Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review: Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don't Walk (2017)

By Lesley Visser 

My instant reaction to the professional work of Lesley Visser is a little different than that of others - perhaps because I'm a former newspaper reporter.

I remember her when she first started in the the business as a member of the sports staff of the Boston Globe in the 1970s. That was one of the greatest collections of talent in newspaper history, and Visser more than held her own. Yes, she was one of the pioneers of the business at the time, but she clearly knew her stuff and wrote well.

It might have been interesting to see what she might have done had she stayed in that role. Instead, she jumped to television, where she was a pioneer too. Broadcast journalism requires a different set of skills, of course, and she did well there. What would have her life looked like if she had stayed with it? Tough to say. Maybe she would have knocked down some different doors.

In reading "Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don't Walk," it's obvious that the move was a career-changing experience, and that she enjoyed herself along the way.

Sports more or less have been a part of Visser's life almost from the beginning. She landed a job with the Globe out of Boston College in the 1970s, a time when women weren't exactly welcomed by players and teams. The title refers to her mother's reaction to her becoming a sports journalist when it figured to be a difficult battle to get through the door.

Visser's best stories in the book concern the battle to gain access. Picture someone waiting outside a locker room for long periods of time until athletes could come out and do one last interview with her. The tales do resemble the movie "Hidden Figures," about women in NASA at times. Visser deserves all sorts of credit for fighting that fight.

Otherwise, though,  this is relatively standard material. Books by journalists often are simple recounts of stories covered and personalities encountered. Visser seems to have become quite friendly with a variety of personalities over the years. There are stories about such people as Rick Pitino, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Joe Torre, and co-worker John Madden. There's less distance between reporter and source in such situations, apparently. Visser apparently posed for photos with all of them and then some, based on the illustrations here.

There are plenty of other stories told along the way, often about travel. Visser certainly has worked at almost all of the major events on the sports calendar. It's a little surprising, then, that some of the material feels like filler. Anecdotes and suggestions about food and restaurants around the country, not to mention a short chapter about her hair, don't work so well.

By the way, I think every person Visser has ever met is on the list of acknowledgments. Hope she doesn't have to send them all a copy of the book; she'll go broke.

It's good to have a book like "Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don't Walk" in the stores, even if it's not a book you'll save forever. Visser's account ought to inspire some young girls to follow in her footsteps, which is great. And she's apparently enjoyed the ride since those early days, so it's easy to be happy for her.

Three stars

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2017

Edited by Howard Bryant

It's year 27 for the Best American Sports Writing series, and it's Howard Bryant's turn at the plate.

The anthology books have gone through plenty of guest editors since 1991, including such names as David Halberstam, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Peter Gammons and Michael Wilbon. Bryant is a worthy successor to that list.

The veteran sportswriter has did good work for a couple of newspapers, writes now for ESPN, and has written three fine books. He's obviously smart, and he's obviously serious - and that shows up in his selections here.

Just to review, series editor Glenn Stout collects several nominated stories and then passes them to the guest editor. That's followed by the no-doubt agonizing process of getting down the number of stories to fit a book. In this case, we have 27 stories to read.

And read them we do, because they almost always are worth our time. Maybe that's why the series has been around for 27 years.

There's not really a game story to be found here, or much that was written on a tight deadline. Stories on the death of Muhammad Ali or the completion of the Wimbledon tennis tournament might be the only qualifies, although neither had to be written for The New Yorker in two hours.

What's that leave? Plenty of long stories on a variety of subject, mostly serious in nature. My personal favorite was a 27-pager by Wright Thompson called "The Secret History of Tiger Woods." It's almost required reading as Tiger tries to make one last comeback on the PGA Tour, as Thompson obviously made an extensive effort to find out more on what makes Woods tick - no small challenge.

In hindsight, some of my favorite stories were about personalities. William "the Refrigerator" Perry seems to be on a path that will not end well. Football coach Barry Switzer is having fun in "retirement" being Barry Switzer, as we could have predicted. Dusty Baker's story seems more poignant now that he's out of work as the Nationals' manager. Figure skater Debi Thomas appeared to have it all together in her competitive days, but you wouldn't use that description now. Warriors basketball coach Steve Kerr has a fascinating life story, and it provides him a perspective that is broad enough to be unique in sports.

There are plenty of other stories that aren't typical stories that turn up in sports pages but still lure us in. I've been to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and the battle of over Thorpe's body continues to be an everlasting and bizarre story. I'm not sure that a story about a 30-something woman enrolling in high school in attempt to make up for missed opportunities as a teen has much to do with sports, but it was a worthwhile story. An accounting of the daily sports fantasy business is a long one, but sorts out the particulars well. We get a good lesson that determining the sex of an athlete is not an either/or proposition, as seen from the eyes of a young girls from India. The tales of refugees in the Olympics and Africans trying to find a basketball home in America really are stories of strangers in a strange land.

