Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review: Arthur Ashe (2018)

By Raymond Arsenault

It's been a little more than 25 years since Arthur Ashe died. That seems like something of a blink to those who remember his life and interests, which are still relevant today. Ashe's name appears on everything from the USTA stadium in New York to an annual award for courage from ESPN.

On the other hand, maybe it really did take that long to put together a full biography of this now-legendary sports hero. Raymond Arsenault hasn't spent the past quarter-century researching this book, but you might have been fooled into thinking that way after picking up a copy of a publication that checks in at almost 800 pages (including notes and credits).

Ashe might have been the most multi-dimensional personality to pop up in the sports section of the newspaper in many years. He was sports star, humanitarian, activist, philanthropist, author, broadcaster, lecturer, and so forth. It's all here in "Arthur Ashe - A Life."

Arsenault starts the story in Richmond, Virginia, where Ashe spent most of his childhood. Ashe was born in 1943, and his timing was close to being perfect in terms of his status as a pioneer in the sport of tennis. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, of course, and it was still a difficult place for African-Americans to live through the 1950s. That's especially true for those who had an interest in tennis, one of the "country club" sports in which most of the best players came from affluent backgrounds.

Ashe showed enough promise in the game to spend his senior year of high school in St. Louis, where racial issues were less of an issue (relatively speaking). He then earned a scholarship to UCLA - where Jackie Robinson, anothersports  pioneer, attended college. The Sixties portion of the book features some great information on that period for tennis. Walls are were starting to come down for a black like Ashe, as he climbed the ladder in the rankings of American tennis players. Then, just as he was ready to finish a stint in the Army and had to figure out how to make a living at tennis if possible, the sport eventually opened up to allow professionals a chance to capitalize on their skills. As the author outlines, it was a complicated time, as amateurism didn't go quietly into the night. There were some bumps on that road, and if Ashe had been a little younger he might not have made it.

But he did. Ashe usually ranked in the top 10 of the world in his prime, won three major championships, and was a constant presence on the United States Davis Cup team. It was a career capped by a surprising win at Wimbledon over Jimmy Connors in 1975, which still is considered one of the great tennis upsets in history. A good-sized heart attack soon ended his career with a racquet. However, most people figured Ashe was the one athlete who figured to have a second act in his life, and he plunged into the list of interests and activities mentioned above.

Some of them led to controversy and interesting discussions. For example, Ashe played a part in the battle to open South Africa up from its policy of apartheid. He played in some tournaments then and paid other visits to that country. Was it better to do that, or isolate the country and its evil policy? It's still difficult to tell.

We certainly get a sense here of what life was like for Ashe after "retirement." It's almost like Arsenault found Ashe's date book, and reviewed his schedule. Hint - it was really busy, with flights all over the world. It didn't let up until the very end; Ashe contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and died in 1993.

It's easy to fall in love with the subject of such biographies; I usually associate the practice with books on Abraham Lincoln. Arsenault certainly carries his admiration of Ashe throughout the pages of the book. It's tough to blame him for that.

Two other minor objections come up here. Reviewers have noticed that sections on the book on Ashe's tennis abilities fall a little short of the rest of the book, and they are right. The matches are described in great detail, but a few more stories from contemporaries about what made Ashe as good as he was would have been nice. Along those lines, the book also suffers a little bit from the effects of the computer age. It's easy to write a long book in this day and age, but this probably could have lost about 25 to 50 pages with a last, probably painful edit.

Even so, "Arthur Ashe" offers a really good portrait of a self-described "citizen of the world" who still could be a role model for many. Ashe did write three memoirs of his life, and they are worth exploring for those interested, but Arsenault's treatment probably will be the one that holds up as the best exploration of the multi-faceted champion.

Four stars

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: Coach Wooden and Me (2017)

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

For those who don't know anything about basketball, the friendship between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Wooden might seem a little odd.

