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

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com.

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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

Learn more about this book.

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