ain’t no damn honor!” Two days later I flew out and we had a great interview.
Gelf Magazine: It feels lost to history how the team was constructed, especially the fact that they originally left Clyde Drexler off.
Jack McCallum: It was a big deal and I think in retrospect they were really stupid to have done it that way. The fact that they were going to pick 10 of 11 NBA players and then make somebody “audition for it” exacerbated all of the drama about Isiah being added and I think that was a mistake. No matter how much Clyde couches it, he was very pissed off in retrospect that he wasn’t added.
Gelf Magazine: The other late add was Christian Laettner. Does he feel like he still has to justify his inclusion on the team?
Jack McCallum: I would think it’s almost a cross to bear. He told me that he was a better NBA player because of it. He wasn’t bad, but he had injuries and he just wasn’t on the level of these other guys. But he’ll tell you that this really helped him because his indoctrination to the NBA was a lot better than it would have been. Dream Team inclusion wasn’t easy back then and 20 years later people can’t remember why there was one college kid on there. Those who do remember say, “Why the hell wasn’t Shaquille picked? He was fifty times better than Laettner.” I totally defended Christian. He was one of the 15 greatest college players ever. He had paid the dues for USA Basketball. He was coming off two national championships. He had maximized his potential in a way that Shaq never did in college.
Gelf Magazine: A guy who risked exclusion for his behavior was Barkley. Why did he end up becoming the most important Dream Teamer to you?
Jack McCallum: We get over to Barcelona and the one thing you don’t want to do is come across as an ugly America. There’s already resentment about them, and the USOC is pissed off about this team, although the fans were in an absolute orgiastic exhilaration about these guys. The press was looking for things to write about them and first thing he does is elbow an Angolan. And he doesn’t really apologize for it. He claims that the guy elbowed him. I told him “Charles, you’re full of crap.” But by the end of the games, he’s met more people than any single Olympian. Everybody wanted to talk to him. He went out every night on the Ramblas and people saw him and to a certain extent Charles really mitigated the standoffishness of the team. He almost singlehandedly became an ambassador for them.
Gelf Magazine: Did that really increase Barkley’s popularity when he returned? And how did being on the team affect other Dream Teamers?
Jack McCallum: Absolutely. Guys told me this experience improved them as basketball players. That was one of the most surprising things I heard. Michael didn’t tell me that and Larry and Magic were at the end by then, but Barkley, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Stockton, Malone and Chris Mullin told me that just the experience of playing with the team gave them not only basketball tips, but it gave them confidence. “Hey, I’m a Dream Teamer. I just played with the best team that ever was, and I was good on it.”
Gelf Magazine: You’ve called the Olympic qualifying tournament in Portland the last pure moment for the team, was that your favorite time with them?
Jack McCallum: That was one of the greatest seven or eight days of my career. My family came out, my kids were at an age when they were watching these guys and the USOC had not quite officially taken command of them so we had good interaction and access. It was the first time they played together so you could really pay attention to the games and you could say, “Wow, there’s Scottie Pippen setting a back screen to free Mullin—who knew they were going to do that?” You could watch Pippen and Jordan in tandem on defense. You could watch Charles maneuver his way and really see how good he was. After that, the games really don’t stick out that much to me. The first time these guys came out together is one of the great moments that I’ve had. It was just the idea that you had all this build-up and now it’s happening and when they played together they were really good. They really tried, they really wanted to play with honor, play it hard, not insult their opponents by half-assing it or throwing bounce passes. They didn’t do that crap. They didn’t turn it into the All-Star Game.
Gelf Magazine: Why write about the Dream Team 20 years later and not back then?
Jack McCallum: I was actually going to do a book then. I had a contract and halfway through the people didn’t want to do it anymore. Believe it or not, the guy who signed me was so dumb that he thought somehow that the team would be together the whole year. To do it now, honestly, wasn’t even my idea. I was too dumb to think of it myself, it was the idea of an editor at Random House. It seemed natural to do it now. After 20 years guys had gained perspective and fortunately for me, they’re still in the mainstream.