Abdul-Jabbar is a tall, Muslim, African-American from New York City. Wooden was a normal-sized, Christian Caucasian from Indiana. The contrasts could go further, but you get the idea. Imagine the two of them in a booth in a diner, chatting away.

They did have basketball in common, of course. Wooden won 10 NCAA championships as a coach at UCLA and is considered one of the greatest coaches to ever put a whistle around his neck. He's also the first person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach. Abdul-Jabbar helped Wooden win three of those titles (1967-69), and went on to become one of the greatest players in history.

They also had something else in common: life. Their relationship showed an curiosity about life on both sides.

After Wooden died at the age of 99, it took Abdul-Jabbar years to put down on paper what Wooden meant to him. The result of that project, "Coach Wooden and Me," is a sweetheart of a book.

Abdul-Jabbar represents something of a turning point in the story of basketball. He was so tall (7-foot-2) and so good in high school that there was intense interest in where he would play in college. It could be argued that he started the growth of recruiting for college teams, something that has reached a mania in recent years. The young man quickly discovered that any university with a basketball program was willing to give him a full scholarship.

That's where Wooden enters the picture. Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, sat down with Wooden for their first meeting during the recruiting process. The author liked the idea of attending UCLA, with its good weather and history of attracting top blacks such as Jackie Robinson. Wooden started the conversation by talking about academics, which floored Abdul-Jabbar. Basketball entered the conversation much later. Clearly, this was a coach with more on his mind than basketball. What's more, it was the absolutely perfect approach for someone like Abdul-Jabbar, a thoughtful man just coming into his own when it came to developing a personal philosophy.

The two men worked well together on the court, of course. Wooden's philosophy was to prepare his teams to play their best, and winning would take care of itself if they played to their potential. They usually did. That was fine with Abdul-Jabbar, who was rather shy in some ways and had no personal need to set scoring records. The contrast there might be someone like Wilt Chamberlain, who was an entirely different personality.

Abdul-Jabbar moved on to the pros after graduation, and found that he kept thinking about Wooden's lessons as he went through life. They seemed to apply to more aspects of existence than just basketball. It's something that virtually all of Wooden's ex-players have said. The phrase "Be quick but don't hurry" can be applied to all sorts of activities.

Abdul-Jabbar eventually reached out to Wooden again, and the friendship between them grew. Sometimes they talked on the phone, sometimes they shared a meal together, sometimes they just watched a basketball or baseball game on television. The younger of the two soon realized that Wooden had become something of a father figure to him.

The author wisely has plenty of stories from those conversations, which proved educational. For example, Abdul-Jabbar never realized how much pressure Wooden faced during those UCLA years, especially when he had Abdul-Jabbar as his star center. The Bruins weren't just hoping to win titles then; they were expected to win them. Big difference. Wooden told Abdul-Jabbar once, "I wish all my really good friends in coaching would win one national championship. And those I don't think highly of, I wish they would win several."

This all sounds like it as a "Tuesdays with Morrie" approach to it, referring to the book by Mitch Albom. And it does, but the difference is that it's interesting to learn about Abdul-Jabbar as well. He had periods when he wasn't particularly open in his public statements - and who could blame him at times? - so we had to wait until now to learn what he was thinking during a basketball career that was played out in public.

"Coach Wooden and Me" goes by quickly; it can be read in a day if you have some time. But by all means, don't hurry. Sit back and enjoy a wonderful story about the relationship between the subject of the book and the author.

Five stars

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Review: Killer (2017)

By Doug Gilmour with Dan Robson

The number of seventh-round draft choices who reached the Hockey Hall of Fame has to be a very small one. The number of 177-pounders who are enshrined in Toronto probably isn't too big either.

No doubt about it - Doug Gilmour beat the odds.

Gilmour was taken right after Jay Ness and just before Brad Ramsden in the 1982 Entry Draft. Gilmour went on to become the best player taken there, probably topping the careers of such players as Phil Housley and Dave Andreychuk. The forward finished with 1,414 points in 1,474 career games, which isn't bad at all for a guy who broke in as a fourth-line checking center.

