Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Martyball (2012)

By Marty Schottenheimer and Jeffrey Flanagan

Marty Schottenheimer is one of those football coaches who probably will be underrated by history. He was a successful head coach by just about any standard, ranking with the all-time NFL leaders in victories with 200. Schottenheimer won wherever he went, more or less, including a couple of memorable runs with the Browns and Chiefs.

But there's a hole in his resume, which is obvious to just about everyone. He never made it to a Super Bowl, let alone won one. We tend to remember NFL champions. Therefore, it's easy to lump Schottenheimer with a coach like Chuck Knox, another man who won a ton of games wherever he went but fell just short of a ring.

Knox produced a very good autobiography when he was done coaching - for a guy who never said much, it turned out he had a lot to say. Schottenheimer tries a different approach with his "autobiography," "Martyball." It doesn't quite work out as well.

The basic problem centers on the book's approach. Schottenheimer opted not to write the book with a co-author himself. Instead, he decided to work with someone who wrote the book from the third person. The ex-coach certainly cooperated with Jeffrey Flanagan, and it sounds like he was helpful in making sure that family members and other friends chipped in as well.

The book, then, becomes something of a hymnal of praise for Schottenheimer and his career as a coach. Sometimes it's others doing the singing, and sometimes it's Flanagan himself. But it's relentlessly positive, to the point that the reader knows pretty quickly what's going to be coming for the 300-plus pages.

Now, let's be clear that Schottenheimer certainly deserves some credit for a fine career. I have no doubt that he has influenced many top players and coaches over the course of coaching days. It's a story of success, but this sort of writing approach takes away some of the drama in the story. As in, he deserves to tell his story, but it's easy to wonder where the drama is.

There are some good stories told along the way, at least, and some of them come from the family. Marty's wife Pat comes across as a particularly interesting and fun. There's a great story that how Marty met Pat on the bench and went to her house to pick her up for their first date ... and he didn't recognize her when she came to the door. They obviously patched things up pretty quickly.

There also are reminders of how life gets in the way of people's jobs, even for football coaches. The famous "fumble" involving the Browns in the AFC Championship game is remembered by the Schottenheimers as the night they came back from the game - and one of their sons had to have his appendix out.

Books like this are fairly common. Fans of Schottenheimer, and they are many, will enjoy it, because it's a quick read and good-natured. You can easily see family members handing them out as gifts. Still, "Martyball" is not going to be a keeper for the rest of us.

Three stars

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: Newton's Football (2013)

By Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D.

Mention science to most people, and they go screaming into the night in terror as they think back to their days in high school. Me too.

So it's rare to see a book that can cross that divide and be attractive to those who gave up on science long, long ago. "Newton's Football" is that book. It's a new, fresh treatment that goes down all sorts of avenues in a frequently fascinating and fast read.

Authors Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph. D. (you can guess who was in the charge of the football, adn who was in charge of the science) have teamed up for this effort. It's written in the style of "Freakonomics," which a variety of short chapters that examine a variety of issues.

Some of the most interesting chapters in the book deal with the way the game evolved over the years. Seemingly insignificant events turned out to have ripple effects that send football down entirely new paths.

Don't believe it? Think about the simple facemask. You probably have to be drawing social security to remember players who didn't wear them. They were introduced in 1953, and did a dandy job of cutting down on some head injuries. The catch was that, ironically, they cut down on head injuries, which meant the players felt a bit more invulnerable when they made tackles. That meant players were more willing to make harder hits, particularly while leading with their heads. Big hits helped the sport become more popular, but also led to different injuries - like concussions.

There are stories about the development of the West Coast offense. St. John and Ramirez point out how Bill Walsh designed a passing game that essentially resembled digital (on vs. off) decisions. If Option One is covered, go to Option Two. If that's not going to work, go to Option Three. If that's clogged up and linemen are closing in, flip it to a running back in the flat. Passing progressions have become part of the game since then.

What's more, the game really opened up when the rules were changed to discourage bump-and-run play by cornerbacks. It was called the Mel Blount Rule, since he was the prototype for tough, physical defenders. Blount, the authors argue, was something like Thomas Edison, trying all sorts of techniques to find one that worked.

There are a couple of stories on chaos on the football field - deliberate chaos, that is. The no-huddle offense and zone blitz are two such parts of the game designed to create confusion for opponents. Even though they have been around for a while, they still work at some level against foes who at least have an idea that something (but what?) is coming.

By the way, there's a great story in the section on the no-huddle that I've never seen anywhere before. The NFL went to Bengals coach Sam Wyche before the AFC Championship Game in 1988 and asked him not to run the no-huddle because it might make a mockery of the game. Wyche pointed out that this would give an unfair competitive edge to the Bills, and quietly added that some powerful gamblers might not take a liking to the NFL sticking its nose into an outcome like this. After a quick phone call, the league representative told Wyche to do whatever he wanted. The Bengals won.

All sorts of scientific experts, including those who admit they know nothing about football, and a few football ones are consulted along the way. The authors do an excellent job of not getting too technical in the process. This really could have been quite dull, but it never bogs down.

It's usually a good sign when the most stinging criticism of a book is that it should/could have been longer. Maybe a sequel is coming some day; let's hope so. In the meantime, "Newton's Football" works very nicely for those who enjoy out-of-the-box thinking of any kind.

Five stars

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Review: You Herd Me (2013)

By Colin Cowherd

A full review appeared in The Buffalo News. In short, this is mostly a collection of thoughts about topics that aren't topical. That more or less goes against the immediacy of the sports talk show business, which thrives on emotions generated in the heat of the moment. Therefore, "You Herd Me" is at a disadvantage that is never really overcome.

Two stars

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Review: Crossing the Line (2012)

By Derek Sanderson with Kevin Shea

So that's what happened to Derek Sanderson.

That sentence is the easiest way possible to describe Sanderson's autobiography, "Crossing the Line." It's quite a remarkable story. The short version is that Sanderson essentially rode a somewhat exaggerated public image to fame and fortune ... only to lose most of it through addictions.

Sanderson grew up in Niagara Falls, Ont., and played junior hockey there. He was a decent but not exceptional scorer, and was best known for his defensive skills. Sanderson always could take care of the opponent's best players and limit their effectiveness.

He was sure that he was headed to the National Hockey League to the point where he quit school in order to pay more attention to hockey. That usually doesn't work, but it did - for a while in this case. Sanderson landed with the Boston Bruins in the late 1960's.

That was just the right time to be coming up from the junior ranks to the Bruins. Bobby Orr had arrived the year before, and Phil Esposito had come over from Chicago in a trade. After years in the dungeon, the Bruins had tons of young talent coming up. The team matured together, resulting in Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972.

If Orr and Esposito had the market cornered on talent, Sanderson took care of color. He had long hair, a mustache, good looks and personality. Sanderson may have talked a better game than he actually he played - he admits here he tended to exaggerate such qualities as the size of his wardrobe - but he became a star. Sanderson was named one of the 25 coolest athletes ever by GQ magazine once upon a time.

But it came with a price. There was pressure to live up to that image, pressure to perform on the ice night after night. That pressure ramped up a few notches when he signed the richest contract in pro sports when he jumped to Philadelphia of the World Hockey Association. That deal only lasted a few weeks, as the team soon gave him a million dollars to go away. Sanderson went back to Boston, but things were never the same. He soon was traded by the Bruins.

Meanwhile, a couple of drinks turned into three or four, and three or four turned into marathon sessions. Throw in a fear of flying, not a healthy trait for a pro athlete, and Sanderson found himself a full-blown alcoholic. In fact, the first chapter deals with the time that Sanderson had absolutely no place to go - so he slept on a bench in Central Park. Sanderson did make several attempts to keep playing, bouncing around the league. It's probably a tribute to his talent that he stayed in the league as long as he did, but eventually the disease caught up to him.

Sanderson went through a variety of detox and rehab programs, but it took a while for him to finally get to the bottom and realize he had to start the climb up. Luckily for him, he made it out of that hole. Sanderson had a long career as a television commentator with the Bruins and has done financial work.

