Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

My review of Jack McCallum's Dream Team


This is going to be a long introduction.

I used to envy my good friend and classmate Gary Villanueva’s basketball collection. I relished going to his house (in the Araneta Avenue area if I am not mistaken) with my classmates so we could watch all his tapes on NBA games and whatnot.

When the US Men’s Olympic Basketball Team was announced, I knew that this was my chance to have my own collection of hoop matches. My family wasn’t particularly well moneyed so I never owned any of those replica jerseys that my rich friends wore during pick up games that forever earned our envy (there’s that word again) and admiration. But if he wore a pair of Air Jordan sneakers and didn’t play like Elvis then we’d whale him out.

But there were a few other memorabilia and merchandise that I could get. That is if I saved enough. At this time, I had just begun my professional career as a copywriter in an ad agency and my purchase power wasn’t really much. Bottom of the totem pole, you see. So if there was anything I wanted that was out of the budget I had to save or do extra work. Fortunately, my boss had me working with our public relations department and that meant extra pay (not to mention extra stress considering the people I did BS work for).

There was that famous issue of Sports Illustrated where the term “Dream Team” was coined and had Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson on the cover. I used to buy my second hand Sports Illustrated issues at the now gone The Rastro in Shoppesville, Greenhills. These were the copies from American servicemen from either Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base (you see how all this is outing my age) so the covers had the servicemen’s names on the cover. The one issue of the Dream Team on the cover wasn’t in the best of conditions and so I didn’t buy it at first. I was a huge comic book collector at that time and you know how OC comic book collectors can get – you know, being particular about the condition of the mag, its spine, it’s creases, if it’s in mint condition etc.

But this was Greenhills and people who went to shop here had money. I remember how I used to go to the very first Odyssey music store (also in Shoppesville) where they had that New Order 12”inch single “Ceremony” that sold for a hundred twenty smackers. I saved up enough of my allowance to buy it but back then that was such a princely sum that I hedged to the point where when I finally decided to buy it, someone had beaten me to the punch.

So no way was I going to lose out on this Dream Team cover.

Eventually, I also purchased the Dream Team souvenir shirt from the Tournament of the Americas. I still have it although it doesn’t fit me anymore.

As I recall, the Dream Team’s games – from the Tournament of the Americas to the Barcelona Olympics – were shown in the evening and I could tape them on those now-consigned-to-the-dustbins-of-history-betamax-machines.

Now I watched and taped every one of their games. I knew that one day the tapes I had would be priceless. However, because of the constant viewing, the tapes wore out. I failed to have those brittle betamax tapes converted into the superior VHS format (told you this was old school). And when Ondoy happened, those tapes were destroyed forever.

All I have of those pre-internet, pre-social media days of the Dream Team are a few magazine articles and the occasional photo in books, and of course, my memories.

That is why when Jack McCallum’s book on the Dream Team came out, I knew I had to get it. Whenever I make a trip abroad, I always list down what I want to look for in a bookstore or a CD/DVD shop. McCallum’s book was one of them.

I bought it at Page One in Times Square, Hong Kong (get off at the Causeway Bay station and it’s at the 9th Floor of the same building although the branch at Festival Walk in Kowloon is much bigger). It cost me HK$279 or PhP1,518 (it's a bit expensive. Just wait til it's released in Fully Booked).

I have always been a McCallum fan. Following the NBA, I read the Vescey brothers for news but if I want a good story then it’s Jack. Similarly, if it’s baseball, I read Tom Verducci.

McCallum’s Unfinished Business (about the ill-fated 1990-91 campaign of the Boston Celtics) remains to this day one of my favorite books. It is every bit a huge influence on me as was Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules and Rick Reilly’s columns. In fact, when I wrote The 18th Banner (the story of the Ateneo Blue Eagles Season 71 campaign, I paid homage to McCallum’s work).

His writing taught me a lot about watching, observing, and telling good stories. That is why when his second basketball book, Seven Seconds or Less (about the Phoenix Suns), came out, I knew that he would have improved upon his technique in team reporting and storytelling. And that book in my mind, remains his best. And that meant, the onus was on him to top everything with Dream Team. It should after all that team changed the way the game is played forever (as it paved the way for Dream Teams in other sports).

I found the 337-page book a little maddening to read. For the first time in McCallum’s three hoops tomes, he is a part of the story rather than the quiet observer he was in Unfinished Business and Seven Seconds or Less (he was embedded with all three teams by the way). That left me wondering if this were his memoirs or a story about a basketball team.

In spite of what is generally known about the Dream Team and its individual players, McCallum starts off by throwing a curve ball you never saw coming and that is how former FIBA President Boris Stankovic had a lot to do with pro basketball players being admitted into the Olympics and other FIBA tournaments (more than David Stern).

Then McCallum begins to lay the groundwork by featuring the background of the different players and coaches who comprised the squad. For players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson both who have so much written material out there, it’s like reading filler material but I thought that not everyone might not be as well as read as the your basketball junkie so maybe it works.

Those parts however for me slowed the book's momentum down. That is if you’re thinking, “I want those Dream Team inside stories and tidbits NOW!”

What makes the portion regarding the formation of the team all the more compelling is the issue of Isiah Thomas’ non-inclusion. Thomas who as we all know had a poor relationship with Jordan and his many transgressions over the years eventually hurt his chances of being a part of that team of which he should have belonged.

The author glosses over the Tournament of the Americas. While the games were blowouts and it maybe doesn’t necessitate a blow-by-blow account, I believe there is still some material here that should have been mentioned. Because McCallum repeats the same thing when he gets to Barcelona. There is hardly any mention of the games save for Germany, Lithuania and Croatia. And that was in snippets. The drama of the gold medal match where the Croats stayed with the US and took a 25-23 lead was again glossed over.

It seems that the card games and the golfing got a lot more mentioned that the actual basketball matches. In the aftermath, McCallum mentions what happened to a few of the players but not all of them. And that was disappointing especially when you think that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen played John Stockton and Karl Malone two times in the Finals. Clyde Drexler won his NBA title with Houston while the San Antonio Spurs denied Patrick Ewing a second time in 1999. Instead, McCallum tells of how Ewing was so worn out by all the talk that the Knicks will not win with him so he forced a trade to another team. What of David Robinson? He eventually won two titles even if much of it had to do with the arrival of Tim Duncan.

There are portions that tell too much of what the team was doing off the court and not enough on the court. It was nice to read of how those games affected players like Dirk Nowitski. But it would have been great to actually have gotten quotes and anecdotes fro players like Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili rather than simply refer to them.

Conspicuously missing are also the results and box scores. Instead all you get is the average margin of victory by the Dream Team.

The portion on Lithuania’s national team is a welcome side bar but in the over all scheme of things doesn’t fit.

The banter and interaction between the players is priceless especially the final parting. As the pages went by pretty fast, I thought that they were like the games of the Dream Team – they went by real fast and that I wish there was more. It’s like magic – now you see it now you don’t. At times, I felt the book was written in intervals or phases hence, the change of the feel of the book. Some parts are written in greater detail but the parts especially the matches themselves are on fast forward.

Dream Team is a good read but it is not great like Seven Seconds or Less or even the charming but imperfect Unfinished Business. It’s like going to this restaurant where you order the house specialty (because you heard so much about it) only for you to find it lacks a bit more flavor.

If you’re a basketball fan especially if you followed the Dream Team then I still recommend this book.


New stuff that I have: Dream Team hardcover book, DVDs of Magic & Bird, Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs the New York Knicks, and Sonicsgate. Winning Time and Sonicsgate are terrific documentaries. Will watch Magic & Bird tonight.

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