Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review: Arthur Ashe (2018)

By Raymond Arsenault

It's been a little more than 25 years since Arthur Ashe died. That seems like something of a blink to those who remember his life and interests, which are still relevant today. Ashe's name appears on everything from the USTA stadium in New York to an annual award for courage from ESPN.

On the other hand, maybe it really did take that long to put together a full biography of this now-legendary sports hero. Raymond Arsenault hasn't spent the past quarter-century researching this book, but you might have been fooled into thinking that way after picking up a copy of a publication that checks in at almost 800 pages (including notes and credits).

Ashe might have been the most multi-dimensional personality to pop up in the sports section of the newspaper in many years. He was sports star, humanitarian, activist, philanthropist, author, broadcaster, lecturer, and so forth. It's all here in "Arthur Ashe - A Life."

Arsenault starts the story in Richmond, Virginia, where Ashe spent most of his childhood. Ashe was born in 1943, and his timing was close to being perfect in terms of his status as a pioneer in the sport of tennis. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, of course, and it was still a difficult place for African-Americans to live through the 1950s. That's especially true for those who had an interest in tennis, one of the "country club" sports in which most of the best players came from affluent backgrounds.

Ashe showed enough promise in the game to spend his senior year of high school in St. Louis, where racial issues were less of an issue (relatively speaking). He then earned a scholarship to UCLA - where Jackie Robinson, anothersports  pioneer, attended college. The Sixties portion of the book features some great information on that period for tennis. Walls are were starting to come down for a black like Ashe, as he climbed the ladder in the rankings of American tennis players. Then, just as he was ready to finish a stint in the Army and had to figure out how to make a living at tennis if possible, the sport eventually opened up to allow professionals a chance to capitalize on their skills. As the author outlines, it was a complicated time, as amateurism didn't go quietly into the night. There were some bumps on that road, and if Ashe had been a little younger he might not have made it.

But he did. Ashe usually ranked in the top 10 of the world in his prime, won three major championships, and was a constant presence on the United States Davis Cup team. It was a career capped by a surprising win at Wimbledon over Jimmy Connors in 1975, which still is considered one of the great tennis upsets in history. A good-sized heart attack soon ended his career with a racquet. However, most people figured Ashe was the one athlete who figured to have a second act in his life, and he plunged into the list of interests and activities mentioned above.

Some of them led to controversy and interesting discussions. For example, Ashe played a part in the battle to open South Africa up from its policy of apartheid. He played in some tournaments then and paid other visits to that country. Was it better to do that, or isolate the country and its evil policy? It's still difficult to tell.

We certainly get a sense here of what life was like for Ashe after "retirement." It's almost like Arsenault found Ashe's date book, and reviewed his schedule. Hint - it was really busy, with flights all over the world. It didn't let up until the very end; Ashe contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and died in 1993.

It's easy to fall in love with the subject of such biographies; I usually associate the practice with books on Abraham Lincoln. Arsenault certainly carries his admiration of Ashe throughout the pages of the book. It's tough to blame him for that.

Two other minor objections come up here. Reviewers have noticed that sections on the book on Ashe's tennis abilities fall a little short of the rest of the book, and they are right. The matches are described in great detail, but a few more stories from contemporaries about what made Ashe as good as he was would have been nice. Along those lines, the book also suffers a little bit from the effects of the computer age. It's easy to write a long book in this day and age, but this probably could have lost about 25 to 50 pages with a last, probably painful edit.

Even so, "Arthur Ashe" offers a really good portrait of a self-described "citizen of the world" who still could be a role model for many. Ashe did write three memoirs of his life, and they are worth exploring for those interested, but Arsenault's treatment probably will be the one that holds up as the best exploration of the multi-faceted champion.

Four stars

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: Coach Wooden and Me (2017)

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

For those who don't know anything about basketball, the friendship between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Wooden might seem a little odd.

Abdul-Jabbar is a tall, Muslim, African-American from New York City. Wooden was a normal-sized, Christian Caucasian from Indiana. The contrasts could go further, but you get the idea. Imagine the two of them in a booth in a diner, chatting away.

They did have basketball in common, of course. Wooden won 10 NCAA championships as a coach at UCLA and is considered one of the greatest coaches to ever put a whistle around his neck. He's also the first person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach. Abdul-Jabbar helped Wooden win three of those titles (1967-69), and went on to become one of the greatest players in history.

They also had something else in common: life. Their relationship showed an curiosity about life on both sides.

After Wooden died at the age of 99, it took Abdul-Jabbar years to put down on paper what Wooden meant to him. The result of that project, "Coach Wooden and Me," is a sweetheart of a book.

Abdul-Jabbar represents something of a turning point in the story of basketball. He was so tall (7-foot-2) and so good in high school that there was intense interest in where he would play in college. It could be argued that he started the growth of recruiting for college teams, something that has reached a mania in recent years. The young man quickly discovered that any university with a basketball program was willing to give him a full scholarship.

That's where Wooden enters the picture. Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, sat down with Wooden for their first meeting during the recruiting process. The author liked the idea of attending UCLA, with its good weather and history of attracting top blacks such as Jackie Robinson. Wooden started the conversation by talking about academics, which floored Abdul-Jabbar. Basketball entered the conversation much later. Clearly, this was a coach with more on his mind than basketball. What's more, it was the absolutely perfect approach for someone like Abdul-Jabbar, a thoughtful man just coming into his own when it came to developing a personal philosophy.

The two men worked well together on the court, of course. Wooden's philosophy was to prepare his teams to play their best, and winning would take care of itself if they played to their potential. They usually did. That was fine with Abdul-Jabbar, who was rather shy in some ways and had no personal need to set scoring records. The contrast there might be someone like Wilt Chamberlain, who was an entirely different personality.

Abdul-Jabbar moved on to the pros after graduation, and found that he kept thinking about Wooden's lessons as he went through life. They seemed to apply to more aspects of existence than just basketball. It's something that virtually all of Wooden's ex-players have said. The phrase "Be quick but don't hurry" can be applied to all sorts of activities.

