‘Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Laker Dynasty’ by Jeff Pearlman (2020)

A new Jeff Pearlman book is always something to savour. I really enjoyed his various biographies, especially his recent Gunslinger on Brett Farve. However, his in-depth deep dives into iconic sports teams (both on and off the field of play) are among the very best sports books.

Pearlman previously chronicled the Magic Johnson / Pat Riley led LA Lakers in the excellent Showtime. It’s the definitive book on the Showtime Lakers era.

Three-Ring Circus sees Pearlman return to familiar territory of an LA Lakers championship winning team. The book tells the story of next 1996 to 2004 Lakers as Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson combined to create a 3 time champion team.

Shaq of that era emerges as a loveable figure both in the public imagination, to strangers and to anyone who showed him love and respect. The book is full of stories of Shaq’s remarkable kindness but it also paints a picture of a man who knew his own value and for whom being loved / respected was all important.

Jackson remained steadfastly himself during his time in LA, a character familiar to anyone who remembers his remarkable achievements with Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. He was an unorthodox coach, unloved by his fellow coaches and unafraid to hustle for jobs that weren’t vacant. He was also an incredibly successful man-manger and possibly the only coach who could have wrangled Shaq and Kobe into working together for the benefit of the team.

While all three men share central billing, inevitably, due to his fame, personality and talent, Kobe Bryant sits firmly at the centre of this story. Pearlman pulled no punches in presenting Bryant how his peers experienced him during this time. The Kobe Bryant portrayed in Three-Ring Circus is deeply unlikeable yet also admirable in his determination and work ethic. A man you wouldn’t want to spend time with but one who was destined to be successful.

It’s clear throughout the book that most of Pearlman’s interviewees spoke to him before Bryant’s tragic death. It’s a little jarring to read such an honest and unflattering portrait of someone so soon after they died. Pearlman goes into a fair bit of detail on the serious rape allegation that overshadowed Bryant’s early successes and mentions the oft-forgotten fact that Bryant all but accepted the young lady didn’t consent to their encounter when apologising after charges were dropped. It makes for difficult reading having consumed months of glowing memorials to Bryant’s legendary career since his death.

Shaq and Kobe 1 on 1

As Pearlman says in the introduction, however, the Kobe of then is not the Kobe of post 2005. Its easy to judge someone who experienced an unimaginable life lived in the public eye since he was a teenager. I’m not sure how well I (or anyone) would come across in a book detailing their life between 17 and 25.

The book doesn’t neglect the other important personalities and Pearlman’s tireless research ensured he got fascinating insights from lots of other players who helped to make the Lakers championship teams. As he says in the book, people seemed to really enjoy talking about this team and their experiences which is reflected in how enjoyable it is to read about them!

Despite the Lakers remarkable success with 4 final appearances and 3 championships in 5 years, and some remarkable runs of form, the team seemed to constantly be on the verge of falling apart. It is testament to both the players’ overwhelming talent and Jackson’s remarkable ability to manage superstars that they achieved such success. This was a dynasty that was never going to last however. Neither Shaq or Kobe could ever be happy in the others shadow, both needed centre stage and the adulation that came with being the dominant player on a championship team.

Three-Ring Circus is a fascinating slice of basketball history. A must for any sports book library.

Shaq and Kobe: Dynamic Duo Documentary

‘Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard’ edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas (2020)

‘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.

Losers is published August 18 2020

‘The Hitler Trophy: Golf and the Olympic Games’ by Alan Fraser (2016)

When I went as a spectator to the Rio Olympics, golf was the one sport my wife refused to attend. Despite my protesting that the sports historic return to the Games was reason enough, she maintained that you only watch sports at the Olympics where it represents the pinnacle of that sport. Had I known golf and the Olympics had such an interesting history I might have been able to make a stronger case to go!

The Hitler Trophy tells two stories – one of a small golf tournament organised in Baden-Baden on the fringes of the Berlin 1936 Olympics and also the broader backstory of golf’s connection with the Olympics.

Golf’s official Olympic backstory is largely forgotten. The only two tournaments it appeared in, Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904, were a total bust. Indeed in Paris, players were unaware that they were part of the 1900 Olympics and the first player awarded a gold medal for golf was unaware of that fact. The game quickly disappeared (officially) until its return in Rio. In The Hitler Trophy Fraser paints a vivid picture of these early tournaments and their colourful characters. Later in the book he also details the much more recent campaign which led to golfs successful reemergence as an Olympic sport.

