Category → Book Club
I’ve tried for Pistons angles in each of these book club posts so far, but there’s not much I can do on that front with Mitch Albom’s Fab Five. Well, I take that back … there are a few things I could tie into the Pistons, but I doubt anyone wants to reminisce about former Pistons Christian Laettner or Eric Montross, both guys who led their college teams to wins in national title games over the University of Michigan during the two years that Albom chronicled, depending on your perspective, either the greatest class of basketball talent ever assembled or the most hyped class ever. Or maybe they’re both? Who knows.
I chose to do a post on Fab Five not because people aren’t familiar with the story — after the insanely popular ESPN documentary produced by Jalen Rose, I would say their story is definitely not unfamiliar. And I also don’t have some new, fresh ground to cover in a discussion on the book, the players, the movie or the controversies. The reason I wanted to write something about this book is simple: I wanted to write about Chris Webber.
Webber had a fantastic career as a player. He played in two national title games and had a successful NBA career. Even if there are some ‘what could’ve been?’ questions that linger because of injuries, the fact is what Webber was was still great. Maybe he had the talent to revolutionize the power forward position, as some predicted when he was a young player. Obviously, he didn’t quite reach those heights, but he was still one of the best big men of his era. And now, he’s arguably the best former athlete broadcaster out there.
But the question that will always haunt Webber will be the fact that he never won a title at any level. Now, he’s not the first great player to retire title-less. Plenty have done it. But the instances in which Webber got close — twice in college and then in the 2002 Western Conference Finals to the Lakers in one of the most controversial series in recent NBA history — were not just losses, they were career-defining, heart-breaking losses.
But, rational or not, I choose not to define Webber that way. I happily close my eyes to the high profile shortcomings. Timeout? What timeout? I don’t care about the Ed Martin scandal (Feldman will probably suspend me from the site for writing that). I just loved the artistic way Webber played the game. For me, Webber’s career is not defined by his failure to win a title. It’s defined by constantly nearly missing perfect situations.
I love hypotheticals. They’re pointless, but usually always interesting to talk about, and Webber’s career is one of the best to play the hypothetical game with.
What if he’d stayed another year at Michigan? Let’s face it, Michigan had more talent than any team in the country for two straight years. Duke was fantastic, but their experience and intelligence were truly their greatest assets when matched up with UM in the 1992 final. UNC? There is no way that team could compare with Michigan talent-wise in 1993. What if Webber would’ve come back for one more run in 1994? I loved Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas teams, but could they have really dealt with the huge Webber-Howard frontline when one of their bigs was undersized Corliss Williamson? Would their pressure have been as effective with such a high post weapon like Webber who also handled the ball really well for a big man? Teams as talented as Michigan was rarely go without winning a title if they take enough shots. Other things could’ve gone wrong in 1994, but with Webber back, it would’ve taken a crazy upset to keep them from winning the title.
Webber moved on to the NBA where, for a second, it looked like he and Shaquille O’Neal would’ve formed the best frontline of their generation in Orlando. Instead, Webber was traded to Golden State on draft day for Penny Hardaway. But think, for a second, about a Webber-O’Neal high post/low post combination. Would there have been any team that could’ve successfully defended both of those guys? Now, Webber and O’Neal both have egos, as all star athletes do, so there are certainly questions as to whether they could’ve co-existed, but Webber has always been an unselfish player, and I’m convinced it would’ve worked with Shaq. Hardaway was certainly a fantastic player and a key reason that the Magic made the Finals in 1995, but it’s not like the team was completely devoid of perimeter options. Scott Skiles, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott would’ve been a perfectly formidable starting five with Webber and O’Neal. Skiles and Scott would spread the floor with their shooting and Anderson’s ability to slash and cut would’ve made him a nice target for Webber’s high post passing. If the Magic kept Webber, they could’ve won a title.
After a tumultuous rookie season in Golden State, Webber was traded to Washington. Now, that team hasn’t been a contender for anything since the 1970s, but after acquiring Webber? The then-Bullets had a chance at becoming an absolutely dominant team. I’m serious. Quit laughing.