Abdul-Jabbar eventually reached out to Wooden again, and the friendship between them grew. Sometimes they talked on the phone, sometimes they shared a meal together, sometimes they just watched a basketball or baseball game on television. The younger of the two soon realized that Wooden had become something of a father figure to him.

The author wisely has plenty of stories from those conversations, which proved educational. For example, Abdul-Jabbar never realized how much pressure Wooden faced during those UCLA years, especially when he had Abdul-Jabbar as his star center. The Bruins weren't just hoping to win titles then; they were expected to win them. Big difference. Wooden told Abdul-Jabbar once, "I wish all my really good friends in coaching would win one national championship. And those I don't think highly of, I wish they would win several."

This all sounds like it as a "Tuesdays with Morrie" approach to it, referring to the book by Mitch Albom. And it does, but the difference is that it's interesting to learn about Abdul-Jabbar as well. He had periods when he wasn't particularly open in his public statements - and who could blame him at times? - so we had to wait until now to learn what he was thinking during a basketball career that was played out in public.

"Coach Wooden and Me" goes by quickly; it can be read in a day if you have some time. But by all means, don't hurry. Sit back and enjoy a wonderful story about the relationship between the subject of the book and the author.

Five stars

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Review: Killer (2017)

By Doug Gilmour with Dan Robson

The number of seventh-round draft choices who reached the Hockey Hall of Fame has to be a very small one. The number of 177-pounders who are enshrined in Toronto probably isn't too big either.

No doubt about it - Doug Gilmour beat the odds.

Gilmour was taken right after Jay Ness and just before Brad Ramsden in the 1982 Entry Draft. Gilmour went on to become the best player taken there, probably topping the careers of such players as Phil Housley and Dave Andreychuk. The forward finished with 1,414 points in 1,474 career games, which isn't bad at all for a guy who broke in as a fourth-line checking center.

That's a pretty good story, and he tells his side of it in the book, "Killer." Gilmour took his time with writing the story, since he retired in 2003. It's easy to wonder if he still needed a little more time to put things into more perspective.

Here's a quick refresher on his career. Gilmour grew up in Kingston, Ontario, in a sports-minded family. His brother was even a pro hockey player. Doug's youth is a rather standard story, a smallish player who had world-class stats in junior hockey. He had 119 points in 76 games at 18 years of age, and a ridiculous 177 points in 68 games at 19. And when he got to St. Louis, the Blues made him ... a checker. Well, maybe that's why the Blues have never won a Stanley Cup.

But eventually, Gilmour got his chance after three years of good two-year play, and he scored 105 points in 1986-87. A year later, the center was traded to Calgary, where he helped the Flames win a Stanley Cup in 1989. Then in 1992, Gilmore was part of a massive, five-for-five deal with the Maple Leafs ... and that's where the story really gets interesting.

After an initial half-season of adjustment, Gilmour burst out in 1992-93 - a season that is fondly remembered by Toronto's hockey fans. That was the season that the Leafs could have won the Cup, but Wayne Gretzky and the Kings got in the way in the conference finals. Still, Gilmour was idolized in Toronto, which as is written here has benefits and pressures magnified beyond what most could believe. I would bet that some would call Gilmour the greatest Maple Leaf ever, at least during the time from 1992-94.

From there, Gilmour did some bouncing from team to team - New Jersey, Chicago, Buffalo, and Montreal. By the time he passed through Buffalo (personal note: I covered the team in his time there), he seemed a little worn down by stardom. Gilmour returned to Toronto, hurt his knee badly in his first game there, and never played again.

In the book, Gilmour goes through the seasons, one after another, easily enough. There are some stories about some of the big goals and big games he had, and encounters with coaches and teammates along the way. It's all told in a rather dry manner. Gilmour does seem to come to life a bit when describing pranks and practical jokes played on teammates and others, although that sort of stuff may not strike everyone as particularly amusing.

Now, I know that there are thousands of people who still love Doug Gilmour and the way he played hockey. They no doubt rushed to the bookstore when this book was released, and zipped through the text with a smile on their faces - especially the parts of the 1993 team. That's fine. But it's easy to ask for something more in a book like this. There isn't too much about anyone else in his orbit, and Gilmour doesn't particularly come across as an introspective person.

Gilmour only devotes a couple of sentences to a well-publicized 1988 lawsuit. He simply says he faced some false legal accusations, which he said were rejected by a grand jury. Gilmour describes it as "the most difficult time in my life." It's obviously tough to know from a distance if there were legal or personal after-effects from that episode. But the incident apparently led to his trade from St. Louis to Calgary. Could he have said more here? Should he have said more, or even less? I'm not going to take sides without knowing the complete story, but it's a curious passage in the book.

"Killer" will tell you the story of a hockey player who seemed to be playing chess on the ice when everyone else was playing checkers. He deserves full credit for a great career. Some readers of Gilmour's autobiography, though, will come away seeking more.

Two stars

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Review: We Want Fish Sticks (2018)

By Nicholas Hershon

What are the chances of two books having the words "Fish Sticks" in the title - books that have nothing to do with the frozen food industry?

Not bad, as you'd know if you are a fan of the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League. Book one came out in 2003 and was simply called "Fish Sticks." Now in 2018 we have "We Want Fish Sticks," by Nicholas Hershon.

Why all the talk about fish sticks? It was a short-hand way of referring to the Islanders' attempt at rebranding the franchise in the mid-1990s. The team dumped its old logo - one which seemed to be fine when the team won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s - and came up with a new one. Logo II featured a fisherman, and it resembled the one used by Gorton's Fish Sticks.

The new design was a failure, and is still something of a laughing stock for those who follow such things. What's more, it was something of an instant failure, as Rangers fans loved to chant "We want fish sticks" to mock the Islanders during games.

