‘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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‘Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History’ by Erik Malinowski (2018)

As a kid, Channel 4’s decision in 1995 to start showing the NBA led me to fall in love with the sport of basketball.   The Bulls of Jordan’s second stint were the dominant team with Shaq led Orlando Magic also a particular favourite. Its only in recent years that I have rekindled a keen interest in the sport and got properly interested again after getting to watch Team USA play live at the Rio Olympics.  This season Sky Sports have bought the rights to show NBA games in Ireland so I finally have regular access to games again (and highlight shows at more Irish timezone friendly hours).

All of which means I kinda missed the rise of the Golden State Warriors – all of a sudden they were not just a new Championship contender, but a contender for the best team of all time.   I was really excited to read Betaball and figure out just how this happened.

Betaball is a very enjoyable read.  It’s a detailed retelling of the rise of the Warriors under its current ownership and the key personnel decisions that led to the creation of an elite team.  It’s also a pretty detailed blow-by-blow account of the key matches of the 14/15 and 15/16 seasons.

The book however promised more with its subheading of ‘How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History’.   The book talks about the use of analytics, the reliance placed on unconventional hires and the importance of a harmonious working environment it.  While there is a lot of talk about collecting and using data there really isn’t much insight into how or why their use analytics helped them win.  There are suggestions that the Warriors were better at focusing at rest and conditioning than other teams may have been but the thread isn’t fully drawn out in the book.

In many ways the story feels quite conventional – a new owner arrives and makes some really good personnel decisions, the unrealised potential of an existing player (Steph Curry) is finally realised, some really good draft picks (including a bit of luck in Green turning out better than anyone expected) are made and free agency is used wisely to secure the final missing pieces.

The book does give some interesting insights into the managerial and organisational culture introduced by the new owners.  In particular it was interesting how the new owners waited a full season before making radical changes.  It’s rare to see a sports team owner show such patience and not immediately try to remodel the team in their own image.  The process for decision making seems to have been very collegiate with everyone seemingly willing to listen to all viewpoints before making key decisions.

I don’t mean to be overly negative.  If the book was subtitled differently this would be a more positive review about how interesting the book was, the keen insight it gives into Steve Kerr in particular, and the interesting ways in which small changes can have a big impact on an team’s performance.

Overall, Betaball is a very interesting look at the rise of the Warriors, but not quite the book its subtitle promises it would be.

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‘Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers’ by Nicholas Smith (2018)

While I’m no ‘sneakerhead’ and have appalling fashion sense, runners are the one item of clothing that I  can actually enjoy shopping for.  I’m also the kind of guy who wears black Asics walking to work and doesn’t bother putting on suit shoes unless a meeting is very important so my views on anything shoes or fashion related should probably be ignored. Kicks

I had to ask myself if Kicks qualified as a sports book but given the heavy focus on the history of sport and sports companies, it definitely does.  Kicks traces the story of how sneakers (the American term for runners, trainers, sports shoes or tackies) were first developed and grew from being a sports specific shoe to the ever-present default footwear choice of billions.

In telling the story, Smith traces the origins of numerous sports and even more sport shoe companies.  In particular he captures the rivalries that drove advances in technology and marketing as the sneaker business crossed over from sports wear to mainstream everyday wear.  From Converse v Keds, Addidas v Puma to Nike v Reebok, the battle to be number led to some much innovation and change in an ever growing market.   Each company would at some hit a gold mine – whether the Converse All-Star, the Reebok athletic shoe or Nike Air Jordan – before losing the lead as a competitor signed the next big name or launched the next must have shoe.

The book weaves together a lot of stories I already knew or was vaguely aware of.  I was surprised by how much of the source material I had read including Kenny Moore’s book on Bill Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Phil Knight’s autobiography Shoe Dog (about Nike) and Pitch Invasion by Barbara Smit on the founding of Adidas and Puma.

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It also touches on the role non-sport elements popular culture, in particular Run DMC’s promoting of Adidas which landed them a $1 million endorsement deal, had on the marketing of sneakers. Finally, it talks about sneakerhead culture and the fan culture that the internet has enabled resulting in shoes selling for thousands online and sneaker theft becoming a worrying source of crime in US inner-cities. While it seems crazy to think of someone buying shoes they will likely never wear, I’m writing this looking at my library of 100’s of books I’m yet to read while I buy way more new books every year than I read.  I guess we all have a passion and for some people that passion is sneakers.

Overall it is a very interesting dive into the world of American sports shoes that becomes more interesting as you keep reading.  While the book could easily have become a boring repetition of facts, Smith’s writing style keeps it light and entertaining.

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‘The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, and Dirk That Saved the NBA’ by Ian Thomsen (2018)

“Basketball is now the true sport of the American Dream”

The Soul of Basketball tells the story of the 2010-2011 NBA season – the season after LeBron James ‘Decision’ to move to Miami.  It paints that year as a pivotal season – the changing of the guard as LeBron’s generation seized control of the NBA.

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It isn’t simply a book about the season, but rather about the changing role of the NBA in American life as a new generation of players build on Jordan’s legacy and capture the public’s imagination.    The NBA was trying to find its way in the post-Jordan era but LeBron had turned himself into public enemy number 1 with his handling of the Decision and his promises of a decade of glory in Miami.  Players were arriving in the NBA already famous and already entitled.

Thomsen paints a compelling and illuminating portrait of the key individuals in that season’s NBA.   He takes readers inside the Heat, the Lakers, the Celtics, the Spurs, and the Mavericks and focuses on a key individual in each of those teams. For me the most compelling figures throughout the book are Dirk Nowitzki, Greg Popovich and Kobe Bryant.  Dirk Nowitzki was much less well-known to me and emerges as the most fascinating figure in the book.

Thomsen shows us who the players, coaches, scouts and executives really are, what motivates and drives them to succeed.  Thomsen’s ability to get key people to open up and share revealing insights is a real asset to the book.  There is also extensive and fascinating detail on the inside workings of team’s front office. Thomsen also captures the between old-school owners and the newer generation of owners like Mark Cuban at the Mavericks.

It is arguable that LeBron is treated a bit harshly at times in the book although the epilogue does recognise his achievement in returning successfully to Cleveland.   By detailing LeBron’s toughest year, Thomsen attempts to show some of what LeBron went through before becoming a champion.

It’s a detailed, engrossing and brilliant read which I highly recommend.  If there has been a better book written about the modern NBA, I’d be delighted to find it.