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Legendary NBA Writer Jack McCallum Talks USA Basketball And Where The 2008 Redeem Team Ranks All-Time

No amount of hyperbole can do justice to the 1992 Dream Team. It’s on an entirely different plane of existence. Through fate and circumstance, all of the pieces fell into place at exactly the right time to produce an athletic behemoth unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Fortunately, those who were there to cover it have preserved the artifacts of that era and turned them into wildly entertaining content for future generations. Hall of Fame sportswriter Jack McCallum was one of countless reporters embedded with the Dream Team in Barcelona and is responsible for the definitive tome on the Olympic juggernaut that will likely go down as the greatest assemblage of talent in sports history.

He’s covered each iteration of USA Basketball since, and now in the second season of his podcast, The Dream Team Tapes: Kobe, LeBron & the Redeem Team, he’s chronicling the exploits of the 2008 squad that was tasked with restoring the USA to its former glory, following the debacle in Athens in 2004, which ended in a disappointing bronze medal finish.

We caught up with McCallum this week to talk about the new season of the podcast (part of the Diversion Podcast Network) and the current state of USA Basketball as we look ahead to the Tokyo Olympics after what has been a tumultuous year.

You wrote the definitive book on the Dream Team. What made you want to shift over to telling some of these stories in podcast format?

I had all the tapes saved from when I did the interviews for the book, so the podcast wrote itself. It was basically, I wrote a script, but the highlight of it was I had all the voices, I had Michael, Magic, Larry, Robinson, Ewing. I had everybody there.

So, then we started thinking of another podcast project and the next most interesting Olympic team, which probably was the 2008 team, because our fortunes had fallen so far. We had finished bronze in 2004. So, I knew I could get Mike Krzyzewski’s cooperation and he ended up talking to us for an hour and a half. And if we could get some of the players, I knew it could be successful.

It’s a new world, podcasting, and I enjoy it. So, I signed up J.A. Adande to do it with me, because I didn’t really want to do it alone. And J.A. knew that generation of players probably better than me. So, it seemed natural.

One of the things that I think it does particularly well is charting the steady decline of USA Basketball from the ’92 Dream Team to the ’08 team. Why was that through-line important for the story?

Well, I think that those of us who covered the Dream Team and were dumb, like me, our conclusion in the blush of the moment, like right after ’92 was, “Okay, they wanted a demonstration of how good America is. We showed them and here’s why the NBA is so much better and these players are so much better.” But there were all these other players in other countries, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Hedo Turkoglu, Tony Parker, who are looking at it in a different way. They’re watching this and they’re going, “Yeah. Okay. They’re a lot better than us.” But the game was kind of, for them, demystified is the word I use. It was like, okay, they do the same things we do, only they do it so much better. Some of them are more physically gifted, but we have physically gifted guys too.

So, the biggest effect of the Dream Team became its impact on international players. By the turn of the century, you had this thing where the Americans were no longer even necessarily favored in international competition. It took an organized effort by Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski and these other players to turn that around.

Kobe figures heavily in all this, and one of the more fascinating subplots is the series of events that led to him missing the 2004 Olympics and the ripple effects of that. How big of a what if is that in your mind?

Yeah, no question about it. I mean, nobody’s a one-man team, but one guy can make a huge difference. And the 2004 Olympics, the first game we played was against Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico beat the United States by 19 points. Carlos Arroyo went crazy. He looked like a first team All-Star. Kobe ain’t going to go for that.

And the other thing going on in ’04 was some of the younger players, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo were on that team. They weren’t yet able to step forward. So, let’s face it, when you do these things in basketball, just as Michael, Magic and Larry were the bold face names on the Dream Team, we knew we had to deal with the bold face names on this team. And Kobe certainly being front of mind, because of the tragedy of January 2020.

I want to get your take on Kobe’s legacy with USA basketball. We look at how that ’08 team dominated the field right up until the gold-medal game against Spain, where they really have to rely on his heroics in those final minutes to save the game. How much would his absence have altered the course of USA Basketball?

Well, the legacy, I’ll get to that in a second, but the more interesting thing was what that team did for Kobe. I mean, Kobe is a lone wolf. Kobe wasn’t a guy that embraced the group. This next episode that’s out now, I believe, is on LeBron. LeBron likes being the leader of the pack. He likes his guys. He had it in high school. These are my guys. He brings them along.

That wasn’t Kobe. And one of the things that happened with the Redeem Team was that Kobe at last felt like he was part of the group. So, it really changed him in kind of a big way. Now, he went back to the Lakers and I think he more embraced Pau Gasol, and always talked about what Pau meant to him.

So far as his legacy to USA basketball, it’s 2008, like you said, because one of the things we ask and we’re going to talk about it later in the podcast is if you’re down one or you’re tied and you need a basket and you got the ball. Would you give it to Kobe and clear out, or would you get LeBron, maybe a look at the elbow and let him see the floor, pass, whatever LeBron’s going to do. Which one of those would you do? And the answer, which I’m not going to reveal, is interesting, but let’s just say that ’08 is Kobe’s legacy. And I don’t know whether they’d win that gold medal without Kobe, frankly.

I’ve rewatched that game multiple times, and I can’t shake that thought.

That’s his moment. I mean, that’s what he is. Nobody’s on that top line of that moment besides Michael. It’s Michael and Kobe. That’s what they do.

