Dream Time
Inside Olympic basketball, 20 years after the NBA’s most vibrant personalities took Barcelona by storm
by Pete Croatto


Today basketball superstars playing in the Olympic Summer Games is a given. In 1992, however, it was a novelty and a major event. Twenty years ago, the so-called Dream Team—Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, etc.—decimated their fellow Olympians in Barcelona, Spain, becoming an international sensation and cementing basketball’s status as a global game.


Venerable basketball writer and longtime Bethlehem resident Jack McCallum originally covered the spectacle for Sports Illustrated. Now, in his sixth 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, $28), McCallum details the team’s assemblage, profiles its on- and off-the-court antics and interviews the players now.   


He is also part of this compelling tale, playing golf with Barkley outside Monte Carlo and taking us to the family room at the players’ hotel where the imminent legends—and former NBA player Christian Laettner—let their guards down.


Though the Dream Team is part of modern-day Olympic lore, it marked an unexpected turning point for the media and fans. In 1979 the arrival of Bird and Magic Johnson was a balm for the National Basketball Association, which at the time was plagued by drug problems and fan disinterest. The players’ media-friendly differences (Bird was white and played in Boston; Johnson, an African-American, played in Los Angeles) and heavenly skills made for a compelling, years-long rivalry. Then, of course, came Jordan.


“Most of them grasped the notion that you sort of had to deal with the media,” McCallum says. “You sort of owed the fans a little bit of an explanation; you sort of owed the game this obligation to respond to the media.”


Two issues have eroded pro basketball’s domestic popularity, McCallum says: a lack of rivalries (remember Bird and the Sixers’ Julius Erving going at it in the early 1980s?); and a dearth of likable “global superstars.” (Care to forget LeBron James holding a cable special for his free-agency announcement?) It’s no wonder that so many long for the days of what McCallum calls “high-caliber basketball,” with Jordan’s marketable competitiveness and Barkley’s unfiltered candidness.  


“Most of it is legit, but there’s 20 percent of it is that is not legit,” says McCallum, 62, now a special correspondent for Sports Illustrated, “and they’re selling the current game short. The game is not that bad now; it just doesn’t seem to approach it in terms of [its former] popularity.” He cites the abilities of James and Kevin Durant, who just squared off in the NBA Finals. “They’re pretty damn good.”


Whether James, Durant or anyone else approaches the influence of the men who stormed Spain 20 years ago remains to be seen.