‘History is written by the victors’ is one of those many quotes that gets attributed to Winston Churchill. History is written about the victors might by more accurate when it comes to sport. It’s the stories of winners that we remember and that get the most books, articles and attention.
Losers is a fascinating collection of stories written from the perspective of losers – a very broadly defined term given that the essays cover some very successful athletes! The stories all share a common theme of reflecting on defeat in sport, its impact and the challenges of bouncing back. Fourteen of the essays are new unpublished work and are complemented by eight classic pieces including Gay Talese’s superb essay on Floyd Patterson.
The stories each offer different perspectives and range from sombre to hilarious. The subjects covered range from obscure to famous. Each story is insightful and works well as a standalone piece. Like all good collections, however, the sum of the whole adds up to more than its individual parts. Together the collection represents a brilliant reflection on human nature. Stories of how we respond to failure, and bounce back (or at least try to) capture something far more universal than the more written about moments of unbelievable glory.
The quality of the collection is reflected by how difficult I’m finding to pick a favourite. I’ll go for Jeremy Taiwo’s (as told to Stefaine Loh) reflection on being the 2nd best decathlete in the USA and Brian Platzer’s take on two young table tennis players chasing Olympic glory. Each story is a treat though and the collection one to saviour.
Book – ‘Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson’ by Kent Babb (2015)
Documentary – ‘Iverson’ directed by Zatella Beatty (2014)
Documentary – ‘No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson’ directed by Steve James (2010)
Allen Iverson is the smallest player in history to be the NBA’s MVP – the best player in the league over an entire season. He is also a former Rookie of the year, no. 1 draft pick, an 11 time All-Star, 4 time top point scorer and 3 time steals leader among countless other accolades.
His cultural impact is arguably even greater than his on-court achievements. He was an icon for millions of young men, especially African Americans, for his refusal to compromise his image and ‘tone down’ his own personal style. His hairstyle and fashion choices were constantly scrutinised and his shoe line for Reebok is the no.2 all time best seller behind only Jordan’s Nike range.
Iverson’s story is easiest understood in three parts – his early years, his basketball career, and now his post basketball life.
The early years are covered in Not a Game and in both documentaries. Iverson was nationally famous even before he played college basketball. Despite being only 6ft tall, as a sophomore he was the number 1 ranked high school basketball player in the US. He may also have been even better as a football player (covered in this fascinating VICE article).
He was catapulted to national attention however when he was tried, and ultimately convicted, for his part in a brawl at a bowling alley that left a number of people injured. The trial, conviction and frankly ridiculous 5 year sentence handed down to Iverson and his co-defendants was a huge story and an event that exposed damaging racial tensions in his community.
Kent Babb’s excellent book Not a Game focuses heavily on both the rise and fall of Iverson with chapters alternating between his early years in Virginia and his fall towards divorce and bankruptcy one his playing career ended. Babb extensively covers his difficult childhood, his phenomenal talents and of course, the trial which nearly ruined his career before it began.
As the subtitle suggests, No Crossover focuses heavily on the trial and the circumstances surrounding it. The central theme of the film is the role that race played in both the outcome and the perception of Iverson’s trial. Director Steve James grew up in the area and uses that local knowledge, and his late father’s contacts, to get people to open up on an issue many may have preferred to stay silent on. It’s a fascinating study on the difficult race relations in the community and America more generally.
Iverson covers similar ground to the other two in terms of Allen’s early years. It’s noticeably very positive about the influence of Gary Moore, Iverson’s long time mentor and manager. It must be noted that Moore is an executive producer of the documentary and Not a Game paints an arguably more objective view noting that Moore has benefited hugely financially from Iverson and that some of his advice to Iverson has been questionable at best.
Both films and the book cover similar ground in showing how Iverson, with the support of family and one incredibly kind-hardhearted teacher (who is strangely not mentioned in Iverson), put his time in prison behind him and became a basketball superstar first at Georgetown and then in the NBA.
Iverson’s actual basketball career is touched on fairly lightly in both the book and No Crossover. Here Iverson is excellent as it includes brilliant footage of Allen using his remarkable incredible athletic gifts.
Not a Game however paints a picture of a player who was a nightmare for his coaches off the court despite being so effective every time he played. Iverson’s relationship with his 76ers coach Larry Brown is a fascinating central thread running through the book. Despite constant clashes, Brown clearly has a huge amount of fondness for Iverson as he continuously tried to help him later in his career both in finding a team and in making the US Olympic team.
No Crossover ends in 2009 as Iverson’s career is winding down. It touches on criticism of Iverson for his lack of involvement in his hometown while recognising the obvious reasons he feel less than positive about returning. I don’t think the director could have predicted how bleak the following few years would be for Iverson.
