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.

‘The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty’ by Ethan Sherwood Strauss (2020)

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.

victory

The best books (I’ve read) on…. Spanish football

When David Beckham signed for Real Madrid, the average English-speaking football fan  was suddenly exposed to a lot more coverage and commentary on Spanish football.   The addition of Beckham to the Galactico project made La Liga the hottest property in global football.  By the time Beckham left, Pep Guardiola and Leo Messi were on the rise, Spain would soon win Euro 2008, and Cristiano Ronaldo would arrive the following year.  The Messi and Ronaldo era, combined with Spanish dominance in international football, saw a continued rise in the interest of the English speaking world in Spanish football.

The rise in interest in Spanish football was helped by, and also led to, an accompanying rise in the number of British and Irish writers living and working in Spain covering the local game.  Inevitably, and thankfully, many of them have written books.

The starting point for any reading list on Spanish football has to be Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football by Phil Ball (2003).  Morbo is a wonderful history of Spanish football but it is so much more than that.  A a fascinating introduction to Spanish history, politics and culture, Morbo really puts the game its broader societal context.  And there is nowhere where football is quite so entwined in politics, culture and identity as in Spain.

morbo

The majority of English language books on Spanish football understandably focus on Barcelona and/or Real Madrid, two of the most famous clubs in world football.

No club quite symbolises the connection between a Spanish club and its home town like FC Barcelona.  For those interested in a deep dive into Barça’s history, Jimmy Burns wrote the excellent Barça: A People’s Passion which provides everything you could want.  It is an incredibly detailed, extensively researched history of the club.  It’s particularly fascinating on the lives and careers of key figures throughout the club’s early years as well as the role the club played in the hearts and minds of Catalans during the Franco era.  It really places the team, and the city, in the broad social, political and cultural context of modern Spain.

For an in-depth look at Barça’s modern era, Graham Hunter’s excellent ‘Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World’ is excellent. Hunter will be well known to many as one of the leading English language analysts of Spanish football.  The book is full of interesting anecdotes and Hunter’s passion for his subject shines through.  It is a detailed, well-written and entertaining account of the greatest team modern football has seen.  Highly recommend for anyone who fondly remembers those 4 years when every Barça game was must see TV and you knew as it happened you were watching something very special.

The chapters weave entertainingly between mini-biographies of the key figures in this great Barça side (Messi, Xavi, Puyol etc), detailed retelling of Guardiola’s first 3 seasons, the political machinations behind the scenes, the Cruyffian origins of this team and Frank Rijkaard’s role in laying the groundwork.  Hunter includes his own experiences and interactions with the team and the players which adds an additional layer of insight.

For a broader look at the wider legacy of the club, and especially of Johan Cruyff, look no further than ‘The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul’ by Jonathan Wilson (2018).   The book traces the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho  Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, and Frank de Boer, and the impact those coaches have had on the game’s overall evolution.  It’s a story of football philosophy and what it means to play football “the right way”.

The clash of Pep and José in Spain is the box office centrepiece of the story – Pep’s Cruyffian ideals versus vs Mourinho ‘s cynical counter attacking football.   Wilson avoids taking sides and presents an unbiased assessment of how the game has developed across Europe.  This is perhaps the best thing about the book as the most popular books to date on either of these figures are generally very biased either in favour of their subject (like Marti Peraneu’s books on Pep) or against (like Diego Torres trashy, brilliant and totally unreliable book on Jose).

Many of the individual details of the book will be familiar to the type of person who generally reads Wilson’s books (i.e. football nerds) who will likely have read many of the books Wilson cities throughout.  However, the book is very well researched with Wilson adding the views of key players like Javier Zanetti or Ricardo Carvalho either from interviews or from biographies that aren’t available in English.  It ensures some fresh and interesting material even for those of us who have devoured the many biographies of the key figures and clubs at the centre of the story.

Above all it is a testament to Cruyff’s influence on the game and how his approach shaped 25 years of tactical evolution.  Like all Wilson’s work, its a very enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking read.  It leads immediately to a YouTube binge as you try track down some of the more memorable matches and moments.