The one danger of including serious and unusual subjects is that sometimes you'll lose the audience for a moment along the way. That happened to me in a couple of the stories here; I'll let you guess their identity. But the percentages are in Bryant's favor.

Stout, who has done an excellent job as caretaker of the series, talks in the foreward how the series has been inspiration to many young writers, which is excellent news. You always get something good in these books, and that's why you should keep reading them year after year.

Four stars

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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review: Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles (2017)

By Steve Gietschier

This is an interesting idea.

Steven Gietschier used to handle some of the historically linked stories and columns in The Sporting News, a weekly publication I still miss these days. He was obviously pretty smart and knew his stuff.

Gietschier has done a national search for college professors who have studied certain events that stand out in sports history. Those academic types have written a relatively short essay(10 pages or so on average) on said event, and Gietschier collected them to put in one place.

Put the 23 essays together, and you have a book: "Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles."

The list of subjects is rather wide-ranging and comes in chronological order. The brief rundown would include the invention of baseball,  the "Black Sox" scandal, the start of the NCAA basketball tournament, integration of the National Football League, the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles, the 1972 Olympic basketball final, Ali-Foreman, and the start of ESPN. The cover photo is a shot of the relatively famous fight between Juan Marichal and Johnny Roseboro in 1965, in which Marichal hit Roseboro in the head with a baseball swing.

There's certainly reason for optimism in checking out the list of subjects. Someone else might have taken different events, but that's allowed. But does this list and concept work well? Somewhat.

The problem with it is that it's a wide-ranging collection of authors, all from the academic community. I've found over the years that such professors certain know their stuff, but they probably are better teachers than writers. In this collection, the essays go from quite interesting to quite easy to skim through.

Part of the problem is that some of the subjects don't really have answers. How did baseball get invented? Did Babe Ruth really call his shot? Has America always not dipped its flag at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics? We're not sure, and there are no conclusions offered. Sometimes things have to stay in the fog of history. Sometimes the articles cover familiar ground and don't offer too much new. An article on "The Drive" in a Browns-Broncos playoff game is something of an excuse to review Cleveland's sports and economic history. The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles from Brooklyn is tough to summarize in such a short piece.

The stories that jump out, then, are the ones that are not covered by other sources very often. Lindsay Parks Pieper reviews Babe Didrikson at the 1932 Olympics. Althea Gibson's run-up to grand-slam tennis titles gets the once over through the work of Maureen Smith. The story of Dan Gable's one wrestling loss is a good one, thanks to David Zang. Michael Ezra does a good job of putting the Ali-Foreman fight into perspective.

Admittedly, I've read more sports history than most people, so that could be a reason for my lack of overall enthusiasm. Those a little less familiar with the subjects will learn some facts about important events from the past. Overall, though, "Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles" comes across as a hit-or-miss proposition.

Three stars

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Friday, December 1, 2017

Review: Game Face (2017)

By Bernard King with Jerome Preisler

There's a lot to admire about the life of Bernard King.

He grew up in a tough part of New York with a family that featured a distant, alcoholic father and a mother who really had little clue on how to raise children. Even so, he managed to become one of the best basketball players in the city, and earned a scholarship at Tennessee. From there, King became an All-American for the Volunteers - although he encountered some 1970s-style racism along the way.

The forward left college early to turn pro, and made the transition to the NBA smoothly on the court - although he had some problems off it. King certainly deserved eventual status as a Hall of Famer.

Now 25 years later, he's written down his account of his life in his autobiography, "Game Face." And it's interesting that King's biggest obstacle - and the one he discusses at the start of the book - had nothing to do with anything listed above.

King suffered about as bad a knee injury as you could find without getting involving in some sort of traffic accident or other disaster. He jumped in the air during a game and knew he was in trouble even before he landed. Doctors looked at him and wondered if he would ever walk normally again. Basketball figured to be in the past, not in his future.

But King worked hard, harder and hardest. He was sidelined for about two years before finally returning to the NBA. King played three full years after the injury, and got his scoring average back up to 28.4 points per game. It was a remarkable comeback.

It's easy to split this book into two parts, one more compelling than the other. King's early years are the interesting ones. His father wouldn't even let him play basketball (or do anything else) outside on Sundays until Bernard defied him. His mother apparently used a strap on him more than one, because that how she was raised. As a result, King said he felt better hiding his feelings behind a "game face" - don't let them know what you are thinking, particularly on the court. Let me assure those who are too young to remember that King was a true handful when playing - a pure scorer who earned his points every single night.