That's a pretty good story, and he tells his side of it in the book, "Killer." Gilmour took his time with writing the story, since he retired in 2003. It's easy to wonder if he still needed a little more time to put things into more perspective.

Here's a quick refresher on his career. Gilmour grew up in Kingston, Ontario, in a sports-minded family. His brother was even a pro hockey player. Doug's youth is a rather standard story, a smallish player who had world-class stats in junior hockey. He had 119 points in 76 games at 18 years of age, and a ridiculous 177 points in 68 games at 19. And when he got to St. Louis, the Blues made him ... a checker. Well, maybe that's why the Blues have never won a Stanley Cup.

But eventually, Gilmour got his chance after three years of good two-year play, and he scored 105 points in 1986-87. A year later, the center was traded to Calgary, where he helped the Flames win a Stanley Cup in 1989. Then in 1992, Gilmore was part of a massive, five-for-five deal with the Maple Leafs ... and that's where the story really gets interesting.

After an initial half-season of adjustment, Gilmour burst out in 1992-93 - a season that is fondly remembered by Toronto's hockey fans. That was the season that the Leafs could have won the Cup, but Wayne Gretzky and the Kings got in the way in the conference finals. Still, Gilmour was idolized in Toronto, which as is written here has benefits and pressures magnified beyond what most could believe. I would bet that some would call Gilmour the greatest Maple Leaf ever, at least during the time from 1992-94.

From there, Gilmour did some bouncing from team to team - New Jersey, Chicago, Buffalo, and Montreal. By the time he passed through Buffalo (personal note: I covered the team in his time there), he seemed a little worn down by stardom. Gilmour returned to Toronto, hurt his knee badly in his first game there, and never played again.

In the book, Gilmour goes through the seasons, one after another, easily enough. There are some stories about some of the big goals and big games he had, and encounters with coaches and teammates along the way. It's all told in a rather dry manner. Gilmour does seem to come to life a bit when describing pranks and practical jokes played on teammates and others, although that sort of stuff may not strike everyone as particularly amusing.

Now, I know that there are thousands of people who still love Doug Gilmour and the way he played hockey. They no doubt rushed to the bookstore when this book was released, and zipped through the text with a smile on their faces - especially the parts of the 1993 team. That's fine. But it's easy to ask for something more in a book like this. There isn't too much about anyone else in his orbit, and Gilmour doesn't particularly come across as an introspective person.

Gilmour only devotes a couple of sentences to a well-publicized 1988 lawsuit. He simply says he faced some false legal accusations, which he said were rejected by a grand jury. Gilmour describes it as "the most difficult time in my life." It's obviously tough to know from a distance if there were legal or personal after-effects from that episode. But the incident apparently led to his trade from St. Louis to Calgary. Could he have said more here? Should he have said more, or even less? I'm not going to take sides without knowing the complete story, but it's a curious passage in the book.

"Killer" will tell you the story of a hockey player who seemed to be playing chess on the ice when everyone else was playing checkers. He deserves full credit for a great career. Some readers of Gilmour's autobiography, though, will come away seeking more.

Two stars

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Review: We Want Fish Sticks (2018)

By Nicholas Hershon

What are the chances of two books having the words "Fish Sticks" in the title - books that have nothing to do with the frozen food industry?

Not bad, as you'd know if you are a fan of the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League. Book one came out in 2003 and was simply called "Fish Sticks." Now in 2018 we have "We Want Fish Sticks," by Nicholas Hershon.

Why all the talk about fish sticks? It was a short-hand way of referring to the Islanders' attempt at rebranding the franchise in the mid-1990s. The team dumped its old logo - one which seemed to be fine when the team won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s - and came up with a new one. Logo II featured a fisherman, and it resembled the one used by Gorton's Fish Sticks.

The new design was a failure, and is still something of a laughing stock for those who follow such things. What's more, it was something of an instant failure, as Rangers fans loved to chant "We want fish sticks" to mock the Islanders during games.

