Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Where's Booker? Hanging With The Dream Team

The book began by dispelling what is probably still a commonly held myth, that it was USA basketball that wanted professional basketball players in the Olympics.  The first chapter related the story of the former meat inspector turned FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball) observer, Boris Stankovic,  who came to the United States to watch basketball  being played.   It was 1974, well before the era of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, but even then, it was clear to him that professional basketball in America was at a different level while watching Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Frazier, and Pete Maravich play.    He said, "My concern was trying to make the game of basketball strong, to grow it, and yet there was the separation [between the amateur level and professional level].  It became impossible for me to tolerate."

It was 10 years before Boris Stankovic met with David Stern and Russ Granik, commissioner and deputy commissioner of the NBA to broach the subject.    By that time, Magic and Bird had reinvigorated the NBA  and a young Chicago Bull, Michael Jordan was in his second year in the league. 

The momentum was growing both for the NBA and the possibility for a sort of super team, an A-Team,  a group of basketball mutants or Avengers.  McCallum detailed the highs and lows of each player selected and several things stood out about them.  First, they came from very diverse their backgrounds and upbringings.  They, quite literally, represented America as the great American melting pot.  Second, how driven and competitive each of the Dream Team members were.  They didn't accept anything less than being the best.  In example after example, McCallum describes how each of these stars were already blessed with world class athletic ability.  However, what made each one of them the greatest at their position and led to their inclusion, is because they individually outworked everyone else, their drive.   The team of Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and John Stockton gave America and the world something to remember forever.  And Pistons coach, Chuck Daly was able to bring all of them together in a way that probably only he could.  

By the time professional stars were allowed, Larry Bird was battling constant back problems, Magic Johnson had declared that he was HIV positive, when this was still new to the American consciousness, and Michael Jordan was in his prime.  They signed on to play for USA Basketball and created a Beatles like sensation everywhere they went during the Barcelona Olympics.  Twenty four hour security in a hotel that housed them and their families made for a very different experience than the other Olympians in the Olympic village.

McCallum also wrote about the agents, the endorsements, the egos, and ultimately the play that resulted in the most dominating performances game after game against overwhelmed basketball teams who were as star struck as those attending the Olympics or watching on TV from home.  McCallum does not gloss over the darker moments  like when Charles Barkley elbowed an undersized Angolan who idolized him or when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen played such ruthless defense on their future Bull teammate, Toni Kukoc.  But, he portrayed a moment in time where multimillionaires with nothing to gain exemplified to the world what happens when the best athletes put aside everything else in the name of the team.

Near the end of the book, McCallum described the international impact of this Dream Team as so many of the current, international, NBA stars were watching as teenagers or college students at the time.  These included  Dirk Nowitzki, in Germany now of the Dallas Mavericks,  Manu Ginobili, in Argentina, of the San Antonio Spurs, Pau Gasol from Spain of the Lakers, Mehmet Okur from Turkey, Tony Parker in France, Tim Duncan of the Bahamas, and Canadian Steve Nash.   All of their athletic and, at times,  their career paths took a dramatic shift by watching the Dream Team.

Readers who enjoyed other books portraying sports and its place in history like David Halberstam's Playing for Keeps, Jane Leavy's Sandy Koufax:  A Lefty's Legacy, or David Remnick's King of the World:  Muhammed Ali and the Rise of an American Hero will enjoy McCallum's Dream Team.


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