As for Barça’s great rivals, Real Madrid, the English language coverage of the club exploded after David Beckham signed.  Two excellent writers each published books in 2004 on Beckham’s time in Spain White Angels: Beckham, the Real Madrid and the New Football by John Carlin and When Beckham Went to Spain by Jimmy Burns.   Its been close to 15 years since I read these two books so a fuller review is beyond my powers of recall.  From memory, both books take a deep look at the Galactico project with a particular focus on Beckham’s early years.   Burns book looks a bit more broadly at the historic position Madrid has played as the club supported by the Castillian establishment.  If I recall correctly, Carlin is definitely more a Madridista than Burns, a lifelong Barça culé. 

Another book from a similar era which gives an inside account of the Galactico era Madrid is the enjoyable ‘El Macca: Four Years with Real Madrid’ by Steve McManaman and Sarah Edworthy (2004).  

El Macca is a detailed look at the 4 years McManaman spent at Real Madrid. His first year was incredibly successful as he became a regular starter in a Champions League winning side and scored a spectacular volley in the final against Valencia.  Following the instalment of Florentino Perez as Real President, McManaman found himself sidelined as the club looked to get him off the wage bill to pave the way for the Galactico era – the plan of Zidanes & Pavons – that proposed to combine global superstars with youth team graduates.

The book provides a really interesting insight to an era of change at the biggest football club in the world.  Every player at the club was a household name and the very biggest names in the game found themselves all in the same team at Madrid.   All the players come across quite well with Figo and Hierro standing out as interesting characters who got on very well with McManaman.  After he left the club, it would take another 12 years before they managed to win another Champions League and complete La Decima.

For a more recent, gossipy and entertaining look at a modern version of Madrid, I enjoyed The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho by Diego Torres, a book from which no one emerges with much credit. 

A whole other category of books exists which focus on both Real and Barca and the immense rivalry of El Classico.  While there are a fair few books that fall into this category, I particularly like El Clasico: Barcelona V Real Madrid: Football’s Greatest Rivalry by Richard Fitzpatrick (2012) and Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the World’s Greatest Sports Rivalry by Sid Lowe (2012). 

As interest in Spanish football has broadened in the English speaking world, a number of writers have looked outside of the top two.  Euan McTear’s first book, Eibar the Brave, was about tiny Eibar and his second book, Hijacking LaLiga is a comprehensive look at the origins and modern history of Atlético who have achieved remarkable success under manager Diego Simeone.  McTear traces the history of the club, highlighting the key moments the enabled to club to survive and thrive through the 20th Century.  It’s a fascinating history but less politically charged that those of Barça and Real.   There is also really interesting details on the chaotic reign of Jesús Gil, the President who somehow seized ownership of the club away from the fans.

The main focus of the book is on the period since Atheli’s relegation in 2000 and how the club rebuilt to break the seeming impenetrable duopoly of Barca and Real.  McTear credits a number of factors – the first Europa League triumph shattered the myth that Athleico were cursed, better TV deals improved their financial ability to compete, the combination of youth team products like Koke, tough battling players like Diego Godin and superstars like Costa and Greizmann proved ideal, and above all the coaching of Diego Simeone and his staff was the perfect match for the players and the club.  The book provides a very interesting and detailed insight into the most interesting story in modern Spanish football.

Robbie Dunne gives similar treatment to Madrid’s third side in his 2017 book Working Class Heroes: The Story of Rayo Vallecano, Madrid’s Forgotten Team.  It’s an interesting history of the club, their fans and their left wing anti-establishment ethos.

The Seville based clubs are profiled extensively in Colin Millar’s recent book ‘The Frying Pan of Spain: Sevilla v Real Betis, Spain’s Hottest Football Rivalry’.  It traces the origins, history, key personality and modern development of both football clubs.  In doing so, it also tells the story of the city and its evolving place in Spanish life. The dual-biography nature of the book works quite well.  It is fascinating how often the fortunes of the clubs rose and fell in contrast to the other.  It’s a relatively long book, but a very easy read.  Full of fascinating insights into the city – its politics, its people and its football – it’s a book that is a very welcome addition to the growing library of great English language books on Spanish football.