What went wrong? Well, almost everything, as Hershon discovered when he researched this book. First of all, it was a time when NHL teams had discovered the power of merchandising, thanks in part to teams like the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Islanders thought they needed something new to help increase enthusiasm for the team, particularly after a disappointing season. But they did little research on the subject and couldn't be bothered testing any of the designs before focus groups or hearing the reactions of fans - you know, the people who actually might buy the merchandise. The Islanders' front office might have discovered that there is an emotional attachment to a sports team's logo, especially one that's been around a while.

But Hershon suggests that a bigger problem might have been the team itself. It was hoping that the logo would catch a wave of improved fortune for the team. Instead, the Islanders continued their losing ways. The team shuffled executives and coaches with regularity, and trades and draft picks simply didn't work out. The players interviewed for the book all agreed that while they weren't crazy about the new look in many cases, a logo doesn't score any goals. The franchise also had ownership problems, especially toward the end of this era, as it turned out new owner John Spano was a complete fraud and wound up spending plenty of time in prison in the years ahead.

In fact, the team's ups and downs probably receive closer scrutiny in the book than the logo's fate. Games, trades and other changes during the span of the new logo's life are well covered, but it's a little difficult for someone who doesn't bleed the Islanders' colors to get too involved in that part of the story. It was more of a turbulent era than interesting. Besides, such superfans might even know the details already.

Even when the two stories are combined, this is quite a short book. It checks in at around 200 pages, including a long interview with the late designer of the logo (he died a few years ago) is included in its entirety. Hershon certainly did plenty of work in researching this, but many of the quotes are short and the effect is that the writing comes off as choppy in spots. The tale is also told in a serious way, and having a little fun with the subject would have been helpful.

The story of the Islanders' ill-fated logo probably is worth telling, but a book might not be the best format for it. A long magazine piece for some publication might have been a good fit. One of ESPN's documentaries in the "30 for 30" series might have worked too.

That leaves "We Want Fish Sticks" without much of a natural audience. Still, those looking for what went wrong with this marketing campaign will find their questions answered and then some. You can pick those people out - they are the ones wearing the fisherman's logo on uniforms at Islander games.

Two stars

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Review: Endurance (2016)

By Rick Broadbent

There's no way to determine the identity of the greatest long-distance runner in history. However, if you were going to magically bring the contenders together for a race, Emil Zatopek would be on the starting line.

He was that good. Don't discount his chances of beating all comers from all time periods, head to head.

Zatopek won four gold medals in his career, three of them coming at the 1952 Olympics. They came in the 5,000-meter run, the 10,000-meter run, and the marathon. It's safe to say that no one will ever do that again.

That clearly is an athletic career worth celebrating, and British author Rick Broadbent gets the story on paper in good order with his book, "Endurance." What makes this book particularly interesting is that Zatopek lived in a particularly volatile time in European and Czech history.

Zatopek was born in 1922, but didn't compete in his first race until 1941. Therefore, he wasn't an adult during Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia or the start of World War II. But when new, tougher leadership arrived in that part of the world in 1942, it affected everyone. Zatopek wound up in the army, where he actually could find time to do plenty of training, while his coach, Jan Haluza was held for years on suspicions of having subversive political views. The stories of how Haluza was tortured are some of the most painful and memorable in the book.

Meanwhile, Zatopek followed the relatively new training method of fartlek - also known as running intervals, which meant he'd run a certain distance at a given speed, take a break, and run it again. It's fair to say that no one ran with more determination and will power than Zatopek. Naturally, he didn't have many chances to test his skills against others as long as war was taking place.

In 1945, Germany was finally defeated and Europe looked forward to returning to normal life. But Czechoslovakia is one of those countries that has often been in the way of the expansion plans of more powerful neighbors. In this case, the vacuum left by Germany's demise was quickly filled by those from the Soviet Union, spreading an Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe. Life for the Czechs was just as repressive under the Communists as it had been under the Nazis. 