Gelf Magazine: The story you tell isn’t just about the team’s time together though. The book is almost more a history of that era of basketball that led to the Dream Team.
Jack McCallum: Barcelona was great, don’t get me wrong. But, to me, that just seemed like sort of a boring story—we went out and beat Croatia tonight by 30 tonight, we beat Lithuania too—it didn’t seem there was enough there. In order to get at these guys, you needed to tell the story of how they became what they were. I thought this would be a good way to take what I like to call a really rich snapshot of the guys, which culminated with the Dream Team and the drama after Barcelona. How much they fell apart when they came back to the states. So it struck me to tell the whole story. It would have been boring to just tell about the time they were together.
Plus the fact that this was by far the most interesting era of basketball. That’s easy to say, “I was there, therefore it was interesting.” But anyone with an objective sense would tell you that this was the golden age of the NBA.
Gelf Magazine: Did that allow you to put in details from your SI reporting that you didn’t get into stories before?
Jack McCallum: It did. Going back to my old notebooks I got a chance to fill in things I didn’t get to write back then. I started reading my old stories starting in 1984-85 about these guys and thought, “this is actually what’s interesting.” How did Jordan become Jordan? What was the Jordan-Drexler rivalry? What kind of trouble was Barkley in before Barcelona—how hard was it for the committee to pick him?
As for the games, this was the most famous team in history, but this was the pre-internet age so when I went to Barcelona personally, had there been an SI.com, I probably would have filed two blogs per day and then a story. As it was, I didn’t even write that much from Barcelona. I wrote a story about some bullshit thing about their picture captions. I wrote what was almost a Magic Q&A and then a story about Charles on the Ramblas. Honestly, there wasn’t really that much else to write. We couldn’t see practices and you couldn’t get in the locker rooms, so these little things you didn’t get a chance to do.
Gelf Magazine: Had Barkley been on Las Ramblas today, everyone would have Instagram’d, Tweeted and posted videos to YouTube. You may not have had the chance to write that story as a great narrative in a magazine. Everyone would have already known.
Jack McCallum: There would be literally live feeds of Barkley on Las Ramblas from the Olympics. The fact I was able to get there and we were able to get some photos and they weren’t everywhere in the world before they were in SI wouldn’t happen now. I was lucky to have really covered this in the pre-internet age. Jordan and these guys, no matter what they say, loved being on the cover of Sports Illustrated—it meant something to them. So I had a lot of access to them because of the power of Sports Illustrated. That was the last age where there was an implicit understanding among the athletes that they should cooperate. They wouldn’t get pissed off if you wrote one sentence in a 500-word thing that they didn’t like. You could go back to them, trust them; you had a relationship. I was lucky to have been in sports journalism during that time because now that kind of intimacy just really doesn’t exist.
Gelf Magazine: The access seemed crazy to me. I mean, you’re hanging out backstage on Saturday Night Live while Jordan hosts and having dinner and cracking wise with Karl Malone.
Jack McCallum: I played golf with Barkley and Drexler in Monte Carlo too.
Gelf Magazine: Could you feel that access slipping away and the tide turning with the 1994 World Championship “Nightmare Team“? Jack McCallum: I definitely did. It was right around that time, and I believe it was Shaq’s rookie year. I sensed a difference in the generation. Part of it was my fault, I was 42 or 43 and I didn’t feel like they were my guys. I felt like it was a generation coming along that thought, “here’s what Jordan did, I want that now.”
I’ve said this line a million times, but the greatest thing about Jordan and most of those guys is that they were better than their hype. The generation after was not invested in helping the league the same way Magic, Michael and, in his own way, Bird did. Magic and Bird saved the league, that’s no exaggeration. These younger guys came into an NBA that was healthy and thought “What do we need to be invested in the league for? The NBA is making a billion dollars.”
