Restarting the Clock: Ep. 12: Jack McCallum

Andy and Jack McCallum catch up about the NBA Bubble and the groundbreaking 1992 Dream Team which captured gold in the Barcelona Olympics. McCallum is a semi-retired sports journalist who still writes for Sports Illustrated and the author of ten books. He is  the recipient of the 2005 Curt Gowdy Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for excellence in journalism. 

McCallum says he’s “in his own bubble” writing about the NBA for Sports Illustrated and closely following the NBA restart in Orlando. He feels that the unique atmosphere of the bubble may produce some the greatest players and allow for some surprises.

“I’m out here in the real world, and I’ve known people that are doing very well with this. I know some people that really aren’t and it’s got to be exacerbated when you’re put into a kind of really pressure-packed thing when you have to perform every day in front of people,” McCallum said. “What’s the most interesting to me, and I don’t really have an answer to it, is that it’ll turn out the best players…LeBron has been great, no surprise. But I’m really interested in Denver. It’s really been fascinating to watch them.”

McCallum recalls playing basketball in high school and college and wonders how playing without fans in the arena is impacting current professional players.

“One of the great things about the game was the sounds of the game, the squeaking sneakers,” MacCallum said. “I wonder if you could hear that in the game and it sounded some sort of elemental aspect to the game that you normally can’t hear in a crowded arena.”

McCallum is widely known and respected as an expert of NBA basketball history. He covered  the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of 1980s, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990’s and was embedded as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns’ 2005-06 season for an in depth profile and book. He has authored 10 books. His 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 spent six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in 2012.

“When I told the story of the Dream Team I decided to go back and tell kind of the creation story. It kind of began with the 1984 Olympics with a Michael, Patrick, Chris Mullin team that won the gold. One of the things that came to me was we have to look at this a little differently. We look at it as a print journalist, kind of non-sentimentally and try to get to the issues and look at the cynical part of it”, McCallum said.

Despite these analytical underpinnings, McCallum recalls one of his favorite Dream Team moments. After following the story and players for years, he remembers the awe of seeing the team as a unit in Portland at the FIBA Tournament of the Americas, a precursor to the 1992 Olympics. 

“I remember specifically when they ran out for the first time in Portland. It was like, ‘Yeah, holy shit. This is happening.’ I had taken my kids and my wife to Portland, and they were in the stands. And I remember looking up and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really glad they got to kind of see this’,” McCallum said.

“Another moment was in Barcelona with David DuPree, a great USA Today writer. We went out to dinner with Karl Malone real early. David, one of the most modest people in the world says, ‘Hey, Karl, you think we could get a picture with us and the Dream Team?’ This is how big this moment seemed.  DuPree and I would be the last guys to ever climb into a picture,” McCallum said.

Malone cleared the photo opp with Magic Johnson, who McCallum described as the “ceremonial captain of the team.”

“It was like Michael Jordan ran the ship on the court. And then Magic was running the ship off the court. I don’t think personally Magic and Karl were too close. But Karl understood the architecture of this team, kind of how it ran.”

“Somehow the request gets passed along, a couple minutes before the final. (NBA head of PR) Brian McIntyre comes over to me and goes, ‘Hey, we’re gonna shoot this picture of you and DuPree now.’ These guys are coming out of it, and half of them don’t even know why they’re stopping.” A few minutes later, Andy snapped a quick photo of DuPree, McCallum, and the Dream Team. “I have this picture somewhere on my desk….I love the Dream Team. There’s a lot of memories, but there are two of them.”

During his career, McCallum has chronicled the rise of basketball greats like Michael Jordan and the expansion of the NBA.

“I’m looking back on it now with probably too much symbolism, but that’s what writers do. It was almost like this clarion call. It was almost like this alert that went out at the NBA is here. One of the things we could see was that we were starting down here and you could see this thing rising, you understood, even back then, that you were on this kind of journey. You understood that you were going to be fortunate enough to be able to chronicle some of this,” McCallum said. 

“You had your great stories and great personalities. But you could also see there was kind of a larger moment afoot, and it’s just pure luck. The only reason is that we came along during that time of not only the greatest NBA time, but one of the great movements in the history of sport were those years between ‘84 and then probably the end of Michael’s threepeat, especially those years up until the Dream Team.”

As a former collegiate basketball player and lifelong hoops fan, McCallum says he had a perspective on the league long before he started writing. 

“I was always a basketball fan. It’s a sport I play. I played in high school in the ‘60s. What I experienced in the ‘70s toward the NBA was negative. I was a little more conscious of where the league had been. I understood the problems they had had and, one of the fortunate things was that Magic and Larry, when they came into the league, and to a certain extent, Michael, they understood where the league had been,” McCallum said. 

“I think that really defines that generation, Larry, Magic, Michael…We forget Dr. J, bought into the same thing. He had come from the ABA, this great carnival circus and understood when he got to the NBA what had to be done to sell this league. I had seen that perspective of it and could really see the rise, very, very clearly.”

McCallum says the NBA was conscious of the importance of media and allowing access to the players. These behind-the-scenes moments allowed McCallum to write detailed stories of some of the greatest moments in NBA history. 

“I was fortunate to have come into this league, where there were interesting personalities, interesting things to write about, and a league willing to help you to do it,” McCallum said. “And to this day in 2020, I’ve been sort of semi-retired for 10 years, but I’m always coming back to do something, a book, a podcast…it’s like I never left.”

Listen to the full Legends Of Sport podcast here. Watch the video of the podcast on the @legendsofsport YouTube channel.

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