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.

‘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 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.

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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/

‘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.

boysamongmen

 

‘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.

betaball

 

 

 

‘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.

‘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.

golden days

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.

west warriors

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.

3 superstars