Jack McCallum Talks Basketball

The longtime Sports Illustrated writer dishes on Rajon Rondo, Larry Bird, the Dream Team, and more.

In Boston, the Larry Bird-era Celtics are almost mythical. Jack McCallum was lucky enough to spend an entire year embedded with them. His book, Unfinished Business, chronicles the 1990-91 season.

“It was a fantastic experience,” said McCallum, a longtime Sports Illustrated writer. “Being able to hang around Boston was great. Whether or not it had something to do with it, one of my sons ended up going to BU. Everything about it in retrospect feels good to me.”

Since then, he’s written several more books. McCallum’s latest, Dream Team, about the star-studded 1992 United States Olympic men’s basketball squad, came out last summer. His next book, The Prostate Monologues, is about prostate cancer—he survived the disease—and hits shelves in August. This week, McCallum kindly agreed to talk some basketball with us. Here are highlights from our conversation:

Of all the guys you interviewed for that book, who was the most compelling?

[Kevin] McHale is literally the funniest person I’ve ever come across in sports. Him and [Charles] Barkley run 1-2. Barkley is probably more known because he’s more designed to say something outlandish. And he’s much more public than Kevin. You tend to judge things, by “Well he’s funny for an athlete.” And that’s probably true. Kevin was just funny. Kevin was one of the funniest human beings that I’ve ever been around. The way he observed life, and things like that. The way I look at these season books, if they’re not partly funny, you might as well not even write them.

Do you have a favorite McHale story from that time?

I’m pretty sure that both of these happened that year, and I think they were in the book. I was sitting next to Kevin—this is such the old days that you could be on the team bus. I think we were in Portland, and out of the clear blue sky, and I don’t think we were even talking about television, Kevin said, “Oh man, how great would it have been to have been the writer who came up with the famous cement pond from The Beverly Hillbillies.” We were just sort of ruminating about that, and then for a little while we talked about other things that were on The Beverly Hillbillies.

But the other thing: We were in L.A., and Kevin Costner was around then, and this is 1991. Kevin was kind of sucking up to the Celtics. He loved Larry—I remember that—like everybody did. He was mostly hanging around McHale, and you know, Kevin saw him, and Kevin shouts out, “Hey man. I saw Dances With Wolves. Great.” Or something like that. Costner looked like he had just been given the Academy Award by a member of the Celtics. We were out in the bus after the game—and I just happened to not like that movie—I said to Kevin, “Man, you really liked that thing?” And Kevin said, “I didn’t even see the fucking thing.” But he just wanted to make Costner feel good.

A big event in my childhood was when Reggie Lewis died. I remember where I was. It’s a flashbulb kind of memory. What were your impressions of him?

My memory of where I was is very stark also, because Sports Illustrated had an outing down in Orlando, Fla. Everybody was down there playing golf and messing around, they were about ready to go to a karaoke bar or something and we found out Reggie Lewis died. Four hours later, I was at Newark airport waiting for a rental car.

I would say this: I always underrated Reggie Lewis. It was my mistake. If he was going to become the Celtics’ leader, well shit, he was gonna have to become John Havlicek, or he was gonna have to become Larry Bird. And I didn’t see that kind of greatness in him. I think he would’ve become a great player. And I didn’t really see that from him. I think he struggled to be a leader. I think it was kind of very hard on him. I mean, he’s coming from a culture that worshiped Larry Bird, and that still certain segments of it were still struggling with race, still struggling to embrace this seemingly shy kid who was gonna have to become “The Guy.”

A really interesting thing I learned from Dream Team was that Michael Jordan seemed to admire Bird more than Magic. Did I read that wrong?

You read it exactly right. That was an opinion held across the [Dream Team]. It was an opinion held by, I’m not even gonna go individual, I think you could say that about almost everybody. I think it had something to with the fact that Larry—this does not mean that he’s a perfect individual—was able to command respect and be a leader, and do all those hard things, without ever trying to draw attention to himself. Earvin was never quite able to do that. Nor did he want to do that. I mean, Earvin says himself, “There’s two guys. There’s Magic and there’s Earvin.” Well can you imagine Larry Bird saying that? That’s not what Larry Bird is. Larry Bird’s one guy. Magic’s “look at me” personality turned off people more than Larry’s more reticent personality. That at the end of the day is the difference between them. Did Magic do a lot more things over the course of his life than Larry Bird did to be an ambassador for the league? Yes he did. Did Magic do more to change what you might call “the color barrier” in the league than Larry Bird did? Yes he did. He did much more of those things than Larry did. It was a function of his personality.

Rajon Rondo, for someone who’s considered a superstar, is pretty polarizing. Is there anybody he reminds you of, either personality-wise or style-wise?

I have thought myself about who to compare him to. I happened to be doing [a book about the Phoenix Suns] when Rondo came up in the draft. I remember the conversation about him. It kind of got down to the conventional wisdom that he couldn’t shoot, so we’re not gonna take him. Because they were a team that depended on shooting. … I just think he’s an incredible player. I think he’s one of those guys that you pay to watch. As far as who he’s like? I just can’t think of anybody. I suggested a story a couple of years ago to Sports Illustrated just on Rondo’s stat lines. Eight points, 19 rebounds, 15 assists [in one game], four points [the next game], then another game 39 points. So his stat lines seem to be some kind of function of the volatility of his personality. One night you go out and you score 37 points, and the next night you go out and get five. I just think there’s nothing predictable about the guy. I think he’s a fantastic player, and a great defensive player. So who’s that like? I’d be willing for someone to nominate somebody, and be able to say, “Well, yeah I can see that.” I just never have really seen anybody like him.

Do you see any parallels between how the current Celtics and the team that you wrote the book about in the early ’90s?

Absolutely. It wasn’t a hard decision then for the Celtics. If you have McHale and Bird around, and Robert [Parish]—and I don’t remember where they were on their contracts honestly—but you have those Hall of Fame caliber players, it’s kind of an easy decision that you’re gonna try to stretch it one more year, two more years. It’s very hard. You probably know that you’re not gonna win the title. You probably know that by now. Jordan’s coming on. The Pistons are really good. You’ve got Indiana. You’ve got Atlanta. You probably know, if you’re being honest, that you’re not gonna win the title. But you can’t go back to 37, 38 wins. You gotta get to the end with superstars. I think it’s very comparable to this year with the Celtics. I don’t think they can look themselves in the mirror and say, “We’re gonna be better than the Heat.” … But those guys had a damn good run. I’m sure they wanted more than one title but they won a lot of games, they won a lot of playoff games. They brought a lot of excitement there. If there’s two old warriors, man, it’s [Paul] Pierce and [Kevin] Garnett.