‘The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball’s Most Improbable Dynasty’ by Adrian Wojnarowski (2005)

The Miracle of St. Anthony is my one of top three all time favourite sports books.  I’ve re-read it a few times and imagine I’ll do so every few years.  Not only is the writing fantastic but the story is incredible.

Wojnarowski follows legendary Coach Bob Hurley and his St. Anthony High School basketball team through he 2003-2004 season.   Hurley is an old school, tough as nails, coach who motivates through discipline.  Ultimately he is a source of stability and loyalty to his players and his commitment to improve their lives is remarkable.

Bob Hurley gained national fame when his son Bobby became a legend at Duke University.   He has turned that fame into a way to raise funds for the school by coaching clinics for wealthier schools.  Hurley has turned down multiple job offers at collegiate level recognising that St. Anthony’s survival was heavily dependent on his presence.

The season plays out like a novel keeping the reader gripped as the life stories of the coach, the nuns who manage the school and the players unfold.  2003–04 was a unique year for St. Anthony’s.  Unlike most years when the team would expect to send 3 or 4 players to major college teams, most of the players weren’t reaching academic standards.  Off the court, it seemed like the players lives were struggling and their presence on the team never assured.   These challenges meant Hurley’s coaching ability was tested to the very limit.  Wojnarowski couldn’t have picked a better year to follow the team.

Unsurprisingly, the book reminds me of Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink, one of the original and classic ‘behind the scenes for a season’ sports books.  However, while there are superficial similarities between coaches Bobby Knight and Bob Hurley (hugely successful, very tough on players), Hurley is a much more impressive and admirable figure.  Hurley’s toughness is not just aimed at basketball success but at steering the players to a better path in life.  Hurley sees his job as his calling – and has turned down opportunities to earn much more money in collegiate coaching.   Knight by contrast seems driven only to win for winnings sake.  As one character in this book notes, you wouldn’t want your loved one’s coached by Knight whereas Hurley was the best thing to happen to many of the kids who crossed his path.

A simply wonderful book.

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‘Boys Among Men: How the Prep-To-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution’ by Jonathan Abrams (2017)

It’s always been an interesting quirk that the uber-capitalist, free-marketing loving, USA have the most socialist sports financial arrangements with salary caps, minimum pay rates and other restrictons.  As part of collective bargaining between team owners and player unions, rules have often been accepted which prevent athletes from playing in a major league until a set period of time has passed since they graduated from high school.  Even then, the player can’t sign for whoever he likes, but rather is assigned a team through a draft!  Great for preserving competitive balance, not so good for the guy who has no choice but move his life to a random city.

Prior to 2005, the NBA didn’t have any post high-school restriction (other than an age minimum of 18) and therefore high-school students were eligible to declare for the NBA draft without attending college.  Despite a few high profile cases in the 1970’s, no players followed this route for 20 years until Kevin Garnett was drafted with the fifth overall pick in the 1995 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Over the next few years, a number of future legends would follow in Garnett’s footsteps with Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James and Dwight Howard among them.   There were also plenty of players however who never made it and whose lives never quite recovered from the failure to live up to the hype.

Boys Among Men takes a detailed look at the careers and lives of many of the high school players who jumped straight into the NBA – both the successes and failures – and those who tried to do so but went undrafted.  Abrams describes how Garnett broke the mould and how his success led other teams to overcome their initial reluctance to draft direct from high school.   In particular, after Kobe Bryant dropped to 13th pick, a number of teams realised they had missed out on a Hall of Fame level talent and were determined not to repeat their mistake.

Abrams makes clear that there was no one factor which could determine whether an 18 year old would be able to make it in the NBA.  It could be that players overestimated their own talents or lacked the work ethic to reach the standard or had been exploited by unscrupulous adults.  Some came from such difficult backgrounds that the money and fame was too much for them to handle.  Others simply didn’t mature physically as they may have expected or hoped.   Those players that did succeed often came from equally difficult backgrounds but had usually gotten, and accepted, much better advice and managed to adapt quicker to the higher level of play.

In telling the story of the ‘prep-to-pro’ generation, Abrams also tells the story of the NBA’s transition from the Jordan era to the LeBron era.   The generation of players that arrived in the NBA during this period would go on to dominate the sport with many having incredibly long careers.  Howard even managed to play in the NBA in his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s!   They were instrumental in helping the NBA recover from its post-Jordon slump (in attendance and viewing figures), and again becoming a major league on a par with the NFL.

The book is exceptionally well researched and its clear that Abrams interviewed a vast number of players, agents, coaches and other insiders like the legendary Nike and Addias executive Sonny Vaccaro (subject of the great 30 for 30 film Sole Man).  As an experienced beat writer, Abrams is brilliant at recounting on-court details but the key focus on the book is the mindset of the players – what factors go into their decisions, how did they approach the step up to the NBA and why do they believe they succeeded or failed.  