While most Czechs weren't allowed to leave the country for any period of time, Zatopek was good enough to serve as something of a propaganda tool for the government. He went to London for the 1948 Olympics, and won a gold and a silver medal. That established him as one of the great athletic heroes in his nation's history. Adding to the story was the fact that his wife, Dana, was also an Olympic athlete.She would later win a gold medal in the javelin toss.

From there, the Emil Zatopek legend only grew. The world records started to come in 1949. In one race in 1951, Zatopek set world records in three different areas - 10 miles, 20,000 meters, and one hour (furthest distance covered in the time period). That set up his performance in the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, which moved him into new heights of glory. Zatopek finished his career with 18 world records, with the last of them coming in 1955.

If his slow decline due to age was the end of the story, Zatopek would have had an interesting enough life. But politics added a postscript to the story in 1968. That was the year of the "Prague Spring," when the Czechs tried to gain a little freedom from Soviet domination. One of those Czechs was Zatopek, who signed his name on something of a petition asking for reform in his home country. Some brief feelings of hope were raised among the population, only to be crushed with Soviet troops came charging into Czechoslovakia in 1968. The legendary runner lived out the next 20 years or so as something of a non-person, as the government tried to bury his reputation. It took until 1989 and the Velvet Revolution for Zatopek to return to fame, although a generation had almost passed by then.

Broadbent certainly did his research here. He talked to Dana at length, and interviewed many others about Zatopek and the people who were part of the track and field scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I'm not sure how much Zatopek's personality comes across here - he comes off as a polite, friendly and nice man who is very single-minded about running - but the background story is compelling enough to keep you turning the pages.

Let's put it this way - if an American checks out the sports section of a Prague book store, there are three recognizable names: Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr and Emil Zatopek. "Endurance" brings the oldest one of the three back from the past.

Four stars

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: Blue Monday (2018)

By Danny Gallagher

There's no rule that saying a major-league sports team has to win eventually. Chances only come up so often, and if the team doesn't capitalize on that window of opportunity - which usually only lasts a few years at most - they usually are doomed to wait much longer.

Teams like the Cubs and Red Sox went decades before finally breaking through. More recently, hockey's Washington Capitals always seemed to know how to disappoint their fans in the spring ... until finally breaking through in 2018 with a Stanley Cup championship.

At least those teams finally got a chance. Others aren't so lucky. Exhibit A might be the baseball's Montreal Expos. Their best team probably was in 1994, when a labor stoppage forced the cancellation of the end of the season. That stopped Montreal's opportunity to claim a World Series crown, and perhaps led to the team's departure to Washington.

But their other big chance came on the field. And that's the one that author Danny Gallagher examines in his book "Blue Monday."

The Expos, who were born in 1969, needed about a decade to become competitive. Slowly but surely, they collected enough talent to be a title contender. There were three future Hall of Famers on that roster - Tim Raines, Gary Carter and Andre Dawson. After coming close to the postseason in 1979 and 1980, Montreal finally broke through in 1981. That was the year of another labor dispute and a split season that led to an extra round of the playoffs. The Expos knocked off the Phillies, three games to two, and met the Dodgers for the right to go to the World Series. What's more, after a pair of wins on each side, Game Five was in Montreal.

That deciding game was still tied in the ninth inning when manager Jim Fanning - brought on late in the regular season to replace Dick Williams - called on ace starter Steve Rogers to pitch. Rogers might have been the best pitcher in Expos history, but he will be remembered by some as the man who allowed a game-winning homer by Dodgers' outfielder Rick Monday. That was as close to a world championship as the Expos ever got, and it made Monday about as popular in Montreal as Bucky Dent was in Boston in late 1978.

Gallagher may not be the biggest single collector of information about the Expos alive, but he's certainly in the ballpark. The author has written four other books on the Expos after serving as a beat reporter for a Montreal newspaper at one point. No one can doubt his enthusiasm for this project. He talked to dozens and dozens of people who were involved in that game and team - virtually everyone who is alive, and in the case of the deceased Williams, his son.

