Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: Gratoony the Loony (2017)

By Gilles Gratton and Greg Oliver

A great many "characters" have passed through the portals of professional hockey. Gilles Gratton not only is one of them, he can lay a claim to being the biggest character of them all.

Gratton spent some time in the World Hockey Association and the National Hockey League in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, he was a goalie - a position that is filled with unconventional actors. Gratton wasn't a bad goalie, but his skills always took a back seat to his antics and comments.

It took a while for Gratton to get his thoughts down on paper - maybe too long, since few might remember him at this point - but he finally has done so. "Gratoony the Loony" is that autobiography.

Gratton does a little explaining about his life and his actions in this quite short book. Tellingly, it doesn't sound like he had a particularly happy childhood,with parents who were frequently indifferent. Gratton sort of fell into hockey; it's probably difficult not to give the sport at least a try if you are growing up in Canada. Besides, his brother Norm was good enough to be an NHL player. Gilles turned out to be pretty good at goaltending - good enough to climb the ladder, even if he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about playing it.

Gratton's fame came through his actions. He famously skated naked in an arena during a practice, which he says now was came on something of a dare as a way to obtain a dozen sticks for youth hockey. He refused to play in one NHL game by claiming the moon was lined up incorrectly in the sky, which he now says was his way of protesting the firing of coach Billy Harris. Some other, R-rated stories pop up here which probably cross the line of funny-or-sick to the sick side. The goalie sounds like he was drunk or high for most of his career.

It seemed inevitable that such a player would have problems with management somewhere, and Gratton was no exception. He spent a year with the Rangers, headed down to the minors, and then was released. He's been looking for "enlightenment" since then, and the concluding chapters talk about that. Gratton once saw a stranger and said he was destined to have three kids with her. He was wrong - he only had two. A discussion of some of his past lives comes up, as does stories about how his body can go to sleep while his mind stays awake. He works for an auction house that specializes in hockey memorabilia - a little ironic for a guy who hated to play hockey.

Coauthor Greg Oliver rounds up some other quotes from teammates, etc. about Gratton, filling out the book a little bit. They all seem to like him, even though I'm sure his attitude probably left them shaking their heads a bit.

Those old enough to remember Gratton's time in hockey might enjoy reading "Gratoony the Loony" in order to see what the fuss was all about. Otherwise, it's difficult to recommend it.

Two stars

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Review: Alley-Oop to Aliyah (2017)

By David A. Goldstein

Those who follow college basketball relatively closely realize that the NBA isn't the only post-graduate course for players. Each year, several Americans leave their native country to test their hoop skills in the pro leagues of other countries. Not only does it offer a good paycheck (not by NBA standards, of course, but it can beat working for a living), but it's a relatively cheap way to see the world.

Once the players get there, though, life can turn, well, interesting. The cultural differences can be striking and difficult, depending on the location. And certainly one of the most interesting places to play is Israel.

That's the focus of David A. Goldstein's book, "Alley-Oop to Aliyah." If many stories in life are centered on some form of a "stranger in a strange land," this certainly qualifies.

On one level, this seems like an odd fit. An African American basketball player that walks down the street in Tel Aviv is likely to stand out from the crowd, pardon the obvious pun. On the other hand, Israel is a modern country, thus reducing the adjustments needed by travelers. The people are very friendly, and they generally speak English.

Goldstein covers the subject thoroughly here, including some areas that might not come immediately to mind when thinking about it initially. A surprisingly amount of players who play for at least a few years in Israel end up moving there. Some have gotten married and raised a family there, and a few have converted to Judaism. Goldstein tracked down a couple of dozen Americans who played or play in Israel. They are generally success stories, although it's fair to note that the ones who hang around obviously like the situation and the country.

The presence of the foreigners has raised some questions for Israeli basketball. Do these players raise the quality of play for all, or do they take jobs away from native-born players? A little of both, probably. Maccabi Tel Aviv dominates the league, as it has the most money. (Think of the New York Yankees' payroll and record of success on steroids, proportionately.)  The players say it takes a little time to get used to the strict security measures, but they feel safe once they do. The African Americans generally add they haven't noticed too much overt racism, although it has been difficult for them to move into prime coaching jobs there after their playing days are over.

There are a couple of drawbacks to the story as presented here. Most of the interviews for the book appear to have taken place some years ago. I'm not sure if there's a story to that - it can be tough to find a publisher for anything these days - but it is odd to read lines like "he said in a 2009 interview." And readers should keep a bookmark on the appendix, which has brief bios of the profiled players. My enjoyment of the book increased once I did that. It's an interesting group, but most basketball fans only will have heard of a few of them before reading this.

"Alley-Oop to Aliyah" isn't a long book, but may be more information than a casual fan would want. A long magazine article might satisfy the curiosity of those readers. But for the ones who seek a full story, the book ought to work for them nicely.

Three stars.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Review: The Boxing Kings (2017)

By Paul Beston

The heavyweight division of boxing has had mostly American champions over the history of the sport. The tradition started by John L. Sullivan in the 19th century, and continued through such greats as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. There were a few "foreign" boxers on the list in the 20th century, such as Max Schmeling and Ingemar Johansson.

It was a heck of a run, and it certainly played a role in the growing of boxing as a spectator sport in the United States. That run is mostly over.

It's not a bad time, then, for a review of the subject. Paul Beston jumps all in with his fine book, "The Boxing Kings."

Organized boxing came out of a different time. The first set of rules go back as far as 1743, although they were updated in the 19th century. Eventually the heavyweight champion was known as the guy who could honestly say "I can lick any man in the house," no matter what house he was in. Eventually, Sullivan earned that title.

Beston goes through the famous title bouts and the other champions. What's great about boxing is that much of it has been recorded on film over the years. A big fight was a large enough event to lure primitive cameras along, because people would pay to see it after the fact. Therefore, we can take a look back and see what Jess Willard and Jack Johnson looked like about 100 years after they were in their prime boxing days.  The author obviously did that, and brings a trained eye to the analysis of the fights.

The major stars receive much of the coverage here, and deservedly so. Still, all of the heavyweight champions receive a mention here, including those who seemed to have the title for about an hour. And almost every bout is mentioned. The classic fights - Ali-Frazier, Tunney-Dempsey,  Louis-Schmeling, etc. - are covered in much more detail, and Beston comes up with some new material that will surprise even some veteran fans.


Beston is the managing editor of City Journal, and has written for several newspapers, magazines and websites. He obviously knows his stuff, and that shows up on every page here.

Boxing's popularity in the United States has declined in recent years, probably in part of the lack of a heavyweight champion from this part of the world. There are other factors as well, such as the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and an improved standard of living that has made boxing less attractive to potential athletes. Can you name any of the current heavyweight champions? (The fact that there are more than one at a given moment is part of the problem.)

"The Boxing Kings," then, takes us back to a time when boxing mattered. It's funny how time has flown. Mike Tyson hasn't been a big factor in boxing for more than a quarter of a century, and Evander Holyfield's prime checks in at about 20 years ago. That may limit the audience for a book like this - and the $36 list price may not help in that sense either - but those looking for information on the subject will find this an excellent source of material.

Four stars

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