Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: Showtime (2014)

By Ed Arnold

The system of junior hockey in Canada probably strikes most Americans as a little odd. But that's all right - Canadians probably can't understand NCAA football and basketball rules either.

In Canada, many potential pro hockey players are identified at the age of 16 or so (a few younger), and told to move out of their homes for the most part and join a team in another city. There they find a place to live and a school to attend, and start playing a schedule that's more like minor league baseball, I guess, than anything else.

Ed Arnold, a journalist from Peterborough, Ont., had the chance to spend the entire 2012-13 hockey season with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. His story of that experience is told in "Showtime," which offers a pretty good look at what the structure of the league is like and what goes on at that level.

The Petes are one of the more famous junior teams in Canada. They had such future NHL stars as Bob Gainey, Steve Yzerman, Chris Pronger, Larry Murphy and Craig Ramsay suit up there. The arena's street is named after the late NHL coach Roger Neilson. There's some good-sized tradition there, although it's difficult to keep winning year after year.

The Petes found out that last part the hard way. They had gone through some tough times before the season chronicled here, and life didn't get much better at the start. General Manager Dave Reid and coach Mike Pelino are shown as hard workers from Day One who struggled to figure out how to get the Petes to play better. Not only was talent an obvious issue, but there were other factors. Remember, these are kids for the most part - more than capable of goofing off in school, missing curfews, and so on. It's not supposed to be easy to succeed at this level, and Arnold shows that it might not be the most efficient process to develop talent. There are some modern issues as well, such as the fact that players often put their own interests in front of the team's - even when they are 16 or 17. But Canada is still the motherland for hockey talent, and a lot of it comes out of it year after year.

Arnold specializes in the management side of the story here, as he had excellent access to the coaches and front office members. The author held some stories back until the book was published, which helps give it a "fly on the wall" approach. The players' stories aren't as flushed out, although a few personalities do come out along the way. A problem for American audiences might be that few of the players have made any sort of impact in the pros yet as of a few years later. The No. 1 draft choice on the roster, Slater Koekkoek, was in Tampa Bay's farm system at last look. That makes everyone a little more anonymous, and it takes some time for the reader to sort everything out.

Books like this often depend on a good season to thrive, and Arnold's year on ice was more dramatic than successful. It's interesting that the book has barely started the season when the reader is at the halfway point or so of the text. The season's finish goes by pretty quickly, in part because there are some surprising twists.

It obviously takes a strong interest in the subject for a reader to pick up "Showtime," but those with a strong interest in hockey will learn some things along the way. Cross the border to Canada, and I'd bet it struck a chord with the hockey-loving population of that country.

Three stars

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review: This is Your Brain on Sports (2016)

By L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers

The Buffalo News published my updated review of this book. You can find it by clicking here.

Since I read the book, it went through a little rewriting about a section on following losing teams. The catch was that it was about the New York Mets, who became winners last season.

Otherwise, though, this is still a sharp look at a variety of subjects in the world, from psychology to human behavior. Just don't be intimidated by that statement, because the authors take you through all sorts of situations - starting with why people fight to get a free, flimsy t-shirt shot out of an air cannon at games.

Four stars

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review: Chuvalo (2013)

By George Chuvalo with Murray Greig

They don't make many boxers like George Chuvalo any more. Too bad.

For those who are too young to remember who Chuvalo was, he was a heavyweight boxer in the 1950s, '60s and '70s who was known to put in an honest day's work whenever he stepped into the ring. Chuvalo knew he had a job, and he did it no matter what the circumstances.

What's more, Chuvalo was always willing to take a couple of punches in order to get a good shot in. That made him quite a knockout artist, and on the other side of the ledger he never hit the canvas in his long career.

You might think that a guy like that would have scrambled eggs for brains now that he's in his late 70s. But Chuvalo apparently is showing no signs of being punch drunk. He had more than enough brain cells to put together his autobiography, appropriately called "Chuvalo."

George's parents immigrated to Canada, where George was born. The family eventually settled in a tough part of Toronto, and he found his way to boxing. It turned out he was pretty good at it, and he turned pro at the age of 18.

From there, it seemed like Chuvalo had an endless series of fights over the years - 93 in all before he finally retired for good. Chuvalo averaged about six fights per year for most of his prime years, and he won 73 of them - so he must have been doing something right.

Most Americans remember him because he went the distance with Muhammad Ali twice - once when Ali was champion, once when he was just a contender. It's these chapters of the book that might be the most interesting, since Ali still fascinates many of us. Chuvalo said that he's never seen a faster heavyweight that Ali was in the first fight in 1966, but Ali wasn't quite the same fighter the second time they met in 1971.