What went wrong? Well, almost everything, as Hershon discovered when he researched this book. First of all, it was a time when NHL teams had discovered the power of merchandising, thanks in part to teams like the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Islanders thought they needed something new to help increase enthusiasm for the team, particularly after a disappointing season. But they did little research on the subject and couldn't be bothered testing any of the designs before focus groups or hearing the reactions of fans - you know, the people who actually might buy the merchandise. The Islanders' front office might have discovered that there is an emotional attachment to a sports team's logo, especially one that's been around a while.

But Hershon suggests that a bigger problem might have been the team itself. It was hoping that the logo would catch a wave of improved fortune for the team. Instead, the Islanders continued their losing ways. The team shuffled executives and coaches with regularity, and trades and draft picks simply didn't work out. The players interviewed for the book all agreed that while they weren't crazy about the new look in many cases, a logo doesn't score any goals. The franchise also had ownership problems, especially toward the end of this era, as it turned out new owner John Spano was a complete fraud and wound up spending plenty of time in prison in the years ahead.

In fact, the team's ups and downs probably receive closer scrutiny in the book than the logo's fate. Games, trades and other changes during the span of the new logo's life are well covered, but it's a little difficult for someone who doesn't bleed the Islanders' colors to get too involved in that part of the story. It was more of a turbulent era than interesting. Besides, such superfans might even know the details already.

Even when the two stories are combined, this is quite a short book. It checks in at around 200 pages, including a long interview with the late designer of the logo (he died a few years ago) is included in its entirety. Hershon certainly did plenty of work in researching this, but many of the quotes are short and the effect is that the writing comes off as choppy in spots. The tale is also told in a serious way, and having a little fun with the subject would have been helpful.

The story of the Islanders' ill-fated logo probably is worth telling, but a book might not be the best format for it. A long magazine piece for some publication might have been a good fit. One of ESPN's documentaries in the "30 for 30" series might have worked too.

That leaves "We Want Fish Sticks" without much of a natural audience. Still, those looking for what went wrong with this marketing campaign will find their questions answered and then some. You can pick those people out - they are the ones wearing the fisherman's logo on uniforms at Islander games.

Two stars

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Review: Endurance (2016)

By Rick Broadbent

There's no way to determine the identity of the greatest long-distance runner in history. However, if you were going to magically bring the contenders together for a race, Emil Zatopek would be on the starting line.

He was that good. Don't discount his chances of beating all comers from all time periods, head to head.

Zatopek won four gold medals in his career, three of them coming at the 1952 Olympics. They came in the 5,000-meter run, the 10,000-meter run, and the marathon. It's safe to say that no one will ever do that again.

That clearly is an athletic career worth celebrating, and British author Rick Broadbent gets the story on paper in good order with his book, "Endurance." What makes this book particularly interesting is that Zatopek lived in a particularly volatile time in European and Czech history.

Zatopek was born in 1922, but didn't compete in his first race until 1941. Therefore, he wasn't an adult during Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia or the start of World War II. But when new, tougher leadership arrived in that part of the world in 1942, it affected everyone. Zatopek wound up in the army, where he actually could find time to do plenty of training, while his coach, Jan Haluza was held for years on suspicions of having subversive political views. The stories of how Haluza was tortured are some of the most painful and memorable in the book.

Meanwhile, Zatopek followed the relatively new training method of fartlek - also known as running intervals, which meant he'd run a certain distance at a given speed, take a break, and run it again. It's fair to say that no one ran with more determination and will power than Zatopek. Naturally, he didn't have many chances to test his skills against others as long as war was taking place.

In 1945, Germany was finally defeated and Europe looked forward to returning to normal life. But Czechoslovakia is one of those countries that has often been in the way of the expansion plans of more powerful neighbors. In this case, the vacuum left by Germany's demise was quickly filled by those from the Soviet Union, spreading an Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe. Life for the Czechs was just as repressive under the Communists as it had been under the Nazis. 

While most Czechs weren't allowed to leave the country for any period of time, Zatopek was good enough to serve as something of a propaganda tool for the government. He went to London for the 1948 Olympics, and won a gold and a silver medal. That established him as one of the great athletic heroes in his nation's history. Adding to the story was the fact that his wife, Dana, was also an Olympic athlete.She would later win a gold medal in the javelin toss.

From there, the Emil Zatopek legend only grew. The world records started to come in 1949. In one race in 1951, Zatopek set world records in three different areas - 10 miles, 20,000 meters, and one hour (furthest distance covered in the time period). That set up his performance in the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, which moved him into new heights of glory. Zatopek finished his career with 18 world records, with the last of them coming in 1955.

If his slow decline due to age was the end of the story, Zatopek would have had an interesting enough life. But politics added a postscript to the story in 1968. That was the year of the "Prague Spring," when the Czechs tried to gain a little freedom from Soviet domination. One of those Czechs was Zatopek, who signed his name on something of a petition asking for reform in his home country. Some brief feelings of hope were raised among the population, only to be crushed with Soviet troops came charging into Czechoslovakia in 1968. The legendary runner lived out the next 20 years or so as something of a non-person, as the government tried to bury his reputation. It took until 1989 and the Velvet Revolution for Zatopek to return to fame, although a generation had almost passed by then.

Broadbent certainly did his research here. He talked to Dana at length, and interviewed many others about Zatopek and the people who were part of the track and field scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I'm not sure how much Zatopek's personality comes across here - he comes off as a polite, friendly and nice man who is very single-minded about running - but the background story is compelling enough to keep you turning the pages.

Let's put it this way - if an American checks out the sports section of a Prague book store, there are three recognizable names: Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr and Emil Zatopek. "Endurance" brings the oldest one of the three back from the past.

Four stars

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: Blue Monday (2018)

By Danny Gallagher

There's no rule that saying a major-league sports team has to win eventually. Chances only come up so often, and if the team doesn't capitalize on that window of opportunity - which usually only lasts a few years at most - they usually are doomed to wait much longer.

