Sunday, September 16, 2018

Review: The Last Pass (2018)

By Gary M. Pomerantz

A case could be made that Bob Cousy might be the most underrated great player in basketball history at this point in time.

There are a few reasons for that. After an outstanding college career at Holy Cross, Cousy landed with the Boston Celtics in 1950. There he became one of the best players in the league, earning such nicknames as "Mr. Basketball" and "Houdini of the Hardwood." Cousy usually averaged a little less than 20 points per game and usually led the league in assists once he got the hang of the pro game. I would guess that he replaced George Mikan as the face of the NBA when Mikan retired.

But early in his career, he didn't win many games. Cousy played on some Celtics teams that weren't quite good enough. That changed in 1956, when a center named Bill Russell arrived. Russell was really, really good, and meshed well with Boston's fast-break offense. The Celtics won six titles in Cousy's final seven years. His retirement ceremony at the Boston Garden was one of the all-time great tear-fests as these go.

After one last title in 1963, Cousy went off to coach at Boston College. And the Celtics kept winning, and winning. Russell and his talented teammates won five more titles in six years, and everyone realized that the center was the biggest winner in team sports. It could be argued that he still has that title; there's a reason the MVP award of The NBA Finals is named for him. As for Cousy, basketball changed quickly over the years, and his stats such as shooting percentage don't hold up too well when put up to today's light.

But that's no reason to diminish Cousy in the process. He remains an interesting character today, and he's the centerpiece of Gary M. Pomerantz's book, "The Last Pass." In fact, he's the reason it works so well. Cousy obviously opened up his life to the author, doing more than 50 interviews and allowing Pomerantz to have access to all sorts of material - like letters to and from his late wife - for the book.

Cousy brought a little baggage with him when he arrived in the NBA. The New York City guard of French ancestry was an only child whose parents didn't get along too well. That can cause all sorts of problems, but he pointed his competitive drive toward the basketball court. He's was happy and comfortable with the ball, at his best if you will.

Cousy also arrived in pro basketball just as African Americans were arriving in the NBA. He quickly befriended the blacks on the Celtics, as the abuse and prejudice that they faced upset the New Yorker greatly. Cousy also was a flashy player when it wasn't popular. He tried to make the correct play at all times, but sometimes that play was an unorthodox one. If an African American had done some of those moves in the early 1950s, he would have been called a showboat and told to tone it down or be gone. Cousy could make it acceptable, and led the way for everyone else to add style to substance. Go watch some videos.

Then Russell came along, and there was never anyone like him. He eventually became the first black player in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he was picked not because he was great statistically (although he was a great rebounder) but because he was a winner. Russell did it at a time when African Americans were demanding respect and rights in all areas of society, and was unwilling to back down on those aspects of life. That made him a legend on the court, but somewhat unpopular for those off the court who weren't ready to handle change.

Relationships with Russell were always complicated, and Cousy still plays the "what if?" game about his time with Russell - at the age of 90. Could he have done more to help Russell gain acceptance? Should he have done more? Those questions are really at the heart of the book, and Cousy explores them at length - perhaps surprisingly so.

Pomerantz has done a couple of fine books on days gone by, reviewing the Steelers of the 1970s and Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962. This stacks up with them nicely, and may even be my favorite of the three.

Complaints about this book are minor. You obviously need to be receiving social security checks to remember Cousy well; I'm 62 and can barely picture him playing at Boston Garden when I was about seven. It's about my earliest basketball memory. The book also given a slightly vague sense of needing one more edit; some of the material is repeated at times.

No matter. "The Last Pass" works well because Cousy remains an interesting, even fascinating character - even past the age of 90. I'm underrated the book a little at four stars, and it certainly will be on my ten favorite reads of the year.

Four stars

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Monday, September 10, 2018

Review: The Dancing Bear (2018)

By Ron McDole with Rob Morris

You don't have to be a football fan from Buffalo or Washington to have heard of Ron McDole, but it really helps.

McDole remained relatively anonymous in those two cities over the course of an 18-year career in pro football, which was mostly spent in those two cities. He was, of course, good. You have to be good to stay in the game for that long.

In fact, the most memorable fact about McDole might be his nickname, "The Dancing Bear." It was given to him off the field by Sonny Jurgensen for his dance moves, but considering his size and quickness, it fit on the field too.

Therefore, when McDole finally decided to come out with a book on his football days, "The Dancing Bear" was the natural title.