The authors really do a good job of making Sanderson's days come alive. He reviews his childhood days in an interesting way, telling how they shaped his personality. Shea certainly gets plenty of credit for putting the story together. Sanderson covers the Bruins' Glory Years extremely well.

Interestingly, Sanderson's book may have a better perspective on Orr than Orr's own book does, just released this year. While Orr doesn't talk about himself in that book comfortably, Sanderson is happy to fill in the gaps. Not only does the forward think the defenseman was the greatest player ever, but he thinks Orr was about the best person ever. Orr has always been there for Sanderson, paying for treatments, leading a hand when possible. Orr also needed little time to become a leader of the Bruins at a very young age, making sure the team stuck together on and off the ice. That really was quite a team; Sanderson probably is right in saying it could have won four straight Stanley Cups quite easily.

Addiction stories are never easy to read, and Sanderson probably is right in saying here that he's lucky that he didn't get arrested, and lucky that he's still alive. There are plenty of "boy, was I stupid" comments along the way; it's difficult to disagree with him.

The only odd part of the book comes when Sanderson talks about his former lawyer who he says robbed him of a great deal of money. But Sanderson doesn't choose to provide many details about the experience, simply giving a few comments from a distance. Remember, we are dealing with someone who throughout the book showed that he could go through money pretty quickly - alcohol, cars, gifts, drugs, etc. There certainly is a sense that there is more to the story.

That aside, Sanderson still comes off a likable person. He always seemed to be in on the joke, but just got carried away with it.

"Crossing the Line" obviously works best for those who remember Sanderson as a player. That admittedly is a relatively small window of about four years that were more than 40 years ago. But most, even those who didn't see him play, will find his story instructive and amazing at the same time.

Four stars

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review: Undisputed Truth (2013)

By Mike Tyson and Larry Sloman

Consider the life of Mike Tyson an experiment in social engineering.

Take a kid with virtually no education, and virtually no parental guidance, out of the worst part of New York City. Bring him upstate, give him some world-class instruction in the art of boxing, and then let him loose on an unsuspecting sports world. Then, see what happens after he achieves unimagined success, particularly on the financial end.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot line of "Undisputed Truth," Tyson's autobiography. It doesn't take a mad scientist know that such an experiment might not end well for all concerned.

This may not be the best boxing autobiography ever written - come to think of it, I'm not sure what is - but this certainly must rank among the biggest. It checks in at close to 600 pages of type. My Kindle needed to go out and do roadwork to lose that extra weight after downloading it.

Tyson's life carries a degree of fascination because he was, in some ways, the last heavyweight boxing champion to matter. Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko had better careers, but they didn't light up a ring like Tyson did. The New York native was a destructive machine early in his career, and many paid to watch him at work.

Tyson's backstory also was part of the attraction. He had a generally missing father and an irresponsible mother, and essentially took up stealing well before his age was in double figures. But he somehow found an outlet in boxing, was sent upstate and was virtually adopted by veteran manager Cus D'Amato - the former manager of ex-heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. D'Amato immediately saw big things in Tyson's future even before Tyson had a pro fight, and groomed him nicely. D'Amato also kept Tyson's personality under control.

D'Amato died before Tyson was on top of the heavyweight division, but "Iron Mike" soon became the youngest champion in the division's history. He became one of the top gate attractions in the history of the sport, and the money started flying around. If the history of boxing teaches us anything, it's that people are always willing to try to separate uneducated, less-than-worldly boxers from their earnings. Tyson served as something of a personal ATM for those people.

If that weren't enough, Tyson had some severe self-image problems from his childhood that make him feel less than worthy of that good fortune. Therefore, he just gave away enormous amounts of money. Responsible? One time someone found a sack of money in Tyson's closet that contained a million dollars.

Oddly, there isn't that much boxing in this book by a boxer. In hindsight, most of Tyson's fights were not particularly memorable. No one could stop him, and the parade of early knockouts provide little to write about. The post-fight partying, though, was another story. Tyson freely admits that he took advantage of every opportunity to enjoy the advantages of being "the baddest man on the planet."

That was eventually led to his downfall. Tyson admits here he was too busy chasing women by the dozens, whether he was married or not, and taking drugs to worry too much about training. He got away with it for a while, but eventually it caught up with him. Tyson eventually lost his title, won it back briefly and then lost it again for good. Along the way he picked up a conviction for rape, sending him to prison for a few years.

In the middle of all of this, "Undisputed Truth" stops being a book about a boxer, and starts being a book about an addict.

In that, Tyson's book reads a great deal like the stories of such people as musician Eric Clapton and baseball player Dwight Gooden. Little else mattered to Tyson except satisfying his appetites for women, alcohol and drugs. The stories is all of these books are quite similar. Tyson certainly brings the language of the street to this particular story, and he also admits that he frequently turned into a jerk along the way.

There are some interesting stories told along the way. Certainly plenty of people have wanted to take a swing at boxing promoter Don King over the years. Tyson actually connected a couple of times. And it's amazing how Tyson still held a fascination for people years after he was relevant as an athlete. His name alone still allowed him to inhabit some powerful social circles. Still, many of the stories sound very much the same after a while. Some serious editing probably could have taken 100 pages out the book easily without lessening the impact of the story.

The book was supposed to end with Tyson happily married and clean, finally getting to know his various children in a relatively stable home life. Alas, a new ending had to be tacked on when he fell off the proverbial wagon a few times in terms of substances earlier in the year.

While few will be too sympathetic of Tyson since he brought many of his troubles on himself, it's fair to say that he never had much of a chance. But as "Undisputed Truth" shows, it's still tough to look away. I suspect that will be true for the indefinite future.

Three stars

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: The NHL (2013)

By D'Arcy Jenish

Here's an interesting idea about writing a history book about professional hockey: Take out practically everything that happens on the ice.

That's what D'Arcy Jenish essentially does with his book, "The NHL - A Centennial History." Yes, he's a little early, since we are about four years away from the actual 100th birthday party for the league.

But there's no reason to complain. No matter when it comes out or when it is read, Jenish's book is a valuable addition to the story of professional hockey in North America.

The author concentrates on the off-ice action here, and when reviewed in this context it's easy to see that hockey has had a rough go of it at times over the years. Any business is going to have troubles at the start-up, but the NHL has faced all sorts of issues in nearly a century of duty. As the author says, the story is all about trying to survive and grow.

The league started in the midst of a dispute. The NHL began in 1917 when the members of its predecessor league got involved in something of a big difference of opinion, and four teams in three cities in Canada essentially said to the others that they were going to go off and start their own league, thank you. And that's what they did.

From there, it was something of accordion time for the league, which grew across the border in the United States in fits and starts. The idea of big arenas was just getting started then, and sometimes it was tough for the owners to make money. Then it became tougher to do so in the Thirties when the Depression hit, and World War II didn't help either. No wonder we got down to the Original Six. It's easy to look over the all-time year-by-year standings in the NHL record book and wonder what happened. This tells the story very nicely.

Jenish got a hold of some documents in the post-WW2 era that have never been released before, and the summaries of official league meetings from that era are full of treasures. Not only do they contain "inside information" on the state of the league during the time, but they supply quotes so we can hear the voices of the game's leaders at the time actually speak to us. There are even some financial statements that show the true fiscal state of the league - it hasn't always been a license to print money.

One of Jenish's good points is that for all of the nostalgia about the "Original Six" days, it wasn't such a splendid time. The league was essentially the haves and the have nots for a couple of decades, and the Board of Governors tried and failed for years to balance out the talent level.

The league shifted its balance of power with the 1967 six-team expansion, although a price was paid with the struggles of some of the new teams to stay afloat - just like the 1920s. By the early 1970s, the arrival of the rival World Hockey Association changed the economics of the game for the worse, at least from the owners' perspective.

One of the best moments in the book, in fact, comes from former NHL President John Ziegler. He tells how, when he took over that job around 1978, he asked about the league's financial situation and was told that the NHL was insolvent. Ouch.

Ziegler has never opened up at length in public about his days as President, and it's quite interesting that Jenish got him to talk here. Ziegler may have gotten too much credit for the NHL's reversal of fortunes in this text, but after reading this he seems more effective at least behind the scenes than most realize.