Teams like the Cubs and Red Sox went decades before finally breaking through. More recently, hockey's Washington Capitals always seemed to know how to disappoint their fans in the spring ... until finally breaking through in 2018 with a Stanley Cup championship.

At least those teams finally got a chance. Others aren't so lucky. Exhibit A might be the baseball's Montreal Expos. Their best team probably was in 1994, when a labor stoppage forced the cancellation of the end of the season. That stopped Montreal's opportunity to claim a World Series crown, and perhaps led to the team's departure to Washington.

But their other big chance came on the field. And that's the one that author Danny Gallagher examines in his book "Blue Monday."

The Expos, who were born in 1969, needed about a decade to become competitive. Slowly but surely, they collected enough talent to be a title contender. There were three future Hall of Famers on that roster - Tim Raines, Gary Carter and Andre Dawson. After coming close to the postseason in 1979 and 1980, Montreal finally broke through in 1981. That was the year of another labor dispute and a split season that led to an extra round of the playoffs. The Expos knocked off the Phillies, three games to two, and met the Dodgers for the right to go to the World Series. What's more, after a pair of wins on each side, Game Five was in Montreal.

That deciding game was still tied in the ninth inning when manager Jim Fanning - brought on late in the regular season to replace Dick Williams - called on ace starter Steve Rogers to pitch. Rogers might have been the best pitcher in Expos history, but he will be remembered by some as the man who allowed a game-winning homer by Dodgers' outfielder Rick Monday. That was as close to a world championship as the Expos ever got, and it made Monday about as popular in Montreal as Bucky Dent was in Boston in late 1978.

Gallagher may not be the biggest single collector of information about the Expos alive, but he's certainly in the ballpark. The author has written four other books on the Expos after serving as a beat reporter for a Montreal newspaper at one point. No one can doubt his enthusiasm for this project. He talked to dozens and dozens of people who were involved in that game and team - virtually everyone who is alive, and in the case of the deceased Williams, his son.

Does all of this information work? That's more of a mixed bag. The book seems a bit padded by most standards. Play-by-play broadcasts are quoted for long stretches, and some of the players' quotes do tend to go on and on with some odd tangents. Some of the facts and anecdotes are repeated and not in any particular order. There are chapters about such players as Terry Francona, then just a young players with the Expos but someone who later made some baseball history by managing the Red Sox to a World Series title. Monday's baseball life story gets lots of room, although the Canadian target audience for a book like this probably is more interested in the effects of the loss on the team in the short term.

In addition, Gallagher comes off as a little too much of a fan of the Expos along the way here. A book like this is supposed to provide some dispassionate perspective on a turning point in franchise history, and it's a little surprising that the author approached it this way. Maybe he's trying to please his audience, which certainly mostly lives in Canada.

Moments like the Monday home run due come up frequently in baseball, which is what helps to make October so dramatic. Ask the Milwaukee Brewers, who a day before this was written looked poised to take a big lead in the NLCS. Alas, Justin Turner's homer may change the direction of the series for good. We'll see.

In the meantime, "Blue Monday" certainly will fill you in on the details of another one of those moments. It could have been better, but those still carrying the Expos' torch after all these years will find it interesting.

Three stars

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Review: Hockey Fight in Canada (2018)

By David Shoalts

Even American hockey fans understand the tradition behind the long-running broadcast program, "Hockey Night in Canada." It started on radio with Foster Hewitt doing the play-by-play, and eventually moved on to television in the 1950s. The story was that all of Canada gathered around TV sets to watch a game, preferably near a potbellied stove. It was part of the country's heritage.

The television business changed, of course, since those days, but Hockey Night remained something of a cultural institution. Therefore it was something of a shock in 2013 when it was announced that the CBC was about to lose its role as producer of the NHL games - putting about 60 years in the trashcan. Rogers had won the rights to the games, and would be merely showing those games on the CBC outlet.

This all didn't make much sense from an American perspective, which has taken the fact that the CBC was the gold standard for hockey broadcasting for granted. (Considering the way techniques get passed along in the television business, it's fair to guess that the playing field has been leveled out.) What, then, did happen up in the Great White North?

The answer, naturally, is complicated, and, sure enough, it involves money. Billions of dollars are involved. Luckily, David Shoalts has come to the rescue with an explanation of it all in the book, "Hockey Fight in Canada."

The author takes us through the story about how the changing media landscape altered the way hockey is watched. Before the landmark deal in 2013, the NHL had sold pieces of its broadcast rights to various outlets. The CBC had a piece for Hockey Night (Saturdays and playoffs), Bell/TSN had pieces, and Rogers/Sportsnet had some too. But eventually, the NHL came up with the idea of selling everything at once - and then letting the bidding winner split up the pieces as it saw fit. Since the CBC was not involved in wireless technology or streaming, there was no way the government-supported company could win this battle.

Shoalts takes us through the various parts of the puzzle and introduces us to a variety of players. It's interesting to see how everything comes together, particularly in regard to the NHL and its negotiation strategy. Other sports in America still sell off pieces of the rights; it will be interesting to see if this approach is the wave of the future. 

And Shoalts has a natural way to end the story. The new production team came up with new ways to tell stories and new personalities to present them. But within two years, the gimmicks were gone and an old face was back front and center of the broadcast. In other words, it looked like Hockey Night in Canada again. I think that's a happy ending.

A book like "Hockey Fight in Canada" obviously is going to have a relatively limited audience, particularly in the United States. It's a business book for starters, and that means some people are going to find it on the dry side. Readers in America also had better be big enough hockey fans to know at least some of the issues and personalities involved.

But Shoalts is up to the task of making this quite quick and painless when it comes to reading "Hockey Fight in Canada." It's a straight-forward story that's told as well as possible. If you are looking to sort things out in this area, this is an appropriate destination.

Four stars

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Review: The League (2018)

By John Eisenberg

It is difficult to imagine the National Football League as something of a curiosity in the sports world. We've gotten used to full stadiums, maxed-out television broadcasts, and overwhelming media coverage.