The second half of the story doesn't work as well. One of the obvious reasons is that he played with some mediocre teams over the years - emphasis on "teams," since he bounced around quite a bit through five teams. King didn't come close to playing for an NBA champion. That's not his fault, but it will be noticed by the reader.

Also missing and a little puzzling is the lack of material on younger brother Albert. He was the finest high school player in the country as a senior, and he went on to play at Maryland and then to the pros. Albert isn't even mentioned in the front half of the book, only coming up  when the two players met in the postseason.

Albert isn't alone in that description. Bernard's first wife doesn't even have her name mentioned. Also avoided is how King got away from alcohol and drug abuse, a habit he picked up early in his career. And the picture painted about what King has been doing after basketball seems incomplete. He's done some broadcasting work; let's hope he took care of his money and moved happily into middle age.

Naturally, any book written about an athlete from the 1970s or 1980s is going to feel like ancient history to some. Even so, "Game Face" lets us have a peak at a man who admits he didn't like telling much about himself back in the day. Therefore, those in the proper demographic will find this worth a read.

Three stars

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review: Game Change (2017)

By Ken Dryden

You're probably heard about the problems that the National Football League has been having with concussions in recent years. Several players who have been diagnosed with brain damage after their deaths (the best test only can be done at that point), and the numbers continue to grow with each passing month.

The National Hockey League has similar problems. It just hasn't received as much attention as the NFL.

But it's certainly there. Ask the family and friends of Steve Montador, who was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after his death in 2015. He'll certainly become a poster boy for the subject thanks to the new book, "Game Change" by Ken Dryden.

Montador wasn't a superstar at any point in his career. He worked hard during his days as a youth and junior player, doing what it took to make the team better. Montador wasn't drafted by an NHL team, but he found a way to reach the big leagues. The defenseman was a classic fifth or sixth defenseman - not good enough to stay with one team for a particularly long period of time, but usually good enough to land a job somewhere else. Montador bounced from Calgary to Florida to Anaheim to Boston to Buffalo to Chicago.

The problem was that Montador picked up some concussions all along the way, and had some after-effects that were serious. He also had some alcohol and drug abuse issues as an NHL player. Montador seems to be well-liked by teammates, and was considered a good person. One administrative worker tells the story about how the defenseman bought two season tickets, and asked that the seats be given to a pair of deserving fans every night - and that those fans be brought to the locker room after the game to meet Montador personally. 

Dryden is a great choice to write a book like this. He obviously knows hockey, as he was a Hall of Famer as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. Dryden has written five books, and they are all superb. The ex-goalie is a patient, intelligent observer and doesn't miss much. Dryden's other books were all extremely well done. He is obviously had full access to Montador's family and friends, and so gives the reader an upclose look at Montador's problems until his death at the age of 35. By the way, we still don't know much about Montador's final days.

Even more interesting is the way Dryden moves into other areas. He has some great analysis about how the game of hockey has changed over the years, as it has gotten faster and faster in its evolution. The problem is that a faster game can lead to more serious head injuries, but that the league hasn't been in a hurry to take a long look at the issue. It's a look at the history of the sport from a completely different perspective. Dryden also talks at length with players like Keith Primeau and Marc Savard, who saw their careers end prematurely with concussion-related issues.

The ending is a little different too. Dryden has written about the problems of head issues elsewhere, such as editorial pages, but this is a long (43 pages) treatment on the subject. His solution comes in two parts and is pretty simple - outlaw hits to the head of any kind (including fighting), and no "finishing a check."  Would it help? Probably. Is the NHL willing to go to that point? Not so far.

It's easy to get bogged down in the discussion of concussions in sports, mostly because the answers aren't clear. We don't know when the problems started, so it's tougher to assess blame. Some people recover from head injuries quickly; others never do come around. But clearly this isn't an issue that's going away soon, no matter what's responsible for it. We'll see if Dryden's well-reasoned look at the subject will help move the discussion forward.

Five stars

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review: The First Major (2017)

By John Feinstein

Sometimes, the golfing gods are with you. Sometimes, they are against you.

Sometimes, the ball kicks off a hill in the rough, and puts your ball firmly in the fairway. Sometimes, your reward for a perfect drive is a landing spot right in the middle of a big, ugly divot.

John Feinstein knows all about the golfing gods, having written about the sport for several years. When he decided to write a book about the 2016 Ryder Cup, he certainly had hopes of a close or at least memorable finish. After all, the book figured to be released about a year after the competition between the United States and Europe was finished.