As well as telling the story of the players, Abrams also considers how both the pro and college game have responded since the age limit was increased to 19.  He includes a range of viewpoints – both positive and negative – and avoids reaching a firm conclusion.  What’s clear is that the decision had a profound impact on college basketball with one-and-done players becoming ever more common and certain colleges, like Kentucky, responding much better to that trend.

The book is at its best when chronicling the stories of those who never quite made it.  The exploits of Garnett, LeBron and Kobe Bryant are well known.  The stories of  Lenny Cooke, Korleone Young, and Leon Smith were unfamiliar to me but just as interesting.  I suspect had I been given millions of dollars at 18 years of age, I’d have had a pretty hard time doing anything but partying!

Boys to Men is a really interesting and enjoyable book.  Abrams doesn’t take sides, but simply tells the story from a range of viewpoints and perspectives.  It’s a book that would be enjoyed by any basketball fan.

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‘University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education’ by Joshua Hunt (2018)

Having read ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight and ‘Bowerman and the Men of Oregon’ by Kenny Moore, I have a good understanding of the Nike origin story. One thing that always struck me was just how comfortable Phil Knight was with taking risks and with screwing over business partners.

University of Nike shines a light on the dark side of Nike’s growth – the money it pumps into US schools and universities to ensure that the Nike brand is closely associated with collegiate sports. Hunt uses the relationship between Nike, Knight and his alma matter, the University of Oregon, to shine a light on the troubling commercialisation of public education in the US.

Hunt traces the rise of this commercialisation back to the reduction in public funding in US academic institutions. Unsurprisingly corporations began to fill the void but the money often comes with strings attached. Some of the background to corporate influence in US education is shocking. Hunt highlights, in particular, stories of school districts signing exclusive deals with Coke or Pepsi which rewarded the school district for every drink sold on their premises.

Knight made huge personal donations to the University of Oregon to build a wide range of facilities – both academic and sporting. Nike also provided huge resources in terms of PR and marketing to building the Oregon Ducks brand. It appears that the line between the University and Nike often became quite blurred.

Oregon used the money to build their sporting profile. They then used sporting success as a brand builder to encourage out of States students to apply to study there as such student pay more in tuition than Oregon native students pay.

Hunt outlines the downside of this commercial support. In a sporting sense, the aims of the University became twisted towards sport rather than learning. In non sporting situations limits can be placed on the publication of research that doesn’t align with the interests of corporate donors. This ultimately calls into question the very essence of what a public university should be. Additionally, Hunt shows how unforgivable behaviour by student athletes can be swept under the carpet to avoid embarrassment being caused lest the money tap be turned off.

University of Nike is a well researched, well written and extremely interesting read. Hunt has done an excellent job in highlighting really serious issues that go well beyond sporting concerns.   This book is an excellent case study in the need for public funding of public goods – of which education may be the most important.

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‘Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream’ by H.G Bissinger (1990)

Permian football had become too much a part of the town and too much a part of their own lives, as intrinsic and sacred a value as religion, as politics, as making money, as raising children.  That was the nature of sports in a town like this.  Football stood at the very core of what the town was about, not on the outskirts, not on the periphery.  It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves”. 

Friday Night Lights likely needs no introduction for anyone who would read a blog about sports books.  H.G. Bissinger chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas.  The book spawned both a movie and a very successful TV show and the phrase ‘Friday Night Lights’ has become synonymous with the idea of high school football in the USA.

Often proclaimed the greatest sports book of all time, Friday Night Lights is that rare book that fully lives up its praise.  It is also a book that is just as rewarding when read for the second or third time – the tension about how the team will perform is reduced, and the broader story Bissinger sets out to tell comes even more into focus.

Bissinger zooms in on the lives of 6 team members – some black, some white, some poorer than others.  Around these narratives he tells the story of the town – its schools, its history, its people, its politics and its prejudices.

Aside from the gripping football narrative – will the team make it to State – there a number of underlying stories that Bissinger focuses on.  At its core, Bissinger wants to talk about the idea of worshiping high school sports and athletes and the damage that can be caused.  But he cannot resist the allure, the passion and the drama that results from a town putting kids playing football at the very centre of civic life.  Bissinger openly admits that the games he attended remain his happiest sporting memories.

Reading this book in 2018, it’s impossible not to have today’s political environment in mind.  Many books have tried to chronicle the factors that led to Trump’s election, to capture the ‘Real America’, but reading this account from 30 years ago gives you more insight than any of the recent books.   Replace Reagan’s name with Trump and the social commentary could easily have been written today – it’s eye-opening how consistent the issues, concerns and arguably prejudices of everyday working class American’s have been over the 30 year period.

Fundamentally we see a society where life hasn’t lived up the hopes and dreams of many. Bissinger talks about how the town “absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined” – it’s easy to see Trump as the darker side of that same impulse, rather than helping people forget their problems by imagining a better future, Trump gives his supporters a licence to blame those problems on ‘the other’ – liberals, elites, Mexicans, globalists etc. etc. etc.