As you may have guessed, it wasn't always that way.

The NFL didn't draw a straight line to success. There were all sorts of bumps along the way - times when it looked as if the concept of pro football wasn't going to quite make it.

That's what John Eisenberg covers in his worthwhile book, "The League."

It's probably an oversimplification to say that "five rivals created the NFL and launched a sports empire." But - it's not a huge exaggeration. Certainly, the story of the NFL's history can not be told without giving a large amount of credit to such men as George Halas, George Preston Marshall, Art Rooney, Bert Bell and Tim Mara.

Halas was there at the creation, at the now-famous car dealership in Canton, Ohio, where the league was first formed. He was a player, coach and owner of the Bears. Marshall brought showmanship to the league with the Redskins. It's also fair to say that he added more than a touch of racism to the story. Rooney was always a beloved figure with the Steelers, although  it took him decades to field a consistent winner in Pittsburgh. Bell, a child of privilege, unexpected became an owner and eventually the commissioner of the league. A case could be made that Bell is one of the most underrated figures in pro football history, and Eisenberg makes it. The author points out that Bell brought a lot of organizational skills and common sense to the league, qualities that were not always in large supply.

In hindsight, it seems like the concept of professional football should have been a slam dunk, to mix a metaphor for a moment. In the 1920s, college football was packing people in big stadiums throughout the country. When those players graduated, they should have brought a following along with them to the pro game. But that didn't really happen too often in that era, with the odd exception like Red Grange.  The pro game also suffered from instability, frequently caused by weak ownership and a lack of organization.  Check the record book, and you'll see how teams played one game in the NFL and then disappeared from view.

The five men profiled here persisted. Sometimes they were willing to do what was best for the league instead of what was best for their team, even if that attitude didn't extend to the playing field. They had some major obstacles thrown in their way. The 1930s featured the depression, of course, and money was hard to find. That led into World War II, where many of the players crossed the oceans to fight for their country. The end of the war marked the birth of the All-American Football Conference, and dueling leagues chasing limited dollars means losses for just about everyone. Along the way, a color line was created by the NFL, kicking African Americans out in the early 1930s and keeping them out until after WW2.

Eventually, the big city teams - New York in particular - became major players in their areas in the sports scene. By the Fifties, pro football was waiting for a match to ignite - and it found one with the 1958 NFL championship game. That was the overtime classic between the Giants and Colts, and there was no turning back from there.

Eisenberg does a good job of telling the story here, with plenty of details that aren't common knowledge even for football fans. If you've ever wondered about the evolution of some rules or the adoption of the college draft, the subjects are covered here. And the personalities of the five men certainly come alive.

The thought comes to mind while reading this that it might be a little difficult to attract a young audience with this book. It's been 60 years since that 1958 game, and there's plenty of dust on the tales revealed here that came before that. So it's not for every taste.

Those who do read "The League," though, will find it rewarding. Eisenberg, who has done several other books on sports history, is good at making the details come alive. After finishing it, readers will certainly realize that the NFL's current success was far from inevitable.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Review: The Last Pass (2018)

By Gary M. Pomerantz

A case could be made that Bob Cousy might be the most underrated great player in basketball history at this point in time.

There are a few reasons for that. After an outstanding college career at Holy Cross, Cousy landed with the Boston Celtics in 1950. There he became one of the best players in the league, earning such nicknames as "Mr. Basketball" and "Houdini of the Hardwood." Cousy usually averaged a little less than 20 points per game and usually led the league in assists once he got the hang of the pro game. I would guess that he replaced George Mikan as the face of the NBA when Mikan retired.

But early in his career, he didn't win many games. Cousy played on some Celtics teams that weren't quite good enough. That changed in 1956, when a center named Bill Russell arrived. Russell was really, really good, and meshed well with Boston's fast-break offense. The Celtics won six titles in Cousy's final seven years. His retirement ceremony at the Boston Garden was one of the all-time great tear-fests as these go.

After one last title in 1963, Cousy went off to coach at Boston College. And the Celtics kept winning, and winning. Russell and his talented teammates won five more titles in six years, and everyone realized that the center was the biggest winner in team sports. It could be argued that he still has that title; there's a reason the MVP award of The NBA Finals is named for him. As for Cousy, basketball changed quickly over the years, and his stats such as shooting percentage don't hold up too well when put up to today's light.

But that's no reason to diminish Cousy in the process. He remains an interesting character today, and he's the centerpiece of Gary M. Pomerantz's book, "The Last Pass." In fact, he's the reason it works so well. Cousy obviously opened up his life to the author, doing more than 50 interviews and allowing Pomerantz to have access to all sorts of material - like letters to and from his late wife - for the book.

Cousy brought a little baggage with him when he arrived in the NBA. The New York City guard of French ancestry was an only child whose parents didn't get along too well. That can cause all sorts of problems, but he pointed his competitive drive toward the basketball court. He's was happy and comfortable with the ball, at his best if you will.

Cousy also arrived in pro basketball just as African Americans were arriving in the NBA. He quickly befriended the blacks on the Celtics, as the abuse and prejudice that they faced upset the New Yorker greatly. Cousy also was a flashy player when it wasn't popular. He tried to make the correct play at all times, but sometimes that play was an unorthodox one. If an African American had done some of those moves in the early 1950s, he would have been called a showboat and told to tone it down or be gone. Cousy could make it acceptable, and led the way for everyone else to add style to substance. Go watch some videos.

Then Russell came along, and there was never anyone like him. He eventually became the first black player in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he was picked not because he was great statistically (although he was a great rebounder) but because he was a winner. Russell did it at a time when African Americans were demanding respect and rights in all areas of society, and was unwilling to back down on those aspects of life. That made him a legend on the court, but somewhat unpopular for those off the court who weren't ready to handle change.

Relationships with Russell were always complicated, and Cousy still plays the "what if?" game about his time with Russell - at the age of 90. Could he have done more to help Russell gain acceptance? Should he have done more? Those questions are really at the heart of the book, and Cousy explores them at length - perhaps surprisingly so.