McDole's type of story is of particular interest to fans of the American Football League in the 1960s. He came out of Nebraska as a defensive lineman, but bounced from the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL to the Houston Oilers of the AFL. McDole suffered from migraine headaches, and it looked like that might drive him out of the league and into a career as a shop teacher.

Luckily for McDole, Bills' coach Lou Saban took a chance on his head and his heart and signed him. McDole became a regular on the Buffalo teams that won the AFC championship in 1964 and 1965. He might be the best player on those teams never to be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The Bills fell apart after that stretch, and new coach John Rauch - best remembered in Buffalo as the guy who tried to use O.J. Simpson as something of a decoy - had McDole traded to the Redskins. The defensive lineman was 32. How long could he last? Owner Ralph Wilson was so upset that Rauch trashed McDole in a TV interview that he fired the coach and apologized personally to McDole for the deal.

McDole merely spent eight years as a Redskin. Most of them were with George Allen, where he was part of the "Over the Hill Gang." That team never won it all but came close, losing to the undefeated Dolphins team in Jan. 1973. McDole played through 1978, and retired instead of taking a contract with the Giants that would have meant playing past the age of 40. He still has the all-time record for most interceptions by a pro defensive lineman with 12. Dancing bear, indeed.

McDole comes across here as a nice enough fellow, rarely trashing anyone. It was a slightly less serious era in football, naturally, and his stories about the game in the Sixties and Seventies are quite funny and often interesting. But there are a few problems with the book, and it definitely will hurt your enjoyment of it.

First, it feels thin. There are several paragraphs of quotes from some of McDole's teammates about common experiences, and they feel like padding in some cases. Pat Fischer and McDole chat at length in an appendix, which is an unusual technique as these things go. They generally cover subjects that have been discussed earlier in the book. It feels like an attempt to get it to 200 pages; maybe some of that could have been filled with more about what McDole has been doing since 1978. Other than a few lines about charity work and thoughts on how the game has changed, this book could have been written about 38 years ago.

Second, it would have been nice to have someone give it one more read for editing purposes. Pat Fischer comes out Pat Fisher a few times; both are used in the same paragraph at one point. There are phrases like this: "Rayfield Wright of Dallas, who's in the Hall of Fame, was outstanding, but I had a lot of good games against him. He was an outstanding tackle." There are a handful of other sentences that don't make sense. And Sam Etcheverry comes out as Sam Estebury, among a few other typos.

Add it up, and it's tough to be too enthusiastic about "The Dancing Bear" (the book, not the person). Fans of the era will no doubt enjoy it, as they say. But others - especially outside of Buffalo and Washington - probably will come away with the feeling that it could have been better and lower this rating a bit.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review: Collision of Wills (2018)

By Jack Gilden

If you are making up a list of the most important people in pro football history, Johnny Unitas and Don Shula have to be on it.

Unitas held the mythical title of "greatest quarterback ever for quite some time, as he took the position and in some ways the entire sport to new levels of brilliance during his great career. Shula merely has won more games than any NFL coach.

The pair were on the same side when they teamed up with the Baltimore Colts for a good chunk of the 1960s. But here's what was apparently whispered for years but not really discussed since those days, which saw the Colts win a ton of games but no championships: the pair never really got along.

That's the portion of Jack Gilden's book, "Collision of Wills," that will attract the most attention upon its release.

Shula usually took the high road in the relationship, merely pointing out that the combination won a lot of games. Unitas mostly kept quiet n public about Shula, but certainly he made it known to friends and associates that he had no use for the coach - a former teammate in Baltimore, no less.

Their dynamic drives the story along. In some ways, it's a relatively common tale. Unitas was an established star, the biggest name in football, when Shula arrived in 1963. Shula certainly wanted to do things his way, and was not shy about saying so. As the years went by, Unitas' career started to fall off - thanks in part to arm injuries that certainly weren't as diagnosed properly as they might have been now. The finish of the careers of such icons often ends badly, and Unitas turned out to be no exception. He lost his job as a regular and eventually was exiled to San Diego to end a magical run with a whimper.

Veteran football fans will find plenty to their liking here. The Colts were right in the middle of some of the best games in pro football history. That list includes the 1958 NFL championship game, which went to overtime as Unitas pulled a win out of his helmet, and Super Bowl III, the Jets' stunning upset of Colts when they were 17-point underdogs.

Gilden went out and talked to several key people in that era, and they add perspective on events. He also clearly did plenty of research into that era. Therefore, the games come back to life. It's great fun to read a detailed account of the time that halfback Tom Matte had to play quarterback in a playoff game for the Colts when Unitas and Gary Cuozzo were both hurt. Matte almost led the Colts to a huge win over the Green Bay Packers. Nothing like it has happened since.

