Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever (Anglais) Relié – 10 juillet 2012
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THE INSPECTOR OF MEAT
Pros in the Olympics? It Was His Idea, and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Different
He first came to the United States in January 1974, dispatched by his boss to study up on American basketball. He didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the customs, and settled into the basketball hotbed of Billings, Montana, because that’s where he could secure free lodging with a Yugoslavian family.
This stranger in a strange land was named Boris Stankovic. He was six months from his forty-ninth birthday and he had come on behalf of FIBA. At the time not more than a dozen Americans knew what it stood for (Fédération Internationale de Basketball), where it was headquartered (at the time in an apartment in Munich, later in Geneva), and what the hell it did (governed amateur basketball in all parts of the world except the United States). “You cannot know basketball if you do not know basketball in the United States,” Stankovic was told by R. William Jones, who as secretary-general ran FIBA with a bow tie, a lit cigar, and a dictator’s fist. So Stankovic came and was instantly seduced by the college games he saw live—UCLA’s redheaded phenomenon, Bill Walton, was his favorite player—and the NBA games he saw on television.
For much of his early adult life, Stankovic had been a meat inspector in Belgrade. “My job was to look over the meat and cheese and, as you do here, put a stamp on it,” said Stankovic when I interviewed him in Istanbul in the summer of 2010. He is retired now but comes to many events as the éminence grise of international basketball. Stankovic had earned a degree in veterinary medicine in 1945 from the University of Belgrade. “It was natural in our country that veterinarians looked after the meat and cheese, because it has to do with animals, no?”
The type of meat Stankovic most liked to inspect, though, was the cured leather on a basketball. Even as he was arising at five in the morning to take up his meat stamp and lace up his white apron, basketball is what moved his spirit. He was an earthbound, fundamentally sound low-post forward who played thirty-six games for the Yugoslavian national team. One of his proudest moments was playing for his country in the first world championship organized by FIBA, which took place in Argentina in 1950. “We finished ninth,” says Stankovic, chuckling, “and there were nine teams.” One of his enduring regrets was that he never participated in the Olympics as a player.
The Yugoslavs were a tall, tough, and lean people, hardened by wars civil and foreign. In the Balkan area of Yugoslavia where Stankovic was born, the people measure eras not by “war and peace” but by “war and non-war.” When Boris was nineteen, he and his father, Vassilje, a lawyer who fought for Serbian nationalism, were imprisoned by an invading Russian army. After two months Boris was released, but Vassilje was executed by firing squad and buried in a common grave; even today, Stankovic does not know where. Stankovic was put on a blacklist that later kept him from becoming a medical doctor, his desired profession, and forced him to veterinary school, his way of staying in the field of medicine. Like most of his countrymen from that generation, he identified with the Serbian rebels who had squirmed under foreign rule for five centuries. “They lived in groups and learned to cooperate, to work with each other,” Stankovic said. “We grew up with that in our blood. We Serbians have never had much success in the individual sports, but our team sports are very, very strong. We have a proficiency in and an aptitude for sports that require a lot of teamwork.”
Stankovic’s knowledge of the game and overall intelligence—virtually anyone who talks about him invariably mentions his brains—enabled him to rise steadily as a coach and executive. By the time he was thirty he was the most important nonplayer in Yugoslavian basketball, even as he continued to inspect meat, and had already become active in FIBA.
In 1966 Oransoda Cantù, a team in the Italian professional league, came calling in search of a coach, and Stankovic left his homeland. “I went for the money,” says Stankovic. “Italy was the richest league.” He was reviled by many Italians as an outsider but later grew to be loved, as winners usually are, when his team captured the championship in 1968. That’s when R. William Jones beckoned him back. Jones had seen the future of FIBA, and its name was Boris Stankovic.