I want to go back to 2004 for a moment. You talk in the podcast about how it was kind of the perfect storm for disaster. But in hindsight, it was a necessary disaster to reboot USA Basketball.

After that 2003 summer, all these things started falling apart. Tracy [McGrady] couldn’t play, Kevin Garnett didn’t play, Ray Allen didn’t play. There were a variety of reasons. So, you’re right. Things have to fall to a low point, and the person that finally stepped in was David Stern.

Stern looks at this disaster, which was a public relations disaster also, and says, “We got to do something. Here’s Jerry Colangelo. He’s going to be the guy.” So that was like, it had to go that low, as you said, because that forced Stern to come in and say, “This is the guy that’s going to lead it.”

During that time, it also seemed like the sentiment toward USA Basketball, even here in the States, had deteriorated so badly that people almost relished in seeing them losing and getting their comeuppance. What do you think was driving that?

I covered those games and that team, and I remember I did an interview with Brian Williams, who was just becoming the star of NBC News. And the contempt and almost hatred he had for that team. We were at that this nexus of dissatisfaction with the NBA. Remember, Michael had retired in ’02. So the generation that we all embraced, Larry, Magic, Michael, now they’re all gone.

We couldn’t get used to this idea that one of the best players dressed the way he did and had too many tattoos. If you were over there, and I was, Iverson was the most patriotic. Every time, Iverson did not get down on the team, he did not trash Larry Brown. He kept talking about what an honor it was to be there.

Absolutely.

He played his ass off, like he always does. But people just couldn’t get used to Iverson as a central figure. A couple of years later, came in with the dress code and things like that, and it was just this clash of culture that we weren’t ready for. It’s one thing when guys you hate are winning, but now guys you hate are losing. And that 2004 team really took a lot of heat. They deserved some of it, because they did not play very well. But I’ll tell you what, Tim Duncan, possibly a top 10 player, and one of my all time favorite guys, Tim Duncan was more of a reason for them playing badly than Allen Iverson.

Right, he just completely disappeared. I mean, it’s hard to wrap your head around that.

And I know the Spurs exists in this kind of phantom zone we don’t understand. But Tim was the leader of that team, and he just wouldn’t do it. As I said, LeBron was young, Dwyane Wade was young, Carmelo was young, and Marbury was pissed off at Larry Brown of all time. The guy left out on the firing line was Allen Iverson.

Fast-forward to 2008. Bron, Melo, D Wade, who are all on that ’04 team, are now on the Redeem Team. They’re older and more experienced now. What sense did you get from them in terms of how motivated they were to avenge that loss in 2004?

They were absolutely motivated. They knew they were in a better position to do something about it. I was surprised talking to Carmelo about how unprepared they were for ’04. I mean, you think of it, “Okay. They’re great NBA players. They’re going to be Hall-of-Famers. They’re going to be immortal.”

But even they had a kind of, “Whoa, what the hell are we doing here? What kind of offense are we playing? This was all too quick. Who is the leader? What are we doing?” But now they get this invitation from Jerry Colangelo in ’05, “We’re going to need a three-year commitment. You’re going to have to stay with us in the summer. This is a long journey. We’re not playing tomorrow. We’re playing in ’08.” Well, they all bought in. And certainly huge part of that motivation was to get back what they had lost in 2004, no doubt about it. Like I said, they were in much better position now to do it. Certainly by the time they got to ’08, LeBron, if he’s not the best player in the league, he’s right behind Kobe as number two.

Having covered all the different iterations of USA Basketball, where do you think the Redeem Team stacks up? Are they right there with the ’92 team? Are they a rung or two below?

Part of what we talked about in episode one was this kind of hangover from ’92. They end up in this box that nobody else can ever go into. What I will say is ’08 should be up there, let’s say, on the number two rung. They should be up there for what they accomplished in terms of rebuilding the program. However, what Krzyzewski and those guys accomplished in the next two Olympics, to me, is amazing because by then, Spain, Argentina are walking out an entire team of NBA players.

Totally. Yeah.

So, I think, to beat Spain in ’08 was an amazing accomplishment. To beat them in ’16, now without Kobe, that could be even greater. But in terms of symbolism and importance to the whole line of talking about Olympic teams, I think the Redeem Team should be right there behind the Dream Team. They’ll just never eclipse the Dream Team.

USA Basketball once again finds themselves in a weird place going into Tokyo, first in terms just everything surrounding the pandemic and the year-long delay, but also coming off a seventh-place finish in the World Cup two years ago. What’s your sense of where we are with USA basketball heading towards Tokyo?

Part of it is, it’s hard to get a hold on anything, because of the pandemic. Are they going to get together for camp? The one thing we have to remember is Gregg Popovich. It was going to be Krzyzewski or Gregg Popovich to coach the ’08 team. And they went with the college guy, somewhat counter intuitively. But correctly, as it turned out, obviously, with what Coach K did. So, if anybody deserves a good Olympics, it would be Gregg Popovich. But I tell you what, it’s going to be tough. The only thing I would say was that to the extent I followed it, the best player on the USA team that played last summer was Donovan Mitchell. And Donovan Mitchell is kicking ass right now.

Yes sir.

So, perhaps he will be the new kind of leader of the team. Perhaps the guys will buy-in more. But they’re at that point that they were back in ’04, which is, “Hey, we’ve won three in a row now. Three Olympics in a row. Maybe we can just show up.” If they do, and they win again, I tell you what, that’s going to be a pretty remarkable achievement considering all that’s going on in the world right now.

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