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How The Olympic 'Dream Team' Came To Be


Twenty years ago, a dozen basketball players were dispatched to Barcelona to represent the United States in the Summer Olympics. The team was something the world of sports had never seen before and probably never will again. They were simply known as the Dream Team and that's the title of a new book written by Sports Illustrated reporter Jack McCallum. He looks back on a team stacked with big names: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson.

Jack McCallum joined us from our studios in New York, and I asked him what it was like for these stars to be hanging out together for the first time.

JACK MCCALLUM: One of the things they all things they all told me was how is amazing it was to get to know each other. Now, Michael Jordan knew Scottie Pippen and John Stockton new Karl Malone 'cause they were on the same teams. But beside that, there were sort of all these meeting-each-other-for-the-first-time aspect, and they don't really get to do that as players. I mean, that ball goes up on November 1st, you're on an airplane or you're on a basketball court, or you're in a hotel. I mean, you don't hang out with the other guys.

So, they had this family room at the Ambassador Hotel where they would all hang out. They had a ping-pong table there where Jordan would throw his racket if he didn't win.


MCCALLUM: Their kids were all over the place was and it was just this secret kind of palace. And the only place these guys could fully let down their hair was in this family room.

GREENE: And they didn't always stay there because especially one, Charles Barkley...


GREENE: ...of the Philadelphia 76ers, he liked to get out in Barcelona and wander a bit.

MCCALLUM: At the beginning of the Olympics, NBA security went to, you know, had the meeting with these guys and said, All right. Now look, every time you go out we want you to let us know, 'cause somebody has got to go with you. To which Charles said, yeah, that ain't going to happen.


MCCALLUM: No, I'm going to come and go as I want to. And I think 20 years later, one of the great surprises of those games is that there was not an international incident on the...


GREENE: On the street.

MCCALLUM: ...on the Ramblas with Charles Barkley.

GREENE: We have some tape of one of my favorite moments from Charles Barkley in Barcelona. The American team was getting ready to play their first game against Angola, and this is what Barkley had to say.

CHARLES BARKLEY: I don't know anything about Angola, but Angola is in trouble.


MCCALLUM: All right, I have three quotes of the beginning of the book and that is one of them, because it has lived on. It is so damn funny. And...


MCCALLUM: ...you know, the United States is not going to read a scouting report about Angola. Just 20 years later, it just remains so incredibly funny.

GREENE: You spent a lot of time kind of getting to know these characters, these men. And I wonder, when it comes to Michael Jordan, you know, there were allegations of gambling. You know, a lot of people have written about how - including you - how he would go golf 18 holes before, you know, coming out of the basketball court. He stuck to himself.

You really talked about the pain they went through when his father died. What impression did you come away with of Michael Jordan after spending so much time with him?

MCCALLUM: A singular personality. Twenty years later, the other 11 guys on the team; if you interviewed them about Michael, the first thing they would say was number one, his primacy as a basketball player. But number two, this kind of supernatural energy that at that time he had. And one of the stories with this team was what happened when they came back.

I mean, they come back from Barcelona, greatest moment of their life, gold medal, redeemed everything for the United States. Well, Larry Bird quit a couple of weeks later, walked away from the game because of injuries. Within a couple of weeks, Magic Johnson had returned to the league but had received criticism for playing with HIV-AIDS virus, was forced to retire.

Michael played one more season. That is the off-season when his father was murdered, when there were allegations about gambling. And he walked away from the game for year and a half and went to minor league baseball. So the contrast between Barcelona and the immediate year after was just incredible. And I, you know, devoted some time to it in the book.

GREENE: You mentioned Magic Johnson and the HIV diagnosis, and that happened before the team got together to play in the Olympics. And it really is a reminder of those times, 20 years ago. I mean the immediate reaction when he announced that he was HIV-positive was that this man was going to die at some point, perhaps really soon.

MCCALLUM: And he was going to die and, knowing Magic, he was going to die in front of our eyes. He wasn't going to go anywhere. And this was November of '91 that Magic announces that he has the HIV virus. This was right after the team for Barcelona was announced. Magic resigns from the league because - retires because that's what his doctors told him to do.

Well, now comes along December, January, Magic is working out. Magic is eating. Magic looks healthy. Oops, February comes - Magic is going to get a special dispensation to play in the All-Star game. Magic plays so well there, he's given the MVP. Well, all of a sudden now he's going to play in the Olympic team. Well, now it's June and July, he's captaining the Olympic team. I mean, it was extraordinary.

He didn't do everything right. I mean let's not give him the, you know, the Nobel Peace Prize for this. But here's what the guy did it within about seven months. He changed the dialogue from we're going to die if you have HIV, to you can still be the same person you were. And that is just an extraordinary thing for one person to have achieved in that amount of time.

GREENE: A very touching end to the book, Larry Bird talking about how important these Olympics were. You know, just, you know, all of his fame, all of the money he made. I mean, playing in the Olympics and representing his country was a huge, huge thing.

MCCALLUM: Yeah, Larry was talking about how the gold medal he was thinking about his father. And Larry describes this scene as sitting in his, you know, house in French Lick with a TV antenna with the old rabbit ears. And he said every time - his father didn't even know what the event was. You know, it might have been women's gymnastics; it might've been swimming, that he'd hear the "Star-Spangled Banner." Would always go, OK, United States has won gold.

And it was like amazing to me that this had kind of resonated with Larry. I found it very touching, really.

GREENE: This being in the Olympics was not small things to these players.

MCCALLUM: Every one of them was talking about how special this experience was. I mean, Magic Johnson won five NBA titles. He won three MVPs. And he said to me it's not even close. I mean, this is the number one experience I had as a basketball player.

GREENE: We've been speaking to Jack McCallum. His new book is called "Dream Team" and he joined us from our studios in New York.

Jack, thanks so much for talking to us.

MCCALLUM: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.