Saturday, August 1, 2009

My Favorite Sports Books

Season on the Brink-John Feinstein
Bobby Knight gave John Feinstein unprecedented access to both himself and his team 22 years ago. The result was this monster book. You see Knight in all his complexities: one minute humiliating a player, the next minute raising hell and earth to raise money for a paralyzed former player. Knight the teacher and Knight the maniac fill each page. His reverence for old coaches and affection for his former players are on full display. The man's will to win leads to volcanic eruptions of temper, yet he still would not hesitate to bench a superstar if he cut a class. This book covers the 1985-86 college basketball season and America is in full migration away from the in your face, sometimes humiliating, sometimes physical methods of teaching that Knight employs. Knight struggles with that and we see the seeds to his eventual demise being planted. Knight is a complex man, and Feinstein nails it.

The Breaks of the Game-David Halberstam
The best sports book ever written. Halberstam spends the 1979-80 season with the Portland Trail Blazers. Two seasons earlier, they were the Rocky Balboa of basketball, beating the Sixers for the Championship. By the time Halberstam gets there, its all come apart. The big Red Head ( Bill Walton) was hurt, he blamed the team doctors, and left for the Clippers. Maurice Lucas could not let go of the fact that Walton was paid so much more than him. Lots of great stories here about Earl Monroe, Lionel Hollins, Dr. Jack Ramsay the unforgettable Billy Ray Bates and much more. Big lesson: Chemistry in basketball is vital.

The Last Shot-Darcy Frey
Frey is a free lance journalist who covered the Lincoln High School Basketball team in 1994, when Stephon Marbury was a freshman in High School. Great account on how much time and energy these Coney Island kids put into basketball, as they see it as the only way out of the ghetto. For these kids, the NBA is a more realistic goal than say, working for the MTA. You also get a full account of a 14 year old Marbury: a prodigy, a genius with a basketball, the last hope of a poor family, and a ruthless critic of his teammates.

Heaven is a Playground-Rick Telander
Its the Summer of 1974. The Author, Rick Telander spends that Summer in Foster Park in Brooklyn (Foster & Nostrand). Before Hoop Dreams & The Last Shot, there was this great book covering the same fertile ground. It gives you a slice of playground culture, street agents, and schoolyard legends Bernard King, Albert King, and Fly Williams. Truly the first book to examine how important basketball is in the inner city.

October 1964-David Halberstam
This book is ostensibly about the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and Cardinals, but it is much more than that. It is really about the social and cultural forces taking place in America in 1964 and how those forces played out on the baseball diamond. By 1964, the Yankee dynasty is at an end. 40 years of Yankee domination is over. Why? They were too slow to sign black and Latino ballplayers and as a result a new pool of players were arriving in the majors and they were not wearing the "Interlocking NY". Most ended up in the National League. A lot ended up on the Cardinals. This book is filled with unforgettable profiles of men like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock,and Bill White, as well as Mantle and Maris. Great Sports books do not just tell us who won. They dig under the hood and tell us why. Nobody did that better than Halberstam.

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi-David Maraniss
Don't let the corny title fool you. This is a tremendous well-researched biography of Lombardi. The Vince Lombardi that the public got to know, which is to say, the Green Bay Coach, was a culmination of his earlier experiences put to great use. Lombardi was a product of the Jesuits, both as a student and as a High School Teacher and Coach. He also was an Assistant Coach at West Point in the early1950's. By the time he got to the pros, he combined the Jesuit ethics of spiritual disciple and hard work with an adherence to military precision he learned at West Point. When you add that to the pedagogical skills he honed as a teacher in North Jersey, you get Lombardi. By the time he got to the pros, he knew exactly what he wanted to do, both as an assistant with the Giants and as a head coach at Green Bay. His teams ran the same plays. Over and Over. While most coaches had say 40 plays; Lombardi had 4. But of those four, there would be 20 options off of each play. Each man had to execute his responsibilities perfectly for it to work. And they did. Why? Through discipline and practice and repetition. Lombardi literally used the lessons from saying the rosary over and over and applied it to the famous Packer sweep. A great example of the disciplinary hold he held over his players is a story Hall of Fame Offensive Line Man Forrest Gregg tells in the book: On every play each Packer player received a grade. That grade would be given out the Tuesday after the game. There were three possible grades: -1 if you blew your assignment; 0 if you did just OK; and 1if you completed your assignment. 30 years after it happened, Gregg tells of a game where Green Bay lead 35-0 with 2 minutes to go in the game. The next play, Gregg blew his assignment. All he could think about was the -1 he was going to receive when they reviewed the films on Tuesday. That's the type of hold Lombardi had on his guys. A fine biography.