Chuvalo also fought such boxers as Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman and Ernie Terrell. The Sixties and Seventies really were a golden age for heavyweight boxing, and Chuvalo's timing was all wrong. He might have been a champion in a different era, but lost to most of the really good ones for one reason or another. That cost him some serious money, naturally. Chuvalo claims some extenuating circumstances in some cases, such as a lack of preparation time, medical issues, or interference from organized crime. Those have a certain amount of validity, but basically he wasn't good enough to beat some all-time greats ... and Chuvalo certainly realizes that at some level.

Mostly, though, this is a collection about memories about the boxing business. There aren't any great truths here, not are any expected. Chuvalo seems to have memories of just about all of his fights, and the circumstances around them. He's rather good-natured about it all too. Only a few people are ripped here, including a former manager, Irving Ungerman, and a former champion, Rocky Marciano. Ungerman takes more of a beating, since he's much more central to the story.

Sadly, Chuvalo's life had a very difficult second act. Three of his sons died because of connections to drugs, and his first wife committed suicide. There's not much introspection about it here, but the blow-by-blow description of the problems that led up to those deaths is painful to read and must have been difficult to review. Chuvalo has given many, many speeches since then in an attempt to keep people from starting drug use. Even in his 70s, he's in there punching whenever and wherever he's asked to fight.

Some of the fun of this book is recognizing some of the names Chuvalo encountered along the way. Therefore, it really helps to have been a fan of boxing when Chuvalo was active. That's going to let a lot of people on the outside when it comes to reading this. Those who do pick up "Chuvalo," though, certainly will gain respect for this warrior as a boxer and as a man.

Three stars

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Review: NFL Confidential (2016)

By Johnny Anonymous

Put a bit of mystery out there, and someone is going to try to figure out the answer - and then spread it all over the Internet.

Such is the case with the author of the book, "NFL Confidential." He writes that he's a current player with an NFL team who kept a diary of his season. Clues: He played for a major college, and was on his second team at the time of the writing.

The diary contains the play-by-play of the season, except all of the names and some of the details have been changed. The last paragraph of his introduction ends this way: "All so you can't figure out who I really am. Go ahead, try. I dare you. Catch me if you can."

I received a copy for review just as the book was coming out. After getting about halfway through the book, I checked on line to see if anyone had some guessed. Sure enough, someone had a pretty good line on the real name of Johnny Anonymous.

No spoilers here. But it's fair to say the points that are raised in the book by Mr. Anonymous are valid and sometimes interesting to the casual fan.

At its heart, the book is the story of a substitute's battles to try to sane in an NFL world that can drive someone crazy pretty easily. Yes, he is making more money than most of us. But he knows that the money can disappear at the whim of an assistant coach, or at the improper bend of a joint. A pretty good life can go away sooner than you'd expect.

Speaking of crazy, one of the stars of the book is the assistant coach of the offensive line, called Lopez. His behavior frequently ranges from odd to damaging, and he clearly doesn't know how to deal with someone like Anonymous who is willing to question authority every so often. There are a lot of coaches out there like that. Remember, if his unit has a bad year for whatever reason, or if his head coach gets fired, he's out the door. Every coach in America has seen a lot of the country for many years, especially in the early going. That will create some insecurity in a hurry: "Honey, we're moving to Tulsa."

There are some interesting insights about the game and life along the way. Ever wonder why a team seems to fall apart right from the opening kickoff? In one case here, Anonymous' opponents came out with a completely new defensive approach that left the offensive line wondering who the heck to block. The result: one, two, three, kick - or worse, in the form of a fumble or interception .Off the field, those meetings between players and fans or owners' friends or sponsors or whomever go over with athletes about as well as you'd expect for the most part. 


Without making this sound too much like a book report, there are a couple of themes that run the book. The first is that a certain "jock mentality" is alive and well in our locker rooms, no matter how far society has come along. That turns up in a lot of ways, such as in regard to profanity or attitudes toward women. Anonymous would probably be above that, but he seems to enjoy parts of the atmosphere. In other words, one of the chapter headings is simply the f-word by itself.

Secondly, Anonymous actually shows a little personal growth along the way during the year, which was a little unexpected. He starts in training camp by being thoroughly fed up with the game and its business side, which might not be unexpected after a few years on the fringes. But an odd turn of events allows him to get into action a little bit, and he rediscovered his love of the game in the process. Anonymous also shows some signs of maturity and acceptance in other areas of his existence, which makes him a more sympathic character as he goes along.

The "Johnny Anonymous" gimmick gets in the way a little bit, but "NFL Confidential" is still a reasonably good look what life in the football margins is like. What's more, the author probably will have more to say about the game later in the life ... and maybe he'll get to use his own name that time.