Pomerantz has done a couple of fine books on days gone by, reviewing the Steelers of the 1970s and Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962. This stacks up with them nicely, and may even be my favorite of the three.

Complaints about this book are minor. You obviously need to be receiving social security checks to remember Cousy well; I'm 62 and can barely picture him playing at Boston Garden when I was about seven. It's about my earliest basketball memory. The book also given a slightly vague sense of needing one more edit; some of the material is repeated at times.

No matter. "The Last Pass" works well because Cousy remains an interesting, even fascinating character - even past the age of 90. I'm underrated the book a little at four stars, and it certainly will be on my ten favorite reads of the year.

Four stars

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Monday, September 10, 2018

Review: The Dancing Bear (2018)

By Ron McDole with Rob Morris

You don't have to be a football fan from Buffalo or Washington to have heard of Ron McDole, but it really helps.

McDole remained relatively anonymous in those two cities over the course of an 18-year career in pro football, which was mostly spent in those two cities. He was, of course, good. You have to be good to stay in the game for that long.

In fact, the most memorable fact about McDole might be his nickname, "The Dancing Bear." It was given to him off the field by Sonny Jurgensen for his dance moves, but considering his size and quickness, it fit on the field too.

Therefore, when McDole finally decided to come out with a book on his football days, "The Dancing Bear" was the natural title.

McDole's type of story is of particular interest to fans of the American Football League in the 1960s. He came out of Nebraska as a defensive lineman, but bounced from the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL to the Houston Oilers of the AFL. McDole suffered from migraine headaches, and it looked like that might drive him out of the league and into a career as a shop teacher.

Luckily for McDole, Bills' coach Lou Saban took a chance on his head and his heart and signed him. McDole became a regular on the Buffalo teams that won the AFC championship in 1964 and 1965. He might be the best player on those teams never to be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The Bills fell apart after that stretch, and new coach John Rauch - best remembered in Buffalo as the guy who tried to use O.J. Simpson as something of a decoy - had McDole traded to the Redskins. The defensive lineman was 32. How long could he last? Owner Ralph Wilson was so upset that Rauch trashed McDole in a TV interview that he fired the coach and apologized personally to McDole for the deal.

McDole merely spent eight years as a Redskin. Most of them were with George Allen, where he was part of the "Over the Hill Gang." That team never won it all but came close, losing to the undefeated Dolphins team in Jan. 1973. McDole played through 1978, and retired instead of taking a contract with the Giants that would have meant playing past the age of 40. He still has the all-time record for most interceptions by a pro defensive lineman with 12. Dancing bear, indeed.

McDole comes across here as a nice enough fellow, rarely trashing anyone. It was a slightly less serious era in football, naturally, and his stories about the game in the Sixties and Seventies are quite funny and often interesting. But there are a few problems with the book, and it definitely will hurt your enjoyment of it.

First, it feels thin. There are several paragraphs of quotes from some of McDole's teammates about common experiences, and they feel like padding in some cases. Pat Fischer and McDole chat at length in an appendix, which is an unusual technique as these things go. They generally cover subjects that have been discussed earlier in the book. It feels like an attempt to get it to 200 pages; maybe some of that could have been filled with more about what McDole has been doing since 1978. Other than a few lines about charity work and thoughts on how the game has changed, this book could have been written about 38 years ago.

Second, it would have been nice to have someone give it one more read for editing purposes. Pat Fischer comes out Pat Fisher a few times; both are used in the same paragraph at one point. There are phrases like this: "Rayfield Wright of Dallas, who's in the Hall of Fame, was outstanding, but I had a lot of good games against him. He was an outstanding tackle." There are a handful of other sentences that don't make sense. And Sam Etcheverry comes out as Sam Estebury, among a few other typos.

Add it up, and it's tough to be too enthusiastic about "The Dancing Bear" (the book, not the person). Fans of the era will no doubt enjoy it, as they say. But others - especially outside of Buffalo and Washington - probably will come away with the feeling that it could have been better and lower this rating a bit.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review: Collision of Wills (2018)

By Jack Gilden

If you are making up a list of the most important people in pro football history, Johnny Unitas and Don Shula have to be on it.

Unitas held the mythical title of "greatest quarterback ever" for quite some time, as he took the position and in some ways the entire sport to new levels of brilliance during his great career. Shula merely has won more games than any NFL coach.

The pair were on the same side when they teamed up with the Baltimore Colts for a good chunk of the 1960s. But here's what was apparently whispered for years but not really discussed since those days, which saw the Colts win a ton of games but no championships: the pair never really got along.

That's the portion of Jack Gilden's book, "Collision of Wills," that will attract the most attention upon its release.

Shula usually took the high road in the relationship, merely pointing out that the combination won a lot of games. Unitas mostly kept quiet in public about Shula, but certainly he made it known to friends and associates that he had no use for the coach - a former teammate in Baltimore, no less.

Their dynamic drives the story along. In some ways, it's a relatively common tale. Unitas was an established star, the biggest name in football, when Shula arrived in 1963. Shula certainly wanted to do things his way, and was not shy about saying so. As the years went by, Unitas' career started to fall off - thanks in part to arm injuries that certainly weren't as diagnosed properly as they might have been now. The finish of the careers of such icons often ends badly, and Unitas turned out to be no exception. He lost his job as a regular and eventually was exiled to San Diego to end a magical run with a whimper.

Veteran football fans will find plenty to their liking here. The Colts were right in the middle of some of the best games in pro football history. That list includes the 1958 NFL championship game, which went to overtime as Unitas pulled a win out of his helmet, and Super Bowl III, the Jets' stunning upset of Colts when they were 17-point underdogs.

