Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: On the Clock (2015)

By Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport

An easy way to sum up the growth of the National Football League is to look at the Draft - the selection process used by teams to pick college players.

Once upon a time, this procedure was done in a hotel ballroom, with little fanfare and hoopla. Now, the Draft has been staged at such places as Radio City Music Hall in New York, and it's going on the road to Chicago this year to spread the excitement.

What happened? Veteran football writers Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport teamed up to tell some of the stories about the draft. "On the Clock" give the allotment procedure a quick once over.

The authors jump around quite a bit in their coverage after devoting the first chapter to the 2014 proceedings. Jay Berwanger is the answer to a couple of trivia questions - the first NFL draft choice, and the first Heisman Trophy winner. Berwanger turned down the pros because they didn't offer enough money. That hasn't been an issue for some time.

Bert Bell, the former commissioner of the league, gets credit for creating the draft. It was a revolutionary step at the time. Baseball essentially let any team sign anyone it wanted until the middle of the 1960s, something that certainly helped the New York Yankees plant the seeds that led to championships. Football spread out the wealth about 30 years before that, keeping the rich teams and poor teams on a more level playing field.

Still, the draft didn't begin to expand in interest until the early 1980s, when ESPN started televising the show. As the production values grew, the draft served as a bridge between college and pro football. The college fans were interested in seeing where their boys would go in the pros, and the pro fans treated the day like Christmas - teams knew they'd get something good, but they weren't sure what until they got to "open them." The broadcasts led to the rise of such analysts as Mel Kiper Jr.

Wilner and Rappoport have a few other subjects to cover. There's the story about top draft picks who didn't wind up with their drafting team for one reason or another - Bo Jackson, John Elway, Eli Manning. The authors also pick a best pick and a bust pick for each team as well as the top five all-time draft choices by position - which is a lot like just picking something close to an all-time team, since just about everyone in the past 60 years has been drafted.

The material can be read in a couple of hours, and the authors know what they are talking about. Still, this feels like a very basic look at the subject. There aren't many "inside" stories on the teams and players. In fact, my guess is that most football fans will have at least a passing familiarity with the material that's covered here.

Those looking for a primer on this spring tradition could do worse that picking up a copy of "On the Clock." But it's probably going to have trouble finding an audience.

Two stars

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: Dr. J - The Autobiography (2013)

By Julius Erving with Karl Taro Greenfeld

Julius Erving might be the last of the great unseen legends in sports history.

Yes, Erving's career with the Philadelphia 76ers is quite well known. There are videos of his performances with the Sixers, and he compiled enough credentials to be a Hall of Famer just on those years - NBA champion, league most valuable player, etc.

But that's not when Erving was really at his best. When he was playing in the American Basketball Association, it was easy to believe that a man - Dr. J, as he became known as - really could fly.

Those who only remember Erving from his Philadelphia days probably will get the most enjoyment out of his autobiography, "Dr. J." For if you examine his life story, it seems that his timing was just a bit off.

For example, Erving was a fine high school basketball player in the New York City area. Admittedly, he hadn't finished growing yet, but he was good enough to attract attention. Had Erving reached 6-foot-6 as a senior and still been capable of flight in a manner of speaking today, he'd have documentaries done about him before he reached college. As it turned out, Erving went to college at Massachusetts - a respectable program but not the place to become a household name at the time.

Then Erving opted to turn pro before his senior year. While it's difficult to argue with that move as a financial decision, he just missed on playing for the 1972 United States Olympic basketball team. It's fair to say he would have helped that team, which lost to the Soviet Union in the final in one of the most famous finishes in sports history. Erving landed with the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball League, teaming up with such players as Charlie Scott and George Gervin. Again, Norfolk will never be confused with one of the media capitals of the nation, and he played in obscurity. Yet anyone who saw those games knew just how good Erving was.

It was more of the same in his next stop, the New York Nets. Erving led the team to a couple of ABA championships, and hardly anyone saw it. ABA games weren't televised very often, so basketball fans merely had to hear second-hand stories about this dynamic forward who was reinventing the game before people's eyes. When has someone who played in New York been overlooked? But when Erving finally made it to the NBA after 1976 merger, he and the 76ers packed arenas from coast to coast.