Gelf Magazine: Should they ditch the Dream Team concept and go with a U-23 team?
Jack McCallum: I don’t care. It’s not that I don’t care about the subject. I mean, half of what Mark Cuban says I roll my eyes at, but when he started saying, “Why the hell did I want to send Dirk Nowitzki over to play for freaking Germany for eight weeks, have him be tired and have him not really round into shape until January?” I really got that. So if they’ve come to the point in the league that they’ve decided that it’s not quite worth it, I don’t have a problem with it. If they do same thing and LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Durant are going to play in this World Cup and they were just not doing the Olympics for profit motive—which is what seems to be going on because the NBA is going to have more of a say with this World Cup competition—then I might look at it a little differently.
Gelf Magazine: How would the Dream Team do against today’s international competition, when teams are more interested in beating the US instead of having their pictures taken with them?
Jack McCallum: They would still win. Would they have to play harder? Sure, but you have to understand, they played these games with Jordan playing 16 minutes. And they were playing also with Larry and Magic, who were not in their prime. Pippen and Jordan were tandem defenders like there never were. Robinson and Ewing are still more skilled big men than they would have today. So instead of 40-point victories, they’d have 15 to 20-point victories. Once Michael Jordan started to win in the NBA, he never lost, so there’s no reason to think he’d lose against these international opponents.
FROM SLAM ONLINE
‘Covering Those Guys, It Was the Luckiest Gig I Ever Got’
An interview with Jack McCallum, famed author of the upcoming book, Dream Team.
I remember the first time I met Jack McCallum. It was Fall 2009, and Sports Illustrated was hosting a basketball game in Manhattan, NY, in celebration of senior writer Chris Ballard’s then-recently released, The Art of a Beautiful Game.
The gym—located just off the Hudson River in a space called Chelsea Piers—was choice, with freshly polished hardwood floors, regulation backboards and sturdy rims. And the game, the game was choice too, filled with plenty of talent. Well, maybe not basketball talent, but writing talent.
At one point in the game, SI’s Ballard and Chris Mannix, ESPN’s Henry Abbott, NY Times’ (now Grantland’s) Jonathan Abrams and TheBigLead’s Jason McIntyre were all on the floor at the same time. The MVP of the scribal talent, though, the MJ of writers on the court was Jack McCallum, a long-time SI staffer who covered the NBA from 1984 until late in the Aughts, and authored the acclaimed Seven Seconds or Less.
To be honest, I don’t remember what McCallum’s game was like—though I recall one particularly difficult mid-range bankshot—but I do remember that after the game, dehydrated and disgustingly sweaty, we all headed upstairs to a dinner and drinks reception.
What we consumed and imbibed that night is lost to time. But, again, I do remember that McCallum, older and more established than anyone else present by a longshot, held court for the better part of the night. He reminisced about his own basketball-playing days. He reminisced about covering Larry Bird. He reminisced about the ever-changing NBA. As McCallum spoke, the group encircling him grew larger and listened closer—intent on not missing a single sage story.
Now, with the upcoming July 10 release of his book, Dream Team: How Michael, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, McCallum is set to hold court for a much larger audience on a subject he knows better than almost anyone: the USA’s 1992 Olympic basketball team—the Dream Team.
McCallum has so much insight—he was on the Dream Team beat in ’92, and covered it from roster formation in the States to Gold medal in Barcelona—and info—while preparing the book, he interviewed every single player, from Christian Laettner to Michael Jordan, as well as almost anyone remotely connected to the team in any way—that his first version of Dream Team came in at 140,000 words. Eventually, through rewrites and edits and, amazingly, more interviews, he was able to chop it all the way down to 36 chapters and 330-plus pages. (Additionally, he built a website to host some of the outtakes and better moments that didn’t make the final cut.)
Recently, we had the chance to catch up with McCallum to discuss the writing of Dream Team: How Michael, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, a must-read for any real basketball fan.