Three stars

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: Players (2016)

By Matthew Futterman

The business of sports certainly has exploded in the past 60 years or so. Our games used to be pastimes, as in baseball's description as "the national pastime." The stakes were low, interest was limited, and mass media attention was basically limited to newspapers and some radio broadcasts.

Now our sports are a multi-billion enterprise, with pictures and accounts circling the globe. The costs of some franchises exceed one billion dollars, and salaries have soared into eight figure territory.

Matthew Futterman has written an account of that change called "Players." It's something of a "one person at a time" account of what the author calls a revolution ... and he's right.

The story starts with Mark McCormack, a Cleveland lawyer who saw a business opportunity with golfers. At that point, golfers were lucky to make the proverbial peanuts, even if they were successful. Golf was just starting to grow at a serious rate, but players still had to do well as professionals just to make a living. McCormack came along and first started working out exhibition matches and endorsements, guaranteed money that could take out some of the risk of playing golf on tour.

One of his early clients was Arnold Palmer, just becoming a superstar. He was a man full of talent and charisma. McCormack became Palmer's agent, and the money started to mushroom. The combination worked so well that Palmer was usually on any list of wealthiest athletes in terms of income (including funds from endorsements) right through his 70s. From there, McCormack was smart enough to branch out into other areas, such as producing television programs.

From there, Futterman goes into other case histories. Jim Hunter was just another great pitcher before he got into a contract dispute withe his boss with the Oakland A's. Hunter was declared a free agent, and became far richer than anyone could have imagined in the 1970s. Once the financial bar was raised, everyone saw what the true market value of top players was - and everyone wanted a piece of that pie.

Other athletes and sports followed like dominoes. Edwin Moses was part of the fight by top amateur athletes to get paid by promoters and associations for his track accomplishments. Stan Smith had the most to lose with tennis players went on strike at Wimbledon for more money and better working conditions. Nick Bollettieri came up with a completely new way to train young athletes, and changed the sport in the process.

Then there are the less-known personalities, such as Frank Vuono, who thought it would be a good idea to sell uniforms of NFL players to the public. No one else thought that way, amazingly in hindsight. Phil Knight of Nike (admittedly, relatively well known as these things go) started with a sneaker design made on a waffle iron, and pushed sports in a different direction. Leo Hindery helped put together the YES Network, which has made the New York Yankees large amounts of money. Their stories are all pretty interesting as they cover different approaches.

There is one key thread that seems to link most of them, particularly in the early days. The powers-that-be fought the revolutionaries every step of the way back then. Those unnamed officials had complete control, and liked it that way. Yet when the business changed and those authorities figures finally took advantage of the opportunities, they and their organizations profited enormously. Seen the cost of an NFL franchise lately? Notice any merchandise with the Wimbledon name on it? Watched all of your favorites' teams on television?

Futterman ends his story with a personal touch, adding that he enjoys watching the U.S. women's soccer team because it has more innocence than the pro teams. He also gives some signs that pro sports' financial might is in a bit of a bubble, and at some point the bubble might burst. Clearly, though, we're not going back to the "good old days" anytime soon.

Sports business books are never going to achieve mass popularity, with the exception being "Moneyball," I suppose. But "Players" is a nice job of putting together the pieces in showing the changed landscape. It's only a portion of the story of the subject, but it's probably the most interesting part. Those seeking an education in the field can benefit from reading it.

Four stars

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Review: The Best Seat in the House (2012)

By Jamie McLennan and Ian Mendes

Consider yourself a good-size hockey fan if you remember Jamie McLennan.

He was a classic backup goalie in the 1990s and 2000s. McLennan never was a full-time starter in the NHL, although he had some decent years in spot duty and had a lifetime goals-against average of 2.68. That job description implies some time in the minor leagues, and sure enough, he did that too.

Guys like McLennan usually don't get to write books. Yet here we have "The Best Seat in the House," a breezy and easy look back at his life in hockey.

McLennan was drafted by the Islanders, and bounced to the Blues, Wild, Flames, Rangers, Panthers and Flames again during his NHL days. Maybe the publisher figured that McLennan made enough friends in those NHL cities to make the finances work. More likely, McLennan was a good-natured fun loving guy who had some stories to tell, and he gets to go through them here. Ian Mendes, a television and print journalist, helped out with the details.

McLennan goes through his junior days in the opening chapter, and then sails through the rest of his career by covering a few different obvious categories. You can probably guess them - teammates, coaches, locker-room tales, on-ice events. There are even a couple of celebrity encounters involved.