The story finally gets told in the autobiography. Considering there was a time span of more than 25 years between retirement and publication, it's easy to wonder what took so long. But Erving certainly has plenty to say in an autobiography that stretches out for more than 420 pages.

The basketball stories are generally well told and fairly straight forward. Erving doesn't go out of his way to rip people, although there are hints that Gene Shue, coach of the 1976-77 Sixers, didn't know how to coach the boatload of talent he had on the roster. Erving's time in the ABA was spent with some characters, including one guy who used to keep his drug stash in his socks during practice.

There are some surprises here. Erving had some odd contract moves in his career. He tried to jump from the ABA to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks at one point, even though he hadn't been drafted yet. When Milwaukee picked him, it set off a good-sized legal fight. Then when the merger arrived, it's hard to say if a way could have been found to keep Erving in New York. The Nets could have used him in that era.

Erving does write a bit about some cases of infidelity, as he gave in to some of the temptations of superstardom. He received some publicity when the fact that he was the father of a pro tennis player was revealed. Welcome to the fish bowl. And Erving has had all sorts of personal tragedies in his life - more than his share, to be sure. Fame does not offer immunity to that sort of pain and loss.

All of this is told in the present tense, by the way. That's an unusual technique, and a little jarring at first. But after a while, it's easy to adjust to it.

"Dr. J" has received great notices from reviewers. I'm not sure it quite lives us to those reviews. Still, Erving comes off as humble and modest throughout his book. If you want to find out what all the fuss was about, or what the gaps in a lively life story, this should work nicely.

Four stars

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: The Outlaw League ... (2014)

By Daniel R. Levitt

It's probably not possible to send an anniversary card to a defunct baseball league. Who would you send it to? And where would it be delivered?

Still, we're in the middle of a relatively significant baseball anniversary, especially in the business sense. The Federal League fielded teams in 1914 and 1915, and is the last on-field competitor to Major League Baseball as we know it. Its remaining legacy in terms of baseball is Wrigley Field in Chicago, which was first built to house a Federal League team.

The tale of the Federals pointed baseball, and in some ways all sports, down a particular path in the years to come. Thus a complete story of the Federal League's tale from creation and demise is worthwhile from an historic perspective.

Daniel R. Levitt has written that book. It comes complete with a very long title, "The Outlaw League and the Battle that Forged Modern Baseball." Come to think of it, the book and its title both have plenty of detail.

A little history lesson: The Federal League started as a minor league in 1913, but had the idea to try to join the American and National Leagues the following year. Owners were found, parks were built or leased, and players were pursued. The league did indeed open on time in 1914.

But its two years of operation was a constant battle. Everyone involved took a financial hit, mostly in the form of decreased attendance and higher salaries. The legalities of contracts were open for question, depending on the judge, and some players initially jumped to the Federal League only to jump right back. Finally, the Federal League worked out a settlement with the majors, and we returned to one baseball operation. It has stayed that way until the present day.

The settlement's most interesting part led to a lawsuit with huge legal implications. Baltimore was left out of the "merger," and filed an anti-trust suit. This is the one in which the Supreme Court decided that baseball was not interstate commerce and not subject to anti-trust laws. That has affected operations for more than 90 years, even though the reasoning for the decision puzzled scholars and lawyers then and now.

Levitt obviously spent lots of time doing research, which shows on every page. There are tons of stories about how the leagues were formed, and how contract negotiations took place. Some court testimony is used effectively to tell how negotiations at critical stages went. If someone wants to call this the complete business recap of the Federal League, I'll agree fully.

There is a problem associated with all of this, at least in a sense. There's no baseball in it. The pennant race of 1915 is briefly covered, and that's about it. You don't get any flavor about what the game or individual teams were like in that era. Levitt obviously set out to write the business site of the story, and he followed through on that.

Still, I have the feeling that only a small part of the baseball-loving public will find this overly interesting without the weaving of games and seasons involved. In other words, this won't be popping up on any beaches for reading this year.

Be warned, then, that "The Outlaw League..." will be a little too dry and scholarly for many. But those who like this sort of material will learn a lot as they read it. 

Four stars

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