‘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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‘My World’ by Peter Sagan (2018)

Peter Sagan is no ordinary cyclist.   Like most casual cycling fans, he first came to my attention at the 2012 Tour de France where he became the youngest ever Stage winner and also captured the Green points classification jersey in his first appearance in the race.   He has now won over 100 races, 6 Tour Green jerseys and 3 consecutive World Championship rainbow jerseys.

He is such an interesting cyclist to watch because he isn’t an out-an-out sprinter, yet can live with the very best sprinters in the world.   Unlike pure sprinters, he can perform in much longer races and doesn’t have a lead out team like Cavendish and others typically do.  I’ve loved watching in the Tour over the years and am always more interested in watching other races if Sagan is in the mix in the later stages.

Sagan can often times be quite controversial whether it is giving cheeky answers in press conferences, doing a non-hands wheelie as he crosses a finish line, or getting disqualified from the 2017 Tour de France, Sagan adds drama and character to an awful lot of his races.  The combination of success and personality guaranteed Sagan a strong following in his native Slovakia and around the world.

My World is a fairly standard autobiography written by a leading sportsman in the mid-to-late part of his career.  It offers good insight how Sagan thinks and operates and shines a light on the members of ‘Team Peter’ that are instrumental to his success.  In many ways the books main function is as a thank-you to those who have helped him along the way.

The book is loosely centered around Sagan’s remarkable achievement of winning cycling’s World Championship road race three years in a row.  I was particularly interested in some of his early struggles where he was on the verge of walking away from cycling and his decision to race mountain bikes at the Rio Olympics rather than the road race (I was at the Rio games and really wanted to try and watch Sagan race but sadly had already bought tickets other events that day).  The book however runs out of steam and starts to get a bit repetitive as it becomes more of a diary of the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons.   Ultimately, I was a little disappointed with the book but I can’t quite put my finger on why – I think I wanted to know the secret of his success, but it seems the answer simply is raw talent and surrounding himself with the right people.

The ghost writer (who doesn’t seem to be named) has done a very good job in capturing Sagan’s voice.  At times it doesn’t quite flow when reading it, but it feels very like the Sagan you hear in interviews.

If your a fan of Sagan or professional cycling more generally, there is plenty to enjoy in the book.  If you’ve no idea who Sagan is then I’d definitely give this a miss.

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‘Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment’ by Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham (2004)

I loved WWF (as it then was) as a kid, staying up all night to watch the Royal Rumble, refusing to fully accept it was scripted and staging highly dangerous wrestling matches with friends.  I don’t think I’ve seen 5 minutes of wrestling in the last 10 years or more.

When starting this blog I started hunting for books on sports stories I wanted to know more about.  Near the top of the search list was a biography of Vince McMahon, the legendary owner of World Wresting Entertainment.  The one book I could find that promised to cover McMahon’s life in any detail was Sex, Lies, and Headlocks from 2004.  I’ve enjoyed (and reviewed here and here) Assael’s other books and was looking forward to this trip down nostalgia lane.

Sex, Lies, and Headlocks gives a historical overview of the business of wrestling.  It’s very much about the business – the tv deals, the corporate takeovers, the court cases.  At its heart it’s the story of how wrestling became a billion dollar commodity.  A big focus is put on the various television networks and the role they played in the development of wrestling.  I have to admit, I would’ve enjoyed a bit more focus on some of the wrestlers personal stories.

The book also serves as a biography of Vince McMahon.  It covers his expansion of WWF after buying out his father, the controversy around steroids and sexual assault allegations and, in particular, the Monday Night Wars between WWF and rival WCW to be the dominant wrestling brand in the USA.

It is not a flattering portrayal of McMahon.  It’s clear that the McMahon family did not engage with the authors and it’s likely that those who were willing to speak were among the many who bore grudges against Vince.

Vince McMahon is a fascinating character.  He clearly has a keen sense of what sells and an absolute willingness to cross any boundary necessary to ensure his business is successful.  I always thought his decision to insert himself as the bad guy character in the show was utter genius – the blending of fact and fiction helping fans willfully suspend their disbelief and buy fully into the story-lines.  There are plenty of frankly bizarre anecdotes in the book which paint a picture of a slightly unhinged man with a genius for marketing and a love of risk taking.