The book also covers the corrupt Alan Eagleson era with the Players Association, the labor actions of the past 20 years, and the arrival of the league as a legitimate player on the North American sports scene - albeit one that still has its problems.

Taking most of the ice out of the game's history makes this story a little dry (sorry), so that means some people aren't going to bother with the nearly 400 pages plus notes here. Their loss. There's plenty of great information here that makes the record book come alive. "The NHL" definitely is going to be a huge favorite for students of the game of hockey.

Five stars

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Great Expectations (2013)

By Shi Davidi and John Lott

The first point to be made about the new baseball book, "Great Expectations," concerns the title, naturally. Someone else got there first.

In other words, don't go to the nearest bookstore and ask for it by name without saying, "It's in the baseball section." Otherwise, you'll be directed to the work of Charles Dickens, who is not a go-to person when it comes to baseball. And don't do a search just for "great expectations" on the computer, either.

With that obligatory joke out of the way, let's start by saying what "Great Expectations" is. It has to be the fastest season review in baseball literary history. Authors Shi Davidi and John Lott, who both cover the Toronto Blue Jays, collectively have written something of a summary of the 2013 season. These books usually come out just in time for the season opener, so it's odd to read it before American Thanksgiving.

The title works because everyone who followed baseball thought the Blue Jays were poised for a great season in 2013. They completed a couple of huge trades that brought them such players as Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey, and added free agents like Melky Cabrera. Clearly, the Blue Jays management saw weakness for a change in the American League East, long dominated by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and struck in an attempt to become relevant again in baseball circles.

Simply stated, it didn't work. The Blue Jays got off to a poor start, lost Reyes to injury, rallied with a long winning streak in June to get to .500, and then collapsed mostly under the weight of a pile of injuries - particularly to the pitching staff.

Give Davidi and Lott credit for a good start. They dug into the mess that the Blue Jays were in at the end of the 2012 season, which eventually led to the trading of manager John Farrell to the Red Sox for a shortstop. (That one worked out pretty well for Boston.)

The Blue Jays didn't immediately think of such a massive remodeling. But general manager Alex Anthopoulos saw opportunity arrive when the Marlins decided to have a fire sale on some of their veteran talent. After receiving permission from ownership to raise the budget, Anthopoulos went to work and put together a team that was a favorite to win the division.There are some good details here about the negotiating process in the trade and in the discussion to extend Dickey's contract.

When the season starts, the coverage is less comprehensive and interesting. The chapters are split between on-field developments and extended profiles of some of the star players, such as Jose Bautista, Mark Buehrle and Brett Lawrie. Munenori Kawasaki even gets his turn in the spotlight, as he became an unexpected fan favorite despite backup status. The mini-bios aren't boring by any means, but there's no sense of urgency involved.They more or less float in space, unattached to the season around them.

And perhaps that's the biggest problem with the book. It reads as if everyone had big plans for the Blue Jays in 2013 and decided to capitalize by planning on publishing this volume. Even when the team disappointed, people were bound and determined to make sure the book still was going to come out at its scheduled time. The writing does feel a little rushed in spots, with some duplication of material. The deadlines must have been oppressive.

Davidi and Lott do review the year to a certain extent at the end of the book. There is some discussion about leadership problems - always tough to get a handle on in a team sport - and "the little things" that are difficult to quantify. But there are few signs of huge problems on the Blue Jays, such as a lost of respect of manager John Gibbons or an unhappy clubhouse.

Sometimes teams simply have off years, as there are no guarantees to success in baseball. That's what makes it a little maddening to those involved, but it also makes it so much fun to watch. "Great Expectations" will be of interest to Blue Jays fans who want to know more about this particular set of players, but the rest probably could do better elsewhere.

Three stars

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Their Life's Work (2013)

By Gary M. Pomerantz

"Their Life's Work" is the answer to a bookstore's prayers ... at least in Pittsburgh.

There is little doubt that this particular book will be a huge seller in that part of the world. What's more, it should be. For Gary Pomerantz's work will be sought out by everyone who can recite the members of the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s - frequently called "The Steel Curtain."

Just for the record, those players are Joe Greene, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes, and they helped the Steelers win four Super Bowl titles in less than a decade. They were merely part of one of the great runs by a group of players in pro football history. The line's members were joined by such players as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster and Jack Lambert.

Heck, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton ought to have its own wing devoted to those Pittsburgh teams. The Steelers of that era started out with a ferocious defense that intimidated opponents and had a conservative offense that stuck to the ground. By decade's end, as the rules and game changed, the Steelers could strike quickly via long-distance passes from Bradshaw to Swann and Stallworth.

Pomerantz essentially splits the story into a couple of parts. The initial sections deal with the rise of the Steelers. You could argue that they were one of the last teams to raid an undervalued talent pool in the historic black colleges, adding to some of the best drafts in football history. Four eventual Hall of Famers in one draft is tough to top. Then it was simply a matter of the pieces coming together. It took some time - the so-called "Immaculate Reception" of 1972  was a major steppingstone toward that goal - but the Steelers finally got that first Super Bowl title in January of 1975.

Happily, there are plenty of good stories about that team told along the way. Pomerantz obviously put in plenty of time through interviews and research to get as complete a story as possible. He doesn't get too bogged down in game details, sticking to personalities and anecdotes. You'll love the portion about the Steelers hanging around the Three Rivers Stadium sauna, reviewing games well into the dinner hour - even inviting the odd respected opponent once in a great while.

After a quick review of the remaining years of the dynasty, Pomerantz moves to the story of what's happened to those players and other members of the organization over the years since everyone went their separate ways. The title refers to what happens to players when they are done with football, usually at a young age.

It's fair to say some of the stories are relatively well-known - Bradshaw is best known for his work with Fox Sports before NFL games, Webster died after suffering from brain damage, etc. A surprising number of people from that team have died already, which is rather sobering. It is a little easy to wonder if some of the other, less-known players on the team had even more compelling stories, but those aren't the ones people care about.

Overseeing it all is the story of the Rooney family. Art, one of the most beloved figures in Pittsburgh history, gets plenty of coverage here as could be expected. He took a chance on pro football in the game's infancy, and it paid off in a big way. Stories about his generosity here still touch the heart. Some of his sons took over the family football business, which took a rather Shakespearean turn fairly recently.

There have been a couple of comparisons here to baseball's "The Boys of Summer," which is a terribly high standard. This isn't quite as sentimental, and therefore probably won't be quite as beloved by a mass audience.

But "Their Life's Work" certainly serves as a glowing valedictory for the most glorious era in Steelers' history. This book will be on the bookshelves of fans of those teams for years and years to come, who probably will want to give it six stars out of a possible five.

Five stars

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: Collision Low Crossers (2013)

By Nicholas Dawidoff

Let's get this out of the way from the beginning.

"Collision Low Crossers" ranks as one of the best pro football books ever written.

The worst part of it might just be the title, which is a phrase (I think) to describe how defenders try to disrupt pass receivers who run short crossing patterns a few yards from the line of scrimmage between the defensive linemen and the linebackers. It's not a phrase that rolls off the tongue at first, but try to remember it the next time you are shopping for a football book. It's worth the effort.

Nicholas Dawidoff, the author of a few other fine books, had the idea of spending a full year with a professional football team. He contacted the New York Jets, who - considering how paranoid pro football is as an industry when it comes to revealing secrets to outsiders - surprisingly agreed to open the doors to him in 2011.

Dawidoff was given total access to everything connected with the team. He had a locker, attended practices, sat with general manager Mike Tannenbaum during games, and so on. Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan are obviously two members of a small group that would even consider something like this. What's more, hardly anything was "off the record." No wonder Dawidoff took 8,000 pages of notes during the year.

The 2011 season might be remembered at first as the Year of the Lockout. Just after the author arrived, the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players expired, and a new one was not in place. So the owners locked the doors and essentially suspended operations. While Dawidoff might have thought this was a bad break at the time, it actually worked in his favor. He still showed up virtually every day at the Jets' complex in New Jersey, and he probably had the chance to develop closer relationships with the members of the coaching staff.

