Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: The Last Great Game (2012)

By Gene Wojciechowski

The video of the play has become almost iconic in association with March Madness. In fact, it might be the most famous play in college basketball history.

With 2.1 seconds to go and Duke trailing Kentucky by one point, Grant Hill of the Blue Devils throws the ball about 75 feet to teammate Christian Laettner. The center catches the ball, dribbles once, fakes, and shoots a 15-footer that goes through the basket for the winning points. Pandemonium isn't an adequate word to describe the reaction in Philadelphia's Spectrum.

What's been slightly forgotten in the nearly 20 years since Hill's pass and Laettner's shot is how good the entire game was. Both teams made several great plays when it counted most; Duke simply made the last one.

It's a game worthy of a good-sized recap, and Gene Wojciechowski delivers that story in excellent fashion in "The Last Great Game."

The contrast between the teams was quite stark back then. Duke was the defending national champion entering the 1991-92 season. It had stars like Laettner, Hill and Bobby Hurley, and was hoping to play in its fourth straight Final Four. Duke had been adopted by fans across the nation as a program that did things the "right way," a roster filled with student-athletes.

Meanwhile, Kentucky was part of basketball aristocracy as well, but had fallen on hard times. A scandal almost resulted in the death penalty for the Wildcats. Instead, Kentucky wound up on probation and ineligible for a conference championship and postseason play for a while. Players scattered, leaving very little talent for Rick Pitino when he arrived in Lexington as the new coach.

Wojciechowski nicely goes back and forth between the two teams as they slowly march toward their meeting. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is a constant presence in that half of the book, but the most compelling figure for the Blue Devils is Laettner. We all figured his level of self-confidence was off the charts, but the author shows that Laettner pushed and pushed his teammates in his own way to excel. Sometimes they swung back.

Meanwhile at Kentucky, Pitino was the star of the show, forcing the program to climb out of the abyss. His training methods bordered on distant and brutal, but the ones that survived -- Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods -- won't soon be forgotten in Lexington. Pitino convinced Jamal Mashburn to come to Kentucky, and the future pro helped put the Wildcats back on the map.

The author takes the back-and-forth approach through part of the game. In other words, the story is first told from a Kentucky perspective, and then the tale jumps to cover some of the same events from the Duke side. It all comes together for the final seconds. The technique works quite well, and it's easy for the reader to race through the final 75 pages even while knowing the outcome.

What's particularly impressive about Wojciechowski's work is how detailed it is, and the details matter in a book like this. Yes, he talked to the players and coaches about the game and the events leading up to it. But he talked to the parents -- the Laettners must have been sick of Wojciechowski by the time the book was done -- and the officials and the administrators and the broadcasters. Luckily, everyone seemed to remember plenty about what they were doing at key moments. In hindsight, it's a little amazing how many people instantly walked away from the contest thinking, "That was the greatest game ever."

There have been lots and lots of great games, of course, but considering the stakes and the circumstances, this one certainly is in the argument for that label. An interest in the subject is necessary to open up the book in the first place, of course. But for those that do, they couldn't expect to find a recap of a game that the one Wojciechowski puts together in "The Last Great Game."

Four stars

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review: Howard Cosell (2012)

By Mark Ribowsky

Many famous and successful people are on the insecure side. Howard Cosell, though, took that character trait to unprecedented heights.

That's the biggest impression given by author Mark Ribowsky in his book, "Howard Cosell." It's a sprawling, comprehensive look at one of the great personalities in television history.

Those under the age of, say, 40, have no strong recollection of Cosell. You really had to see it to believe it. Broadcasting never has had a career arc quite like it.

Cosell was a lawyer who wanted the fame that came with a career in broadcasting, so he traded time on legal documents for lugging a tape recorder around ball parks and stadiums to conduct radio interviews. His distinctive voice and huge intellect quickly set him apart from anyone else in the business.

While Cosell had all sorts of aspects to his professional life, he'll be best remembered for two areas. Cosell worked boxing matches for ABC sports, where he developed a relationship with Muhammad Ali. That proved beneficial to both parties, but especially Ali. When the champion was stripped of his title for refusing to enter military service, Cosell was one of the few media members to defend Ali's right to make a living. The announcer proved to be right, and he's remembered for it to this day.

Then Cosell turned up on something called "Monday Night Football," lasted more than a decade as one of the announcers. Ribowsky brings to life those days when those weekly broadcasts were an event, and then some. The ratings were enormous, and Cosell was a lightning rod for attention.

The problem was that there, like in almost everything he did, Cosell drew an emotional reaction from the public -- good and bad. Lots loved him, lots hated him. How many announcers get death threats just for doing their job? Cosell did.

All of that attention took its toll. Stories have been making the rounds in NFL press boxes about Cosell partaking in alcoholic beverages at times during games, and Ribowsky finds confirmation here. There were all sorts of plenty of three-martini lunches and dinners, along the way too. It was a different era, but there is head-shaking information about the problem here.

That may have been at least part of the reason why the private Cosell seems so much less than admirable. The author piles on the stories about Cosell. There are stunningly petty and mean-spirited moments with co-workers. Even friends and admirers were stunned by the broadcaster's behavior at times. For a man who thought the print media was becoming more irrelevant, Cosell sure knew every word written about him anywhere in the U.S. (emphasis on anywhere). It's difficult reading.

There's plenty on the record about Cosell, and many characters from ABC have written autobiographies over the years. Ribowsky adds his own interviews with such people as Frank Deford, who supply perspective and insight. It's certainly a sad ending, with Cosell withering away as a bitter recluse rather than as a raging elder statesman.

Along the way, Ribowsky comes up with a fact in passing that seems quite remarkable. Don Meredith left an announcing job on Monday Night Football in the summer of 1974, and the author reports that O.J. Simpson was ready to quit football if he could get that job. Considering Simpson was coming off his 2,003-yard season with the Buffalo Bills, it's amazing that he would consider such a move at that point in his life. Either the author got some bad information about the timing of such a move, or he has a big scoop on his hands.

By the way, Ribowsky's best work in the book may come in a chapter in which Cosell played only a secondary role. That's the one called "Munich," concerning the terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympic Games which resulted in the death of 11 members of the Israeli team. It's absolutely gripping.

At 430 pages or so, and those pages are packed with type, it's a lot to get through. The author uses quite a few words that aren't exactly common. It's appropriate to use a big vocabulary about Cosell, who was known for that, but some uses of the language may bring the reader to a halt every so often.

While Cosell's warts are fully exposed here, Ribowsky's biggest point might be that there are no Howard Cosells on the horizon, as the relationship between leagues and rights-holders has gotten cozier over the years to the point where an independent voice like Cosell's would be a shock. And that's something of a shame.

"Howard Cosell" doesn't make the subject a very sympathetic character, but it's hard to look away. This may not be for the young readers out there, Still, if you want to see what the circus was like back then, this is a good admission ticket.

Four stars

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