As with Orlando, it’s all about that front line. Washington could’ve had a front line of Webber, Juwan Howard (then a fringe All-Star caliber player), Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace. Rasheed Wallace was traded for Rod Strickland a year before Ben Wallace arrived as a rookie free agent. But if Washington had decided to keep Rasheed Wallace just a little longer (or even trade Howard instead) and if they had a coaching staff who actually realized what it had in Ben Wallace and didn’t glue him to the bench and if Webber and Howard would’ve been a bit more mature than they reportedly were at that stage in their careers, it would barely matter what guards you put on the court with those four as the big man rotation.
Now, Webber did get an opportunity to play for a truly unique team in Sacramento, a team that, despite never making the Finals, will still be remembered for those great series they had with the Lakers and for being one of the best passing teams ever in the modern NBA. But to think about all of the places where Webber very nearly had a chance to be part of something really unique, it just reinforces my belief that he had one of the most interesting careers of any basketball star ever.
And now, I’ve just buzzed through 1,000 words and realized I’ve said precious little about Albom’s book. Seriously, I assume most people have read it or seen the movie, but if you haven’t done both, I highly recommend both. Like them or not, the Fab Five’s cultural impact on the game of basketball is significant, and it’s interesting to hear how they reacted to that influence when they were essentially just kids living it. Albom got incredible access to that team and the book is full of great scenes, two of which stand out to me — Jalen Rose’s failed attempt to talk trash to Muhammad Ali and Webber’s conversation with Michigan football player Shante Peoples, complaining about not having any money even though his No. 4 jersey was for sale right across from where they were eating. That complaint and scene, of course, became funnier with time considering the Martin allegations.
Shameless self promotion: I recently published a short book that ranks the top high school basketball hotbeds in terms of producing NBA talent. It’s called, The HIGH-erarchy: Ranking the top 30 NBA talent producing high schools in history and can be ordered here or as an e-book on Amazon if you’re interested.
Next up: The City Game by Pete Axthelm
PistonPowered Book Club: ‘Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association’ by Terry Pluto
Back in 2007, I was working at the Flint Journal, located right downtown Flint, Michigan. The city was abuzz because a movie crew had taken over the downtown, thrown piles of dirt everywhere that were being spray painted white to simulate snow and real life stars like Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin were hanging out in a city that typically only gets national attention when our local insane people get murderous or start torching buildings in record numbers.
The filming of Semi Pro, which chronicled the life of a fake ABA team, the Flint Tropics, gave Flint a chance to show outsiders that we actually do have some cool things going on, a unique history, fine eateries, etc. It’s too bad the movie was horrible.
And I don’t say that to be a snob. I’m not too good to laugh at a low-brow Ferrell film. The problem was just that the real ABA was so damned interesting, full of crazy stories, that any attempt to do a parody of it in a over-the-top movie doesn’t do the league actual justice.
Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association is a basically an oral history of the short-lived but impactful ABA. It was also comically poorly organized, filled with some of the craziest people imaginable who made decisions so strange that its a wonder the league lasted as long as it did. Here is a small sampling that stood out to me:
• The Pittsburgh Pipers, led by Connie Hawkins, won the inaugural ABA championship. Attendance was a problem for many ABA franchises, but the Pipers, bolstered by Hawkins’ star power, drew a respectable 3,000 or so fans per game in that first season. Then they moved to Minnesota. Why? Because the Minnesota Muskies, who played their inaugural season in Minnesota, decided to move to Miami because of poor attendance that first year. The Pipers suffered a similar fate — Hawkins had injury problems, the team didn’t repeat its first year success and they didn’t draw well in Minnesota. The solution? They moved back to Pittsburgh. Only without Connie Hawkins. Predictably, the team didn’t draw well that season. Then, to be extra confusing? They changed their name to the Pittsburgh Condors for two seasons before folding.
Oh, and why was it so important to have a team in Minnesota anyway? Because that’s where commissioner George Mikan wanted the league office. Why Minnesota and not New York? Because Mikan lived in Minnesota, had his personal business there and didn’t want to move to New York. All of it made perfect sense.
• Former player Charlie Williams recounted a story about going to Memphis owner Charlie Finley’s office to discuss a new contract. Finley, like many owners in the league, seemed to both exaggerate his actual wealth and combined that with being cheap. Finley invited Williams to have lunch with him to discuss the contract. Williams arrived and instead of going to a restaurant, Finley had a hot plate in his office and heated up two cans of soup on it to give the impression that he couldn’t afford to pay Williams what he wanted. The method worked and Williams agreed to less money than he was asking for.
