‘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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‘The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent’ by Pete Williams (2006)

The concept of a professional sports draft has always been intensely fascinating to me.  In theory it offers an ideal method to ensure that competitive balance remains in a league, particularly when combined with a salary cap.  Seeing Juventus win their 7th Serie A title in a row recently makes you think what soccer in Europe would be like if youth development was handled by schools and not professional teams and the best players divided up by draft.  It’s clearly not possible, but it would sure be interesting!

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The Draft is a long and detailed account of the 2005 NFL draft told through the experiences of key people at every level – top 10 draft picks, lesser players, Atlanta Falcon’s General Manager, coaches and a whole host of sports agents. It’s a very thorough account that covers every aspect of draft day preparation by all those whose futures are heavily tied up with this two day extravaganza.

It is an interesting read and certainly achieves its goal of shining a light on the draft process.  Reading it at more than 10 years remove is fascinating with some players being instantly familiar from their subsequent achievements in the NFL – particularly someone like 49er’s great Frank Gore who didn’t get picked up until the 3rd round.

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The book’s length however becomes a weakness.  There is a lot of repetition gets tiresome if you read the book over a fairly short period.

The other big weakness of the book is the excessive focus on agents.  While the coverage of the role of agents and their interaction with players is interesting, there is far too much focus on which agents were successful in building their own rosters of players.  It’s very hard to care about which salesman managed to get himself a big payday and the book would have benefited from a lot of this material being cut.

All in all, however, it is an interesting and enjoyable read. It may inadvertently work best as a book to dip into – like a series of newspaper columns – otherwise the excessive detail and repetition could get annoying.

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‘The Blind Side: The Evolution of the Game’ by Michael Lewis (2006)

You have probably already read this book or seen the movie.  If you haven’t then stop reading and go get the book.blind side

The Blind Side interweaves two stories. The first story is the evolution of American football towards a passing game where quarterbacks rose in value, became targets and finally needed greater protection.  The second is the story of a lost boy taken in by a white Southern family and given an opportunity to pursue his gifts that he seemed destined to be denied.  Those gifts just happened to make him ideally suited to provide the now much more valued quarter back protection.

Lewis is a wonderful writer whose books are informed, accessible and entertaining.   The Blind Side works brilliantly as football history – Lewis traces the journey from Bill Walsh’s 49ers, through Lawrence Taylor and the rise of great linebackers to the realisation on the launch of free agency that teams would pay a lot more money for a left tackle than they were paying so far.  It’s the type of narrative that, as a casual NFL fan, I was unaware of and one I had not seen captured in the wonderful NFL / America’s Game TV series. Lewis is able to tell a compelling story and educate the less knowledgeable football fan without coming off as condescending,

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The heart of the book however is the story of Michael Oher – a kid who seemed destined to be a lost cause, born in a place and a system that was destined to fail him.  The Tuohy’s, who adopted Oher into their lives, emerge as a kind and loving family who belie the worst stereotypes of southern wealthy evangelicals.  While the book could be read as an uplifting tale of the difference that kindness can make in the life of someone less fortunate. For me however, the fact that it took such an unusual interest from a white family to give Oher any chance in life paints the United States economic system as the villain of the piece  –  a shocking state of affairs for the richest country in the world where inter-generational poverty is both expected and accepted.

The cynic in me can’t help but wonder about the motives of Sean Tuohy in taking Oher in.  Lewis is friends with Tuohy which makes him a less than objective judge.  However, on balance I choose to accept Lewis interpretation of the Tuohy’s motivations in taking Oher in.  It certainly seems evident that Leigh-Ann Tuohy went above and beyond in how she cared for Oher while he was in her care.

Overall, The Blind Side is simply a thoroughly enjoyable book and well deserves its regular placing on lists of the greatest sports books of all time.  While less influential than Lewis’ other great sports book Moneyball, it’s a more entertaining read for non-die hard fans of the relevant sport.  I can’t help feeling however that Lewis had an opportunity to go deeper into the reasons – socioeconomic, education, and the collegiate and professional sports system operating in the USA – why the outcome for Oher was different from the outcome for so many others.  Lewis touches on the key damning statistic around how many great athlete fail to take their lifeline due to the education system failing them.   Some deeper exploration would have been a welcome addition.

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The good, the great and the gossipy – my favourite basketball books

I’m convinced that every sports fan has an era for each different sport that stands out as the time when they knew so much about the game. When that sport shone brighter than ever and that, when asked to name a favourite ever player, they return to. For many men, I suspect that age is early teens – for me it, it varies per sport a little but its basically the 90s.  In football, it was USA ’94, the Cantona years of the English Premiership, the Milan side of Baresi and Van Basten merging into the team of Desailly and Weah and great the Ajax side of 1995.  In cricket, it was the Ashes in the era when Australia couldn’t be beaten with the likes of  Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting.  In Boxing it was Collins v Eubank in 1995 and Tyson’s post prison career.

In Basketball it was Channel 4’s decision in 1995 to start showing the NBA (three years after the same channel had introduced me to the wonders of 1990’s Serie A) although the 1992 Dream Team which an 8 year old me has bizarrely clear memories of had wet my appetite for some hoops.