Lastly, it would be impossible to ignore the Spanish national team and in particular the 6 years where they were undeniably the best team in the world.   Here I return to two authors mentioned earlier.   For a wider lens, I love La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World by Jimmy Burns (2012).  This goes much wider than the national team and, a bit like Morbo, looks at the history of the game across Spain as a whole.   For a more focused look at the national team, look no further than Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble (2013) by Graham Hunter.  Hunter was working for FIFA and UEFA during the tournaments and was  inside the dressing room as the players celebrated after the finals of the World Cup and Euro 2012. The book has significant unique material thorough Hunter’s own accounts and access to the key figures.

I suspect there is a whole host of books on Spanish football I’ve not read, or heard about.  As always, I’d be delighted to hear any recommendations.

‘King Eric: Portrait of the Artist Who Changed English Football’ by Wayne Barton (2020)

I’ve written before about my love of legendary French footballer Eric Cantona.   Cantona was the kind of player who could make a kid fall in love with a team and a sport simply by turning up his collar and chipping the goalkeeper. He was one of the most influential figures in Manchester United’s, and indeed British football’s, history.

Author Wayne Barton is Man Utd’s unofficial historian having written multiple books on the club.  King Eric focuses in particular on Cantona’s short, successful and controversial years at Man Utd while also giving fascinating insight into his broader career for both club and country. Barton does a great job of recounting just how transformative Cantona’s impact was on English football.

King Eric’s best goals for Man Utd

Barton blends together accounts from the key figures at Man Utd into a compelling narrative of a period when United became the dominant force in modern British football. Barton has clearly read and absorbed a huge amount of material covering United and Cantona during that time but also includes original reporting including interviews some key personnel. For those sad people, like myself, who have read more than half the bibliography, the book still manages to feel fresh with some particular insights on the circumstances of Cantona’s arrival at the club fresh from winning the title with Leeds. 

Barton expertly blends the accounts of key figures, Cantona’s own insights (from his great book Cantona on Cantona) and details of key goals, assists, matches and kung fu kicks into a compelling narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed reliving some of the most memorable goals from my childhood. Highly recommended for anyone who wants a reminder of just what made King Eric so special.

king eric

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

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

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

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

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

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

PfK

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

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

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

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

J r

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lith.jpg
The greatest jersey of all time

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

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

The Greatest Game that No-one Ever Saw

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

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

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

‘Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports’ by Yaron Weitzman (2020)

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.

#TrustTheProcess

tanking

 

 

‘The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Forever’ by Kevin Robbins (2019)

Payne Stewart was always memorable.  His distinctive clothes, his colourful personality and his return to major-winning form in his 40’s ensured he received plenty of attention and coverage.  When he died tragically in 1999, the golf and sporting world was shocked.

Kevin Robbins excellent book, The Last Stand of Payne Stewart, tells 3 stories. Firstly it does an incredible job as a biography of a charismatic, fascinating golfer who died before his time. Secondly, it captures brilliantly the last 12 months of his life and career as he won his third major and returned to the very pinnacle of the sport.  Finally, the book is also a meditation on the evolution of professional golf from a game of shot makers to a game of power hitters using cutting edge, scientifically designed, golf clubs.

Robbins doesn’t shy away from some of Payne’s less pleasant behaviour.  He paints a picture of a brash, talented but at times uncaring man who, with the help of his loving wife and his rediscovered faith, grew into a more rounded, loving family man.  That this maturing of Payne as both a golfer and a man comes just before his death makes it feel all the more tragic.

Robbins covers the plane crash and the reactions of those who knew Payne is significant detail. It is impossible to read without feeling intense sympathy for those who knew and loved him.

The third story, of the evolution of the game, is really fascinating.  The turn of the millennium, and the death of Payne Stewart, marked the end of the ‘shotmakers’ era as power-hitters like Tiger Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson began to drive the ball to previously un-imagined lengths changing the way courses could be set up and the way professional golf could be played.