Jones, who died in 1981, months after suffering a stroke during a dinner at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, was the kind of man for whom the term “grudging admiration” seems to have been invented. Born in Rome to a British father and French mother, he had earned a degree from Springfield College, where Dr. James Naismith hung up his first peach basket. Jones was “a very international guy” (Stankovic’s words), a combination that made him an undeniable basketball visionary. But he was also the classic amateur-sport pasha, imperious and intractable. For basketball people in the United States, Jones left his enduring imprimatur by allowing the Soviets three chances to win the gold medal against the U.S. team on September 9, 1972, at the star-crossed Olympic Games in Munich.
Stankovic was a long way from being an established leader when he first came to the United States on that intelligence-gathering trip in 1974. He was just an outsider trying to learn the nuances of American basketball while also trying to learn how to order a hamburger. He was granted a papal audience with John Wooden—“We talked basketball, so it was easy to communicate,” he says—but mostly he was left on his own, to watch, listen, and compare.
And what happened was that a basketball junkie was transfixed by the American players, college and pro. “It just seemed to be a different game,” says Stankovic, smiling at the memory. “Faster but also fundamentally sound. You watched a guy like Bill Walton for one minute and you could see that his level was so much higher than anyone we had in Europe.”
FIBA’s rules at the time banned professionals from playing under the FIBA banner, and the rules of FIBA were the rules of Olympic basketball. So it was, so it had always been, and so, everyone thought, it would always be. The hypocrisy, of course, was that de facto professionals were playing anyway, since international basketball teams always comprised their country’s top players, even if they were officially listed as “soldiers” or “policemen.”
With the lone exception of Stankovic, there was no push to include American pros in the Olympics, since the supremacy of even American collegians was considered self-evident, the anomaly of 1972 notwithstanding. Plus, it was simply part of our sporting ethos that the Olympics were for our college players. The NBA and the Olympics were planets rotating in different solar systems.
But the Inspector of Meat, an outsider, didn’t see it that way. As he watched the pro stars of the 1970s on TV—among them Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, plus his two favorites, Walt Frazier and Pete Maravich—it began to gnaw at him that America’s best players would never participate in the Olympic Games. “The hypocrisy was what got to me,” said Stankovic. “And there was a practical side. My concern was trying to make the game of basketball strong, to grow it, and yet there was this separation. It became impossible for me to tolerate.”
There might’ve been a self-serving side, too. Stankovic saw himself as the messiah of hoops, the person to lift the game above King Futbol. And he was irritated by the fact that his organization—the We-Have-the-Final-Say Court of All Appeals for world basketball—came with an asterisk because it wasn’t even a blip on the NBA’s radar screen.
Whatever the variety of reasons, Stankovic came back to Munich and told Jones that dropping the amateurs-only clause, thus clearing the way for America’s best players to compete in the Olympics, should be a FIBA goal—a truly anarchic idea, given the sociopolitical sports climate. The times might’ve been a-changin’, but not in the International Olympic Committee (IOC), where Avery Brundage—a loathsome individual, a clear number one on the list of tin-pot despots who have run sports over the centuries—held fast to the concept of shamateurism.
Stankovic isn’t sure what Jones really thought of his idea, but his boss’s instruction was crystal clear. “He said, ‘Don’t bother,’” remembers Stankovic. “Or, as you say in America, ‘Don’t go there.’”
And for the next decade and a half, no one except Boris Stankovic went there.
Like many influential men and women throughout history, the Inspector of Meat is overlooked. He has never met Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, and the only time he has crossed paths with Michael Jordan was in the 1984 Olympics, in the pre–Dream Team days.
But whatever revisionist history might eventually be written, remember this: the Dream Team resulted from the vision of Boris Stankovic. It was not a secret plot hatched by David Stern to “grow the game,” one of the commissioner’s favorite phrases. It was not the result of a crusade by the NBA’s marketing demons to sell $200 Authentics in Europe, even though that was an eventuality. It was not frustration built up by the increasing reality that inroads were being made on the United States’ claim of basketball supremacy. The idea germinated in the mind of the Inspector of Meat from Belgrade.
