The best books (I’ve read) on Michael Jordan

Watching the excellent ESPN documentary The Last Dance has inspired me to put together a short post of my favourite books about, or covering, Michael Jordan.

Jordan made his pro basketball debut in 1984 shortly before I was born.  By the time I was taking my first steps he was well on his way to becoming a legend.   In the 90’s NBA was hugely popular in Ireland largely due to Jordan and of course NBA Jam on the Super Nintendo.

As one of the 20th Century’s most famous and accomplished sportsmen, Jordan has been subject of a vast number of books. For me, the best ones (I’ve read) are:

  • ‘Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made’ by David Halberstam
  • ‘The Jordan Rules’ by Sam Smith
  • ‘Michael Jordan: The Life’ by Roland Lazenby
  • ‘Dream Team’ by Jack McCallum

Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made.  David Halberstram is a writer I found through this book and I immediately fell in love with his work. I’ve seen Halberstam described as being to sports books what Robert Caro is to political biographies and Paul McGrath is to centre backs (i.e God basically) which I fully agree. He is simply a wonderful writer.

PfK

Playing for Keeps was written before Jordan retired for the second (but not final) time. The book is about Jordan the man and Jordan the phenomenon.  It’s also very much about the NBA of the 80s and 90s and the people in that world.  Its as much about the impact of Jordan as it is about the actions of Jordan.  In many ways it picks up the story following on from Halberstram’s other NBA book The Breaks of the Game which covered Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers of the 1970s.

Halberstram gives plenty of backstory on the various supporting players (Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Larry Bird, the wonderfully entertaining Pistons, just to name a few) to create a full, and compelling portrait of the Bulls and the NBA of the time. The Jordan that emerges is complex, headstrong, incredibly hard working and above all driven – driven perhaps like nobody before or since in any sport. Its a detailed, engrossing read and one that I would recommend to anybody.

My only criticism is that it reads at times a bit too much of a love letter about Jordan – although its hard to think of a sportsman who came to define his sport more than Jordan.  Like all Halberstam’s books it is wonderfully well written and tells as much about the society at the time (particularly the changing US attitudes to race) as it does the protagonist.

A very different book looking at the Jordan phenomenon is the gossipy and entertaining The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith. The book details the internal workings of the Chicago Bulls during the 1990/91 season as they won their first NBA Championship. Jordan doesn’t come across particularly well. Most surprising to me at least was his attitude to basketball – he seems to really just have wanted to retire and play golf.  There are definitely question marks over how accurate it is – the Fire and Fury of its day when the most famous man in America was thankfully just a sports star! Its enjoyable and entertaining, a fun read and a fascinating snapshot of nearly 30 years ago.

J r

Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby is a relatively more recent biography of Jordan.  It sat on my shelf unread for more than 3 years.  Once I picked it up however, I couldn’t put it down.  While most other books tend to focus on a specific season or specific aspect of his life,  Lazenby does a great job of telling the fuller picture of his life and playing career.

The first part of the book detailing his background, the history of his parents and ancestors is particularly strong with Lazenby’s skill as a biographer shining through. The strength of the book is the intense focus on Jordan’s relationships – with his coaches, family, friends, other players and the numerous other people whose crossed his path.  The story is told largely through the stories of those who accompanied Jordan through the various phases of his life..

Jordan’s top 10 moments (according to ESPN Sports Centre)

His parents are presented as complex characters and the darker, but still unproven, side of the Jordan family history is touched on.  In particular, I was left with even greater admiration for Bulls coach Phil Jackson’s leadership and management ability.  Getting Jordan to work for the greater good of the team took a special coach and Jackson was clearly the right man for the job.

It’s a big book yet I would have liked a bit more on Jordan’s life/career post playing.  Being a run-of-the mill owner isn’t quite as interesting as winning 6 Championship rings, but it felt like the book ran out of steam a little bit.

It’s a study of Jordan the man as much as Jordan the icon yet Lazenby wisely avoids over analysing Jordan or guessing as to his motives.  But by the end of the book, I was left with a pretty negative view of the man yet the a recognition that such unimaginable wealth, fame and public pressure would be hard for anyone to emerge from unscathed.  Highly recommended for a fuller look at Jordan’s life.

Jordan looms large in another great basketball book Dream Team by one of the all time great basketball writers, Jack McCallum.  As the name suggests, Dream Team tells the story of the US Men’s basketball team who captured the world’s attention at the 92 Olympics.  It really was some amazing collection of cultural icons with Magic, Micheal Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley among others.  McCallum had amazing access to the players both at the time and years later – including Jordan who seems to rarely talk to journalists for these type of books.  Reading it brought back some great memories of watching the Barcelona Olympics as an 8 year old and loving both the Dream Team and the amazing multicoloured, Grateful Dead inspired, jerseys worn by recently independent Lithuania.

lith.jpg
The greatest jersey of all time

A good insight into the players, their relationships with each other and the ultimate impact the team had on basketball.  McCallum recounts many entertaining behind-the-scenes stories of the Dream Teamers when they weren’t defeating their opponents by embarrassingly large margins. The backstage stuff is the value of the book – reading about a 40 point victory isn’t exactly thrilling.