There are a couple of small problems here that deserve a mention. It really helps to be old enough to remember most of the events from when they happened. In other words, the 20-somethings may not care too much about this and that's fine. It should be added, though, that Gilden carries the attitude throughout the book that the Sixties were the best time to be an NFL history, and he's not taking any arguments. I became a fan of the sport then too, but I'm not sure I'd go as far as the author does. You always remember your first loves.

There might have been room for another quick read on this. There's a little duplication in material along the way, and I'm still not sure why there's a chapter on David Halberstam. Gilden is a little unsure of himself when writing about the politics and culture of the decade.

But the football material is entertaining and can reel the football fan in nicely. Those who are looking for some new information on some legendary games and people - particularly those in Baltimore - will find "Collision of Wills" worthwhile.

Four stars

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Review: This Old Man (2015)

By Roger Angell

The number of people whose writing on baseball borders on the title of literature is a rather short one. Most of the work is basic and to the point, reflecting the task involved in the process.  In other words, it's tough to craft memorable work when the deadline is the final out.

Luckily for us, a select few people have had the time and inclination to ponder bigger pictures. Baseball can do that, with its relaxed rhythms and the lack of a deadline for a nightly conclusion. Its most serious practitioner over the years might be Roger Angell, who - it's good to report - is still out there as of this writing.

Angell probably will say he was an unlikely candidate for that distinction, and he was right. Angell served as a writer and editor for the New Yorker for many years, which is hardly a breeding grounds for literary works concerning horsehide. But he pulled it off, somewhat in his spare time since he was the fiction editor

Now Angell is in his 90s, looking back on a career that featured contributions to the famous magazine in 1944 and saw him go on the masthead in 1956. He's still writing a bit even now, but "This Old Man" is a collection of articles and other work from the later stages of his career that was released in 2015. To put it in appropriate terms, Angell still had a pretty good fastball when after his peers had stopped working. Think of Nolan Ryanb.

Those who come to this book from reviews like this will find satisfaction here, since baseball plays a key role in the collection. Angell's best work on baseball came when he was just starting to write about the sport and thus on the anonymous side. Go read "Five Seasons" and "The Summer Game" to see what I mean. He had some distance from the subjects. For a while there he was so celebrated it was difficult to have enough space to get some necessary perspective. But now that he's sitting back and reflecting again, there's a wisdom that ropes in the reader. Some of it was shown over the fuss made when Barry Bonds approached the all-time record for home runs. Angell argues that such records matter little because of changes in the sport over the years - a refreshing viewpoint considering the whole did-he-or-didn't-he saga about Bonds and steroids.

But there's other stuff here as well. Angell includes work on other writers in his life, his summer home in Maine, notes to friends, etc. I'm not about to tell you that I understood all of the references here, or even recognized the names. But that doesn't mean the beauty of how the words in those stories were collected and distributed can't be enjoyed by those who think Vladimir Nabokov is a defenseman for the San Jose Sharks.

And every so often Angell turns a phrase that is so precise, so perfect, that you feel like poking the person next to you so you'll have the pleasure of reading it aloud. Comedy writer Bill Scheft has a phrase for this - get out of the business good. As in, you'll never write like this so why try?

I won't bother trying to give a rating with stars to "This Old Man." Those who like his work probably have him installed as a national treasure as his 98th birthday approaches. Others will only read the baseball parts, wondering why they should care about New Yorker founder Harold Ross. And that's fine. A baseball team needs a few players to fill roles in order to be successful. But some superstars need to be part of the mix as well, and Angell has had that role covered for decades.

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: Gridiron Genius (2018)

By Michael Lombardi

Even in the highly competitive world of pro football, there are some coaches who figure out a way to find that edge that helps them win games consistently.They might not be smarter than everyone else, although brainpower doesn't hurt, but they mix it with a strong work ethic and good organizational abilities.

Michael Lombardi has worked with two of those "geniuses" in Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. You could argue that he also spent time employed by a third, Al Davis - who certainly is proof that the word unique describes someone who is one of a kind.

Lombardi, who had a number of jobs in pro football including a stint as general manager of the Cleveland Browns, was smart enough to take notes along the way. Now he's put together a book on why those football men were successful. He's called it "Gridiron Genius" - and no, it's not an autobiography.

Lombardi (no relation to that fellow who did pretty well with the Green Bay Packers) rips through the various parts of a football organization, chapter by chapter. The chapter headings are: The Organization, the Coach, Team Building, Special Teams, Offense, Defense, Game Planning, While I Have You (my biggest peeves), WWBD, and Fearless Forecast.