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Revue de presse
“An Olympic hoops dream.”—Newsday
“What makes this volume a must-read for nostalgic hoopsters are the robust portraits of the outsize personalities of the participants, all of whom were remarkably open with McCallum, both then and now.”—Booklist (starred review)
“One of the best basketball books you’ll ever read.”—The New York Post
“A great read for basketball junkies.”—Los Angeles Times
“[A] stellar retrospective.”—The New York Times
“The Dream Team was one of a kind, and so is this fascinating account of the best basketball team of all time. Jack McCallum, the consummate basketball insider, lures you into the back rooms, living rooms, and locker rooms of this volatile group of superstars with revealing, colorful anecdotes that will make you laugh, cheer, and gasp. This is a terrific read by an all-star journalist.”—Jackie MacMullan, New York Times bestselling co-author of When the Game Was Ours
“Perfect book, perfect subject, perfect writer. Dream Team is one of the best sports books I have ever read—a riveting inside look at a once-in-a-lifetime squad at a once-in-a-lifetime moment in time. Jack McCallum has pieced together a masterpiece.”—Jeff Pearlman, New York Times bestselling author of Sweetness and Boys Will Be Boys
“Jack McCallum is one of my favorite writers on the NBA. If Jack writes it, even if I know the story, I want to read it. He reflects the best of his longtime residence in the glory days of Sports Illustrated: You can see the event, but you still want to know what the reporter has to say about it. Dream Team is a wonderful look back at what will live on not only as one of the NBA’s great times but as a summary of its golden era. Jack beautifully blends what happened then with where-are-they-now? anecdotes, taking you behind the locker-room door with the greatest names of their era. This is such a wonderful read, you can’t help but smiling.”—Sam Smith, New York Times bestselling author of The Jordan Rules
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The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona marked the first time professional athletes could compete. The challenge, however, was to convince the NBA's best players to sacrifice their summer, compete as a team and to do it essentially for free.
McCallum, who covered the NBA and the Dream Team for Sports Illustrated, details how the Dream Team was selected and profiles each player He also writes about the efforts to keep Isiah Thomas off the team. Jordan, who wielded immense power, despised Thomas and didn't want him on the team. And, it was more important to make Jordan happy than any thing else. Even though Thomas was the best player on the Detroit Pistons, who had won back-to-back NBA championships, he was not a Dream Team member.
Although Bird, who was on the verge of retirement because of a bad back, and Magic, who had recently announced he had HIV and faced an uncertain NBA future, were co-captains, Jordan was the team's kingpin.
The inevitable question for a team like the Dream Team is "How do you play with just one basketball?" Incredibly, that was not a problem. Magic and Jordan made it clear from the beginning that there would be no problem with playing time. "We're here to win," they said. And, it was true. No member of the Dream Team ever looked at a stat sheet. Coach Daly vowed he would never call a time out because there was nothing he could tell the team that they couldn't figure out on their own. And, he kept his word.
Did anyone seriously think that any country could beat the Dream Team? The Dream Team was never challenged. It defeated eight opponents in the Olympics by an average margin of 43.8 points, including a 117-85 win over Croatia for the gold medal.
Since McCallum covered the NBA and the Dream Team, this is a highly personal account. He does an excellent job of capturing the buzz and excitement the Dream Team generated among fans and the media. The reader gets an insider's view of all the trash talking, banter and ribbing among the Dream Team members as well as their off-the-court activities. McCallum also interviewed each Dream Team member face-to-face nearly 20 years after the 1992 Olympics as part of the book. The reflections of team members nearly two decades later are valuable and insightful.
McCallum in deed makes a strong case that the 1992 Dream Team did change basketball forever. Lithuania's Sarunas Marciulionis said, "Dream Team was the single biggest impact of any team in any sport in history."
Magic Johnson said, "The Dream Team is No. 1 of anything I've done in basketball because there will never be another team like it. There can't be."
