Monday, October 17, 2016

Review: Now I'm Catching On (2016)

By Bob Cole with Stephen Brunt

Name-dropping time, at least for my Canadian friends.

I actually worked a couple of games with Bob Cole - as a statistician.

I helped out the NHL's public relations department at the Eastern Conference Finals between Montreal and Philadelphia in Philadelphia in 1989. In that role, I supplied information to Bob and Scotty Bowman, the commentator for those games.

Two of the things I remember about those games is that, one, Bob Cole was a very nice man who did his job well. It was fun to sit next to him as he worked, eliminating the television set as the middle man. Then there's, two, the fact that he's the last man I ever saw use a cigarette holder. It's funny what sticks to your memory.

Naturally, I've had another relationship with Bob over the years that's much more common - listener and fan. He's done a lot of hockey over the years, and I've gotten to see some of it from my perch on the border. So it was with some interest that I read his autobiography, "Now I'm Catching On."

It's a little difficult to draw a comparison between Cole and a United States sports announcer. Hockey has such a valued place in Canada's culture, and Cole has done a ton of big games over the years. Maybe Al Michaels would be a good dance partner, since he's been a national voice for our fun and games for many years on this side of the border.

Perhaps the most surprising part of this book is that it takes Cole quite a while to get into the tales of the hockey broadcasting business - almost 100 pages in a book that checks in at 244 pages of text. There are stories about growing up in Newfoundland (he never left), stories about flying, stories about entering the salmon business and curling and dogs, and so on. It's good to get to know more about the subject of the book, although it will be easy for some people to think, "OK, get to the full stuff already."

Luckily, the stories do come. Cole did the Summit Series of 1972 on radio, a couple of Olympics, and plenty of other big games. He tells about how Joe Sakic used to rub his cap for luck before each game of the 2002 Olympics, and Sakic ended up as the star of the Games as Canada finally won the gold medal. There are tales about Wayne Gretzky, thoughtful and polite behind the scenes even when no one is looking. Harold Ballard, the late Leafs' owner who could be a little, um, eccentric, comes off well. Admittedly, Cole's job description did not include making enemies, so he saw the best in people. But even so, there are no axes to grind here.

Sportscasting at that level isn't easy, particularly in terms of raising a family. That's particularly true for someone who lived full-time a few hours by plane of significant events. But he seems to have made it work, in part because he loved the business so much. Cole writes about how much of it a thrill it is to have an office at a hockey rink, and a game still gets him excited to this day - 50 years later.

Fans of Cole certainly will enjoy "Now I'm Catching On." It's not profound or heavy reading, but merely a pleasant read about a pleasant man.

Three stars

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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: Bad News (2016)

By Mike Carey

The original "Bad News" basketball player was a guy named Jim Barnes, a pretty good college forward out of Texas Western who didn't do much in the pros.

And when it came to bad news, the original couldn't come close to the actions of Marvin "Bad News" Barnes."

Marvin was bad news to his opponents, because he had so many skills - a 6-foot-9 filled-out body with speed, strength and agility. He was also bad news to his own team, because Marvin wasn't the most dependable teammate in the world. You never knew if was going to show up at practice, or do something odd at a game.

Most important, though, was the fact that Marvin Barnes was bad news to himself. He was, as the saying goes, his own worst enemy.

Mike Carey, a former NBA reporter out of Boston, is well qualified to writes Barnes' story. He knows the game and encountered Barnes when he was at his best and at his worst. That makes his book "Bad News" quite a dramatic read.

Barnes is a classic story of poor circumstances leading to missed potential - and there's nothing sadder than the latter. He grew up in a dysfunctional family, but had a gift to play basketball. Barnes was one of the best prospects in the country coming out of high school, and flooded with scholarship offers. He ended up staying close to home at Providence College, and this tall African American quickly bonded with a short white point guard by the name of Ernie DiGregorio - on the court and off. The story of Ernie D inviting Barnes over to the family house for dinner - and watching Barnes react to all of the food that was put on the table - is a memorable one.