If there's one point that gets hammered home, it's that the best head coaches are prepared for just about anything to happen in a game. That's not by chance; it's because the staff covers just about every possible contingency before a game. You want to know why football coaches are legendary for sleeping in their office? It's because there's always something to do. Belichick would do things like assign a staff member to full break down each player on an opposing team, looking for tendencies and facts that might be helpful. There are some good stories told along the way, like the one about how Malcolm Butler happened to be in the right place in the right time to make the most famous interceptions in Super Bowl history.

A couple of interesting points come out right away in this book, which mixes general observations with personal experiences. Let's look at one that covers my part of the football world, the Buffalo Bills. Lombardi was assigned to come up with a tentative list of people who might be good picks to be a head coach if a team decided to make the change. He eventually discovered that the best coaches often had been somewhere else first. Someone like Bill Parcells had some success, while Belichick's record in Cleveland was mixed. But the odds improve with a good coach who has learned lessons along the way.

Interestingly, this was a list made up in the 1990s - and one of the names on the list was Chan Gailey. Bills' fans might remember that Gailey came on as head coach, and left after a rather undistinguished run in Buffalo. Perhaps he wasn't up to the job, or perhaps he wasn't able to push the organization as a whole in the right direction. Judging by the team's play in that era of the early 2000s, the latter may be more likely. By the way, Lombardi is quite critical of the Bills' hiring of Rex Ryan, saying that his research indicates that coaches who specialize on one side of the ball usually fail. Ryan might be the poster boy for that type of philosophy.

Speaking of coaches, Lombardi's chapter on the coach has a long, long list of interview questions for potential coaches. The one that made me laugh was "What do you do with fat guys?" But most are very serious, and all touch on a wide variety of aspects - from discipline to salary cap structure to time for the media. The pay to be an NFL head coach is good, but do you really want to try it? You have to be obsessed with it, apparently.

Lombardi might do his best work in going over the Patriots' run-up to a playoff game. The Baltimore Ravens were coming to town, and the author takes us through the day-by-day preparation of the Pats as Belichick stresses certain aspects of the game. Of course, nothing ever goes completely to plan during a football game - as they say about warfare, plans get thrown out when the bullets start flying - but Belichick and company figure out a way to get it done.

Lombardi obviously had a vision for this book when he started writing it. It's fair to say he fulfilled it. Maybe the bigger question about it is, will you want to read it?

That's a tougher one. The book certainly has the ring of authenticity to it. But it's tough to say if this book will appeal to those who are rather casual about their support of their favorite football team. It's not a dull book for the most part, but it has its dry spots. For those who want an true "inside look" at the NFL and a couple of its best coaches, this will do nicely. Just be warned that it's not for a general audience.

Four stars

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Review: Lucky Bastard (2016)

By Joe Buck

It turns out the Joe Buck is something of a smart aleck.

I realize that's an outdated phrase, dating back to the 19th century. It's short for smart Alexander. I realize that most people probably would use the phrase "smart ass," including Joe Buck himself. But, since I'm really sick of that slightly naughty word and so many try to use it in as many ways as possible, I'll stick to my old-fashioned ways.

How about wise guy? And who knew he was like that, anyway?

Joe Buck is one of the nation's best sports broadcasters. He seems to be on Fox constantly, whether it's baseball, football or golf. As a top play-by-play man, he concentrates on the action and only reveals his personality in bits.

What's more, he's a more interesting person - funny and smart - than he reveals on the air. That might be the major discovery from his book, "Lucky Bastard."

Speaking of slightly naughty words, the title deserves a little explanation right from the start. Most people who follow sports realize that Joe Buck is the son of Jack Buck, the legendary broadcaster from St. Louis. Buck was a very public figure in his home town as the veteran voice of the Cardinals, and he also did some national work on radio and television. "Beloved" doesn't do justice to the relationship between town and voice.

It seems Jack Buck had a relationship with a woman who wasn't his wife. That led to the conception of Joe, a divorce of the Bucks, and a second marriage for Jack. Therefore, Joe really can call himself a lucky bastard and be more literal than most.

Joe ended up following Jack into sportscasting, and that would prove to be a tough act to follow. I get the impression that Joe could have followed Jack into a spot as the Cardinals' long-time broadcaster, and no one would have complained too much ... eventually. (There are always those who will yell out, "You're not as good as your dad!") Instead, Joe went the national route when the opportunity came along, and it's tough to argue with a choice with a career filled with World Series and Super Bowl broadcasts.