Gilden went out and talked to several key people in that era, and they add perspective on events. He also clearly did plenty of research into that era. Therefore, the games come back to life. It's great fun to read a detailed account of the time that halfback Tom Matte had to play quarterback in a playoff game for the Colts when Unitas and Gary Cuozzo were both hurt. Matte almost led the Colts to a huge win over the Green Bay Packers. Nothing like it has happened since.

There are a couple of small problems here that deserve a mention. It really helps to be old enough to remember most of the events from when they happened. In other words, the 20-somethings may not care too much about this and that's fine. It should be added, though, that Gilden carries the attitude throughout the book that the Sixties were the best time to be an NFL history, and he's not taking any arguments. I became a fan of the sport then too, but I'm not sure I'd go as far as the author does. You always remember your first loves.

There might have been room for another quick read on this. There's a little duplication in material along the way, and I'm still not sure why there's a chapter on David Halberstam. Gilden is a little unsure of himself when writing about the politics and culture of the decade.

But the football material is entertaining and can reel the football fan in nicely. Those who are looking for some new information on some legendary games and people - particularly those in Baltimore - will find "Collision of Wills" worthwhile.

Four stars

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Review: This Old Man (2015)

By Roger Angell

The number of people whose writing on baseball borders on the title of literature is a rather short one. Most of the work is basic and to the point, reflecting the task involved in the process.  In other words, it's tough to craft memorable work when the deadline is the final out.

Luckily for us, a select few people have had the time and inclination to ponder bigger pictures. Baseball can do that, with its relaxed rhythms and the lack of a deadline for a nightly conclusion. Its most serious practitioner over the years might be Roger Angell, who - it's good to report - is still out there as of this writing.

Angell probably will say he was an unlikely candidate for that distinction, and he was right. Angell served as a writer and editor for the New Yorker for many years, which is hardly a breeding grounds for literary works concerning horsehide. But he pulled it off, somewhat in his spare time since he was the fiction editor

Now Angell is in his 90s, looking back on a career that featured contributions to the famous magazine in 1944 and saw him go on the masthead in 1956. He's still writing a bit even now, but "This Old Man" is a collection of articles and other work from the later stages of his career that was released in 2015. To put it in appropriate terms, Angell still had a pretty good fastball when after his peers had stopped working. Think of Nolan Ryanb.

Those who come to this book from reviews like this will find satisfaction here, since baseball plays a key role in the collection. Angell's best work on baseball came when he was just starting to write about the sport and thus on the anonymous side. Go read "Five Seasons" and "The Summer Game" to see what I mean. He had some distance from the subjects. For a while there he was so celebrated it was difficult to have enough space to get some necessary perspective. But now that he's sitting back and reflecting again, there's a wisdom that ropes in the reader. Some of it was shown over the fuss made when Barry Bonds approached the all-time record for home runs. Angell argues that such records matter little because of changes in the sport over the years - a refreshing viewpoint considering the whole did-he-or-didn't-he saga about Bonds and steroids.

But there's other stuff here as well. Angell includes work on other writers in his life, his summer home in Maine, notes to friends, etc. I'm not about to tell you that I understood all of the references here, or even recognized the names. But that doesn't mean the beauty of how the words in those stories were collected and distributed can't be enjoyed by those who think Vladimir Nabokov is a defenseman for the San Jose Sharks.

And every so often Angell turns a phrase that is so precise, so perfect, that you feel like poking the person next to you so you'll have the pleasure of reading it aloud. Comedy writer Bill Scheft has a phrase for this - get out of the business good. As in, you'll never write like this so why try?

I won't bother trying to give a rating with stars to "This Old Man." Those who like his work probably have him installed as a national treasure as his 98th birthday approaches. Others will only read the baseball parts, wondering why they should care about New Yorker founder Harold Ross. And that's fine. A baseball team needs a few players to fill roles in order to be successful. But some superstars need to be part of the mix as well, and Angell has had that role covered for decades.

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: Gridiron Genius (2018)

By Michael Lombardi

Even in the highly competitive world of pro football, there are some coaches who figure out a way to find that edge that helps them win games consistently.They might not be smarter than everyone else, although brainpower doesn't hurt, but they mix it with a strong work ethic and good organizational abilities.

Michael Lombardi has worked with two of those "geniuses" in Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. You could argue that he also spent time employed by a third, Al Davis - who certainly is proof that the word unique describes someone who is one of a kind.

Lombardi, who had a number of jobs in pro football including a stint as general manager of the Cleveland Browns, was smart enough to take notes along the way. Now he's put together a book on why those football men were successful. He's called it "Gridiron Genius" - and no, it's not an autobiography.

Lombardi (no relation to that fellow who did pretty well with the Green Bay Packers) rips through the various parts of a football organization, chapter by chapter. The chapter headings are: The Organization, the Coach, Team Building, Special Teams, Offense, Defense, Game Planning, While I Have You (my biggest peeves), WWBD, and Fearless Forecast.

If there's one point that gets hammered home, it's that the best head coaches are prepared for just about anything to happen in a game. That's not by chance; it's because the staff covers just about every possible contingency before a game. You want to know why football coaches are legendary for sleeping in their office? It's because there's always something to do. Belichick would do things like assign a staff member to full break down each player on an opposing team, looking for tendencies and facts that might be helpful. There are some good stories told along the way, like the one about how Malcolm Butler happened to be in the right place in the right time to make the most famous interceptions in Super Bowl history.

A couple of interesting points come out right away in this book, which mixes general observations with personal experiences. Let's look at one that covers my part of the football world, the Buffalo Bills. Lombardi was assigned to come up with a tentative list of people who might be good picks to be a head coach if a team decided to make the change. He eventually discovered that the best coaches often had been somewhere else first. Someone like Bill Parcells had some success, while Belichick's record in Cleveland was mixed. But the odds improve with a good coach who has learned lessons along the way.

