Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: Leafs '65 (2015)

Forward by Stephen Brunt

The significance of the title takes a bit of time to register, at least outside of the Toronto area.

It really has been about 50 years since the Maple Leafs were consistently good.

Toronto won four Stanley Cups from 1961 to 1963, and added another one in 1967. They have flirted with success a bit at times after that, but for the most part times have been dreary for Maple Leafs fans for a half-century.

Therefore, books about this group tend to sell pretty well in Toronto, Canada's center of publishing. There certainly have been a lot of them.

Here's another: "Leafs '65." And it comes with a story.

Photographer Lewis Parker was a well-known photographer in the Sixties, and got the unusual assignment from a magazine of taking photos of the Maple Leafs in training camp in Peterborough, Ont., in 1965. The story fell through, but he still had the pictures ... and kept them for decades. A friend saw a folder marked "Leafs '65" that was full of negatives, heard the story, and suggested that they shouldn't go in the trash. Good decision.

Stephen Brunt, a top Canadian sportswriter, wrote an introduction of sorts as he covered where the Leafs were in the fall of 1965. They weren't the defending champions this time, as they had been in the previous three training camps, but they were still good. The Leafs for the most part had a bunch of wise veterans - Frank Mahovlich, Allan Stanley Dave Keon, Bob Pulford, Tim Horton, Johnny Bower, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, Marcel Provovost. A lot of those players are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, although the Montreal Canadiens had the Canadian market cornered on icons. Leading the team was Punch Imlach, an old-school coach and general manager who was crusty but knew his business.

Parker took a couple of hundred black-and-white pictures of whatever interested in him, and many are printed here. Thus, the era comes back to life for a little while, with pictures of Peterborough and its early '60s cars.The players look rather normal, hanging out together without entourages and showing no signs of wealth - because they weren't wealthy. On the ice, the workout sweats look primitive and  cheap. The locker room space was small, and some of it was only a step or two up from hooks on the way. Some of the players are shown smoking, a habit that hung around the sport until the 1980s.

This is mostly a picture book, of course. That means, according to my usual standards, it doesn't take long to go through, and it always a question about whether the price is worth it. In this case, $35 (Canadian) is a little steep. But it certainly gives an interesting look into an era that's long gone. Those who still love those Leaf teams of the Sixties, and their lot is always shrinking at this point, certainly will linger over this book and add a star (or maybe two) to the rating.

Three stars

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: Got to Give the People What They Want (2015)

By Jalen Rose

Every school kid in America ought to send Jalen Rose a thank-you note. It's not for the fact that Rose played on one of the most famous college basketball teams in history, or that he was a solid NBA player for more than a decade, or that he's now an analyst on ESPN.

We're talkin' about shorts.

When Rose and the rest of the "Fab Five" got to Michigan, coach Steve Fisher ordered the sporting goods company that supplied the team's uniforms to add a few inches to the shorts. As soon as the Wolverines took the court, everyone instantly knew that the look was a huge improvement over the dorky short shorts that were the standard in schools across the country. We moved on, and haven't looked back.

Thanks for that, Jalen and Company.

Rose has gone through a lot at a young age - he's 42 as of this writing - and he's gotten some of his experiences down on paper. "Got to Give the People What They Want" is an honest look at his life and career.

First, let's explain the title. Rose writes (and there's no sign of a ghostwriter, at least in the advance proof I received) that the phrase means "Be honest, unfiltered, unbiased. Raw, refreshing, real. Give people the kind of insight and understanding they don't get anywhere else." Rose tries his best here to do that.

The first half of the book is the better portion of it. Rose grew up in Detroit in the 1980s, when the city was clearly headed downhill. He didn't even know who his father was for part of his childhood, and didn't really care. Jalen - the name was made up by his mother, and has caught on a bit - made do as best he could with the help of his family and friends. He gravitated toward basketball, and discovered he was good at it. Stardom in high school ball came rather easily.

And that led him on a path to Michigan. He and four other top recruits, such as Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, all arrived at Ann Arbor at the same time. This wasn't a basketball team, it was a rock and roll band - and a popular one. The games were like concerts, the players were celebrities. The all freshman starting five led Michigan to the NCAA Championship game, which lost to Duke in 1993. The next year was another trip to the final, and a heart-breaking loss to North Carolina. By the way, Rose credits a hip-hop group's lyric for the nickname of "Fab Five"; I always thought it was a take-off by some old sportswriter of the Beatles "Fab Four" nickname. Whatever. It's quite obvious how much Rose enjoyed those days.

Rose had a rather odd NBA career. As he correctly points out, fate/chance can have a greater role in how a player does at that level than many think. He did average more than 18 points per game in five different seasons, and played on some good Indiana teams that were good but not good enough to win a title. It did make one trip to the Finals. Rose started his career in Detroit, thrived in Indiana, and then went through Chicago, Toronto, New York and Phoenix.