• After playing in the All-Star game, John Brisker (a Detroit native), who had a reputation as one of the meanest, scariest players in the league, wanted his $300 bonus for playing in the game. He wanted it immediately and didn’t want to wait for a check, as any normal person would. After the game, he confronted the terrified commissioner, Jack Dolph, and asked for his money. Rather than explain to him he’d have to wait for a check like everyone else, Dolph took $300 out of his wallet and handed it to Brisker.
Those stories pop up throughout the book, and obviously they stand out. But the other theme is just how revolutionary the league really was. The 3-point shot? Created in the ABA. The dunk contest? ABA. Drafting and signing college underclassmen? ABA. It truly put immense pressure on the NBA to raise player salaries, it ushered in a more athletic, above-the-rim style of basketball and it featured some incredible basketball talent that helped revolutionize the game.
But, as a Pistons fan, the key person I kept following throughout the book was Larry Brown. Brown’s relationship with point guards has been a constant talking point following him during his NBA coaching career. It was particularly prevalent when he was coaching the Pistons and Chauncey Billups, under Brown’s tutelage, was becoming one of the league’s top point guards. Brown’s fixation on the position actually comes from a pretty simple place: he was a great point guard in his own right. He still holds the ABA record for assists in a game with 23 and when he retired as a player, he was the league’s all-time leader in assists (he’s now seventh in ABA history).
Brown never got an opportunity to play in the NBA. NBA teams felt he was too small. He earned a spot in the ABA and became an All-Star player. But, another frequent LB-ism, is his love for “teaching the game.” He retired early as a player (many still thought he was a solid player) to get into coaching and became the head coach of the Carolina Cougars in 1972. Brown’s ABA tenure was interesting. We know him as a slow-the-ball-down, strictly halfcourt offense coach who preached intense defense, and he was certainly that guy in the ABA, at least defensively. But his good friend and assistant coach in Carolina was Doug Moe, who 1980s NBA fans will remember for his high scoring, no-defense Denver teams. Much of the discussion of Brown as a coach in the ABA centers on his relationship with Moe, who served to, at times, reel Brown in when he got too demanding. It was interesting, and it makes me wonder if maybe Brown needed a guy like that on his staff recently in Charlotte, where players tuned him out reportedly because of his constant negativity.
Anyway, a couple key elements of early Brown stood out to me. The first was his defensive innovation:
“No one used the run-and-jump defense in the pros,” Brown said. “When I told people that that was the defense I planned to play, they told me that I would get killed. But I was convinced that if you had a quick team, you could make up for your lack of size with this defense. And using that kind of pressure meant that you had to play a lot of guys, which was good for team morale, since more guys were involved.”
When the Pistons were in the midst of a coaching search, one of the pipe-dream candidates some nostalgic Pistons fans hoped the team would consider was Brown. I’m doubtful Brown was ever even seriously mentioned by the team as a candidate, but with the Pistons glut of limited guards, maybe the team could’ve channeled 1972 Brown, who handled a similar guard situation well with a Carolina team that ended up being really good (ABA executive Carl Scheer is talking in the quote below):
One day Larry came to me and said, “I’ve got four good guards, but I don’t think any of them can play 40 minutes.”
I waited for what he would say next. I didn’t know if he wanted to trade someone or what. Then Larry said, “I’m going to play all four of them equal time.”
I said, “You’ll never get away with it.”
Larry said, “Wait and see.”
He started the game with Mack (Calvin) and (Steve) Jones. That was his offensive unit. Mack was a great penetrator, streaky shooter and emotional leader. He pushed the ball up and down the court, he went to the basket, got fouled and made the foul shots …
Then Larry would take them out for (Teddy) McClain and (Gene) Littles, and those guys just pressed people off the floor. You couldn’t dribble the ball up against Gene or Teddy. They would just take it away from you. You put all that backcourt together and we were a bitch.
Now, first of all, the way he used Littles and McClain sounds an awful lot like how he used Lindsey Hunter and Mike James in 2004. Who knows if today’s LB would be patient enough to deal with the limitations of the players in the Pistons’ current backcourt (he might demand that they all be traded for Steve Francis or something) while using them in ways that maximize each of their individual talents, but his use of four good but flawed players on that Carolina team shows that with good, innovative coaching, roster deficiencies like what the Pistons are faced with can be masked some by a great system.