That pays off throughout the book. Most coaches in the NFL come off as slight variations of vanilla in personality, with Ryan as an exception. Here we get to know almost all the coaches as people, and the portraits show that they really do have personalities.

However, the assistant coaches work hard. Very hard. No one seems to ever sleep in the football business, and they all miss countless family events throughout the season. The only thing that makes it even close to worthwhile is winning, and everyone still remembers that only one team out of 32 gets to win that last game of the season in early February - which leaves disappointment lurking for all the rest.

That leads to one of Dawidoff''s main points. The game is so involved and so complicated, that it's difficult for anyone to come close to judging the work of the coaching staff. Few have any idea what's really going on. A glance at the won-loss record by outsiders probably isn't enough.

While the author spends much of his time with the coaches, particularly on the defensive side, he doesn't ignore the players either - although he's not quite as close. There are plenty of good stories there, and the best is the most obvious - the starting quarterback. Mark Sanchez was hailed as the man who would lead the Jets to the promised land when he was drafted, and it looked as if he'd do that after two good years after entering the league. But Sanchez definitely took a small step back in 2011, and that helped to create a split between a solid defensive unit and an inconsistent offensive group. It's more poignant now, since we know Sanchez's career had spiraled downward since then.

There's also insight on fringe players. Take Aaron Maybin, a former first-round draft choice who flopped in Buffalo. Maybin had his moments every once in a great while with the Jets in 2011, and shown to be a fun, interesting person. He's also unable to remember play calls and is the only Jet to even discuss life after football. Very enlightening.

The fun really comes when Dawidoff does his impression of a fly on the wall. What's it like when there is no agreement among football staffers about a particular draft choice? How does a team recruit players when free agency opens in a particular year? How are rookies treated? (Hint to that last one: Think errand boy.)

If that weren't enough, Dawidoff's writing is excellent and thoughtful, and his personal observations on the nature of the game are always interesting. When he writes that football is now designed to produce games and often comes down to a battle of wits between quarterbacks and defensive coordinators, it's easy to nod in agreement.

This runs almost 500 pages and can be a little technical and jargon-filled in spots, but fans of the game won't complain. "Collision Low Crossers" should take its rightful place as one of the best sports books of the year.

Five stars

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Monsters (2013)

By Rich Cohen

This review appeared in The Buffalo News. Access it with a click here.

Abridged version: Author Rich Cohen goes back and looks at the favorite team of his youth. The 1985 Bears are full of characters, and it's fun to read their stories even more than 25 years later. Still, Cohen doesn't carry much objectivity into the story, and tries quite hard to make the reader notice his writing style.

Three stars

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Kings of the Road (2013)

By Cameron Stracher

This received a long review in The Buffalo News. You can read the entire text by clicking here.

Short version - this is the abbreviated story of the era when American runners dominated the world stage when it came to marathons. It focuses on men like Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. The book makes some very interesting points along the way about the history of American running, and what prompted a couple of major changes. I just wish it had been longer.

Three stars

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: Orr (2013)

By Bobby Orr

I once heard a story about Rick Reilly when he was working with hockey great Wayne Gretzky on an autobiography. Reilly said that Gretzky was such a modest, good person that it was tough to get him to open up about much. For example, Gretzky said winning that first Stanley Cup was "special." Reilly asked how, and Gretzky answered, "Well, it was just ... special."

Wayne Gretzky, meet Bobby Orr.

Orr is usually considered one of the three greatest hockey players ever, and maybe the best ever for a particular season. He revolutionized the game with his offense style as a defenseman. Injuries shortened and hampered his career, but Orr had accomplishments that were unmatched before or since.

About the only thing Orr didn't do was write his autobiography, and he's finally taken on that job in "Orr."

The problem here is that Orr is so modest, and such a nice guy, that he has trouble talking about his life. These are qualities that make him a fine person and a good friend, of course. Stories to that effect have come out over the years from a variety of sources. Many friends have talked about how when they were a bit down and out, Orr was always there to pick up the pieces. When baseball writer Peter Gammons switched hospitals once while recovering from a serious illness, who was waiting for him at the new place but Bobby Orr. In his playing days, Orr would take reporters to hospitals, and the journalists would see the Bruins' defenseman cheer up sick kids ... but the reporters were sworn to secrecy.

Orr resisted opportunities to write a book for decades. He's finally done it now. Basically, it's a thank-you letter to everyone that helped along the way. Parents, relatives, coaches, teammates - you'd think Orr was the luckiest guy on the face of the earth to be associated with such good people, although the truth just might be the other way around. That includes people he's encountered along the way, including Don Cherry - who gets his own chapter and an endorsement for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There is one exception to the rule, and that's his former agent, Alan Eagleson. Orr gives Eagleson his own chapter after not talking about him by name throughout the book. Eagleson went to jail for criminal business activities, and was kicked out of the Hockey Hall of Fame among other disgraces. Eagleson represented Orr from an early age, and became famous in part because of that association. Orr doesn't go into great detail about the financial losses he might have taken - except for the fact that Eagleson didn't even tell Orr when the Bruins offered Orr part-ownership in the team to prevent him from leaving for Chicago as a free agent. Orr seems more upset that Eagleson became a bully along the way, and that the superstar lost a once-good friend in the process.

The book leaves some questions unanswered about Orr's life. For example, what was it like to come up to the NHL at 18 in 1966 and be considered the savior of the Bruins' franchise? Did it hurt as much as I think it did to be stunned by Montreal in the first round of the 1971 playoffs? Would today's medical techniques made his career longer and even better? What sort of reaction does Orr get from families when he walks in the front door to talk about representing a young hockey player in his current job as agent? Even the Stanley Cup championships don't get long reviews, which is surprising.

Orr wraps up the book with a discussion of the game of hockey, and his comments are another example of his good, common sense. He remarks on how important passion for the game is, the role of agents, and possible rules changes. Orr's ideas are logical and sensible - just like most of the comments here. Then there's one last bit of modesty - when listing the various honors he's received for hockey, he doesn't even mention the three consecutive Hart Trophies he captured as the league's most valuable player. That's our Bobby, still the Parry Sound, Ont., boy at heart.

'Orr" certainly has a place on the bookshelf; you can give it to your kids to learn about an admirable sports superstar. There's no controversy here. But if the idea of an autobiography is to give others an insight into the life of the writer, Orr keeps the curtain mostly closed.

Three stars

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Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2013

J.R. Moehringer, Editor

This space has contained reviews of the annual book, "The Best American Sports Writing," for years. It's always been very, very good reading, often receiving the relatively rare five-star rating. It's to the point where I'm hard pressed to come up with something different to say each year, other than "go buy it, you'll be glad you did."

This year ... was different.

Series editor Glenn Stout, was always opens the book with a thoughtful introduction, sets the tone right from page xi. He reminds us that sports can be a path to finding out more about a particular person or situation, although not necessarily the path. That meshes with my own experiences, particularly when it comes to the running stories I write. Runners run for a variety of different reasons, and it's often fascinating to find out the details as a clue to a bigger story about human behavior.

That led into an introduction by this year's guest editor, J.R. Moehringer, who started as a daily sportswriter but moved into different areas - drawn by the stories that sports can create but not necessarily drawn by the sports themselves.

After a handful of pages went by, I didn't need much more time to reach a conclusion. Moehringer was going to be using a much bigger net to capture stories that previous editors.

There are a couple of ways of expressing that. First, only a handful of stories are about athletes in the public eye. Most deal with people we don't know dealing with extraordinary situations; in other words, nothing about Tiger Woods here. Second, there are stories in here from sources such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN the magazine that I didn't read the first time around. I don't recall that happening often in this series, but I read them here because I had faith in the selections that they would be worth my time.

Let's add a third - the first story in the book, arguably designed to be the showcase piece of all 25 picks, is on bullfighting. While the story is very well done and full of drama, bullfighting isn't something that pops up on sports talk radio of SportsCenter very often. OK, never. It's followed by an article on bowling, and then by two athletes dying young. No, it's not your older brother's anthology.