One of theme of Rose's personal journey deals with his father, who happened to be Jimmy Walker - the first overall pick in the 1967 NBA draft. Walker apparently left a string of children behind as he traveled through life, not taking responsibility for any of his actions. Rose did talk to him on the phone once, but Walker died before any sort of relationship could develop.

Rose isn't really bitter about that, but he does blast a few targets here. The list starts with the NCAA, not surprisingly. If you saw how much money others were making off the "Fab Five," you'd be a little angry too. Rose also tees off on Larry Brown, who coached him twice in the pros and according to the player wasn't completely honest with him.

Rose also outlines his relationship with Webber, which turned complicated. The NCAA went after the Wolverines of the Fab Five days because of an improper relationship with a booster, if that's the right word, and the wins of that era were erased from the record book. Webber has separated himself from any contact with his college teammates, and Rose seems genuine in writing that he'd like to patch that up. Webber will have to give his side of the story some time. Rose has stayed close with the other three members of the band, er, team. In an odd twist, he actually spent a couple of days in jail with one of them when Rose served a short sentence for a drunk driving conviction.

Rose has grown up quite a bit over the years, starting a school in the city of Detroit to help give kids a better chance to climb out of poverty. It's an ambitious project, and he deserves a lot of credit for it.

"Got to Give the People What They Want" is a quick read, even if you don't get some of the hip-hop references. The obvious climax of the story comes with the Fab Five moments, which is roughly halfway through. The story could have used a few more dramatics after that, but that's not Rose's fault. That's the way life played out.

Even so, Rose comes across as an interesting personality here. Readers probably will pay more attention to him the next time he pops up on television.

Three stars

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: The Pine Tar Game (2015)

By Filip Bondy

When temper-tantrums from professional sports are discussed, George Brett's explosion on July 24, 1983, may set the standard forever.

Brett had just hit a home run off pitcher Rich Gossage to give his Kansas City Royals the lead over the Yankees in New York. However, Yankees manager Billy Martin argued that Brett had too much pine tar - a sticky substance used by batters for a better grip - on his bat. The umpires determined that the pine tar did indeed go higher than the 18-inch limit, and decided to call Brett out to end the game.

And here came George in an absolute rage, out of the dugout. He had to be restrained by practically everyone on the field who wasn't wearing a Yankee uniform.

That single scene is still remembered, and that's probably why Filip Bondy wrote, "The Pine Tar Game." What exactly did happen in that strange episode in baseball history?

Before Bondy gets to the game, though, he has some background to cover. The book goes through some history of both teams, eventually concentrating on the rivalry between the two teams during the late 1970s. The Yankees and Royals faced each other four times in five years in that era, and some of the finishes were memorable. There are plenty of tangents here, to the point where the book doesn't arrive on game day until after the halfway point of the book. Bondy's writing is knowledgeable and sharp, but there is a certain amount of "let's get to the good parts" feeling by that point.

The story headed into the incident described above, and chaos reigned. The Royals went to work researching the history of calls concerning illegal bats; Supreme Court arguments should receive such care. Kansas City management discovered that there were precedents to rule that the bat should have been removed from the game at some point, rather than affecting the contest's results. Pine tar, it seems, give the batter no advantage in terms of flight. Therefore, penalizing the Royals in that situation was a case of the punishment not fitting the crime. American League President Lee MacPhail agreed with the Royals, and ordered their protest upheld.

Baseball's rules are long and complex, supposedly ready to cover every imaginable situation. But every once in a while, something comes along that's not a neat fit and touches a few different areas of the rulebook in different ways. So the rulemakers go back to the drawing board and try to come up with an improvement ... until the next bizarre incident.

The Royals had to come back to New York a month later to finish the game, and Martin had one last trick up his sleeve. He saw that the game had different umpires than the one in July, so he ordered appeal plays at the bases - asking if Brett had touched the bases. That could have been more chaos, but American League publicity director Bob Fishel had thought of that. The umpires pulled out notarized statements from the original umpires, stating that Brett had indeed touched the bases. The Yankees went down quietly in the bottom of the ninth, and took the loss.

Bondy does a good job of tracking down those involved in the situation. The comments of Brett and Gossage are particularly interesting as they look back. The two men didn't talk to each other much in their playing days, but they've become friendly now. Perhaps their election to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown calmed them down. When they can go there, they can visit Brett's bat from the game - behind some glass with other exhibits of baseball history.

A book-length treatment of this subject, may be more than most will want for this episode. The story goes off on a few tangents, such as stories about Rush Limbaugh and Roy Cohn. A long magazine article might have covered the subject well enough for most.

But this is still a good, professional job of storytelling, and moves along quickly. "The Pine Tar Game" should satisfying most people's curiosity about the incident quite nicely.

Three stars

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