Does all of this information work? That's more of a mixed bag. The book seems a bit padded by most standards. Play-by-play broadcasts are quoted for long stretches, and some of the players' quotes do tend to go on and on with some odd tangents. Some of the facts and anecdotes are repeated and not in any particular order. There are chapters about such players as Terry Francona, then just a young players with the Expos but someone who later made some baseball history by managing the Red Sox to a World Series title. Monday's baseball life story gets lots of room, although the Canadian target audience for a book like this probably is more interested in the effects of the loss on the team in the short term.

In addition, Gallagher comes off as a little too much of a fan of the Expos along the way here. A book like this is supposed to provide some dispassionate perspective on a turning point in franchise history, and it's a little surprising that the author approached it this way. Maybe he's trying to please his audience, which certainly mostly lives in Canada.

Moments like the Monday home run due come up frequently in baseball, which is what helps to make October so dramatic. Ask the Milwaukee Brewers, who a day before this was written looked poised to take a big lead in the NLCS. Alas, Justin Turner's homer may change the direction of the series for good. We'll see.

In the meantime, "Blue Monday" certainly will fill you in on the details of another one of those moments. It could have been better, but those still carrying the Expos' torch after all these years will find it interesting.

Three stars

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Review: Hockey Fight in Canada (2018)

By David Shoalts

Even American hockey fans understand the tradition behind the long-running broadcast program, "Hockey Night in Canada." It started on radio with Foster Hewitt doing the play-by-play, and eventually moved on to television in the 1950s. The story was that all of Canada gathered around TV sets to watch a game, preferably near a potbellied stove. It was part of the country's heritage.

The television business changed, of course, since those days, but Hockey Night remained something of a cultural institution. Therefore it was something of a shock in 2013 when it was announced that the CBC was about to lose its role as producer of the NHL games - putting about 60 years in the trashcan. Rogers had won the rights to the games, and would be merely showing those games on the CBC outlet.

This all didn't make much sense from an American perspective, which has taken the fact that the CBC was the gold standard for hockey broadcasting for granted. (Considering the way techniques get passed along in the television business, it's fair to guess that the playing field has been leveled out.) What, then, did happen up in the Great White North?

The answer, naturally, is complicated, and, sure enough, it involves money. Billions of dollars are involved. Luckily, David Shoalts has come to the rescue with an explanation of it all in the book, "Hockey Fight in Canada."

The author takes us through the story about how the changing media landscape altered the way hockey is watched. Before the landmark deal in 2013, the NHL had sold pieces of its broadcast rights to various outlets. The CBC had a piece for Hockey Night (Saturdays and playoffs), Bell/TSN had pieces, and Rogers/Sportsnet had some too. But eventually, the NHL came up with the idea of selling everything at once - and then letting the bidding winner split up the pieces as it saw fit. Since the CBC was not involved in wireless technology or streaming, there was no way the government-supported company could win this battle.

Shoalts takes us through the various parts of the puzzle and introduces us to a variety of players. It's interesting to see how everything comes together, particularly in regard to the NHL and its negotiation strategy. Other sports in America still sell off pieces of the rights; it will be interesting to see if this approach is the wave of the future. 

And Shoalts has a natural way to end the story. The new production team came up with new ways to tell stories and new personalities to present them. But within two years, the gimmicks were gone and an old face was back front and center of the broadcast. In other words, it looked like Hockey Night in Canada again. I think that's a happy ending.

A book like "Hockey Fight in Canada" obviously is going to have a relatively limited audience, particularly in the United States. It's a business book for starters, and that means some people are going to find it on the dry side. Readers in America also had better be big enough hockey fans to know at least some of the issues and personalities involved.

But Shoalts is up to the task of making this quite quick and painless when it comes to reading "Hockey Fight in Canada." It's a straight-forward story that's told as well as possible. If you are looking to sort things out in this area, this is an appropriate destination.

Four stars

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