One of the few articles on someone in the public eye could have been published in an anthology of business stories. It's the story of Curt Schilling's spiral into corporate bankruptcy with his video games company. "End Game" is fascinating reading, but baseball barely takes even a supporting role.

There is much to enjoy here. Charles Siebert's look at an undrafted free agent's attempt to stick in the NFL was very enlightening. "At the Corner of Love and Basketball" by Allison Glock held me more or less captive. A look back at a "Simpson's" episode on baseball was terrific. I also remembered stories on principled athletes and Urban Meyer from the first time I read them, and they were worth reading again here.

On the other hand, there were a couple of stories that I quit reading well before the halfway point, and a few others that didn't quite add up for me - emphasis on "for me."

And that's the charm of the series. I don't have to like all of the picks, but the selections of "The Best American Sports Writing" force me to try to read stories that I wouldn't normally cover. Moehringer's success rate wasn't quite as good as some of the other editors, at least to me, but you may have a different experience. The journey, though, is always worth taking.

Four stars

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: One Last Strike (2012)

By Tony La Russa with Rick Hummel

Fans of the St. Louis Cardinals will always remember the 2011 baseball season. Yes, they won the World Series - but the Cardinals have done that before with some degree of regularity. But it's how they did it that will put a smile on every Cardinal fan's face.

St. Louis was hovering just above .500 in late August, apparently out of the playoff picture. Then the Cardinals got hot, the Braves got cold, and somehow, some way, St. Louis grabbed a playoff spot on the last day of the regular season. Then in the playoffs, the Cardinals survived the early rounds of the playoffs to reach the World Series against Texas. You may have heard that the Cardinals were down to their last strike a couple of times, but fought back somehow to eventually win it all.

The conclusion was the perfect exit line, and manager Tony La Russa used it - retiring right after the end of the Series. He followed that by writing a book that's mostly about the magical season, "One Last Strike."

It was always a bit difficult to get a good read on La Russa from the distance of a fan, and the book gives the impression that he liked it that way. La Russa clearly is a very intelligent man, and he took his job very seriously. He expected everyone to do the same. Team members were certainly allowed to enjoy a particular moment, but they had to remember that the overall focus was winning that last game of the season if possible. In this case, the Cardinals had to win the next-to-last game in dramatic fashion to get to that last game. They did win that Game Six in the most extraordinary way imaginable, setting up a less dramatic but still exciting Game Seven of the Series. As you'd expect, the story of those two games is the best part of the book.

If this story is any indication, and I'm quite certain that it is, managing in the major leagues is more complicated than even big fans can imagine. The strategic parts of the job are easy to second-guess from the stands, but much goes into every decision - and the decision can go a different way depending on the circumstances. There's a fascinating story about a simple stolen base in the World Series that might have been prevented had strategy gone a different way - and La Russa beat himself up a bit over it until he came to terms with the fact that he made the best decision he could at the time. As he writes, these aren't chess pieces out there - they are people, and it's his job to put them in the best possible circumstances to succeed.

The other big part of the job that is highlighted is the interpersonal relationships involved. La Russa chose a group of veteran players to be "co-signers," people to react to situations and ideas. He also made sure to keep lines of communication open whenever possible. That's not easy in these days of agents and fans telling players how great they are, but La Russa obviously had a long record of success to use as a took to convince those same players to play the game correctly.

La Russa concentrates on those areas here, which in itself is interesting. Books by Terry Francona and Joe Torre had much more attention paid to media-related issues, which may be the price they paid for serving as a manager in Boston and New York respectively.

La Russa also rarely goes back into his own personal history much here. He played in the majors for several years, and then moved into managing to start what turned out to be a 35-year career. There are references to those times, but mostly to make a point about today. It sounds as if La Russa might have another book or two in him.

"One Last Strike" is a bit on the dry side - not many funny anecdotes, and few stories about the other members of the Cardinals' organization. So take it for what it is - a serious primer about how a great manager (third all-time in wins, I believe) went about his business. What's more, Cardinal fans will love the ending.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review: My Best Race (2013)

Edited by Chris Cooper

Simple, simple, simple.

Go find some famous runners, and ask them what's the race that they never forget.

It's another one of those slap-your-forehead-and-ask-why-you-didn't-think-of-it books. Thankfully, Chris Cooper did.

He's the editor of "My Best Race," although he probably could have gotten away with a writing credit. Cooper supplies the background information around the quotes, and handles those duties well.

He talked with 50 different runners. All of them are accomplished in the sport in one way or another. Luckily, they aren't all marathoners, so there's diversity in their backgrounds.

What's more, the stories go in unexpected directions. Few give their most famous races in describing their favorite races. Some go back to high school, for instance. Ed Eyestone knocked off an undefeated prep athlete in a very unexpected time and place, and went on to become a two-time Olympian.

A few even go to the end of their careers, like Bart Yasso's participation in an ultra-marathon in South Africa. I wasn't expecting Kathrine Switzer to talk about anything about her first Boston Marathon - but she did, talking about her trip to Athens to run a marathon. But all the stories are quite interesting.

If you follow the sport of running, you know many of the names. Jeff Galloway was a pretty fair runner until he became one of the nation's leading authors on the subject. Zola Budd was a sensation when she came out of South Africa in the Eighties. Steve Scott is one of America's greatest milers. And on it goes.

Each chapter has a little tip for the running population that more or less relates to the story. It's probably not necessary, but if it helps get someone out the door - fine.

I didn't count the non-Americans in the book, but I don't recall many if any. The biggest names of the sport aren't overly represented, although Kara Goucher - which leads the book - is a fine exception. Wonder if Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar or Joan Benoit Samuelson were asked to participate?

This is an e-book, so it's not available to everyone, and might not be something you'd want to keep forever anyway. But it's a nice quick read, with many worthwhile tales, and at a low price. You'll be happy with your investment of time when you reach the finish line of "My Best Race."

Four stars

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: The Sons of Westwood (2013)

By John Martin Smith

For those who are looking at a somewhat left-wing historical look at the UCLA basketball dynasty, "The Sons of Westwood" is that book.

That's actually not as bad an idea as it might sound, even to conservatives.

John Martin Smith's book concentrates on the years between 1964 to 1975, when the Bruins won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years. That's a remarkable achievement by almost any standard, especially when you consider that players left after a maximum of three years of play. The Celtics won 11 NBA championships in 13 years in one stretch, but Bill Russell was the center for all of them. The UCLA roster was usually in flux, although not as much as when today's teams see top freshmen turn pro.

"The Sons of Westwood" - the title of the school fight song, by the way - starts with a rather basic look at Wooden's life. The story is familiar to many by now - he grew up in the Midwest, became one of the best players of era, turned to coaching and landed at UCLA almost by accident. After arriving in Westwood, Wooden once said that he tried too hard to win because he wanted a championship too much. Once that first one came, they kept coming - thanks in part of a national recruiting effort that was ahead of its time.

It's here that we get to the premise of the book. Society was going through all sorts of changes in those years, and basketball was part of those changes. The rise of the African American athlete was one of the big stories of the Sixties. A center named Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was directly involved in that. He joined with such players as Lucius Allen,  Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe who were willing to challenge the rules as they had always been handed down.

That couldn't have been easy for Wooden, who certainly used one set of principles throughout his life because they had worked for him, and then had those principles challenge by a bunch of people under the age of 21. Wooden also had to deal with the pressure of playing not to lose, since Alcindor and Co. were considered so talented by some that they weren't allowed to have an off-night.

And if that group was "interesting" to coach, Wooden couldn't have predicted what would happen later on when the Bill Walton era ran from 1971 to 1974. Walton was a full-fledged member of the counter-culture during much of his time at UCLA. That meant protests over the Vietnam War and marijuana use. The situation blew up, by UCLA standards, in 1974 when the Bruins didn't win a title.

Smith certainly comes across as being on the players' side in such discussions. That's fine - and I'd agree with him on many points - but some of the issues of the time weren't as cut and dried at the time as the author makes them out to be. It's tough to criticize Wooden too much for sticking to his old beliefs, because that's the path he knew. And for his faults, UCLA did win basketball games under Wooden, even with some turmoil around the team.