Above all, this book is superbly written. The descriptions of the matches are intense, the imagery is vivid and the heartbreak and joy feels very very real.  It’s a gripping, entertaining and simply wonderful book.

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‘Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction’ by Shaun Assael (2007)

Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA.  Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport.  The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.

This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true.   The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s.  At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source.   Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.

Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example.  What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids-  it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting.    Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial 

Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing.  These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.

I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out.  It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available.  If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.

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“All-American Murder: The Rise and Fall of Aaron Hernandez, the Superstar Whose Life Ended on Murderers’ Row” (2018) by James Patterson, Alex Abramovich & Mike Harvkey

All-American Murder is a rare non-fiction book churned out by the world’s best-selling author/book-factory James Patterson.   It tells the tragic tale of the late Aaron Hernandez, the young New England Patriot tight end who was found guilty of murder and eventually took his own life in prison.

Hernandez story is a tragic one.  It ultimately is the story of a young man who never recovered from the loss of his father and made terrible violent choices.  It may also be another piece of evidence on the growing story of the brain damage caused by constant hits being taken by American Football players.   His behavior was bizarre and paranoid and this aspect of the story merits further exploration in time.

Reading the book, I was left baffled by Hernandez’s decisions.  Was he really as stupid as his behaviour seems, was he already brain damaged, or was he so damaged by his father’s passing and so used to being lauded as a hero that he lost the ability to understand that actions have consequences?  Ultimately these questions may never be answerable.

The book reads like a mix of newspaper reporting and Patterson’s trademark style of short sharp chapters that finish with a hook to make you want to keep reading.  While this works well for fiction, it dilutes the quality of a non-fiction book for me – putting storytelling above the story itself.

At times there is a fair bit of speculation – for example, the authors appear convinced that Hernandez was also guilty of an earlier double murder for which he was acquitted.  The book appears to be heavily researched – it certainly goes into a lot of detail about characters motivations – but there aren’t any sources cited in the book, which is always a concern with non-fiction.  However, looking online, Abramovich has commented about the extensive levels of research, interviews and FOI requests that fed into the book which is good to see.

Ultimately, this feels more of a true crime book than a sports book.  It’s easily readable but not an easy read given the events.  There is probably a more in-depth analysis of Hernandez and the relevance that his brain injury had to be written with the benefit of more time passing but as an act of reporting and story-telling, this book is pretty good.

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‘A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers’ by John Feinstein (1986)

I could spend months simply reading John Feinstein sports books such is quantity of high quality books he has produced over his career. Perhaps more than any, A Season on the Brink, is the book most would point to as both Feinstein’s breakthrough and most enjoyable work.a season

Feinstein followed the Indiana University basketball team through the entire 1985/86 season – the ups and the downs as the team sought to recover from a terrible performance the year before and regain their place at the top of NCAA rankings.

As Feinstein readily acknowledges, a large part of the brilliance of the book is due the intensely fascinating character of Bob Knight.   During the season covered, Knight had been at Indiana for 15 years, and would remain for another 15 more before his ignominious departure in 2000.

Already a two time national champion and Olympic gold medal winning coach, Knight remained intensely driven and passionate. Innovative and insanely successful, Knight was a controversial figure whose swearing and temper tantrums were already legendary.

Reading this book now, knowing how Knight’s story in Indiana ends, puts on interesting context on Feinstein’s coverage of Knight’s bad behaviour.  In this context, the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, the Last Days of Knight, is a great companion piece for this book – especially to see how the standards of behaviour expected from a winning coach have clearly changed since Knight’s glory days.

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It is fascinating though how, far back in the mid-80’s, so many of Knight’s friends correctly predicted in comments to Feinstein that Knight’s reign would end badly because of his aggressive behaviour. Ultimately, details of physical abuse from ex players saw the Indiana leadership lose patience with Knight who ended up moving to the much lower profile Texas Tech and subsequently to ESPN’s basketball coverage.  Indeed, one of the players chronicled in the book, Todd Jadlow, has published his own book in recent years which includes specifics about the physical abuse he took from Knight – including getting punched in the back of the head with a closed fist.

Feinstein also captures the warm side of Knight – in particular his loyalty and his dedication to his friends.  It seems to me that Feinstein painted a very raw, but very honest portrait of a talented coach who constantly struggled with his temper and ego.

While Knight dominates the book, the players come across with a huge amount of credit, both for their talent and their ability to handle Knight’s abuse.  Steve Alford in particular is the leading man, who would achieve even more the following season by leading Indiana to Knight’s third national championship.

Make no mistake, this is a wonderful book.  Feinstein made the most of his incredible access to write a searing and insightful book that captures the highs and lows of high level amateur sport.  Its so well written that it grips you and is a page turning as any thriller. Feinstein has many great books but I don’t know if he has ever been able to top this genuine and deserved classic.

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