‘Michael Jordan: The Life’ by Roland Lazenby (2014)

Michael Jordan may be the most analysed sportsmen of all time.   He is already the subject of one of the all time great sports books Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by the late, great David Halberstam.  The darker side of his personality had already been brilliantly exposed in The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith.  And countless other books have told the story of his career and his life.

I must admit, that given this extensive coverage, I wasn’t sure there was much to interest me in a full Jordan bio.  Michael Jordan: The Life sat on my shelf unread for more than 3 years.  Once I picked it up however, I couldn’t put it down.

While most other books tend to focus on a specific season or specific aspect of his life,  Lazenby does a great job of telling the fuller picture of his life and playing career.

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

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

It’s a big book yet I would have liked a bit more on Jordan’s life/career post playing.  Being a run-of-the mill owner isn’t quite as interesting as winning 6 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.

I highly recommend Michael Jordan: The Life.  Be careful though, it’s a book that can easily send you down a YouTube rabbit hole of Jordan clips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A simply wonderful book.

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‘Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association’ by Terry Pluto (1990)

The American Basketball Association was as an upstart professional league which lasted 9 years before eventually merging with the NBA in 1976.  Well, 4 teams were absorbed into the NBA –  the other 2 teams were left to die (a well-compensated death) and 4 other ABA teams had already folded.

Loose Balls is an oral history of the ABA, the crazy stories, and the impact it ultimately had on the NBA.  It’s remarkable that the ABA survived 9 years with almost no television exposure and very scant newspaper coverage.  The lack of a strong written or video record meant that Pluto wisely chose to write an oral history detailing the often contradictory but always entertaining memories of the key characters in the ABA story.

The ABA’s formation seemed to have been quite haphazard.  In many ways it came into existence because of one man, Dennis Murphy’s, determination to set up a sports league.  Key decisions such as the use of a red-white-and-blue ball and the introduction of a 3 point shot were made on whim rather than being part of a grand design.

The book is exceptionally funny because the characters involved and the shenanigans they got up to funny, bizarre and entertaining.  The story is a wild ride of crazy characters, marketing stunts and, importantly, some very good basketball players.  The business side of the story is also fascinating as teams scrambled to survive and to try and pressure the NBA into a merger.

All of those interviewed by Pluto share the view that the ABA fundamentally changed professional basketball.  These changes included the move to a faster paced game, the 3 point shot, the drafting of younger players and the overall focus on entertainment.   It’s also remarkable just how successful many of the ex-ABA players were after crossing over to the NBA.

There is something I find incredibly interesting about attempts to create a new sports league rivaling a well-established league.  It seems like a crazy idea doomed to fail.  Jeff Pearlman’s recent Football for a Buck brilliantly told the crazy story of the failed United States Football League. And Vince McMahon’s determination to bring back the XFL in 2020 shows there will always be dreamers willing to risk big bucks to break the monopoly of major sports leagues.

Loose Balls covers all 9 seasons, all 10 teams and most of the major players involved in the ABA.  It’s the definitive history of the ABA told by those who lived and loved it.  It is a classic sports book that deserves its place on the list of the all time greats.

As a companion piece, I’d highly recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Free Spirits which interviews many of those who spoke to Pluto, as well as Pluto himself.  It focuses on the Spirit of St. Louis team who lasted only two years, had a crazy cast of characters and whose owners secured the best financial deal in sports history when being denied a place in the NBA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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