‘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.

‘A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers’ by John Feinstein (1986)

I could spend months simply reading John Feinstein sports books such is quantity of high quality books he has produced over his career. Perhaps more than any, A Season on the Brink, is the book most would point to as both Feinstein’s breakthrough and most enjoyable work.a season

Feinstein followed the Indiana University basketball team through the entire 1985/86 season – the ups and the downs as the team sought to recover from a terrible performance the year before and regain their place at the top of NCAA rankings.

As Feinstein readily acknowledges, a large part of the brilliance of the book is due the intensely fascinating character of Bob Knight.   During the season covered, Knight had been at Indiana for 15 years, and would remain for another 15 more before his ignominious departure in 2000.

Already a two time national champion and Olympic gold medal winning coach, Knight remained intensely driven and passionate. Innovative and insanely successful, Knight was a controversial figure whose swearing and temper tantrums were already legendary.

Reading this book now, knowing how Knight’s story in Indiana ends, puts on interesting context on Feinstein’s coverage of Knight’s bad behaviour.  In this context, the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, the Last Days of Knight, is a great companion piece for this book – especially to see how the standards of behaviour expected from a winning coach have clearly changed since Knight’s glory days.

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It is fascinating though how, far back in the mid-80’s, so many of Knight’s friends correctly predicted in comments to Feinstein that Knight’s reign would end badly because of his aggressive behaviour. Ultimately, details of physical abuse from ex players saw the Indiana leadership lose patience with Knight who ended up moving to the much lower profile Texas Tech and subsequently to ESPN’s basketball coverage.  Indeed, one of the players chronicled in the book, Todd Jadlow, has published his own book in recent years which includes specifics about the physical abuse he took from Knight – including getting punched in the back of the head with a closed fist.

Feinstein also captures the warm side of Knight – in particular his loyalty and his dedication to his friends.  It seems to me that Feinstein painted a very raw, but very honest portrait of a talented coach who constantly struggled with his temper and ego.

While Knight dominates the book, the players come across with a huge amount of credit, both for their talent and their ability to handle Knight’s abuse.  Steve Alford in particular is the leading man, who would achieve even more the following season by leading Indiana to Knight’s third national championship.

Make no mistake, this is a wonderful book.  Feinstein made the most of his incredible access to write a searing and insightful book that captures the highs and lows of high level amateur sport.  Its so well written that it grips you and is a page turning as any thriller. Feinstein has many great books but I don’t know if he has ever been able to top this genuine and deserved classic.

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‘Golden Days: West’s Lakers, Steph’s Warriors, and the California Dreamers Who Reinvented Basketball’ by Jack McCallum (2017)

Golden Days is the story of two basketball teams from very different eras but with a huge amount in common.  The LA Lakers from 1971/72 and the modern-day Golden State Warriors share a California setting, the thrill of combing great players in one team, scarcely believable winning streaks and one very important man – Jerry ‘the Logo’ West.

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McCallum centres the book around West – a legendary player for the Lakers in the 60’s and 70’s who after 50 years of being a leading player, coach and executive, was an important consultant and scout for the Warriors as they built a team that is reinventing basketball.  In many ways, it’s a biography of two phases of West’s life – and it leaves you dying to read his own book, ‘West by West’ next.   West comes across as the most modern octogenarian there is – refusing to bask in ‘back in my day’ nostalgia and determined to keep working at the very top of the NBA.

The book jumps between the two teams from chapter to chapter and tells the story of the key figures from both eras.  Both tales are strengthened by the linkages drawn to the author.  McCallum is a great writer whose love of basketball shines through on every page.  His interview skills are the bedrock of his writing and he manages to get his subjects to open up in great detail.

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The characters from the 70’s unsurprisingly stand out as more entertaining and fun – none more so than Wilt Chamberlain.  It feels like the book is more about the Lakers than the Warriors – like McCallum really wanted to focus on those days but linking it to the Warriors and the Steph Curry phenomenon made the story much more saleable.

The material on the Warriors is interesting for a casual fan like me who hasn’t followed NBA too closely in recent years.  I’ve enjoyed watching the Warriors but wasn’t familiar with the behind the scenes story of how the team was built.  It will be fascinating to see can they repeat championship glory this year and prove that they differ from West’s Lakers in one major way – winning championships consistently.

McCallum has a very distinctive style – at times gossipy with plenty of asides from the author.  It might not be for everyone but I like it lot.  It flows well and is easy to read.  I’ve been a McCallum fan since I first encountered his work in Dream Team his excellent book on the 92 Olympic team that captured the world’s attention. Overall I highly recommend Golden Days for any fan of basketball past or present.

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