Wooden also takes some hits here for the presence of booster Sam Gilbert, who was something of an underground legend in basketball circles. Gilbert was close to the players, sometimes helping out with financial problems and even going as far as arranging abortions. Smith hits Wooden for at the least looking the other way while all of this was going on, and the coach probably deserves it.

There are a couple of other problems along the way here. Some of the material, such as quotes from Adolph Rupp about blacks, cry out for some sort of immediate attribution. There's also a few odd statements that come off as naive. One is the criticism of UCLA for scheduling easy games at home at the start of the season in order to rack up wins and revenues. Is there anyone who doesn't do that these days, except when there's the odd good game to accomodate television? Back then, national TV wasn't even an issue.

One aspect of the entire story is overlooked here. After Wooden retired, he still stayed in touch with most of his ex-players - including some of those who had troubled relationships with him. Andy Hill, who comes up as one of the critics, even wrote a book with Wooden. It's a credit to both sides that issues were settled.

"The Sons of Westwood" will make college basketball fans do some thinking about those UCLA teams, and that's good. Smith's arguments don't all work, as he may be reaching for more than he can grasp, but the effort should be appreciated.

(Note: This book is scheduled for release on September 30.)

Three stars

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: Rising Tide (2013)

By Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski

Alabama had some "interesting times" in the 1960s. It essentially was Ground Zero of the civil rights movement during much of that time, the Deepest of the Deep South. From a national perspective, much of the nation thought of the state as racist and backward.

But there was always football. The University of Alabama had Bear Bryant, the legendary coach. Plus for three seasons the football team had Joe Namath as its top quarterback. The Crimson Tide often was a contender for the national championship, even though it played with an all-white roster against teams that generally were all-white as well.

It all comes together in "Rising Tide," a book on that era by Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski.

The story is bookended by Namath's arrival and departure from Alabama. He came out of Beaver Falls, Pa., as one of the nation's top quarterbacks in the nation. Once Namath discovered he couldn't qualify academically in the Big Ten and saw a trip to Maryland fall through, he landed at the last minute at Alabama.

Bryant was waiting for him, even having him up to his fabled coaching tower when Namath arrived. We forget what a great athlete Namath was in those pre-knee operation days, but he was a standout in all sports (he could dunk a basketball without a running start) and had excellent speed.

The authors do capture the atmosphere that greeted Namath in Alabama. This is someone who had black friends back home, and who therefore wasn't used to the idea of separate drinking fountains and bus lobbies. We couldn't see what was  Joe did what he wanted - being a special athlete always has had its advantages -  and while it ruffled some feathers he was good enough and friendly enough to make it work.

Most of the book is devoted to a game-by-game account of Namath's seasons there. There's some good research involved here and the story moves along, although it is a little difficult to make football games from 50 years ago fresh and interesting. It's striking how much the game of football has changed since then. Namath had games where he only threw a handful of times, something of a waste of his talent. But, when he had to throw, he was a sight. Namath did more than enough for people to realize he was something special.

It's difficult to describe just how Bryant dominated the landscape in Alabama back then. There was always talk of him running for Governor, although he probably wasn't interested in the pay cut, loss of influence and the headaches in that job. He won, year after year. Bryant's involvement in a law suit involving an article from the Saturday Evening Post about an alleged fix of a game with Georgia receives plenty of coverage here, and Bryant won that one as well.

There is some detail given to the general troubles of the time. It's interesting to read stories about people who take a wrong turn while driving and find themselves on the edge of a race riot, the effects of which were felt across the nation. The connection between the civil rights movement and Alabama football isn't really a strong one - they were two separate worlds, naturally - but it is interesting to read about the problems taking place. For those not familiar with the times, this will be a good introduction. But it's a reach to say the sociology equals athletic portions of the book.

"Rising Tide," then, is mostly a football book, and a good one. Namath and Bryant's names still carry some weight in the sport years later, and it's a good idea to explore in depth their time together a half-century later.

Four stars

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Marathon Man (2013)

By Bill Rodgers and Matthew Shepatin

Here's an interesting coincidence when it comes to legendary marathoner Bill Rodgers.

I had the chance to write a story a few years ago on Rodgers, which involved the chance to interview him at some length by phone and then talk to him in person for a while. Someone asked me later what it was like to talk to Rodgers.

"It was sort of like trying to watch a butterfly," I answered. "The conversation seemed to dart all over the place, but it was pleasant following it."

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read Rodgers' new autobiography, "Marathon Man." He describes how he used to chase butterflies while growing up, and developed a love of running that way. In fact, he still had a collection of butterflies years later. By the way, the runner reveals here that he suffers from ADHD.

This is the second of two Rodgers' autobiographies, in a sense. The first came in 1980, right at the end of a run that saw him dominate the sport for several years. It was an odd book, combining a rather superficial review of Rodgers' life to date mixed with some tips for runners. That made it a case of one foot in one place and one foot in another, and neither completely satisfying.

Rodgers certainly has led an interesting enough life to warrant a full-fledged autobiography. Well, this is it, finally, and it's well done.

Rodgers was a decent enough high school and college runner, and friendly with 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot. But after college, Rodgers famously gave up the sport, spending his free time smoking in bars and chasing - although apparently not catching - women. He became a conscientious objector when his draft board came calling during the Vietnam War, and worked at a Boston hospital doing the absolute worst tasks in the field.

Somewhere along the way, the running bug returned, and Rodgers headed for the roads again. He was part of a Boston running scene that was starting to boom, and he discovered that he had some talent at the discipline as long as he put in the hours of training.

Rodgers' main breakthrough came in the 1975 Boston Marathon. It wouldn't be completely fair to say he came out of nowhere to win that race, the first of four titles, but he wasn't on anyone's radar as a potential winner either.

Co-author Shepatin made the decision for the first two-thirds of the book to ping-pong from a description of that 1975 race to the chronological story of Rodgers' life. The Boston Marathon was much more innocent back then. Left unstated in that comparison is thoughts about the bombing of the 2013 edition, which obviously happened after the book was written.

Once those two tracks merge at the finish line in 1975, "Boston Billy's" career took off. He went on to win marathons all over the world, and became personally popular as well. I hadn't heard the stories about what happened at the Olympics or why he went into the running gear business, but they broaden the story nicely.

If anything, Rodgers doesn't spend enough time with what he's been doing lately. The runner has become "Bill Rodgers" for living, making personal appearances and talking with runners today. I have friends that still talk about the time they joined Rodgers for a beer or two after a local race.

Rodgers today remains an interesting, intelligent person, so it's no surprise that "Marathon Man" follows that description. The book does a good job of catching the butterfly.

Four stars

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: Breaking the Line (2013)

By Samuel G. Freedman

Can you picture a Southeastern Conference without an African Americans on the rosters of the team? An Atlantic Coast Conference with only white faces on its football teams?

Probably not if you are under the age of 50. But not only was it once true, but it was accepted until it all changed a little more than 40 years ago.

Before that, separate and not particularly equal was the rule for blacks and whites in college football. The big state schools such as Alabama and LSU were very pale when it came to that game. The black players, at least those who stayed in the South, frequently wound up at colleges such as Grambling and Florida A&M.

In 1967, feelings about the state of race relations in the United States were at the boiling point. Change was clearly coming, but the old system persisted.

That's the setting for Samuel Freedman's fine book, "Breaking the Line." The author takes a look at two teams' seasons, and sets then into context of time and place. In other words, there's plenty of football here, but it's not all football. And rightly so.

The coaches were legendary. Eddie Robinson piled up more wins than any other college football coach, 408 when he retired in 1997. Grambling became a household name, at least in football-oriented homes, through his work. Hall of Famers Willie Davis, Buck Buchanon and Willie Brown played there. Meanwhile, Jake Gaither didn't have Robinson's longevity, but he did have an .844 winning percentage at Florida A&M.

Picture a Southeastern Conference without black players, and you get an idea of just how much talent was available for these schools and their regular rivals. Games involving Grambling and Florida A&M along with other schools such as Tennessee State, Southern, Texas, Southern, and Prairie View A&M back then were filled with recognized names - Kenny Burrough, Eldridge Dickey, Charlie Joiner, Essex Johnson, etc.

