North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Jack McCallum’s Dream Team and the basketball book pantheon

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I finished Jack McCallum’s new book about the Dream Team today. It’s a good read – look for a review at The Good Point and maybe elsewhere sometime soon – and I enjoyed it a lot.

There’s one thing about it, though, that keeps nagging at the back of my mind: how often McCallum turns to other authors. It’s not something he does often, but every so often he quotes a passage from Jackie MacMullan’s When the Game Was Ours or Bill Simmons The Book of Basketball and occasionally from something else. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just kind of a weird thing to me. After all, he interviewed Magic Johnson, so why is he using a quote of his from another book?

That’s a minor thing, but it got me thinking about those books. And once I started with that, I went a little further and looked at all the basketball books I own and thinking about the ones I’ve read and how they all compare. What follows is a few words about my favorite basketball books and if I’d recommend them over Dream Team.

A Season on the Brink – John Feinstein
I suppose this is the definitive book about college hoops – it’s certainly the best known one, anyway – and for good reason: Feinstein’s long look at a still-incendiary Bobby Knight is occasionally breathtaking, and not in a positive way. Knight was a destructive force: everyone probably has a mental snapshot of him tossing a chair across the court and maybe feels that he’s an irritable guy, but as I remember this book – it’s been a few years since I read it – Knight comes like a tyrant, not the gruff guy he sometimes seems like on ESPN.
Would I recommend it over Dream Team? Yes, especially if you like college hoops.
Heaven is a Playground – Rick Telander
Another one I read a long time ago, back when I read something like four or five sports books a month. While writing this, Telander spent something like an entire summer living in New York and hanging out on concrete courts around people like Fly Williams and Albert King. It’s a good read, even if it’s depressing: the abject poverty, the drugs just off to the side of the court – a memorable scene has a player turning down something that looks like orange juice: methadone – and the divide between Telander and the kids that can’t be bridged all add up after a while.
Would I recommend it over Dream Team? Nope. It’s good, but not quite as good and it’s a little dated to boot.
The Last Shot – Darcy Frey
Here, Frey spends time in Coney Island, an outpost of despair. His book is tragic, with one of the principals dying and it’s most successful figure is Stephon Marbury, whose career is nothing if not checkered. I remember reading this on a bus, riding back from Moncton to Oshawa, and plowing through it in one sitting. It’s a powerful book, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s right up there with Hoop Dreams.
Would I recommend it over Dream Team? It’s a tough one since it’s hard to compare the two, but I would: this is one of favorite sports reads.
The Miracle of St. Anthony – Adrian Wojnarowski
This is another one about basketball in the inner city, although this is more of an upper than the two previous. Here Wojnarowski spends time around Bob Hurley, coach at a school in New Jersey, and looks at how the program keeps kids out of gangs, wins games and now single-minded Hurley is: as he approaches his 800th win, a top ranking in the country and has games televised, his teams practice in a gym that’s falling apart, in a school struggling to make ends meet. I remember enjoying the hell out of this one.
But I wouldn’t recommend it over Dream Team, especially if you’re familiar with the PBS documentary on Hurley.
Loose Balls – Terry Pluto
I’ve written about this book before, as has pretty much everyone else ever – so chances are you know how good this one is: it’s pretty much the benchmark for oral histories, a book that manages to be both illuminating (especially in how the league was formed) and entertaining (any of the Marvin Williams stories, for instance).
Would I recommend it over Dream Team? Yes, in a heartbeat.
Wilt – Wilt Chamberlain and David Shaw
Written before Wilt decided to do things like attempt to play pro volleyball, coach in the ABA (and in pretty rad pants) and claim he slept with 10,000 women. This is more about his earlier years, ranging from his time at Kansas to tangling with Bill Russell in the postseason. And he doesn’t hold back, either, talking frankly about discrimination and how much he didn’t like his coaches, throwing some of them under the bus. Also he was and Nixon were friends?
Would I recommend it over Dream Team? No. It’s a fun biography (his second one is even crazier), but it’s not a good a read.
Playing for Keeps – David Halberstam