The main focus of the book however is the little known Baden Baden tournament. Sanctioned personally by Hitler, the tournament had many of the trappings of an official Olympic event. Fraser recounts what details are known about the victory of two fascinating Englishman against a limited field. The highlight of the book is Fraser’s subsequent research tracing what happened next to the trophy and the cast of characters. Most intriging of all is his quest to determine whether Hitler really was in a car en route to present the trophy when it looked like the German team might emerge triumphant.

The Hitler Trophy is brilliantly researched and beautifully written. Fraser has spoken to probably every living descendant of the key figures. Full of fascinating characters and sprinkled with great wit throughout, it is a fascinating, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

‘Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion’ by Jordan Florit (2020)

Usually picking up a book is the start of a journey into a story. This book has been a little different with the actual book coming as the immensely satisfying end of a fascinating and enjoyable process. Author Jordan Florit launched a project on Kickstarter with a view to raising enough just money to fund this self-published book. Along the way he has kept his nearly 200 backers entertained, informed and eagerly anticipating the finished book.

Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion is a fascinating examination of Venezuelan football and its broader society. When thinking of South American football, Venezuela is probably the last country that comes to mind – off hand Salomón Rondón was the only Venezuelan player I could even think of. Despite a population 30 million people they have never qualified for a World Cup!

In his own words, Jordan chose Veneuela as his focus for a couple of reasons. Firstly, ‘the people’. Throughout the book, the warmth and kindness of the Venezuelan people shines through as Jordan shares stories from his travels, the games he saw and the people he met.

Secondly, ‘add something positive to the conversation on Venezuela’. Given the vast news coverage of poverty, desperation and corruption, its a real antidote to see the country presented in a different light.

Red Wine & Arepas is comprehensive, well-written and highly readable. I really like the approach chosen of telling the wider story tho of Venezuelan football through chapters that zoom in on specific subjects. Each chapter broadens the overall narrative while telling a fascinating vignette of the country and its football. The book also mixes these broader football stories with Jordan’s own personal travelogue expertly.

A special mention for the fact that Jordan also covers women’s football in the country. It’s an unusual and welcome addition which gives a more complete picture of the role the game plays in Venezuela.

As you read through the book, the central team of football as a religion emerges organically. Jordan clearly has an immense amount of faith that the country will come good, that it has too many good people not to. The faith of the Venezuelan themselves, in their own identity and their football has clearly rubbed off on him.

Jordan has done an incredible job. The book leaves you with a deep appreciation for the country, its culture, its football and its people.

Following the project through Jordan’s regular updates has been a joy. Jordan’s enthusiasm and passion for this project, and life in general, has been infectious. I really look forward to seeing what he does next.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Red Wine & Arepas. Check out Jordan’s twitter feed @TheFalseLibero to find out how to do so.

‘State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation’ by Melissa Isaacson (2019)

As a kid, my entire week would be determined by how my soccer team did on Saturday. I lived for Limerick Schoolboy football . I still list being named the best player in my league at under-10 level as one of the top 5 moments of my life! I’m fully on board with the significance of school age sports!

There are some superb accounts of particular seasons of underage sports teams – The Miracle of St Anthony and Friday Night Lights remain two of my favourite books. Very few such books either cover women’s sports or offer a first person account of a writer’s own teenage sports career. State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation is Melissa Isaacson’s account of her high school basketball team – the 1979 Illinois State Championship winning Niles West High School team

Girl’s high school sport had only just started in the area as US law (Title IX) requiring equal treatment of girls in all school activity had passed 3 years previously. Isaacson’s compelling first-person account of a group of high school girls who came together to win a State championship really captures the time and place of that new dawn in women’s sport in the USA. It touches on gender discrimination, the struggle for equality and the particular challenges for girls discovering their athletic identity.

State is at its core a love-letter to team sports. It captures the hard work, the joy, the pain and the friendship that comes with playing for a team at a time in your life where it can matter more than anything. The book paints a vivid picture of the girls and their coaches. Isaacson draws the reader in and gives a real sense of who these people are and in particular what basketball meant to them. The writing puts you in the moment. At times the book gives a little bit too much on-court detail, but Isaacson’s fluid writing style ensures it never feels bogged down.