Loose Balls is kind of an all over the place book since it’s basically Pluto putting together an oral history of a league that is largely forgotten. But it’s extremely valuable as a tool to understand how the NBA became what it is today, how entertainment and showmanship became a part of basketball, and it’s also a good way to learn about fantastic players who never got much of a shot in the NBA (like Detroit Pershing great Mel Daniels, for example). And you also get to learn about the time Rick Barry told Sports Illustrated that basically everyone in the state of Virginia is a redneck so that the Squires would be forced to trade him.
Pluto’s research for the book was exhaustive. He talks to hundreds of people, including stars and basketball minds like Julius Erving, George Mikan, Brown, Dan Issel, Bill Sharman and many more. As many of the people state throughout the book, without the ABA’s influence, the NBA that we know and love today would be much different and probably more boring.
Next up: Fab Five by Mitch Albom
I had originally planned on doing these book club posts every other Friday, but we’re going to change things up and start doing them every Saturday. The reasons? First, there’s less going on on the weekends news-wise, so theoretically, more time to discuss a book. But more interestingly, a couple guest bloggers have come forward and asked if they could participate (and if others would like to pitch me ideas, feel free to e-mail patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com), starting with today’s guest host, J.M. Poulard of the TrueHoop Network’s Golden State Warriors blog, Warriors World. You can e-mail J.M. at JM.Poulard(at)Warriorsworld(dot)net. And if you’re on Twitter and not following him @ShyneIV already, you’re missing out. He’s one of the best hoops Tweeters out there. Below is his take on Halberstam’s ‘Playing for Keeps’ from a Pistons perspective. Next Friday, we’ll discuss Terry Pluto’s book ‘Loose Balls.’ — Patrick
The old adage has always been that it takes talent to win in professional basketball. Go back through time and look at any championship team and you will find an amazing amount of talent on that squad. But talent alone does not win in the NBA. Indeed, if such were the case, the 2000 Portland Trail Blazers and 2002 Sacramento Kings would be the proud owners of championship rings.
It takes talent yes, but also equally important is willpower. Often times, a group with a bunch of talented players can want to win, but not do enough to get there.
Going all the way might mean imposing your style of play on your opponent or simply completely taking another team out of what they wish to accomplish.
Hence, when we look at past NBA champions, we see talented teams; but also we see extremely mentally tough teams.
If there is one team that exemplifies these traits best, it has to be the Bad Boys Pistons.
In his book Playing For Keeps, David Halebrstam states: “The singular strength of the Pistons, their mental toughness and their sense of purpose made them the most difficult opponent of all for a team on the ascent. The Pistons had an unerring ability to hone in on the weaknesses, physical or psychological, of their opponents.”
Pistons players were smart, tough and focused on winning. Their identity came directly from Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer.
Chuck Daly demanded that his players practice and play hard in order to earn playing time. Furthermore, he would coach a tough team that had fierce practices. Thus, when they played against other teams, they typically had an easier time against them because few teams could match their physicality as well as their intensity, especially in the frontcourt.
Detroit boasted a frontline of Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Dennis Rodman. For those unfamiliar with these players, one could argue that they are some of the toughest players the league has ever seen. Consequently, they often won games before the tip off, as coaches and players would try to alert officials to expect hard hits prior to the start of games.
The Pistons were the equivalent of the Horsemen in the WCW (wrestling posse that bullied and intimidated other wrestlers in World Championship Wrestling), and Bill Laimbeer was clearly Ric Flair.
Flair spent most of his wrestling career it seems as the World Heavyweight Champion in the WCW; and he retained his title by any means necessary. Using brass knuckles and throwing powder in the face of his opponents were par for the course for him; and consequently the fans despised him.
Laimbeer played the exact same role in the NBA that Flair played in wrestling. Other players regarded him as the league’s premier cheap-shot artist given his willingness to hit players when they were caught in vulnerable positions. The end result was that the Pistons center often got players to lose their cool and play out of focus.
The combination of an imposing physical defense with an extremely tough minded team meant that more often than not the Bad Boys would come out on top.
This explains why former Pistons PR man Matt Dobek once said that the Bad Boys led the league in five-point blowouts: late in games, when officials typically wanted players to decide games, they would allow for much more pushing, grabbing and hitting to occur. Hence, if the Pistons got up by a mere five points late in the game, it was almost impossible for teams to come back.
Between the physical level of play and the taunting of Pistons players, opposing teams almost always unraveled.
The toughest hurdle that Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had to clear was not the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics; it was the Detroit Pistons.