SLAM: Aside from the obvious—it’s the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Olympics—why write this book now?
Jack McCallum: I’ll tell you the truth, it wasn’t my idea. It was an editor’s at Random House. He said we’re coming up on 20 years and it would be a good look back.
I mean, (a) there’s a whole host of people who don’t really remember that much about it; (b) there was a lot of background as to how the team was selected; (c) not to mention, you fast-forward 20 years and a lot of these guys are still in the headlines. Michael [Jordan] owns and manages a team. Magic [Johnson] is all over the place. Larry [Bird] is running a team. [Charles] Barkley is more prominent than ever. None of these guys have really disappeared from our consciousness, so you could have a broad canvas. You could bring back to life 20 years ago, but you could also write about what they’re doing now.
SLAM: At the time, way back in 1992, did you ever think about writing something substantial then?
JM: I did. In fact, I was going to do something but it just kind of fell apart.
Now, for that reason, it’s confusing. When you google it, it shows up that I had written a book back in 1992 when I hadn’t [laughs]. I didn’t do it then, but for some reason this report that one was going to be done shows up in connection with me.
So it did occur to me, it just didn’t work out. When we got back from Barcelona, as I write in the book, it almost seemed like the end of an era. Larry retired; Magic subsequently retired; Michael played one more year; and I was just kind of tired of the beat and wanted to do a little something else because it seemed like my guys were sort of gone. The Dream Team, as I wrote, sort of brought an end to an era, and I guess for a while I didn’t want to write anything more about it myself.
SLAM: So I guess you had a lot of old notes and notebooks to fall back on when you finally sat down to write this book.
JM: Oh, yeah. Fortunately, I’ve always saved my articles. So the first thing I did was go back and read everything I had written about these guys going back to 1984. That’s when Michael came into the League. Clyde was already in the League, and obviously Magic and Larry were. That’s also when I began covering the League.
I just began by reading. Then I found my notebooks from Barcelona. The hard part was the written record of that time—remember, there wasn’t an internet, there wasn’t an SI.com. There weren’t stories about these guys every day. Can you imagine now, how closely this team would be covered? So the written record isn’t as large as the 2012 written record will be of the Olympic team this summer.
SLAM: I know getting guys to sit down for interviews is a tough task—especially these guys. How’d you go about getting all the info and interviews you needed for the book?
JM: There were two challenges: the first challenge, as always, is trying to get the guys. If anything, at the beginning of the project the intimidating thing was trying to get the guys. I became obsessed with trying to get all of them, and—I don’t have to tell you this—but people don’t understand how difficult that is [laughs]. They’re all over the place. They’re busy. They have people in front of them. And even though I know all of them and they know me, it’s hard to get that block of time. That was the No. 1 challenge.
The No. 2 challenge was, everybody started telling me—and it’s been written 100 times—that there was no video of that magic intrasquad scrimmage in Monte Carlo, when Michael’s team went up against Magic’s team. I became convinced that I wanted to try to find that. The problem was, I didn’t really want to contact USA Basketball and the NBA because I didn’t think they’d give it to me—and I didn’t want to alert them to the fact that I was sort of doing this [laughs].
Eventually I found the guy who shot it for USA Basketball. I went to his house to try to find this magical intrasquad game. It sort of became the holy grail. There, amongst a pile of 100 VHS tapes, I finally came upon this game between Magic and Michael. I really felt good when I got that, like, Hey, man, this is something that nobody else has.
Getting back to the first challenge, the hard thing was, one by one, getting the guys to interview. The hard one is always going to be Magic/Michael/Larry, for different reasons. It took a long while, but I finally got everybody. I interviewed them all person-to-person, and they all were incredible. Whether I talked to them for five hours, as I did some of them, or whether I talked to them for an hour, they all remembered stuff very vividly. This was a very important part of their life, so they were all very into the Dream Team. That really helped a lot.