Isaacson became an award-winning sports reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covering the Chicago Bulls during their championship years. Many will have seen her as a talking head on the recent The Last Stand documentary. Isaacson spent years writing this story and this level of detail, attention and love, together with her quality in as a writer is clearly apparent in the book.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith (2014)

Pele, George Best, John Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Eusebio. Some of the greatest player of all time and just a few of the superstar players to appear in the North American Soccer League.

The NASL was a professional soccer league in the USA and Canada which ran from 1968 to 1984. In true American fashion, it aimed not just to survive but to become the biggest league in the world. While it ultimately crashed and burned, the story of its rise and fall is a fascinating piece of football history.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a comprehensive, entertaining and brilliantly written account of the NASL.  Plenderleith avoids sensationalism and offers a fairly objective look at what went right and what went wrong as the league evolved. 

Some goals from the New York Cosmos

The structure of the book works really well. It’s real quality is Plenderleith’s ability to zoom in and out of the on-pitch action while keeping the reader engaged. This is not an easy task and he wisely avoids a chronological narrative. No one really cares who won championship, its about the surreal journey along the way.

By spreading the gospel of soccer and promoting it extensively in schools, the NASL arguably laid the foundations for the sport’s tremendous popularity in America today at grassroots levels. It’s fairly clear that the NASL expanded too quickly and was too optimistic about future success. Few of the teams could make money and most played in stadiums that were far too large.

One of the most interesting stories from the NASL was the variety of rule changes. Some things became widely accepted – especially the use of more substitutes, and moving to more points for a win.  Some of the interesting rule changes weren’t a failure but didn’t survive FIFA’s scorn – especially the penalty shootout and the 35 yard offside line.

George Best’s famous LA Aztecs wondergoal

You can’t discuss the NASL without mentioning the New York Cosmos, the undoubted superstar club of the NASL era.  Owned by Warner Communications, they invested mega bucks to bring Pele, Beckenbaur and other superstars to the club. They were the best team, with the biggest crowds but its not clear whether they were beneficial to the sustainability of the league.

Plenderleith is fairly dismissive of the documentary ‘Once in a Lifetime’ which paints a very glamorous picture of life at Cosmos.  He suggests its sensationalised and likely reflecting the agenda of the main participants rather than a more objective overview. I must admit I still think its a really enjoyable documentary!

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a really enjoyable read. Packed full of interesting anecdotes and first hand accounts this history is as entertaining as the subject it covers. Highly recommended.

‘The Second Life of Tiger Woods’ by Michael Bamberger (2020)

Tiger Woods is probably the most famous sportsman in the world. His fall from grace was one of the most watched, talked about and written about stories in sports.

From his car crash in 2009 which unleashed the floodgates, he continued to struggle until he hit a nadir on Memorial Day in 2017. Fresh from yet more spinal surgery, Woods was arrested for driving under the influence. It seemed inevitable that Woods’ life as a golfer was as good as over. How wrong that assumption proved to be.

In The Second Life of Tiger Woods, GOLF magazine senior writer, Michael Bamberger, draws upon his extensive contact book to document Woods fall from grace and subsequent triumphant return to win the 2019 Masters.

While the narrative jumps back and forward in time quite often, the main focus of the book is on the most recent few years of Woods’ life. Those who have followed Tiger’s closely will know a lot of what is written about his early years. The book is at its strongest when its detailing the incident around his DUI and his subsequent return to glory.

The book does take two remarkably long digressions on whether Woods had gotten away with rules infractions in breach of the spirit of the game and the difficult to cover question of performance-enhancing drugs. The rules infractions material is a overdone especially as I don’t buy into the sanctimonious “meaning of golf” stuff. It’s a game and all games have cheaters.

The material on PEDs is by necessity circumstantial. Bamberger investigates rumours and draws a connection between Woods and the people who helped Alex Rodriquez to dope. It’s hardly a smoking gun but its admirable that the book tried to cover a topic often left untouched.

Emotional scenes at the end of the 2019 Masters

The meat of the book is Tiger’s redemption story. It’s a story of overcoming injuries and personal struggles, of maturing and becoming a more rounded person both in and outside of work. Bamberger is wisely cautious though to warn that no one really knows Woods and we should be careful of too easily believing he is a changed man.