One of the highlights is the coverage of “The Greatest Game that Nobody Ever Saw,” the legendary team practice match that Coach Chuck Daly organised at the team’s practice facility in Monte Carlo. The greatest collection of basketball players ever going at each other. McCallum goes play-by-play through this exhibition, and brings to life one of the rare great sports moments that happened behind closed doors.

The Greatest Game that No-one Ever Saw

For anyone who made it this far, I also have to mention a brilliant article written by Wright Thompson in 2013 called ‘Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building’ which profiled Jordan as he turned 50. It is available online at: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/page/Michael-Jordan/michael-jordan-not-left-building  and is also included in Thompson’s excellent anthology book ‘The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business’

Wright Thompson also published a great piece on Jordan’s will to win recently which is available at: https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29180890/michael-jordan-history-flight?platform=amp&__twitter_impression=true

And here is a recent article I really enjoyed about the time Jordan and friends came to Ireland for golf and pints: https://www.killarneyadvertiser.ie/guinness-golf-and-gambling-the-day-michael-jordan-came-to-killarney/

The best books (I’ve read) on German football

For those who just want a list:

While beloved of football hipsters, the Bundesliga has always lacked a landmark English language TV show to really generate significant interest in the UK and Ireland.  Serie A had Football Italia in the ’90s, La Liga had Revista on Sky Sports combined with the appeal of Messi and C. Ronaldo but the Bundesliga was usually restricted to clips of goals on Eurosport.

German football has however been incredibly well served by the quality of the books about it either written or translated into English.  In particular, Uli Hesse, Raphael Honigstein and Ronald Reng have brought the story of German football to English readers.

The obvious place to start is Tor!: The Story of German Football by Uli Hesse.  First published in 2002, Tor! is a detailed and engrossing history of German football from it origins to the Champions League Era.  Tor! covers a vast amount of detail, covering the often complex origins of modern clubs, the remarkably late professionalisation of the game in West Germany, and the challenges football faced in East Germany under Communism among many more topics. Throughout the book, football is set in the context of Germany’s turbulent 20th Century history, never more powerfully than when retelling the story of the 1954 World Cup and the Miracle of Berne where a the national team helped drag Germany out of it’s post-war shame.  For many readers, the detailed recounting of the evolution of the German national team may be of most interest and Tor! excellently balances the twin tales of how football developed for both clubs and country.

One of the challenges that Tor! faces is telling 100 plus years of history in just one book.  Thankfully Hesse returned more recently with two comprehensive books on the history of Germany’s two best well known clubs – Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub and Building the Yellow Wall: The Incredible Rise and Cult Appeal of Borussia Dortmund.   Both books trace the origins of the clubs from their first steps to the modern day.  Both are meticulously researched and packed full of detail and insight.  Hesse seems to have spoken to every key figure for both clubs you can imagine.

Bayern tells the story of how a fairly normal Bavarian team, who weren’t even invited to joint he first Bundesliga, grew to become a global institution.  At times it contains a little bit too much detail on long-forgotten matches but remains immensely readable.

Building the Yellow Wall has a more personal feel.  The book is packed full of nuggets of history and trivia about Borussia Dortmund that you are unlikely to find anywhere.  Hesse grew up in Dortmund but also interviews a wide range of players, club officials and ordinary fans.  This book has less match report style recounts of long forgotten matches than the earlier book on Bayern and instead wisely focuses more on the cultural impact of Borussia for its fans, its city and football in general.

For a closer look at the development of the Bundesliga, we have Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga by Ronald Reng.  Reng is best known as the author of the heart-breaking, beautiful book ‘A Life Too Short’ about the late Robert Enke which I discuss later.

Reng’s second book to be translated to English, Matchdays, is a biography of Heinz Hoher – a real journeyman of German football – a bit of a Wes Hoolihan as a player (talented but often stuck as a flair player in second division) and a bit of an Alan Pardew as a manager (decent at bottom half/middle table teams) but undoubtedly a complete ****.  Hoher is quite the character – quitting jobs on a whim, drinking to the point of collapsing on first day of a new job, just missing out on Dortmund job to Hitzfeld. Most interestingly, Reng uses Hoher’s career to tell the story of the Bundesliga from its inception in the 60’s to current day – how it has changed and how the German public’s attitude towards it evolved.  All round it is a really enjoyable, if slightly overlong, read. The style takes a bit of getting use to – although I’m not sure if it that is the author’s style or a result of the translation.