The two helped the Friars become a basketball powerhouse. They missed a chance at a national title in 1973, when Barnes hurt his knee in the NCAA tournament. UCLA won that year, and in 1974 Barnes couldn't lead the team back to glory without Ernie D.  Trouble occasionally followed Barnes in college, but he got through it.

From there, it was on to the pros. Barnes signed with the Spirits of St. Louis is the American Basketball Association; his contract negotiation with Philadelphia of the NBA somehow got botched. Barnes had some good moments in the ABA in the early days, including a playoff upset of Julius Erving and the New York Nets, but it was also the time that Barnes first became caught up in the drug culture. He became friends with one of the biggest dealers in the country, who was stationed out of St. Louis. Barnes was paid to host late-night parties for high rollers, and the amount of drugs and money said to be involved is staggering.

By the time Barnes reached the NBA after the ABA merger in 1976, he was a addict. Sometimes he'd show flashes of ability, but at others he gave in temptation. That started him well down the road of erratic behavior, and Barnes bounced around the NBA. There was usually someone who would take a chance on his talent, but sooner or later that person would look patience and give up. Eventually, Barnes ran out of chances.

The last third of the book details Barnes' life after basketball. If you've read other stories about addicts, you know the drill well - the patient means well, but after a while something goes wrong and he gives in to temptation again ... and has to start over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Barnes was by all accounts a fun person when he was straight; sportscaster Bob Costas writes about his friend in the foreward - "my unlikely and unforgettable friend."

Carey somehow became acquainted with Barnes once again later in life, and actually gave him a room to live for quite a while. Here Barnes no doubt told the stories of his life, which are still pretty amazing. Carey went to the trouble of checking them out, and they seem to be true.

This is written in a comfortable style, as the pages go by pretty quickly - even if we know what's coming. Finally, Barnes ran out of chances and died. Costas said he epitaph should be "Squandered Talent," and he's right.

"Bad News" isn't a pretty story, but it's an instructive one. You'll come away wondering if Marvin ever really had a chance to make it, in spite of some gifts. And you'll ask who might be the next Marvin Barnes out there, someone who threw a lot away, and how we can stop another similar story from being written.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: Stat Shot (2016)

By Rob Vollman with Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe

The revolution continues.

Someone I know once wondered how easy it would be to create new numerical ways to look at the sport of hockey, because the game was played a lot like jazz - improvised as it went on.

But a lot of people, a lot of smart people to be more specific, are trying to prove that people wrong.

Rob Vollman has been at it for several years, and he's produced books in one form or another for the past three or so. Here's his latest offering for the fall, "Stat Shot."

Basically, Vollman and a couple of friends in Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe go through some big themes, step by step, in these pages. The subjects include building a team under the current cap restrictions, judging goalies by save percentage and other metrics, faceoff success, junior hockey statistics' validity, shooting, and figuring what trades are the most one-sided in relatively recent league history.

Vollman jumps in quite early and points out that the information covered in these pages is at least a year old. The problems of trying to say something significant between the time that the Stanley Cup playoffs end and the start of the season would cause any publisher to cringe. I believe it. So at least here, some of the studies aren't completely up-to-date - but then again, the points that are made still seem relevant. Luckily, the group of statisticians does have a e-book out with more relevant information. I would guess that the e-book would find a larger audience than this, which is a bit more theoretical in nature.

Vollman and Co. certainly take their time in presenting information, and they make a good case for some of their arguments. The question that comes up from non-analytical types is - will I be able to understand it? That varies to a degree on the reader's openness to accept the information, and to put up with some new concepts and anagrams. From my viewpoint, I did have my eyes glaze over a few times, particularly in the description of shooting.

Personally, I think I'd rather read the updated version. This comes across as something that would be good in a special blog for a narrow group of people that wants the information. But the authors at least are doing some good work here, and NHL teams are noticing. Most front offices have a department doing such research.