And for all of those who have romanticized the Airness’ career, let’s not forget that the last team to ever beat Michael at full strength in the playoffs was none other than the 1989-1990 Detroit Pistons.
Not only did they defeat Michael’s Bulls, but they nearly broke him.
After Game 7 of 1990 the Eastern Conference Finals, Michael Jordan, much like Isiah Thomas before him (against the Celtics), openly wondered if he would ever be victorious against his nemesis.
What made things particularly hard for Jordan was the way the Pistons attacked him psychologically. The Jordan Rules, the media called it.
Chuck Daly built a defense that challenged the Bulls star both physically and mentally. Every time he would get the ball, the Pistons defense would dare him to take it to the rack and absorb the punishment that came along with it.
For all of his gifts as a basketball player, Michael had an ego that matched his immense basketball skills. Consequently, the Pistons preyed on Jordan’s mind state, knowing he would take the team out of their offense and continually attack a tough defense in an attempt to beat them all by himself.
In doing so, Jordan would get his numbers, but would fail to elevate the level of play of his teammates. So it was no surprise when Chicago players wilted under pressure against Detroit, because that had been the plan all along.
MJ maximized his efforts but ultimately his team came up short in the process. Much like he would eventually do to other teams in the future, the Pistons had cut out his heart and left it exposed to the rest of the basketball world.
At the conclusion of the game, Jack McCloskey (the Pistons’ general manager at the time) spotted Michael Jordan in the parking lot and went over to talk to him. Halberstam shares part of their conversation: “Mr. McCloskey, are we ever going to get past the Pistons? Are we ever going to win?”
The general manager’s answer did not matter as much as the question itself. As Jordan boarded the team bus and wept in the back, it was clear that the man had been defeated and that Detroit was in his head. The three consecutive playoff exits at the hands of the Pistons left him vulnerable in a way we would never see again.
In a roundabout way, Michael Jordan as well as his teammates can thank the Bad Boys for his six championship rings. The physical and psychological abuse that those teams put on MJ’s Bulls eventually hardened them and made them nearly unbeatable.
Although Playing For Keeps is the story of Michael Jordan’s rise to the top, it shows us that the most important battles of Michael’s career happened with Detroit.
The 1989-1990 Detroit Pistons were the last team to defeat Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen after they had enjoyed a full training camp together.
And the Bad Boys accomplished that given their talent, but also because of their ability to stretch out the limits of willpower.
I forgot originally to include the next book I’d feature in PistonPowered book club in Friday’s post. I added it late, but for those who missed it, we’ll discuss Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s history of the ABA. A couple of recent former Pistons coaches — Larry Brown and George Irvine — are among the many people with ABA ties featured in the book, if you’d like to grab a copy and follow along. Perhaps we’ll even get LB’s explanation for this (photo via SI.com):
When I started reading Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules, which chronicled the Chicago Bulls’ first championship season in 1991, I knew the Pistons would loom large in the background, so I wanted to be vigilant about cool side-stories involving the Pistons I could excerpt and talk about in this post. Well, it turns out, I was putting a dog-ear in about every other page before realizing that the effort would be futile. The book is full of great anecdotes involving the Pistons-Bulls hatred. As a young fan growing up during the rivalry, I obviously digested it purely from a Piston perspective. The Bulls were soft, they were whiny, Jordan got kid-gloves treatment from the officials. More importantly, the Pistons were a team. The Bulls were a group of individuals.
Interestingly, that concept wasn’t lost on the Bulls. Although they certainly hated Detroit, several players throughout the book pointed out that very concept — Detroit won by supporting each other, by having its stars sacrifice numbers for wins. That was the gift the Pistons gave Chicago, teaching them after several disappointing (for Chicago) playoff losses what it actually took to break through and win a championship. It was interesting to relive that rivalry from the other side, to read the negative perceptions of Pistons players after growing up with the glowingly positive reviews of everyone on the Bad Boys that you get in home-state coverage of any team.
It’s hard to pick out just a few sections, but I’ll try below.
First, the title of the book comes from a term Chuck Daly used to describe how the team would defend Jordan:
Chuck Daly, a man who appreciated the arts, was not particularly enamored of Jordan’s work, and after the 1988 game the Pistons instituted ‘the Jordan rules’ and the campaign to allow what the Bulls believes was the legalized assault on Michael Jordan.