Two of the biggest names quarterbacked in the end-of-the-season clash between Grambling and FAMU: James Harris and Ken Riley. Harris went on to a good-sized career in the NFL, while Riley - converted to defensive back in the NFL - comes up in Hall of Fame conversations as one of the leaders in career interceptions in league history. They were both smart, and dedicated as well as athletic, knocking down stereotypes at the time about black quarterbacks.

Freedman ping-pongs between the two schools in the text. An interesting chapter shows what happened when ABC came to film a documentary on Grambling - only to turn up on a week when demonstrations had the campus in turmoil. It wasn't an easy time, especially when it came to picking sides in the debate over civil rights. Do the best you can to slowly change the system, or angrily protest in an attempt to speed the process along? Players, coaches and administrators were all caught up in the argument.

As you'd expect, the teams meet in an informal championship game at the end of the season/book, and it's a good one. Few readers will remember the outcome, so it all seems fresh several years later.

If there's a flaw here, it's that Freedman is obviously fond of the subjects involved - which is understandable. For example, Harris does indeed start on opening day for the Buffalo Bills in 1969, when Jack Kemp and Tom Flores are hurt. But that was his only start of '69, as Kemp - a former league MVP - returned to duty and sent Harris to the bench. Freedman writes that Dennis Shaw, "a white rookie from San Diego State," moved ahead of Harris in Harris' third year, and that Harris won several games in relief of Shaw. Shaw actually arrived in Harris' second year, 1970, and Harris never did win a game in relief according to pro-football-reference.com.

Freedman is right that Harris had a lot of good moments with the Rams, yet the QB found himself on the bench rather quickly. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom supposedly ordered coach Chuck Knox to play Pat Haden at quarterback at one point in 1976. Still, Harris is the first to say that being a pioneer as a black quarterback put enough pressure on him to prevent him from fulfilling his potential as a pro.

The book's subtitle - "The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights" - might be a slight exaggeration too. It's tough to point a finger at a particular year and say it was the most significant of the era. Still, it was an interesting time, in sport and society. "Breaking the Line" captures the dynamics of it all quite well.

Four stars

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: The Best of Bob Ryan (2012)

By Bob Ryan

Here's all you need to know about Bob Ryan and what sort of person he is:

Some years ago, I had an idea for a book that was more or less the hockey version of a basketball book he had done. I sent an email to him, asking if he had any quick thoughts on the subject. We had talked a couple of times during his visits to Buffalo.

One day the phone rang, and it was Ryan. He was calling from Charlotte, N.C., where he was covering some basketball game. After the usual pleasantries, he offered some opinions, advice and encouragement on the subject of a book. I think we were on the phone for 25 minutes.

I'd argue that enthusiasm - not just for sports, but issues on a variety of subjects, and for people - is Ryan's greatest strength. That certainly shines through in "The Best of Bob Ryan," put out an an e-book by his newspaper, the Boston Globe on the occasion of his semi-retirement in 2012.

Put it this way: Roger Ebert once wrote that he loved going to the movies, because when he sat down he was hopeful that he'd see a great film in the next couple of hours. Well, that's the Ryan story as well. That attitude, that the games could offer thrills not found in any other venue in life has stayed with him throughout a career that has gone over 40 years. He loves talking about the games too, which is why he's not only an enjoyable columnist but has had something of a second career on television. This is not someone who will go quietly into the good night of retirement without offering a bunch of opinions along the way.

While reading this anthology of some of his columns and stories, the love of the game shows up on every page. He even started a review of the 1985 NCAA basketball final between Villanova and Georgetown wondering what people who don't like sports do for true entertainment. Here's another important part - the level of competition to Ryan really doesn't matter. A long story on a small college basketball team in an isolated part of Maine is treated with as much care as an NBA Final. Maybe the Maine story got more care, because more of the details for the reader can be filled in.

Basketball dominates the book, not surprisingly. Ryan has been watching the game for decades, sometimes because it was part of the job but sometimes because there was a game nearby and he felt like seeing it. After all, this is a man with the nickname of "The Commissioner." Admittedly, a few game stories from the perspective of a few decades aren't overly interesting when read now, but there's more than enough material here that stays fresh after the fact to compensate.

The book also skims through a few other subjects, specializing on the Olympics. There's even a preview of the Academy Awards from one year, written by someone who had seen every nominated movie that was up for a major award. Ryan did a nice job there; Ebert would have liked it.

Ryan isn't one of those columnists whose work leaves you breathless with his craftsmanship, although making it look easy is a skill as well. Those are the columnists who write the traditionally popular anthologies. Ryan is more like a friend who is anxious to tell you all about the game the next morning. We all should have one of those. "The Best of Bob Ryan" catches that feeling nicely, as it goes by almost too quickly - like a conversation with a friend. You don't even have to be from New England to like it.

Four stars

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Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: Stolen Glory (2012)

By Mike Brewster and Taps Gallagher

If you are a basketball fan who is old enough to remember the final in the 1972 Olympics, you'll know what an absolute train wreck of a finish the game had.

That makes it an excellent subject for a book. Authors Mike Brewster and Taps Gallagher must have agreed, because they compiled a look back it in "Stolen Glory."

Let's review here for a minute. The United States had taken a one-point lead over the Soviet Union with three seconds to go, thanks to Doug Collins' two free throws.

The Soviets somehow had not one, not two, but three chances to win the game. There was total confusion, language barriers among the participants, rules infractions, an international basketball figure sticking his nose into matters, and threats concerning international competition.

It's not really a spoiler to say the Soviets won on Try Number Three. The United States protested but lost the vote that fell along Cold War lines by country. The American players are still angry about it, 40 years later. A couple have it in their wills for their relatives never to accept the silver medal.

Brewster and Gallagher get big credit for talking to everyone on the team, plus some of the other coaches and officials that were part of the American team. It was an odd time for basketball in the U.S., since there was a war between the National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association, and several players had taken rich contracts as soon as the school year ended rather than waiting for the Olympics to end before turning pro. There were still some good players around, such as Doug Collins and Bobby Jones. But America didn't have its absolute best, and the time was rapidly coming where the rest of the world was starting to show signs of catching up with us.  That's a trend that continues to this day.

Most of the players on the '72 team today are quite frank about their feelings about that team. It was coached by Henry Iba, one of the legends of the game but who preferred a slow-down style that wasn't a good fit for the talent on hand. Iba, sadly, will be remembered for the Olympic game he lost rather than the two Olympic finals he won in 1964 and 1968. The players also give plenty of details about the entire tryout experience, including a stay in Hawaii that featured three practices a day and living quarters that were five steps below spartan.

There are two drawbacks here. The Soviet side of the story essentially is ignored. There is a comment taken from a documentary from one of the Soviet players, but that's about it. It would add a bit of perspective to the story to hear from them.

Meanwhile, the last major chapter of the book consists of profiles of most of the principals. After an introduction, each subchapter reads something like a transcript of the interview done for the book. Since the important details are already in the narrative, this all feels like padding. That's not an issue for the Kindle edition, which I read for less than $5, but might draw a complaint at the paperback version at four times that.

Still, "Stolen Glory" works quite well. International basketball has gone through some fascinating changes in 40 years, and this is a knowledgeable look at what happened on that amazing night in Munich in 1972.

Four stars

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: Bushville Wins! (2012)

By John Klima

The story of the Milwaukee Braves is a fascinating one. The franchise was located in Boston until 1953, when it moved to Milwaukee right on the eve of the season. The town took the team to heart, and the ballclub - boosted by soaring attendance figures and some rising stars - quickly moved up the standings. By 1956, the Braves were good enough to come close to a pennant. In 1957, they were World Series champions.

It's quite a tale, and author John Klima - who spent plenty of days and nights watching the Braves from the bleachers of County Stadium in Milwaukee - can't wait to tell it. He does so in "Bushville Wins!"

Klima splits the story into three separate sections. The first has as a hero Lou Perini, the owner of the Braves. He gets deserved credit here as something of a visionary. Perini realized that he was never going to be able to compete with the Red Sox in Boston, and looked elsewhere.

