‘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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‘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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‘The Blind Side: The Evolution of the Game’ by Michael Lewis (2006)

You have probably already read this book or seen the movie.  If you haven’t then stop reading and go get the book.blind side

The Blind Side interweaves two stories. The first story is the evolution of American football towards a passing game where quarterbacks rose in value, became targets and finally needed greater protection.  The second is the story of a lost boy taken in by a white Southern family and given an opportunity to pursue his gifts that he seemed destined to be denied.  Those gifts just happened to make him ideally suited to provide the now much more valued quarter back protection.

Lewis is a wonderful writer whose books are informed, accessible and entertaining.   The Blind Side works brilliantly as football history – Lewis traces the journey from Bill Walsh’s 49ers, through Lawrence Taylor and the rise of great linebackers to the realisation on the launch of free agency that teams would pay a lot more money for a left tackle than they were paying so far.  It’s the type of narrative that, as a casual NFL fan, I was unaware of and one I had not seen captured in the wonderful NFL / America’s Game TV series. Lewis is able to tell a compelling story and educate the less knowledgeable football fan without coming off as condescending,

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The heart of the book however is the story of Michael Oher – a kid who seemed destined to be a lost cause, born in a place and a system that was destined to fail him.  The Tuohy’s, who adopted Oher into their lives, emerge as a kind and loving family who belie the worst stereotypes of southern wealthy evangelicals.  While the book could be read as an uplifting tale of the difference that kindness can make in the life of someone less fortunate. For me however, the fact that it took such an unusual interest from a white family to give Oher any chance in life paints the United States economic system as the villain of the piece  –  a shocking state of affairs for the richest country in the world where inter-generational poverty is both expected and accepted.

The cynic in me can’t help but wonder about the motives of Sean Tuohy in taking Oher in.  Lewis is friends with Tuohy which makes him a less than objective judge.  However, on balance I choose to accept Lewis interpretation of the Tuohy’s motivations in taking Oher in.  It certainly seems evident that Leigh-Ann Tuohy went above and beyond in how she cared for Oher while he was in her care.

Overall, The Blind Side is simply a thoroughly enjoyable book and well deserves its regular placing on lists of the greatest sports books of all time.  While less influential than Lewis’ other great sports book Moneyball, it’s a more entertaining read for non-die hard fans of the relevant sport.  I can’t help feeling however that Lewis had an opportunity to go deeper into the reasons – socioeconomic, education, and the collegiate and professional sports system operating in the USA – why the outcome for Oher was different from the outcome for so many others.  Lewis touches on the key damning statistic around how many great athlete fail to take their lifeline due to the education system failing them.   Some deeper exploration would have been a welcome addition.

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