The Lords of the Realm-John Helyar
John Helyar is a Wall Street Journal reporter and writes the definitive history of labor relations in major league baseball. Want to know how major league baseball players went from having no bargaining power to the most powerful union in America?. Read this book. Great profiles of Marvin Miller,eccentric owners like Ted Turner & Gussie Busch, and the players who started the Union. Timeless classic.

Life On The Run-Bill Bradley
This is Bradley's memoir of the 1973-74 season. It is Dave Debusschere's last season (he accepted a job as GM of the Nets) and it turned out to be Willis' last season, as his knees and hips gave out. Bradley like the great teammate that he was, devotes a lot of the book to vignette's of Clyde, Earl, Debusschere, Willis, Jerry Lucas, & Phil Jackson. Its a reflection on an athlete's life on the road, but don't expect stories of groupies and drugs. Bradley focuses on the toll that a long season takes on the body, the mental grid of the season. Favorite story # 1: How Jerry Lucas had such memorization skills that he could recall the entire Manhattan phone book. The team put this to good use during card games: no one had to put up cash, Lucas would keep a running tally in his head. Favorite story # 2: Since he announced he was retiring at the end of the season, the last home game of the year was Dave Debusschere night. It truly was the end of golden era in NYC basketball, and Bradley vividly captures that night. Favorite Story # 3: The season just ends, and Bradley and a crippled Willis get a flight to North Dakota. They have agreed to Phil Jackson's request to put on a basketball clinic on a Indian Reservation. During the flight, Willis basically confirms to Bradley that his body can't take any more punishment,and that he has played his last game. (Which turned out to be true.) The book ends with Willis telling the Indian kids that one of them could be the first Native-American in the NBA. By any measure, Bradley can write. Every NBA fan should read this.

The Teammates-David Halberstam
Ted Williams is dying. This is a story about friendship. About coming to grips with the reality that a friend is dying. Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr & Dom DiMaggio were friends for over 60 years. The grew up during the Depression, broke into baseball when it wasn't a way to make a lot of money, and fought in World Wars. They also for the most part, spent all of their baseball career as teammates. This little book describes the weekend in late 2001 when Pesky & DiMaggio,both in their 80's, drove from Boston to Florida to see Ted one last time. We see a feeble Ted, and its a stark reminder of human mortality. A great book that transcends sports.

The Ghosts of Manila-Mark Kram
Tram is one of the greatest writers from Sports Illustrated vaunted past. His piece written on deadline on the Thrilla in Manila is widely considered a masterpiece. In this book, written years after Manila, Kram sets out to debunk a lot of the mythology that is taken as truth when it comes to Muhammad Ali. Kram spent 11 years closely covering Ali and there are a lot of revelations in this book. For instance the Nation of Islam which was continuously on the prowl to convert a black athlete (they tried to bribe Sugar Ray Robinson to convert) considered Ali a "useful dupe" they told him what to say, and when to say it. Ali was never a practicing member, he feared leaving them because he saw up close how many people they killed. Ali the ugly user of racial stereotypes hurled at Joe Frazier, and Ali the wife-beating womanizer are also front and center. A great book for those willing to consider a version of Ali that they may not be comfortable with.

1 comment:

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