The Pistons had two of the league’s best man-to-man defenders, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, to carry out those assignments. Jordan grudgingly accepted Dumars, with whom he’d become somewhat friendly at the 1990 All-Star game; Dumars was quiet and resolute, a gentlemanly professional. But Jordan didn’t care much for Rodman’s play. “He’s a flopper,” Jordan would say disdainfully. “He just falls down and tries to get calls. That’s not good defense.” Rodman once “flopped” so effectively back in the 1988-89 season that Jordan drew six fouls in the fourth quarter to foul out in the last minute of a close loss to the Pistons.
I remember when Rodman was traded to the Bulls before the 1996 season, thinking it was a big deal just because of the rivalry between teams, but this book really goes into detail in parts about how much Jordan actually hated playing against Rodman. It’s interesting, given Jordan’s well-known penchant for holding grudges, that he was cool with the team acquiring a player he hated so much. Actually, it speaks to how much Jordan evolved from a stats-chasing player obsessed with scoring titles to a complete player obsessed with winning.
But former Pistons were actually close to joining the Bulls when the Pistons-Bulls rivalry was still near its peak, way before Rodman had ended up in Chicago. Rick Mahorn, who went to Minnesota in the expansion draft, was a Bulls’ target until the team became concerned about his bad back and balked at giving up a first round pick for him. Another player who the Bulls kicked the tires on during that season was Adrian Dantley, who was then a free agent. Phil Jackson didn’t feel like Dantley’s ball-stopping ways would work in the triangle offense, so the team eventually passed on signing him. But there was one name that was far more surprising than the others. Smith doesn’t go into a lot of detail on this, but check out this passage:
Meanwhile, the Bulls also wanted to add a big guard. All of their guards other than Jordan were 6-2 or under — that’s why Chicago rejected the overtures of Detroit free agent Vinnie Johnson — and a big guard playing alongside Jordan would give Detroit matchup problems the way Milwaukee did with Jay Humphries, Alvin Robertson and Ricky Pierce.
The thought of a player as beloved and important as Johnson possibly leaving the Pistons for the Bulls is hard to fathom. It certainly would’ve weakened the Pistons and probably made that rivalry even more intense, even if the Pistons were at about the end of the line as a dominant team heading into the 90-91 season.
There are also some great background instances in the hatred between Jordan and Isiah Thomas. The All-Star freeze-out allegedly orchestrated by Thomas was obviously a big motivator in the feud for Jordan, but Smith points out that Thomas had jealousies of Jordan as a result of Jordan attaining superstardom in Isiah’s hometown of Chicago. When a desperately impatient Jordan was putting more and more pressure on the team to trade players, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf hit MJ with what, to Jordan, was about the worst insult possible in response to Jordan’s public complaints about the roster:
“Well,” Reinsdorf pointed out to Jordan, “you’re not helping any. We’re working on several deals, but every time you come out criticizing the general manager, it makes it look like Jerry (Krause) has to do something and that makes it harder on us. People start thinking we’re desperate and want to take advantage of us.”
(Jordan) wanted Horace Grant out, among others. He was going to start going public with his complaints. “Do you want people to start thinking about you like they do Isiah Thomas?” Reinsdorf said. It stopped Jordan in his tracks.
The Pistons-Bulls interactions were obviously the draw for me, but the book is a great behind-the-scenes look at the NBA in general — basically, all of the things executives and coaches have to worry about, how playing time/stats equate to money in the minds of players, how delicate it is to try and massage so many egos. Jordan’s verbal assaults on Jerry Krause (or, as Jordan called him in the book, ‘Crumbs’, because of all of the donut crumbs that were allegedly always on Krause’s lapel), the way Pippen perennially felt under-appreciated, what it took Grant to grow and become the tough force on the boards the Bulls needed him to be, the impact of veterans like Paxson, Cartwright and Craig Hodges, it’s all fascinating to anyone who was a NBA fan in that era and it’s a great way to learn about teams that helped lay the groundwork for what the league has evolved into today.
Next book club post will discuss Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s history of the ABA.
Who knows how long the NBA lockout will last, but my plan lockout or otherwise was to spend the summer catching up on some basketball reading. Since the news grind will probably slow way down, I figured I might as well give some book recommendations and hopefully start some discussions in the comments for those who have read the books we’re featuring or encourage others to pick it up for those who haven’t.