Still, there's always a little angst involved when a child takes a similar path to a parent. Perhaps that's why Joe Buck became friends with Kate Hudson, the actress who is the daughter of Goldie Hawn. Kate dole him, "Americans love a good success story. They're just not sure what to do with the success story that comes out of a success story." That sounds like the start of a good book on its own.

As you'd expect, Buck has plenty of stories about his adventures, good and bad. He's not afraid to take a poke at himself or at a few others, but it's generally a good natured story. Joe jokes a few times about his battles against a receding hairline, which has included some hair plug operations. Ouch. But he can serious too, talking about his divorce. That's not an easy combination to pull off, but he does it well.

"Lucky Bastard" goes by pretty quickly; you'll finish it in a jiffy. It's a bit of a surprise that he wrote it at this stage of his career (he has lots of tread left on the tires), but it reached the best seller lists so Buck's timing remains sharp. Most people will come to the conclusion after reading this that Buck can handle the written word as well as the spoken version, and that he'd be a fun person to be around. Missions accomplished.

Four stars

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Review: Hard Labor (2017)

By Sam Smith

For those of you under 40, the National Basketball Association always has seemed like a place of unmatched riches. The stars are everywhere, the games on television constantly, the money involved is enormous. The league's biggest problem seems to be at times is figuring how all of this cash should be split up. That's not to say that distribution of funds isn't an issue, but we all should have such problems.

It wasn't always like this, as Sam Smith points out in his book, "Hard Labor."

Smith is best known as the newspaper reporter who became the most closely associated with Michael Jordan's era with the Chicago Bulls. His book, "The Jordan Rules," will be associated with that era forever.

Here, though, Smith takes a step back. The focal point of the discussion of when the NBA turned the corner toward permanent prosperity was not because of the arrival of a certain player or two, although that didn't hurt. A court case became the fulcrum.

In 1976, the NBA players and owners settled the legal action known as the Oscar Robertson case, since the all-time great had his name on top of the lawsuit as the head of the players' association at the time. It set up some new rules that led to free agency in the NBA and other benefits. It took some time to fall into place, but Smith's key point - and it's a good one - is that it's nice to look back and nod at your predecessors for their contributions.

Smith does that here by finding many of the people involved in that struggle. What's more, you can tell he had a ton of fun doing so. For the record, the 14 plaintiffs in the case were Robertson, Bill Bradley, Joe Caldwell, Archie Clark, Mel Counts, John Havlicek, Don Kojis, Jon McGlocklin, McCoy McLemore, Tom Meschery, Jeff Mullins, Wes Unseld, Chet Walker and Dick Van Arsdale. McLemore is the only one to have passed away. Smith spoke to several other people for the story, including legal representatives from both sides. 

All of them are filled with stories about those days that, in hindsight, are worthy of a good head shake or two. Even in the 1960s, players were often more money to work for company teams like Phillips 66 than to be in the NBA. (Some of the guys who did that, by the way, are multi-millionaires now.) Players often had to take part-time jobs in the offseason to make ends meet, and owners were barely getting by in some cases. Although Smith does touch on the 1950s and early 1960s, he spends plenty of time on the competition with the American Basketball Association. That really was the Wild, Wild West of pro hoops, a league that broke all the rules - including coming up with generally fair contracts - and was filled with characters. 

And remember, racial attitudes in basketball still hadn't come around by the 1960s. The Celtics were the first team to start five blacks, and that came in the mid-1960s. The Hawks might have won some titles in the 1960s had they chose to keep a talented roster of African American stars together. Instead, when they moved to Atlanta, they signed Pete Maravich to a huge deal that helped grease the skids for others to depart. 

Still, there's plenty of fun along the way. Mullins tells about how he received something of a full-court press from the entire state of Kentucky when he was thinking about a college choice. He went to Duke, which didn't exactly go over well. The shooting guard had a nice career and played a key role in the Robertson settlement as a moderating influence. And you'll love reading about the Van Arsdale identical twins, whose careers in basketball were almost - you guessed it - identical. 

The biggest flaw here is that the story does jump around a bit. This isn't a straight line to the settlement and its effects. That may not go over well with some readers. The manuscript also has trouble with the usage of "its" a few times. That's a personal pet peeve; someone once said that the use of that word is the single biggest way to determine if someone knows the language or not. 

But Smith accomplishes his goal of paying tribute to those who helped make the success of today's players and league possible. "Hard Labor" will leave you entertained and informed about that history lesson - no easy task.

Four stars

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