Maybe the definitive Michael Jordan bio will never be written, given how private he seems to be and how much everyone likes him. But this work by Halberstam comes damn close: it’s a detailed look a the first two phases of Jordan’s career, ending with the 1998 championship run, and was the first place I remember hearing a lot of Jordan lore: Larry Bird’s quote after Jordan scored 62 in the playoffs, the flag draped over a Reebok logo, the gambling debts, etc. Like pretty much everything Halberstam wrote, it’s packed with research, well written and really enjoyable, even if Jordan didn’t really take part in it.
It’s another one I’d recommend over Dream Team.
Seven Seconds or Less – Jack McCallum
His book previous to Dream Team is also good and arguably better: McCallum spent a season on the bench with the Suns, embedded and researching for this book, and was there for a wild playoff run that forms the backbone of this: a back-and-forth seven game series against the Lakers, a chippy series against the Clippers and them running out of gas against Dallas in a memorable conference final. His portraits of players like the moody, enigmatic Amare Stoudemire, the insecure Shaun Marion and the irreplaceable Steve Nash really push this book over the top: it’d have been easy to write something about how much fun this team was to watch, but he went further into how this team ticked.
Would I recommend it over Dream Team? Definitely, yeah: it’s maybe my favorite basketball book.
The Breaks of the Game – David Halberstam
Another one I haven’t read in a while, although I can remember where I bought it (a little hole-in-the-wall store in downtown Oshawa) which is more than I can say for most of my books. It claims it’s a season-long look at the 1978 Portland Trail Blazers, although it’s really more than that: it’s a look at the NBA as it’s in trouble and struggling to stay alive. It wasn’t just the drug problem, which everyone points to now: Halberstam points to reasons like ABC Sports losing the contract and deciding to crush the league’s ratings by running made-for-TV sports at the same time. It’s enjoyable, another of my favorites and it’s back in print, too! I had a hell of a time finding a copy back when it was still OOP.
Another book I’d recommend over Dream Team and would especially recommend reading right before, if only to appreciate where the league had to overcome before it could get to the Olympics.
Let Me Tell You A Story – Red Auerbach and John Feinstein
Red never wrote an autobiography, so it’s nice that something like this came out: Feinstein hung around the legendary figure for a while and was able to get some stories about the golden years of the league out of him. It’s a fun read, especially enjoyable if you’re into either the Celtics or basketball history, but it’s a lesser effort from Feinstein and never really rises beyond “Here’s Red telling some cool stories in each chapter.” I wouldn’t recommend it over Dream Team.
The Free Darko Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac
A dark horse for best basketball book of the last decade, the first Free Darko book is a collection of profiles, infographics and the occasional illustration that’s dripping with insight, wit and charm. Granted, those sound like empty review words, but it’s a book which is equally funny and informative. It goes into why a temper is good for Ron Artest, into Kobe Bryant’s intense drive for perfection and why Vince Carter is unfairly maligned (and not just by Toronto). But it also is packed with good gags, like Isiah Rider applying for a job at Starbucks, rankings of How Euro various countries are and the wisdom of Rasheed Wallace.
I’m torn if I’d recommend it over Dream Team, though: there’s a sort of implied knowledge here, that you know this book is half tongue in cheek but also really damn clever. If you don’t remember Free Darko, chances are this book isn’t for you.
The Book of Basketball – Bill Simmons
A gargantuan book, a huge ranking of players and seasons by someone who’s maybe incapable of writing short columns. The Book of Basketball was probably designed more to start arguments than to resolve them, and I suppose it does that pretty damn well since I disagree with a bunch of stuff here, but when read front to back, it’s a struggle to get through. Not only because it’s so long, not only because so much of what Simmons argues seems to be arbitrary (but aren’t all rankings?) but because he keeps making porn and sex jokes and it frankly gets a little weird after a while. Still, gotta admire the effort and there’s a good bibliography of basketball books in the back.
Would I recommend it over Dream Team? No, because it’s really just way too much of a thing. It’s a great thing to pick up once in a while and work your way through – much like another huge book, the Norton Anthology of World Literature – but it’s something of a slog.
That pretty much covers the basketball books I own and have read, although there’s a few other good ones I’m not going into detail over since I don’t have them handy: Pistol by Mark Kriegel, Tall Tales by Terry Pluto, Red and Me by Bill Russell and Alan Steinberg.
Whatever you do, don’t read that one Paul Shirley wrote, it’s self-obsessed trash and he’s pretty scummy to boot.

Written by M.

July 18, 2012 at 8:49 pm

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