I’m starting the series today with a book that should be required reading for any NBA fan, David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game. The book is centered on the late 1970s Portland Trail Blazers, just after their NBA championship and trade of franchise center Bill Walton. But the book delves into way more issues than just the Blazers, and there are a couple reasons I hope people either read it if they haven’t or revisit it if they have. The first is to simply look at how some of the balance of power finger pointing between owners and players is almost identical today to what was going on in the era that Halberstam wrote Breaks. Even beyond that, the alleged perception issues the league was dealing with at the time sound so familiar to the tired talking points trotted out by NBA critics today. I wrote about this issue in a review of the book for HoopSpeak earlier this year, in comparison to a Buzz Bissinger column in the Daily Beast that was critical of the league and its perception:
The brilliance of David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game isn’t simply that he chronicles one of the most interesting teams in NBA history, the late 1970s Portland Trail Blazers, but that he also provides a firsthand account that shows the arguments for why the NBA would fail were exactly the same in 1979 as they are in 2011.
Halberstam: “Just as the camera had caught and transmitted the true intensity of old-fashioned rivalries in the earlier days of the league, so it now caught with equal fidelity the increasing lethargy and indifference of many players in regular season games, a lethargy and indifference now seen by a largely white audience as at least partially racial in origin.”
Bissinger: “When I wrote the book Friday Night Lights about high-school football in Texas, I saw the racial stereotypes of some whites up close—their firm belief that white athletes admirably succeeded because of hustle and hard work and brains, and black athletes succeeded solely on the basis of pure athletic skill. In other words, white athletes virtuously worked their tails off whereas black athletes simply coasted because they can.”
Halberstam: “It was not just that they had won, but the way they had won, unselfish in a selfish world and selfish profession. … There were hundreds of telegrams and letters thanking the coach and the players for helping their programs and making it easier to coach basketball the right way.”
Bissinger: “Although basketball is supposed to be a team game, it has become more one-on-one in the NBA than a boxing match. The style has changed and it is a definite turnoff.”
Halberstam also touches on a still common point that Bissinger doesn’t deal with in his column: that fans were being turned off by escalating salaries, guaranteed contracts that crippled teams if the player didn’t provide production commensurate with his salary and bitter player-team disputes that often led to star players changing teams.
The beauty of Breaks is just the timelessness of it. There are so many names you’ll recognize (Lionel Hollins, Geoff Petrie, Jack McCloskey, Lenny Wilkens, the list goes on) associated with that decade in Portland hoops who went on to become long-term coaches or executives in the league. The book is full of short anecdotes and random stories that will blow your mind. It’s one of the best researched books in any genre that I’ve ever read with the level of detail included.
And the second reason I wanted to start off with this book in the series here is because there is a great story about a young Isiah Thomas when he was a hotshot high school player in Chicago trying to decide on a college:
(Wayne) Embry had thought Thomas a truly remarkable young man of great human promise as well as athletic ability and he thought the worst thing that could happen to him as to go to a school where he would be catered to. Bobby Knight, whatever else, catered to no one. Embry not only helped in the recruiting himself, but he brought in Quinn Buckner, now a Milwaukee guard and former Indiana star who had fashioned a rare ongoing four-year love-hate relationship with Knight while at Bloomington.
With all that heavy weaponry brought in, Indiana seemed to be ahead in the bidding. Then in a dramatic last-minute confrontation, Gregory Thomas, one of Isiah’s older and more volatile brothers, had appeared, and there had been a series of charges and countercharges, threats and counterthreats about Isiah’s future with Bobby Knight. Gregory included Embry and Buckner among the potential exploiters of his brother. Knight, enraged, had finally blown up. “You’re an asshole and you’re a failure, and the worst thing about you is that you want Isiah to fail the way you did.” He turned to Isiah and got up. “If you stay near him you’re going to be ruined. I’m getting out of here. I’m sorry we lost you.” Then he walked out. The next day Isiah Thomas, in tears, had come to see Knight and had pleaded for a chance to go to Indiana. There he had gone and soon he too was fashioning a love-hate relationship with Knight worthy of that between Buckner and Knight.
There are other great books out there with more about the Thomas-Knight relationship that we’ll hopefully (or not hopefully, if it means the lockout ends quickly) get into this summer.
I’m going to try for two or three of these posts a month (depending on how fast I can read the books on my list). Next book I’m working on is The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith if anyone wants to read it before the next post.