My reaction to "Stat Shot" was rather lukewarm, because I don't follow the sport closely any more. (Is there anyone thinking about indoor lacrosse for this stuff?) But if you see it in a bookstore, and pick it up,  you might find yourself entertained and informed.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: One Night Only (2016)

By Ken Reid

The National Hockey League Guide and Record Book comes out every fall, and one part of the book that always fascinates is the player register in the back of the book. Everyone who has ever played in an NHL game gets a line of type - from Gordie Howe to Trent Kaese.

Howe played in 1,767 games, while Kaese played in one. They get the same amount of type. (I don't mean to pick on Kaese; I just remember him from his days with the Sabres.)

In an odd way, it's almost like being a member of a club. You are in or you are out. The numbers are simply different. And how many young boys grew up wanting to see their name in that list?

Ken Reid probably has looked over that list, and he became more curious than most about the guys who had "one" in the games played column. So he tracked them down, which must have been a difficult task in some cases.

Eventually, Reid found enough one-game wonders to fill a book. "One Night Only" is that book, a nice little tribute to those who briefly served.

The stories generally follow a pattern. During the course of a season, someone on the NHL team gets hurt and a replacement is needed - usually in a hurry. The call goes down to the minor leagues, and someone collects his sticks and heads to the NHL city for a moment of glory. Some of the players take it all in stride, perhaps because they took part in preseason games and figured they would have plenty of more opportunities. Then there are those who know they are catching a break in the middle of a season, and enjoy the ride.

The goalies might draw the most sympathy here. Frequently they are called up as a backup, and essentially needed to fill a uniform and not expected to play. NHL teams keep lists of goalies who had a uniform number but never got on the ice except to pay the starter on the back at the end of the game. But a few did make it into a game in a relief role. One goalie got to go into a game with four minutes left. That's not long, but it was good enough to put him in the club.

As you'd expect, most of the guys are relatively anonymous. The big exception is Don Cherry, who turned up in a Bruins playoff game in Montreal in 1955. Cherry, who became famous as a player and coach, hurt his shoulder the following summer playing baseball and never got another chance. Don Waddell, who worked as a general manager and coach in the NHL, might be No. 2 on the fame list of those in the book. But otherwise, the players returned to the minors and in many cases headed to Europe for a chance to play regularly.

Most of the players here are a bit proud of the fact that they reached the NHL at all, even if they take a little kidding about it. Others just considered it part of their hockey experience, and don't exactly brag about it.

If there's a drawback to the format, it's that the stories start to read the same way after a while - and this isn't a long book. After all, there are only so many ways that a one-game career can take shape. My guess is that a collection of such stories from all sports might have worked a little better for some readers.

On the other hand, limiting the subjects to hockey players might make it more interesting for those who follow hockey closely, and thus would be a good target for purchasing. "One Night Only" is pleasant and easy reading, and those who read it probably will come away satisfied.

Three stars

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Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: Any Given Number (2014)

By Bill Syken

When it comes to ideas for Sports Illustrated's books, this was something of a lay-up.

Have someone pick out the greatest "uniform" number (NASCAR numbers are included as well) for every number from 0 to 99. Then go through the files to find pictures, and add a few facts about unusual circumstances for a few of the sports figures and their numbers.

Presto. Instant book.

There are no right or wrong answers here, but all of the choices seem as if they can be justified pretty well. Author Bill Syken (you have to look really hard here to find out that he did the writing) supplies plenty of facts to go along with the top candidates, and each number has a flurry of "honorable mentions."

From there, let the arguments begin. For example, let's look at No. 7. Old-timers always will think of Mickey Mantle, while younger people will lean toward John Elway. That's a pretty tough call.

The standards seem to change a little bit when it's convenient to make an argument. At certain points players get credit for being the best ever in their sport or at a position, while at other times they don't. For example, Gordie Howe probably is at worst in the top three of all-time great hockey players, but falls short on No. 9 to a baseball player named Ted Williams. Both are legends, and baseball is more popular. Williams gets the nod in the book. On the other hand, Bobby Orr is picked over Brett Favre at No. 4. As I said, it's an inexact science.

The packaging is fine, as there are plenty of good photos from the SI files. They did a good job of players who popped up in unusual numbers for one reason or another - players who took numbers for the date they were born or date they arrived in a new country or for their old neighborhood.