Feinstein didn't catch a break in terms of the match. You probably remember that the United States won convincingly in the 2016 version of the biannual match. But that only takes a little away from "The First Major," an always interesting book on the Ryder Cup and the qualities that make it a unique sporting event.

The Ryder Cup used to be a nice little event featuring the best of the United States and Great Britain/Ireland. The problem was that the United States almost always won. So in 1979, the GB/I team became the European team - and it was more than competitive. Europe had had the upper hand in the matches overall leading up to the 2016 clash in Hazeltine - winning six of the previous seven events. Meanwhile, the fans on both sides took the enthusiasm level to another level, making seem more like a Michigan-Ohio State football game than a pleasant golf match among gentlemen.

And what does that mean? Pressure on all concerned. Golfers usually play for themselves and their bank accounts. They are used to that, and we see great performances all the time during the year. (Those who don't measure up almost never appear on the Sunday television broadcasts.) But the Ryder Cup adds the team concept to the equation for one of the few times on the golfing calendar. When the golfers have a bad day, they go home early and practice for the next week. But golfers in the Ryder Cup are playing for their country. Everything becomes magnified in such a setting - good shots and bad ones, which come up at a surprisingly high rate. 

That history and intensity received much of the focus in the book. Feinstein does a good job of tracking down everyone involved, including those who had taken part in events in the years leading up to the 2016 matches. No one does too much ducking when it comes to questions about controversial events from the past. Even better, there are some good and unexpected stories about the players and captains. Who knew that Matt Kuchar was so funny?

Feinstein's books are always thorough, and that reporting skill certainly shows up here. There are plenty of times when he describes events that were private or that happened behind closed doors - such as deliberations over pairings, thoughts at key moments in particular matches, team gatherings, etc. As usual - I've read about all of Feinstein's work for adult audiences (he has written some for kids) - it's a fun, easy read. The longtime author seems very comfortable writing about this subject.

It's a little tough to decide if this book is very good or exceptional. Perhaps it can be best summed up this way - it's tough to picture a treatment of the Ryder Cup done any better. Golf fans, then, probably will call "The First Major" exceptional, and zip through it while enjoying almost every page.

Five stars

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Review: Dennis Maruk (2017)

By Dennis Maruk with Ken Reid

Nineteen players have scored 60 goals in an NHL season. There's little doubt about who are the two most anonymous members of that club.

Even Dennis Maruk, who is one of the answers to that question, knows he belongs there. He also knows that Bernie Nicholls is the other surprising answer. They may not be household names, but they are linked with named like Gretzky, Hull, Lemieux, Bossy and Lemieux.

That 60-goal season might be the reason why Maruk wrote this self-title autobiography. Fans of hockey from the 1970s and 1980s might want to know a bit more about him.

The NHL struggled at times during the 1970s, and Maruk was part of the ride by playing on some bad teams. He was the last of the California Seals (Oakland) in the NHL, and moved on to be a Cleveland Baron, was shipped to Minnesota, was traded to Washington - where he did his best work for his best teams - and then returned to Minnesota. The forward only came reasonably close to a Stanley Cup once, reaching the semifinals before running into a powerful New York Islanders team that was in the midst of a dynasty.

He was one of those guys who did what it took to score, and was very successful at it for a couple of years. Maruk had that 60-goal season in 1981-82, and had 50 the other year before. But he dropped to 31 in 1982-83, and never got about 22 after that. Still, Maruk finished with 356 goals, and that's not a bad career's work.

This book is broken into 60 chapters, which is an interesting gimmick. But in a story that takes relatively very little time to tell, I'm not sure it works so well. Maruk mentions what should be big moments in his life throughout the book, but is quick to say that he remembers absolutely no details from them. He even did a little searching of YouTube, but didn't find much. Mix that in with a lack of stories about good teams and players, and it takes less than two hours to get through this.

Since retiring from hockey, Maruk has been a little lost. He has had a series of jobs in and out of hockey over the quarter-century plus. At one point, Maruk announced to his wife in Minnesota - who had a good professional situation of her own there - that he had taken a job in Louisiana and they'd be moving. Period, end of discussion. That didn't go over too well. It led to a divorce, and puts the reader squarely in the ex-wife's corner.

To be fair, Maruk had bigger problems than that during his pro-hockey days, to the point where he came close to suicide. He's better now, and you hope he will stay on the right track for the rest of his days.

Dennis Maruk's story might have made for an interesting television feature or magazine articles, as he's a reminder that a midlife career change doesn't always turn out to be seamless. The book version probably won't work for most.

Two stars

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