While getting to understand the greatness of the team is valuable, the best part of the book is the behind the scenes look. We get to see the human side of the players without getting into exploitative tabloid news. We see how Michael Jordan's competitive nature allowed him to play 36 holes of golf and then come out and play excellent defense on Toni Kukoc (the game against Croatia). We get to see how hard it was for Pippen to be in Michael's shadow. We get to learn about Bird's back problems, Magic Johnson's controversial revelation of having AIDS. We get to read about the controversy surrounding not taking Isiah Thomas to Barcelona, the difficulty of Christian Laettner being the only college player on the team.
There's a lot of great stuff in the book, so I'll just mention two more things which I think deserve their own paragraph in the review:
1) The book talks about the difficulty in getting the Olympics to accept professional basketball players. In particular, it talks about the plight of the "Inspector of Meat" to convince the bureaucracy of both the Olympics and the NBA to join in and allow this team to form. It was a great time for basketball as Magic and Larry had saved the league, followed by the strengthening of it with Michael's excellence. It was well worth the read to find out about these deals and learn about how great things need the work of many people in many different areas.
2) The Dream Team inner scrimmage chapter is astounding. The Dream team plays against each other, 5 on 5 (Stockton and Drexler were hurt). Magic and Jordan, are the leaders of their own team and the description of the game is superb. The trash talk, the excitement, I felt like I was in the court watching the game. In particular, I love the one play where Bird scores (after stealing the ball from Magic) and how Jordan remembers that play. It is a great chapter that helps one understand the competitiveness of Jordan and Magic and the love for the game that all the Dream Teamers had. I love the respect they have for each other.
In summary, the book is an astounding behind the scenes look at one of the best teams of all time (and one of the most influential).
Wisely, I think, McCallum breaks his story up into chapters that focus on individuals. So a chapter places the larger story within a context of a chapter on Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Charles Barkley. He does provide the larger context for the Dream Team's inclusion, including interviews with Yugoslav FIBA representative, Boris Stankovic, a man largely unknown to American basketball fans, but without whom, the game might not have exploded as such a world wide, popular sport in the last few decades.
This story is partly anecdotal, partly personal memoir (because McCallum did have as much outside access to the Dream Team as anyone, partly journalism and partly history. It is clear that a tremendous amount of work and research went into this book. McCallum had extensive one on one interviews with all the '92 Dream Team players in the last two years, to get their reflections on the event, after having their initial reactions, as events happened 20 years ago. Of course most of the chapters and interest follow the three pillars - Jordan, Johnson & Bird, but every player on that team has his say in this book and that alone makes this book a capstone for a true watershed telling in international sport and basketball history.
McCallum's strongest writing, I think, concerns David Robinson, as he genuinely struggled to understand Robinson's motivations as a professed Christian, among teammates who mostly were not. Robinson's years since retirement have included hard effort as a leader of an inner city Christian school, and the writer does allow who and why Robinson developed into the type of player and man that he is, to be shown and not told.
Larry Bird's chapters function almost like Bird's role on the team. Bird was the 'older statesman', a hard working, plain, straight talking player, who valued effort, and competition and was wise enough to know his role among such large, competitive egos.
If you enjoy the Olympics, leadership study, personal relationships, basketball or even 90's culture, I highly recommend this book.
This was truly the greatest basketball team ever assembled, and this is the definitive account of that.
The two reasons I would only recommend it to NBA fans are these: the writing is workmanlike, journalistic, in that it mostly just moves the story along and gets out of the way. (That is, non-fiction writers looking to improve their craft will not find much to relish in terms of language.) The second critique is that the book rarely pauses from the play-by-play to reflect on how these actions and events shed light on humanity at large--something I would say that great non-fiction (such as Andre Agassi's Open, for example) does. So for this latter reason in particular, the book would exclude itself from general interest.
But if all you're asking of the book is a rollicking ride down basketball memory lane, you'll be quite satisfied.