There’s a good section on the XFL and McMahon’s ultimately doomed attempt to launch his own American Football league.  It’s particularly interesting given that XFL is now due to return in 2020.  I’m very interested in how XFL version 2 will fare, especially having recently read Jeff Pearlman’s excellent ‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL’ which captures the challenges and possibilities of a spring football league.

The book is definitely aimed at readers who may have been casual wrestling fans rather than at hardcore fans who will be well familiar with the stories told in the book.

I enjoyed the book a lot.  It’s well written, interesting and entertaining.  Vince McMahon is a fascinating character and I’d love to read a book updating on what has happened in the last 15 years!

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(I can’t write about Vince McMahon with expressing my childhood frustration with how the name McMahon is pronounced in the USA – it’s an Irish name and in the Irish pronunciation the H is not silent. –  it’s pronounced with three syllables- MAC-MA-HON, not MAC-MANN)

 

 

‘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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‘The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul’ by Jonathan Wilson (2018)

In my early twenties I spent a two week holiday in Thailand with friends.  Typically such holidays involve full moon parties, buckets with mystery booze, and magic mushrooms on ‘Mushie Mountain’. While I was there I spent more time reading Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s seminal book on the history of football tactics than I did doing basically anything else.  I say this to provide the context that I’m not an objective reviewer of Wilson’s work as I probably enjoy his broad stroke analysis of football’s evolution more than your average reader.

More than the Barcelona Legacy, Wilson tells the story of Johan Cruyff’s legacy and how the modern game has been shaped by coaches who were at Barcelona in some capacity in the early 90’s.   The book traces the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho  Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, and Frank de Boer, and the impact those coaches have had on the game’s overall evolution.  It’s a story of football philosophy and what it means to play football “the right way”.

The clash of Pep and José in Spain is the box office centrepiece of the story – Pep’s Cruyffian ideals versus vs Mourinho ‘s cynical counter attacking football.   Wilson avoids taking sides and presents an unbiased assessment of how the game has developed across Europe.  This is perhaps the best thing about the book as the most popular books to present on any of these figures are generally very biased either in favour of their subject (like Marti Peraneu’s books on Pep) or against (like Diego Torres trashy, brilliant and totally unreliable book on Jose).   Given their current fortunes, it would have been very easy to fall into the trap of declaring Pep the victor in a battle of good vs evil.

Many of the individual details of the book will be familiar to the type of person who generally reads Wilson’s books (i.e. football nerds) who will likely have read many of the books Wilson cities throughout.  However, the book is very well researched with Wilson adding the views of key players like Javier Zanetti or Ricardo Carvalho either from interviews or from biographies that aren’t available in English.  It ensures some fresh and interesting material even for those of us who have devoured the many biographies of the key figures and clubs at the centre of the story.

I enjoyed particuarly the bits of the book that I hadn’t read about elsewhere – Mourinho’s origin story (well he is basically a super-villian), Van Gaal’s post Barca evolution and the turmoil at Ajax were all areas I was less familiar with that are covered well.

Like all of Wilson’s books he can’t resist showing off his literary knowledge with the occasional digression showing how well read he is.  I quite like this about Wilson’s writing – and The Outsider shows this side of his work off the best – but I can imagine it will alienate some readers.  Those interludes are brief and the book quickly gets back to more familiar territory.

What this book excels at is providing a clear joining of the dots by setting Pep, Jose and the others in the context of Cruyff.  Above all it is a testament to Cruyff’s influence on the game and how his approach shaped 25 years of tactical evolution.

Like all Wilson’s work, its a very enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking read.  It leads immediately to a YouTube binge as you try track down some of the more memorable matches and moments.  I think you can tell if you’ll like this book by your response to someone using the phrase post-Cruyffian.  If it makes you think of Guardiola’s possession based football this is the book for you.  If it makes you think ‘tosser’ then it might not be the book for you!

One thing the book left me wondering about is Athletico Madrid’s rise which is noted but not quite explained.  I’ve since ordered Hijacking Laliga by Evan McTear which promises to answer that very question!

The book is accompanied by a 6 part podcast which narrows in on 6 key games covered in the book.  An interesting, and to my mind successful, way of promoting the book while also enhancing the experience for readers.  Hopefully something that catches on.

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