For a more modern look at how the German national team evolved we turn to Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World by Raphael Honigstein. Honigstein, who has recently joined the Atheltic UK’s exciting new football site, is undoubtedly the current English language expert on all things German football.  Das Reboot is a really enjoyable read with great insight into the rise and rise of German football.  It looks behind to scenes to identify how German football changed from a defensively minded game to the remarkable attacking football that led Germany to the 2014 World Cup.   The book gives fantastic insight in the philosophical debate for the soul of German football that was sparked by terrible tournaments in 1998 and 2000 and led to a revolution in youth coaching.  The impact of Jürgen Klinsmann and Jogi Löw in enhancing the professionalism of the national team is fascinatingly told and the story of that incredible 2014 World Cup winning campaign is brilliantly told.  At times the narrative jumps between time periods and between the national team and domestic games in a slightly confusing manner but that is a very minor quibble.

Michael Cox’s superb new book Zonal Marking makes a convincing case that during 2012 to 2016, German football was at the forefront of tactical innovation in European football.  As well as the national team’s success covered by Das Reboot, Jurgen Klopp’s development of gegenpressing at Dortmund and Pep Guardiola’s tactical evolution at Bayern helped to shape tactical thought across Europe.  Luckily, there are two excellent English language books which shine a light on both of these periods.

Klopp: Bring the Noise by Raphael Honigstein is a fun and detailed biography of the most charismatic manager in football – Jurgen “Kloppo” Klopp.  Honigstein details the key influences on Klopp’s career including his own limitations as a player and his one-time coach Wolfgang Frank.  Klopp comes across in the book in the same way he does on TV.  He clearly has a huge work ethic and builds a very  strong connection with his players.  The access that Honigstein had to so many people close to Klopp at different times of his life and career gives a great insight into his tactics and his management.  A clear pattern emerges – builds a fantastic team with meagre resources, performs well above expectations only to see a decline – either due to star players being headhunted or the rest of the league adopting his tactics.

Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich by Martí Perarnau is a remarkably in-depth look at Guardiola’s attempts to evolve the tactics of reigning Campions League winners Bayern Munich for the 2012/2013 season.  The level of access granted to Perarnau is extraordinary and he recounts in detail the tactical moves which Guardiola used to ‘reprogramme’ his players.  The book goes in to great depth on how Guardiola prepares his team for every game and overall how he adopted his footballing approach for the differences between German and Spanish football.

Perarnau followed this up with a second book Pep Guardiola: The Evolution covering the rest of Pep’s time at Bayern.  The second book is less in diary format but contains the same fascinating detailed explanations of the tactics used in various matches.  There is quite a bit of repetition about Pep’s broad philosophies and at times, like the first book, it borders on hero-worship.   Together however the two books provide a remarkable insight into not just Pep but also into the inner workings of Bayern.

Some less well known German football figures have also been the subjects of two books by Ronald Reng.  Best known is his heart-breaking, exceptional book A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke.  German international goalkeeper, Enke died by suicide in 2009 at age 32.  He had played across Europe at club’s like Benfica and Barcelona and appeared outwardly to have a fantastic life.  Reng sensitively examines the darker story as Enke struggled badly with depression and mental health issues.  Reng, who considered Enke a friend, paints a picture of Enke as a person, rather than a footballer.  I’ve never read anything so powerful at asking us to look behind the curtain of celebrity and consider the human side of professional athletes.   It’s a spell binding, heart-breaking, incredible book that rightly won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

Reng’s other, less well known, book is Keeper Of Dreams: One Man’s Controversial Story of Life in the English Premiership which was published in English in 2002 (translated by Shaun Whiteside). Keeper of Dreams is about the brief professional career of Lars Leese, a German goalkeeper who was catapulted from lower league German football to become a Premier League goalkeeper during Barnsley’s one season in the top flight. Lesse looked like he had missed his chance to be a professional before, at the age of 26, getting taken on as Leverkuson’s third choice goalkeeper.  A bit of luck and the right connection resulted in a surprise transfer to Barnsely where Lesse briefly became a starting Premier League goalie in only his second year as a pro.  

Barnsley’s year in the top flight was in 1997/1998 – when I was 13 and utterly obsessed with football and Championship Manager.  That obsession can only explain why I have vivid memories of that Barnsely team and of Lars Lesse when I can barely remember matches I watched last week.    Keeper of Dreams is ultimately the story of a dream temporarily lived and the frustration of coming to terms with the reality that the dream ended all too soon.  Reng is excellent at capturing the more difficult side of life in football – the personal struggle players experience behind closed doors.   Keeper of Dreams is a pretty quick and easy read that captures a fairly unique football journey. 

I suspect there are other great English language books on German football and footballers that I’ve not yet read and would love to be pointed towards some.   Mensch: Beyond the Cones by Jonathan Harding seems like an interesting read and one I’m hoping to pick up soon.