There's a great story in the book about that. Warren Spahn was coming off a losing season, and Perini wanted to cut his pay. However, the owner gave the lefty an option - $25,000 or 10 cents per admission. Since the Braves had drawn close to 200,000 the previous year in Boston, Spahn went for the sure thing. Then the team was off to Milwaukee, where they drew around to two million fans - costing Spahn $175,000 or so.

Baseball hadn't seen a team move in about 50 years, but Perini was smart enough to realize that the population and demographics were shifting to make such changes inevitable. The Dodgers and Giants moved a few years later, and expansion arrived in 1961-62. Perini also saw the great popularity of the team in Milwaukee and looked into the idea of closed circuit television, something of a forerunner of today's regional TV networks.

The Braves had Spahn, and they had such players as Eddie Mathews and Henry Aaron come along in that era. Thus they were well positioned to make a run. Milwaukee almost won four straight pennants, but had to settle for two with one World Series title.

Part two centers on the regular season of 1957, and part three moves on to the World Series. Klima's research is very well done. He did some very nice interviews with members of the team; Aaron in particular is very insightful about the squad. The personalities of the squad come through nicely. It sounds like Matthews and his pals had some fun along the way that season.

That all sounds good from the standpoint of the book. But there is a catch, at least for some. It concerns Klima's writing style, which may wear on some people.

This is a story drawn from 50 years ago, and Klima writes as if he feels like he needs to enliven the details almost like a novelist might. The umpire doesn't call strike three; his call "sounded like a Supreme Court judge banging his gavel." Billy Muffett could throw so hard "that he might rip the zipper off the front of his flannels." Casey Stengel didn't just argue a call in Game Seven: "All his frustration came seething out, all the old rivalries of years past, the hostile feelings between the leagues, Milwaukee's rejection and treatment of him, his ballplayers acting like stupid players making stupid plays and making him look stupid ..." Klima does like to pile up lists into one sentence in this book, and it's easy to wonder if he's exaggerating or doing some serious assuming at certain points along the way.

There's also a certain "chip on the shoulder" feeling that comes out in the text, especially in the World Series, with Milwaukee as the middle-of-nowhere upstart and New York as filled with city slickers looking way down their noses. I'd bet some people in Milwaukee felt that way, but Yankee fans might not have given so much thought to it.

This bothered me a bit during my reading, but not quite enough to drop my rating by a star. Looking around, some people didn't even mention this issue while others found it quite distracting. Therefore, to use a cliche, your mileage may vary.

Sadly for Wisconsin, the story didn't end with Lew Burdette winning Game Seven in 1957. After the Braves run ended, they settled into mediocrity in the 1960s and were in Atlanta by the end of the decade. It would have been interesting to read more in the epilogue about what went wrong once Milwaukee lost its baseball innocence, and why it happened.

Still, it's an exciting time, one worth remembering. It's good that Klima brings it back in "Bushville Wins!' Baseball fans of Milwaukee, this is your kind of book.

Four stars

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: The Big Miss (2012)

By Hank Haney

If there's one thing we know about Tiger Woods' personality, it's that you are either with him or against him ... completely. Stories abound about people who leaked out even the smallest bit of information, and suddenly became a non-person in Tiger's world.

Wonder what he thought, then, about Hank Haney's book, "The Big Miss."

It's one of the few looks we've ever had at Tiger's private world, before and after the announcement that he was a serial adulterer, to put his lifestyle status mildly. No matter how tame the book is, and it is relatively tame as these things go, it's easy to guess that he wasn't pleased. Even Haney made that guess at the end of the book.

Woods has had a couple of swing coaches work for him during most of his pro career. Butch Harmon was the first, and the two had plenty of success. Then Woods moved on to Haney for unspecified reasons, and they had just about as much success. Both have long track records as top coaches, and considering Tiger's talent and work ethic, it's no surprise that the combinations worked so well. Haney was absolutely thrilled to work with the man considered one of the greatest golfers in history - who was moving toward "greatest golfer ever" status when he fell on hard times.

If you wondering what the title means, Haney refers to the fact that he wanted to help Woods avoid those huge mistakes that sometimes pop up in golf, particularly in crucial times. In other words, Haney wanted Woods to have a dependable swing so that he wouldn't hit the ball out of bounds or into deep trouble. That's sort of error is a "big miss."

Haney writes in the book that he was paid $50,000 for his work per year, plus the odd bonus for such things as major championships. It sure sounds like he earned his money. Haney was essentially on call for several years, flying down to Orlando frequently to work with Woods for a few days at a time and showing up at several tournaments.

Two points jump out after reading the book. One, Haney certainly knows the golf swing. Good-sized sections of the book are devoted to such concepts as the swing plane. You can guess that you need to know a little bit about playing golf in order to get through this. This is Haney's business, though.

The other centers around just how distant Woods' personality can be. Ever imagine what it's like to hang with Tiger at times? Haney did that, and it's pretty chilly. Sometimes Woods can't even bothered to make a little small talk. Caddie Steve Williams spent as much time with Woods as anyone, and even he was treated that way. This for people who are called Tiger's best friends. And Haney says he didn't know about Woods' behavior with women, and after this I'm inclined to believe him.

Haney did some serious walking on eggshells with Tiger. Even the odd critical remark had to be well-couched before it was adopted, and there are plenty of ego-stroking messages about Tiger's ability (most of which, let's face it, are deserved).

Woods obviously had built something of a cocoon for himself, and felt it was the best way to prepare to win. But it's tough to know if it was the best way to prepare for life. Obviously it was a strain for all concerned, and Woods has gone through some difficult times by any standards. It was all too much for Haney, who admits in the book that he felt mostly relief when he decided to quit as Woods' coach - and Tiger couldn't even admit in public that someone left him instead of the other way around.

Let's face it - most people will read "The Big Miss" for the hints on what Woods is really like. The portrait comes across as fair; even Woods probably couldn't complain too much about the information contained on the pages. The golfer still fascinates us through his blinding talent, and we're anxious to see a year after the book's publication whether the golfer can regain his former glory. Although the book merely offers clues about Tiger, it's not a particularly pretty picture.

Three stars

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: The Syracuse Fan's Survival Guide to the ACC (2013)

By Mike Waters and Mark Bialczak

All of the realignment taking place in college sports these days probably has caused a jump in sales in road maps. Who can remember what teams are where these days?

Mike Waters and Mark Bialczak took on that difficult assignment in recent months. The figured out who would be in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013-14 (who can say where we'll be in the future?), and wrote a guide to all of the schools individually. Presto! They have a book.

It's called "The Syracuse Fan's Survival Guide to the ACC," and it's simple and straight to the point.

Each of the schools - including Louisville, which is following Syracuse into the ACC in a year - gets a chapter. The headings are the same: school history, program highlights, athletic legends, stadium/arena, Syracuse connections, gameday tips, hotel & restaurant information.

Every school gets the same treatment, and that includes Syracuse. It's not a bad idea, since some people who follow the Orange live outside of Syracuse and are just as likely to travel to an SU home game as any other. It's all done in a factual, relatively good-natured manner.

It's not said anywhere, but one point comes through loud and clear here. The Atlantic Coast Conference is not a bus league. Syracuse is several hours away from its closest conference members, Pittsburgh and Boston College. Most of the schools are a much larger distance. Care to zip from Syracuse to Florida State for a game? It's a 1,200-mile jaunt. The college landscape sure has changed these days.

College sports fans are known for "traveling well," that is to say they are willing to go see their favorite team on the road. It will be interesting to see how the move to the ACC affects Syracuse in that sense. Fans who could drive to Connecticut or Rutgers now need to hop on a plane, which adds to the cost considerably. Will it be worth it to many? We'll have to see.

For those that are going, "The Syracuse Fan's Guide to the ACC" seems like a good item to pack. The information is a good starting point for planning a trip to a new rival. The audience is limited, though, and there is a lot of white space here. Therefore, it's tough to give it more than three stars unless you fit into the right demographic. But, the concept is a good one, and it probably wouldn't take much extra work to write a similar book for the other ACC schools.

Three stars

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