Robbins clearly had great access to Payne’s family, friends and other golfers.  It is a sympathetic yet honest account of a charismatic yet flawed man who had a huge impact on those around him.  It’s a brilliant book which I highly recommend.

2014 Documentary on Payne Stewart’s remarkable U.S. Open win in 1999
Payne

‘Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution’ by Tim Wigmore & Freddie Wilde (2019)

Long before Ireland achieved miraculous results in the Cricket World Cup and gained Test status, I was a relatively rare Irish cricket fan.  Long rainy summers stuck indoors were improved immeasurably by Channel 4’s coverage of test cricket.  I was first exposed to T20 cricket (or Twenty20 as it was then known) during the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL) over a decade ago as I spent exam study leave watching (and gambling on) every single IPL game of that season. 

For those who aren’t familiar with it, T20 cricket is a limited duration form of the game.  Each team is bowled 120 balls (20 overs of 6 balls) to score as many runs as possible. Originally it met with some resistance as being too radical a departure for the game, but now, in large thanks to the IPL, it has become a hugely popular sport in itself.

Cricket 2.0 is an absolutely brilliant account of the first decade of T20 cricket.  But it is also so much more than that.  The level of analysis and insight into the strategies and tactics used by successful T20 teams is fascinating.  It’s also a brilliant oversight of the overall global spread of T20, how it is changing how cricketers train and prepare, and an insightful chronicle of the formats first true superstars.   The authors cover almost every conceivable angle that merits covering – the increased gambling risks of T20 domestic leagues, the struggles for any other league outside of the IPL to make the economics work, the rise of long overlooked talent from non-traditional cricket nations.

I absolutely loved this book.  It is strength is its how ambitious its scope is while also managing to give fascinating insights into the mindset of players, coaches and team owners.  The book really brings out the level of work, sophistication and talent needed to excel at T20 cricket.   I particularly enjoyed the focus and analysis on how T20 has turned bowlers from attackers to defenders and vice versa for batsmen. 

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for any cricket fan.  Even those with a limited understanding of the game should find it fascinating.  It is superbly well written and just a generally brilliant book.

Cricket 2.0

‘The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife’ by Brad Balukjian (2020)

I have a particular fondness for books involving people who feel compelled to go on arbitrary adventures.  Danny Wallace specialised in this area with his books Yes Man and Join Me amongst others.  Last year I really enjoyed Europe United by Matt Walker which involved a quest to visit a soccer match in every UEFA country.

The Wax Pack is Brad Balukjian account of tracking down all of the players whose baseball cards were in a particular pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards some 30 years later.  Balukjian travels across the USA to track down the players who range from Hall of Fame players to 10 year journeymen to players who spent only a very short time in the Major Leagues.

Each player gets a chapter as Balukjian managed to spend time with almost all of them. Even where Balukjian doesn’t get to meet the player, he recounts his odyssey to find them  One refuses to talk despite Balukjian showing up at the ballpark where he was working as third base coach.  The other, Carlton Fisk the most famous player in the The Wax Pack, is in the midst of descending back into addiction.

The Wax Pack becomes a unique and fascinating insight into what happens players when they retire.  The random nature of the players he follows ensures an interesting diversity.  It also becomes a reflection on father-son relationships as each of the players recounts their own, often troubled, relationships with their fathers and also with their own children.

The book and trip are deeply personal for Balukjian.  At times there is definitely some oversharing and unnecessary details about the minutiae of the trip.  However there are a couple of very funny stories from Balukjian’s own adolescence which had me laughing out loud. As the trip progresses the book becomes more and more a soul-searching journey for the author.  Along the way he meets his ex, reconnects with his father, visits his childhood hero and tries to find love.  Ultimately, the book feels more authentic for how personal it is.

I really enjoyed the book which exceed all of my expectations.  Balukjian is an interesting character and he has done a great job to get such fascinating insight from the players he meets.

wax