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NBA on TV combined with NBA Jam on the Super Nintendo, the Atlanta Olympics and my own 3 game basketball career (one amazing game, one alright game, and one game so bad that I retired from the sport at age 12) meant that very briefly I really loved the NBA. The Bulls of Jordan’s second stint were the dominant team with Shaq led Orlando Magic also a particular favourite. Tim Hardaway, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and Allan Inversion are the other names that immediately spring to mind. Its only in recent years, through spending a lot of time in the US (particularity during March Madness) and ESPN 30 for 30s that I have rekindled an interest in the sport.

So in reading basketball books I’ve very much been drawn to that era and those players. And in that era one man looms large over basketball and popular culture – Michael “Air” Jordan.  All of which is a long winded way of getting to my first book – Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by David Halberstam. Halberstram is a writer I found through this book and I 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.

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Playing for Keeps was written before Jordan retired for the second (but not final) time. The book is about Jordan, the phenomenon that was/is Michael Jordan, 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. 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 Jordon 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 a very different book to Playing for Keeps written by a lesser writer (but who isn’t a lesser writer than Halberstram). But its enjoyable and entertaining.  Its not a classic, but its a fun read and a fascinating snapshot of nearly 30 years ago.

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Jordon looms large in another great basketball book covering the same era, Dream Team by Jack McCallum. Its an enjoyable book on the Dream Team from 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.  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.

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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 infamous team practice match that Coach Chuck Daly organized 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 on the rare great sports moments you can’t find on youtube!

Moving from Jordon to his predecessor as the biggest star in sports – Magic Johnson – another classic is Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman.  I never liked the Lakers. I started watching the sport after the Showtime era and I can’t help feeling I may have liked them a lot more had I been a little older. Showtime covers the team that won five championships in a 9-year span. It tells the story of the great team led by Pat Riley that dominated the sport before the lulls of the 1990s and the return to the top under Phil Jackson.

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Pearlman has carved a bit of a niche in chronicling the bad guys in sport – with previous books Boys will be Boys and the Bad Guys Won covering the questionably behaved Cowboys and Mets.  His books are gossipy and entertaining – definitely more Jordon Rules than Playing for Keeps – and I love them. Pearlman does a great job of bringing the the 80’s era Lakers to life – from the beginning to the sad (but thankfully not tragic) end when Magic announced his HIV diagnosis. It is a very entertaining read which pulls no punches – a lot of drugs and a lot of women – through many interesting and sensational anecdotes. Who wants to read about a well behaved team after all?

A number of the players who are veterans in Showtime also featured heavily in David Halberstram’s other basketball masterpiece Breaks of the Game.  Younger versions of Kareem and Jerry West are key players which makes this a fascinating companion piece with Showtime. That and the fact that the writing styles are very different – broadsheet vs tabloid to some degree (while both still excellent books). Breaks of the Game is one of the all time great sports books.  Halberstram follows the Portland Trail Blazers NBA team for a season in the 80s.  The book chronicles the teams slow decline rather than the earlier rise. At the heart of the book is Bill Walton, the supremely talented, politically active, white centre – a college legend whose pro career was more injury dominated than dominant on the court.

The book captured an era of change – the birth of the modern NBA. Magic and Bird were rookies, the NBA had swallowed the ABA and more and more black players were being signed and leading teams. The team and players are used as means to explore every aspect of NBA life – money, the strains of the season, injuries and most of all race. Simply wonderful writing and a fascinating study of America and pro sports at the time.

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Away from the pros, its arguable that even better books can be found – great books on high school hoops offer a slice of American life that is compelling, depressing and all to common.  Very recently I read the The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams by Darcy Frey. First published in 1994, the book looks at Lincoln High School in Coney Island, New York – a deprived area that became heavily ghettoised from the 70’s on. The book focuses on 3 incoming high school seniors with huge potential and the possibility of college. The 4th star is a 14 year future NBA star Stephen Maybury.  Its a gritty and dark look at life in the projects and the depressing reality that only sport offers a potential escape to the lucky few. The book contains very little game by game action and highlights that the attempts to get a high enough mark in the SATs after years of educational neglect is a bigger challenge and far more important than any city or State title. The 2004 version contains an epilogue of where the players ended up which puts a new slant on the story.  Well written, thoughtful, compelling and insightful, it deserves its place on the list of greatest sports books.  last shot

But there may be a high school book that sits above it in the pantheon – The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball’s Most Improbable Dynasty by Adrian Wojnarowski.   I adore this book and am desperate to reread it once I figure out who I lent it to!  Wojnarowski follows legendary Coach Bob Hurley and his St. Anthony High School team through an incredible season.  Not only is the writing fantastic but the story is amazing.  Hurley is an old school coach who motivates through discipline but his loyalty to his players and his determination to improve their lives is inspiring.  The season plays out like a novel keeping the reader gripped as the life stories of the coach, the sisters who run the school and the players unfold.

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A number of the books above are due a reread, and there are a number of basketball books on the to-read pile – I plan to do individual blog posts for each book and eventually update / repost this.