Basically, there's one big drawback - the price. In hard cover, it checks in at $19.95 new. There's really not much to read here; you can zip through it all pretty quickly. For that sort of money, you need more to read - and it's not coming. Maybe a paperback edition would have been the route to use.

However, the book has been out for a couple of years now. I picked up a copy at a discount store for $1.99. I've paid more for a bottle of soda pop at a baseball game, and this is well worth that.

We're all a little fascinated by the numbers that athletes wear; it almost becomes part of their identity. "Any Given Number" capitalizes on that so that it's best possible treatment of a relatively silly and fun subject.

Three stars

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: On Someone Else's Nickel (2016)

By Tim Ryan

During Tim Ryan's long career as a sportscaster, he always showed up well prepared, never grabbed the spotlight, and did a solid job. You knew what you were going to see when he appeared on television.

In other words, he was a professional.

You wouldn't expect a book by Ryan to be anything different. Sure enough, his autobiography is told in a readable, straight-forward manner. It's interesting to go through "On Someone Else's Nickel" just to see how the life of this sometimes ever-present announcer allowed him to turn up at so many types of events - from the first Ali-Frazier bout to the Olympics.

Ryan might not have had much choice about entering the sports business. He was born into it, as his father was a sports executive in Canada. The Ryans bounced around Canada as a youth, and Tim eventually went to Notre Dame and then was lucky enough to land a job in Toronto when a new television station signed on the air.

After about a half-dozen years there, Ryan noticed that the National Hockey League planned to expand in 1967 and applied for some jobs as a play-by-play announcer. The author says that his Canadian background probably impressed some executives, although he obviously had some talent. Ryan landed a spot as the voice of the Oakland Seals, and doubled as public relations director. From there it was on to New York City, where he attracted attention from the people at the networks, and it was up, up and away from there.

During the next 40 years ago, Ryan worked for all sorts of networks and covered a variety of sports. That said, he established a good reputation no matter where he popped up on the dial. For whatever reason, Ryan became associated mostly with individual sports such as tennis, boxing and skiing. (There was plenty of work with CBS on NFL games, too.) The veteran even was doing a lot of work with equestrian events around the end of his run, since networks knew he would study hard and be a pro at it. Ryan probably surprised himself with that path in its entirety, but it gave him a career.

That path also allowed him to do some traveling, and Ryan took to that quite easily - especially when someone else was paying the bills. So he literally got to see the world on the tab of sports networks. It's a pretty good gig if you can get away with it, and Ryan worked at several glamorous locations. He also worked several Olympics, summer and winter. What's more, Ryan got to the point financially where he could, for example, afford a second home in Switzerland.

The major dramatic portion of the story comes when wife Lee is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when she is around 50 years old. Her mind slowly fades away in the years after that, and the story like all such tales in that area is heart-breaking to read. To his credit, Ryan did plenty of work to increase awareness of Alzheimer's. After Lee's death, Tim remarried and went on his wife.

A couple of points jump out about the telling of this story. It has 73 chapters, although quite a few of them only take a minute or two to read. I suppose it's a little choppy that way, but I can't call it annoying. Meanwhile, the story is littered with references to many "close friends" along the way, a few famous but most not so well known. Ryan seems to remember most of the restaurants he's visited over the years, and what type of wine he had along the way. A little editing could have been useful there. Some of the stories you'd expect in a book like this do entertain, thankfully. He covered some great moments and met interesting sports personalities, and they are always fun to read.

It's tough to call "On Someone Else's Nickel" particularly memorable. But Ryan provides his life story in a pleasant way. Those with an interest in the subjects will find some rewards here.

Three stars

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: My Marathon (2016)

By Frank Shorter with John Brant

The full review of this book was written for "The Buffalo News." You can find it here.

Short version - Shorter is one of the best interviews in the sports business, and his life has taken all sorts of unexpected turns and dramatics over the years. No wonder his autobiography is worth your time. It will help if you are old enough to remember his exploits in the 1970s, but I think it works well for most runners who like to read after a good run.

Four stars

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