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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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: Gratoony the Loony (2017)

By Gilles Gratton and Greg Oliver

A great many "characters" have passed through the portals of professional hockey. Gilles Gratton not only is one of them, he can lay a claim to being the biggest character of them all.

Gratton spent some time in the World Hockey Association and the National Hockey League in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, he was a goalie - a position that is filled with unconventional actors. Gratton wasn't a bad goalie, but his skills always took a back seat to his antics and comments.

It took a while for Gratton to get his thoughts down on paper - maybe too long, since few might remember him at this point - but he finally has done so. "Gratoony the Loony" is that autobiography.

Gratton does a little explaining about his life and his actions in this quite short book. Tellingly, it doesn't sound like he had a particularly happy childhood,with parents who were frequently indifferent. Gratton sort of fell into hockey; it's probably difficult not to give the sport at least a try if you are growing up in Canada. Besides, his brother Norm was good enough to be an NHL player. Gilles turned out to be pretty good at goaltending - good enough to climb the ladder, even if he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about playing it.

Gratton's fame came through his actions. He famously skated naked in an arena during a practice, which he says now was came on something of a dare as a way to obtain a dozen sticks for youth hockey. He refused to play in one NHL game by claiming the moon was lined up incorrectly in the sky, which he now says was his way of protesting the firing of coach Billy Harris. Some other, R-rated stories pop up here which probably cross the line of funny-or-sick to the sick side. The goalie sounds like he was drunk or high for most of his career.

It seemed inevitable that such a player would have problems with management somewhere, and Gratton was no exception. He spent a year with the Rangers, headed down to the minors, and then was released. He's been looking for "enlightenment" since then, and the concluding chapters talk about that. Gratton once saw a stranger and said he was destined to have three kids with her. He was wrong - he only had two. A discussion of some of his past lives comes up, as does stories about how his body can go to sleep while his mind stays awake. He works for an auction house that specializes in hockey memorabilia - a little ironic for a guy who hated to play hockey.

Coauthor Greg Oliver rounds up some other quotes from teammates, etc. about Gratton, filling out the book a little bit. They all seem to like him, even though I'm sure his attitude probably left them shaking their heads a bit.

Those old enough to remember Gratton's time in hockey might enjoy reading "Gratoony the Loony" in order to see what the fuss was all about. Otherwise, it's difficult to recommend it.

Two stars

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Review: Alley-Oop to Aliyah (2017)

By David A. Goldstein

Those who follow college basketball relatively closely realize that the NBA isn't the only post-graduate course for players. Each year, several Americans leave their native country to test their hoop skills in the pro leagues of other countries. Not only does it offer a good paycheck (not by NBA standards, of course, but it can beat working for a living), but it's a relatively cheap way to see the world.

Once the players get there, though, life can turn, well, interesting. The cultural differences can be striking and difficult, depending on the location. And certainly one of the most interesting places to play is Israel.

That's the focus of David A. Goldstein's book, "Alley-Oop to Aliyah." If many stories in life are centered on some form of a "stranger in a strange land," this certainly qualifies.

On one level, this seems like an odd fit. An African American basketball player that walks down the street in Tel Aviv is likely to stand out from the crowd, pardon the obvious pun. On the other hand, Israel is a modern country, thus reducing the adjustments needed by travelers. The people are very friendly, and they generally speak English.

Goldstein covers the subject thoroughly here, including some areas that might not come immediately to mind when thinking about it initially. A surprisingly amount of players who play for at least a few years in Israel end up moving there. Some have gotten married and raised a family there, and a few have converted to Judaism. Goldstein tracked down a couple of dozen Americans who played or play in Israel. They are generally success stories, although it's fair to note that the ones who hang around obviously like the situation and the country.

The presence of the foreigners has raised some questions for Israeli basketball. Do these players raise the quality of play for all, or do they take jobs away from native-born players? A little of both, probably. Maccabi Tel Aviv dominates the league, as it has the most money. (Think of the New York Yankees' payroll and record of success on steroids, proportionately.)  The players say it takes a little time to get used to the strict security measures, but they feel safe once they do. The African Americans generally add they haven't noticed too much overt racism, although it has been difficult for them to move into prime coaching jobs there after their playing days are over.

There are a couple of drawbacks to the story as presented here. Most of the interviews for the book appear to have taken place some years ago. I'm not sure if there's a story to that - it can be tough to find a publisher for anything these days - but it is odd to read lines like "he said in a 2009 interview." And readers should keep a bookmark on the appendix, which has brief bios of the profiled players. My enjoyment of the book increased once I did that. It's an interesting group, but most basketball fans only will have heard of a few of them before reading this.

"Alley-Oop to Aliyah" isn't a long book, but may be more information than a casual fan would want. A long magazine article might satisfy the curiosity of those readers. But for the ones who seek a full story, the book ought to work for them nicely.

Three stars.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Review: The Boxing Kings (2017)

By Paul Beston

The heavyweight division of boxing has had mostly American champions over the history of the sport. The tradition started by John L. Sullivan in the 19th century, and continued through such greats as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. There were a few "foreign" boxers on the list in the 20th century, such as Max Schmeling and Ingemar Johansson.

It was a heck of a run, and it certainly played a role in the growing of boxing as a spectator sport in the United States. That run is mostly over.

It's not a bad time, then, for a review of the subject. Paul Beston jumps all in with his fine book, "The Boxing Kings."

Organized boxing came out of a different time. The first set of rules go back as far as 1743, although they were updated in the 19th century. Eventually the heavyweight champion was known as the guy who could honestly say "I can lick any man in the house," no matter what house he was in. Eventually, Sullivan earned that title.

Beston goes through the famous title bouts and the other champions. What's great about boxing is that much of it has been recorded on film over the years. A big fight was a large enough event to lure primitive cameras along, because people would pay to see it after the fact. Therefore, we can take a look back and see what Jess Willard and Jack Johnson looked like about 100 years after they were in their prime boxing days.  The author obviously did that, and brings a trained eye to the analysis of the fights.

The major stars receive much of the coverage here, and deservedly so. Still, all of the heavyweight champions receive a mention here, including those who seemed to have the title for about an hour. And almost every bout is mentioned. The classic fights - Ali-Frazier, Tunney-Dempsey,  Louis-Schmeling, etc. - are covered in much more detail, and Beston comes up with some new material that will surprise even some veteran fans.

Beston is the managing editor of City Journal, and has written for several newspapers, magazines and websites. He obviously knows his stuff, and that shows up on every page here.

Boxing's popularity in the United States has declined in recent years, probably in part of the lack of a heavyweight champion from this part of the world. There are other factors as well, such as the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and an improved standard of living that has made boxing less attractive to potential athletes. Can you name any of the current heavyweight champions? (The fact that there are more than one at a given moment is part of the problem.)

"The Boxing Kings," then, takes us back to a time when boxing mattered. It's funny how time has flown. Mike Tyson hasn't been a big factor in boxing for more than a quarter of a century, and Evander Holyfield's prime checks in at about 20 years ago. That may limit the audience for a book like this - and the $36 list price may not help in that sense either - but those looking for information on the subject will find this an excellent source of material.

Four stars

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