The grimness of Iverson’s post career life is however a key focus of Not a Game and the weakest part of Iverson. In that film, and related media coverage of its release, Iverson addressed long-discussed rumours of financial struggles, denying any notion that he was struggling. “That’s a myth. That’s a rumor… The fact that I’m struggling in any part of my life”, he said.
With access to extensive court records generated by Iverson’s divorce, Babb paints a much bleaker, and likely more accurate, picture of a former superstar unable to adjust to a more modest (yet still substantial) income, and the fact that he was no longer considered good enough to merit an NBA contract (especially with the baggage he brought).
The book and films complement each other well. Not a Game is an impeccably researched, excellently written account of Iverson’s life. It tells the story of his cultural and sporting impact but also the impact his success had on him.
No Crossover zooms in on one of the key events of Iverson’s young life and tells a broader story about race in America. It also contains brilliant clips of a young Iverson that demonstrate just what a freakishly talented athlete he was.
The one weakness of both No Crossover and Not a Game is the refusal of Iverson to co-operate with either. While there is a clear attempt at objectivity in both, Iverson’s own voice is missing. His public comments are often contradictory leaving it difficult to ascertain his own thoughts and motives. Iverson fills this gap, and while it lacks objectivity at times, its a good counter-balance to the other two. While it touches on criticism, it’s clearly not a warts and all approach focusing heavily on his basketball career and cultural impact.
As for Iverson himself, I’m left with conflicted emotions. The very fact he achieved so much despite his upbringing and the scapegoating of his trial deserves enormous respect. He is clearly a charismatic and often likeable guy whose talent I greatly enjoyed watching throughout my childhood. The grim details of his post career fall and particularly the aggressive behaviour towards his wife detailed in Not a Game, paint a more complicated picture of a man not quite satisfied in himself despite his successes.
Together both films and the book provide a comprehensive look at all the stages of the life to date of one of the most interesting, exciting, controversial and talented ballers of modern times.
The rise of the Golden State Warriors from laughing stock to one of the all time great NBA teams is one of the most interesting sports stories of the 2010’s. They’ve crashed back to Earth in the current season, having won 4 of the last 6 NBA Championships, and gotten to the finals the other 2 years.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss is a reporter for the Athletic who has covered the Warriors throughout this period and is perfectly placed to tell the definitive tale of this rise. While this is an interesting, insightful and highly-readable book, its probably easier to describe the book by what it isn’t. It’s not a detailed, year by year, account of the rise, success and fall of the Warriors. It doesn’t look in-depth at all of the key personnel with limited coverage of the likes of Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson.
The introduction of the book is simply fantastic. A short, sharp, assessment of life in the NBA and the many factors that go into determining the success, or otherwise, of a player and a team.
In charting the rise of the Warriors, Strauss concentrates on the behind the scenes operations and business side of the game. The story begins with the change in ownership as Peter Guber and Joe Lacob took control of the team, against the odds, ahead of Larry Ellison, the Oracle billionaire. Strauss traces the draft picks, the trades that were and, maybe more importantly, the trades that weren’t as Lacob and General Manager Bob Myers put together a world class team. Strauss also zooms in on a few key personnel – Lacob, Myers and coach Steve Kerr in particular – as the book develops.
More than anything, the book focuses on Kevin Durant, his importance to the Warriors, his relationships with the fans, the media and Strauss himself. Durant’s signing turned the Warriors from best team in the NBA to one of strongest in history. Strauss paints a picture of a disgruntled superstar, unhappy that anything he did at the Warriors was unlikely to earn him the love and plaudits enjoyed by arguably lesser players. The recounting of Strauss’ own history with Durant drags a little as the book starts to feel more like a collection of anecdotes than a history of the team.
Throughout the book there is excellent, insightful writing and analysis. It gives a real behind the scenes look at the team, and the wider NBA that you won’t find in other books. He covers the importance of a player’s relationship with his sneaker sponsor, the role of agents, the changing nature of ownership and a range of other broad, fascinating topics.
If you are a casual basketball fan however, and can’t say which years the Warriors won the NBA Championship, this book may leave you scratching your heads. There’s quite a lot of assumed knowledge which makes this a fascinating contemporary account but one that may not make much sense if read 10 years from now.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
Having spent a huge amount of time in Philadelphia in the last decade, I gradually, and without realising, became a fan of all of the Philly sports teams. Yet of all the local teams, the hardest to love has always been the Sixers. It’s one thing watching a team that is terrible, but a very different one watching one that is deliberately terrible.
I did however become fascinated with ‘The Process’ – the name given to the multiyear project to rejuvenate the Sixers and make them relevant again. Tanking to the Top is the story of ‘The Process’ as new owners and a unique General Manager looked to rekindle the 76ers after years of mediocrity.
Tanking is a well known strategy in US sports where teams prefer to be terrible than just mediocre in order to secure a better draft pick the following year. In basketball, one or two players can make such a difference, and the top 2 or 3 players in the draft can be so much better than the rest, that a weighted lottery system applies to first few draft picks to discourage tanking.