SLAM: It’s such a mythologized game and event—that scrimmage in Monte Carlo—I sort of feel like reading about it is enough and it shouldn’t be aired. It can only be a letdown.
JM: The game itself does not live up to the mythology. It was more—I think [Mike] Krzyzewski had the best take on it. It wasn’t the actual basketball that was played. It was how seriously these guys took it. That doesn’t exactly come across in the video. It’s not the most compelling game. If you watch four minutes of the Oklahoma City Thunder run up and down the court, you’ve seen better basketball. This thing has sort of a ragged scrimmage feel to it.
On the other hand, as a historical document, it’s sort of like you have some sort of moving picture of the Declaration of Independence being signed. And even though it’s not very interesting, it’s interesting simply because of the people who are in the photo.
SLAM: A few weeks ago you wrote about Mike D’Antoni, and about how it’s tough to report on people you’re close with because the lines are so blurred. Did you feel that way at all about any of the Dream Team guys and about writing this book?
JM: Well, you know, these guys are a little more distant. I know them and they know me, and they were incredibly important for my career. The fact that I was able to cover these guys just did everything for me. Let’s face it, I’m not trying to give false modesty, but you’re only as good as the guys you cover—and I happened to cover them. So I owe a great debt to them.
On the other hand, they’re not my close friends. I don’t call up Larry, I don’t call up Michael [laughs]. I don’t call these guys, and God knows they don’t call me up. They respect me—I think—and they like me, but they’re not my friends.
So in answer to your question, it was always easy to keep them at arm’s length. I probably said some stuff in there that Magic won’t be the happiest [about], probably Michael also, but I would say that’s not hard to do. A guy like D’Antoni, we’re sort of on the same wavelength. We’re the same age basically, we talk about family, and we’re a little bit of the same plane. But I would never say that I couldn’t write honestly about these guys; there’s certainly enough distance between us.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I liked some guys on the team more than others and felt closer to some guys than others. But honestly, at the end of the day, every one of those guys—except for [Christian] Laettner, who I didn’t know very well—I really liked. I can’t say that there wasn’t one guy who I didn’t have some kind of affection for.
Covering those guys, it was the luckiest gig I ever got.
THE FIRST REVIEW FOR DREAM TEAM
A STARRED REVIEW FROM BOOKLIST
- DREAM TEAM: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All-Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever
“ … what makes this volume a must-read for nostalgic hoopsters are the robust portraits of the outsized personalities, all of whom were remarkably open with McCallum, both then and now. Remember, these were rock stars 20 years ago, the best players on their respective teams. But for a couple months they put ego aside, didn’t gripe about playing time, and hung out in a Barcelona hotel together, playing cards and talking trash. McCallum was there for much of it and expands his recollections with contemporary interviews with the participants.”
PRAISE FOR SEVEN SECONDS OR LESS
“There’s so much inside NBA stuff in there that you have to read it if you love the league.”—Bill Simmons, ESPN
“I can’t remember ever enjoying a basketball book more. And a certain NBA type tells me he’s advising NBA players to read it to learn more about the league.”—Henry Abbott, creator of TrueHoop the ESPN blog
“A season story beautifully told through the educated eyes and deft prose of Jack McCallum.”—Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo Sports
“An account … that gives readers the most detailed view yet of what really transpires to make, or break, and NBA team. Fascinating, even for those of us who get a glimpse into the inner sanctum …”—Mike Monroe, San Antonio Express-News
“Even for someone like myself who is immersed in the NBA, there’s plenty to learn.”—Lang Whitaker, Slam
“One of the best NBA books I’ve read, and I’m pretty sure I have read them all.”—Chris McCosky, Detroit News
“ …charts a tumultuous arc with skill and wit and, above all, a remarkable eye for memorable, telling detail.”—Dave Feschuk, Toronto Star
“A timeless and thoroughly compelling all-access book.”—Jamie Mottram, Mr. Irrelevant