Bamberger has a fairly unique and colourful writing style and the book is often times a vehicle for his wit and insight as much as reporting of Woods’ life. This is understandable given Tiger didn’t agree to be interviewed for the book so it does unfortunately lack Tiger’s own perspective. I do think the book needed a tighter edit though with the quality writing and insight getting lost at times.

All in all its an entertaining and interesting addition to the ever growing library of books on Tiger Woods.

The 2019 Masters Official Film

‘Yer Joking Aren’t Ya?: The Full Story of Middlesbrough’s Unforgettable 1996/97 Season’ by Tom Flight (2020)

Just after winning the Champions League with Juventus in 1996, Italian international striker Fabrizio Ravanelli signed for Middlesbrough, an unglamours club in the north of England.  Even at 12 years old this made very little sense to me but also seemed absolutely wonderful.

That signing was the icing on the cake of local businessman Steve Gibson’s project to reinvent the club. In 1994 Gibson had been appointed the new chairman of Middlesbrough. He quickly embarked on a plan to turn the club from also-rans into contenders. He appointed Manchester United legend Bryan Robson as player-manager, built a modern new stadium and sought to sign international superstars who could be lured by the growing salaries on offer in England.

International players arrived from around the globe, with Ravenelli and Emerson getting the most attention. But the heartbeat of the team was the Brazilian international Juninho. After Juninho single handedly destroyed his team, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson called Juninho “the best player I’ve seen in the Premier League this season” and that view was made official when he was named Premier League player of the season.

Every goal Juninho scored for the Teesiders

Middlesbrough’s 96/97 season was a roller-coaster of all roller-coasters with debut hat-tricks, Wembley Cup finals, contentious point deductions, relegation battles and so much more. The team went on runs of being totally unplayable and runs where it looked like they forgot how to play football. They played in a swashbuckling style, scoring for fun and having fun while doing it. It remains one of the most memorable seasons of any Premier League team and

Yer Joking Aren’t Ya brilliantly captures the sense of possibilities and excitement of that memorable season. Game by game, Flight game-by-game, Flight chronicles the season as it happened. Diaries of a season always risk becoming repetitive accounts of games and goals but Flight perfectly balances this, inter weaving background on the club and key characters throughout. The history is pitched perfectly for both those familiar with and those totally new to this era of English football.

What a great title!

The real joy of the book is how it captures something eternal about sports fandom. I often wonder how fans of mid-table Premier League teams find the energy to care about whether their team finishes 8th or 16th each season. Is ‘survival’ really an objective that can sustain interest year after year? That 96/97 season for Middlesbrough serves as a reminder that success is about so much than trophies, its about the memories, the moments, the highs and also the lows.

The book was simply a joy to read and a wonderful nostalgia trip. I would have devoured it in a day if didn’t keep going to YouTube to rewatch highlights of Juninho, Emerson and Co.

After you’ve read about, it watch every goal and key moment in this Season Review

Tom has published an article on the season which which you can check out here.

Read the Book, Watch the Documentary – Allen Iverson

  • 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.

not a game

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.

Arguably Iverson’s most famous play when he crossedover Michael Jordan

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.

Iverson’s most famous press conference – We talkin’ about practice!

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.

‘Sporting Blood: Tales from the Dark Side of Boxing’ by Carlos Acevedo (2020)

Sporting Blood is a collection of twenty-one essays by Carlos Acevedo looking, as the title suggests, at tales from the darker side of boxing.  The collection covers a range of fighters offering fresh perspectives on some well known names as well telling the stories of much less well remembered pugilists.

The hardest part of reviewing this book is trying not to copy the words of the great Thomas Hauser in his excellent forward to the book which sums up the power of Acevedo’s writing better than I ever could.

Acevdo is a sensationally good writer with some brilliantly memorable turns of phrase. Each essay packs a mighty punch and resonated with me long after I read it. It is a great collection to dip in and out of, to take your time over, to re-read and savour the writing and the imagery.   As Hauser says “each essay goes beyond the name of the fighter attached  to it to underscore a fundamental truth about, and capture the essence of, boxing.”  It’s hard to get a better endorsement.

As a whole, the collection paints a grim, sad portrait of a fighters life.  While the level of success reached might vary, the stories seem to very often end in tragically similar fashions with dementia, poverty, drug abuse and often murder playing an inevitable part in many of the fighters later years.

sporting blood

 

 

A series of articles by Acevedo are available at https://hannibalboxing.com/author/cacevedo/  and are also well worth checking out.