The Sixers, and GM Sam Hinkie, persuaded a strategy of accumulating draft picks, through losing games and trading their best players, with more commitment than maybe any team previously. The team was so terrible for so long that the owners ultimately lost faith and Hinkie left before he saw the fruits of his labour.
Weitzman recounts the various trades, drafts and moves which the Sixers made to try and build a team that could potentially compete for a championship. Hinkie would draft injured players who fell down the draft, happy that they would miss a full season so the team would continue to lose. Along the way, there were plenty of missteps, including drafting a player at number 1 who very soon forgot how to shoot a basketball.
Hinkie is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the book. A very smart guy, who on paper probably has the worst win-loss record of any GM in history, Hinkie remains totally uninterested in defending his own reputation. This indifference to his own coverage, and utter commitment to ‘The Process’, helped to generate remarkable loyalty in a cohort of fans, and even some players, who became Hinkie devotees.
While The Process has so far only led to a couple of playoff series wins, and that incredible Game 7 against the Raptors last year, the book’s consensus is ultimately that The Process has been a success. It remains to be seen whether the current team can ultimately go a step or two further in the current superteam era when the NBA eventually returns.
The book is engaging and entertaining throughout with Weitzman giving great insight into the careers, lives, and thoughts of all of the key players in the story. A book that would be enjoyed by any NBA fan.
Wright Thompson is a long time senior writer for ESPN covering multiple sports. His profile is relatively low in Europe given ESPN’s American focus but his excellent 2016 article on Tiger Woods was shared widely in Ireland at least. It gave the best insight into how Woods’ life and career unravelled until the excellent ‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian was published last year.
The Cost of These Dreams collects many of Thompson’s best articles but with a central theme running through them – the price and struggles that come with seeking and achieving success. The stories collected here are mostly about the off pitch lives of those involved in sports. It includes some of the greatest figures in their sports (including Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Bear Bryant) and some relatively unknown characters most notably Tony Harris, a college basketball star who had a mental breakdown that led him to an untimely demise in the jungles of Brazil. The highlight for me is a moving piece about the Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) football program during the ugly time of de-segregation in US education.
Unlike many anthologies, the preface for this book goes beyond the usual platitudes about how lucky he has been to write for X or Y over the years. Instead it is a very reflective and emotional piece about the costs to Thompson’s own personal life of his method of reporting, his constant travel and the resultant time missed with family.
The articles collected here are superbly well written. The book reveals two of Thompson’s great strengths – as a determined researcher/investigator and as a remarkable interviewer. Thompson’s commitment to research is shown most clearly by his dogged pursuit of on of Muhammad Ali’s early opponents who has gone off the grid. He becomes obsessed with finding him and the resulting article is beautifully written. As an interviewer, he achieves remarkable insight into the inner worlds of his subjects who often just happen to be among the greatest sports stars in history.
Many of Thompson’s best articles are also available online and well worth checking out. I’ve linked below to a few, most of which aren’t included in this excellent book:
“Basketball is now the true sport of the American Dream”
The Soul of Basketball tells the story of the 2010-2011 NBA season – the season after LeBron James ‘Decision’ to move to Miami. It paints that year as a pivotal season – the changing of the guard as LeBron’s generation seized control of the NBA.
It isn’t simply a book about the season, but rather about the changing role of the NBA in American life as a new generation of players build on Jordan’s legacy and capture the public’s imagination. The NBA was trying to find its way in the post-Jordan era but LeBron had turned himself into public enemy number 1 with his handling of the Decision and his promises of a decade of glory in Miami. Players were arriving in the NBA already famous and already entitled.
Thomsen paints a compelling and illuminating portrait of the key individuals in that season’s NBA. He takes readers inside the Heat, the Lakers, the Celtics, the Spurs, and the Mavericks and focuses on a key individual in each of those teams. For me the most compelling figures throughout the book are Dirk Nowitzki, Greg Popovich and Kobe Bryant. Dirk Nowitzki was much less well-known to me and emerges as the most fascinating figure in the book.
Thomsen shows us who the players, coaches, scouts and executives really are, what motivates and drives them to succeed. Thomsen’s ability to get key people to open up and share revealing insights is a real asset to the book. There is also extensive and fascinating detail on the inside workings of team’s front office. Thomsen also captures the between old-school owners and the newer generation of owners like Mark Cuban at the Mavericks.
It is arguable that LeBron is treated a bit harshly at times in the book although the epilogue does recognise his achievement in returning successfully to Cleveland. By detailing LeBron’s toughest year, Thomsen attempts to show some of what LeBron went through before becoming a champion.
It’s a detailed, engrossing and brilliant read which I highly recommend. If there has been a better book written about the modern NBA, I’d be delighted to find it.