This being hockey, with a certain "boys will be boys" philosophy that comes up every so often, the stories can turn silly. Like the time that McLennan convinced a Montreal cab driver to let him drive for a few minutes. McLennan decided he wouldn't mind trying to drive on the sidewalk for a little while, no matter how dangerous it seems in hindsights. There are stories about Rhett Warrener slashing down a dinner table in his underwear, and about Billy Smith wanted McLennan to protect the crease from everyone, including the mascot. It turns out McLennan wasn't above sneaking a little food in his little uniform when he didn't think he would be playing.

But there are a couple of serious stories along the way too. McLennan came down with meningitis once summer, and potentially came within an hour of dying but was saved by some good work from a hospital doctor. He still is disappointed in himself that he was thrown out of the last game of his NHL career. And the book is dedicated to his best friend, who died at the age of 36. The proceeds of the book are going to Dale Masson's family, which is a very nice gesture and probably got the whole idea of a book started.

The story goes by pretty quickly, a couple of days' worth of reading, and a few of McLennan's teams hardly get mentioned. It's also curious that, according to hockey-reference.com, McLennan played in the United Kingdom and Japan once his NHL days were over, but they don't come up in the book. However, what is labeled as a six-week stint for a KHL team in Russia gets a few pages, although the same reference source doesn't have him playing a single game over there.

But let's not get too critical here. No one expects "The Best Seat in the House" to be deep literature. Hockey fans will find some entertainment value as they laugh along with someone who kept his sense of humor in a career that demanded one. And that's fine.

Three stars

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: Slats (2015)

By Rich Blake

It's always been difficult to get a handle on the life of Buffalo-born boxer Jimmy Slattery, at least without doing some serious research. He's spoken about with a bit of reverence around the town, mostly by - at this point - really old-timers who heard stories about him.

Slattery was a version of a world championship twice and fought a few of the big names of his time during the 1920s. You could probably argue that he was the greatest fighter ever produced by this area. His manager, Red Carr, was always impressed by Slats' talent - and lived until he reached 100 or so and told a few generations about those abilities.

But, as the quote from Ty Wenger of ESPN the Magazine reads on the back cover, "Why have I never heard of Jimmy Slattery before?"

Therefore, author Rich Blake comes to the rescue with a very detailed biography of the fighter called "Slats." Now we know that Slattery's career belongs with Buffalo's best sporting "What if?" questions, right up there with "What if the Bills had one their first Super Bowl?" and "What would have happened if the Braves had stayed in Buffalo until Magic and Bird arrived in the NBA?"

Slattery came out of the First Ward, a working-class area just south of downtown near the waterfront. He eventually started hanging out at a gym when he was in his teens, and this natural athlete soon developed an ability to box. Before he knew it, almost, Slattery had zipped through a successful amateur career and was ready to turn pro in 1921 at the age of 17 - adding a year on the application so he could be a legal 18-year-old.

New York State has returned to the pro boxing business around that time, but it wouldn't allow those under 21 to fight more than six rounds. So Slattery climbed the ladder, six rounds or less at a time. By the time he was 20, Slattery was clearly ready to take on the best in the business. In fact, he may have been at his best at that point. This was a brilliant fighter with great speed and a decent enough punch. Few could even catch him. The catch was that the big money came with longer bouts, so Slattery wasn't ready to cash in.

Eventually, of course, he did reach 21, and started to have some money in his wallet. That led to a little too much fun for the handsome celebrity athlete, in the form of chasing women and drinking. Slattery went on to win a couple of shares of the light heavyweight title, but lost the second one around the age of 26.  He fought a few years more, but he essentially had nothing left by the time he fought his last pro fight - exiting with a record of 111-13. Slattery was 29 years old. Unfilled potential is always difficult to accept.

Then what happened? Virtually nothing. The last 26 years of his life come across as something of a waste here. There was talk of a comeback, some work in the ring, some manual labor jobs. But mostly, it was just getting by from day to day and finding a drink. Throw in tuberculosis along the way, and it's no surprise that Slattery died in 1960.

Did he have any regrets? He said no. Still, the question lingers. Slattery was a minor star in the world of boxing in the Roaring Twenties. Heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey was the king of that world, but he rarely bothered to defend his championship. That was room for other boxing to take some of the spotlight, and Slattery had the ability and style to do it. He just didn't have the willpower to fight off the temptations involved. What if?

Blake certainly put a ton of work into researching this story. If anything, the story feels a little too crammed with information along the way, especially in the first half. But it's still a classic tale, rags to riches to rags, and the author certainly gets the feel of it right.

It's easy to see why Blake had trouble finding a national publisher for this project. Really, though, "Slats" is a fine fit for a regional literary effort. The audience is ready-made for an education on a local sports legend, and this will more than satisfy the curiosity of those who pick it up.

Four stars

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