Interestingly, this was a list made up in the 1990s - and one of the names on the list was Chan Gailey. Bills' fans might remember that Gailey came on as head coach, and left after a rather undistinguished run in Buffalo. Perhaps he wasn't up to the job, or perhaps he wasn't able to push the organization as a whole in the right direction. Judging by the team's play in that era of the early 2000s, the latter may be more likely. By the way, Lombardi is quite critical of the Bills' hiring of Rex Ryan, saying that his research indicates that coaches who specialize on one side of the ball usually fail. Ryan might be the poster boy for that type of philosophy.

Speaking of coaches, Lombardi's chapter on the coach has a long, long list of interview questions for potential coaches. The one that made me laugh was "What do you do with fat guys?" But most are very serious, and all touch on a wide variety of aspects - from discipline to salary cap structure to time for the media. The pay to be an NFL head coach is good, but do you really want to try it? You have to be obsessed with it, apparently.

Lombardi might do his best work in going over the Patriots' run-up to a playoff game. The Baltimore Ravens were coming to town, and the author takes us through the day-by-day preparation of the Pats as Belichick stresses certain aspects of the game. Of course, nothing ever goes completely to plan during a football game - as they say about warfare, plans get thrown out when the bullets start flying - but Belichick and company figure out a way to get it done.

Lombardi obviously had a vision for this book when he started writing it. It's fair to say he fulfilled it. Maybe the bigger question about it is, will you want to read it?

That's a tougher one. The book certainly has the ring of authenticity to it. But it's tough to say if this book will appeal to those who are rather casual about their support of their favorite football team. It's not a dull book for the most part, but it has its dry spots. For those who want an true "inside look" at the NFL and a couple of its best coaches, this will do nicely. Just be warned that it's not for a general audience.

Four stars

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Review: Lucky Bastard (2016)

By Joe Buck

It turns out the Joe Buck is something of a smart aleck.

I realize that's an outdated phrase, dating back to the 19th century. It's short for smart Alexander. I realize that most people probably would use the phrase "smart ass," including Joe Buck himself. But, since I'm really sick of that slightly naughty word and so many try to use it in as many ways as possible, I'll stick to my old-fashioned ways.

How about wise guy? And who knew he was like that, anyway?

Joe Buck is one of the nation's best sports broadcasters. He seems to be on Fox constantly, whether it's baseball, football or golf. As a top play-by-play man, he concentrates on the action and only reveals his personality in bits.

What's more, he's a more interesting person - funny and smart - than he reveals on the air. That might be the major discovery from his book, "Lucky Bastard."

Speaking of slightly naughty words, the title deserves a little explanation right from the start. Most people who follow sports realize that Joe Buck is the son of Jack Buck, the legendary broadcaster from St. Louis. Buck was a very public figure in his home town as the veteran voice of the Cardinals, and he also did some national work on radio and television. "Beloved" doesn't do justice to the relationship between town and voice.

It seems Jack Buck had a relationship with a woman who wasn't his wife. That led to the conception of Joe, a divorce of the Bucks, and a second marriage for Jack. Therefore, Joe really can call himself a lucky bastard and be more literal than most.

Joe ended up following Jack into sportscasting, and that would prove to be a tough act to follow. I get the impression that Joe could have followed Jack into a spot as the Cardinals' long-time broadcaster, and no one would have complained too much ... eventually. (There are always those who will yell out, "You're not as good as your dad!") Instead, Joe went the national route when the opportunity came along, and it's tough to argue with a choice with a career filled with World Series and Super Bowl broadcasts.

Still, there's always a little angst involved when a child takes a similar path to a parent. Perhaps that's why Joe Buck became friends with Kate Hudson, the actress who is the daughter of Goldie Hawn. Kate dole him, "Americans love a good success story. They're just not sure what to do with the success story that comes out of a success story." That sounds like the start of a good book on its own.

As you'd expect, Buck has plenty of stories about his adventures, good and bad. He's not afraid to take a poke at himself or at a few others, but it's generally a good natured story. Joe jokes a few times about his battles against a receding hairline, which has included some hair plug operations. Ouch. But he can serious too, talking about his divorce. That's not an easy combination to pull off, but he does it well.

"Lucky Bastard" goes by pretty quickly; you'll finish it in a jiffy. It's a bit of a surprise that he wrote it at this stage of his career (he has lots of tread left on the tires), but it reached the best seller lists so Buck's timing remains sharp. Most people will come to the conclusion after reading this that Buck can handle the written word as well as the spoken version, and that he'd be a fun person to be around. Missions accomplished.

Four stars

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Review: Hard Labor (2017)

By Sam Smith

For those of you under 40, the National Basketball Association always has seemed like a place of unmatched riches. The stars are everywhere, the games on television constantly, the money involved is enormous. The league's biggest problem seems to be at times is figuring how all of this cash should be split up. That's not to say that distribution of funds isn't an issue, but we all should have such problems.

It wasn't always like this, as Sam Smith points out in his book, "Hard Labor."

Smith is best known as the newspaper reporter who became the most closely associated with Michael Jordan's era with the Chicago Bulls. His book, "The Jordan Rules," will be associated with that era forever.

Here, though, Smith takes a step back. The focal point of the discussion of when the NBA turned the corner toward permanent prosperity was not because of the arrival of a certain player or two, although that didn't hurt. A court case became the fulcrum.

In 1976, the NBA players and owners settled the legal action known as the Oscar Robertson case, since the all-time great had his name on top of the lawsuit as the head of the players' association at the time. It set up some new rules that led to free agency in the NBA and other benefits. It took some time to fall into place, but Smith's key point - and it's a good one - is that it's nice to look back and nod at your predecessors for their contributions.

Smith does that here by finding many of the people involved in that struggle. What's more, you can tell he had a ton of fun doing so. For the record, the 14 plaintiffs in the case were Robertson, Bill Bradley, Joe Caldwell, Archie Clark, Mel Counts, John Havlicek, Don Kojis, Jon McGlocklin, McCoy McLemore, Tom Meschery, Jeff Mullins, Wes Unseld, Chet Walker and Dick Van Arsdale. McLemore is the only one to have passed away. Smith spoke to several other people for the story, including legal representatives from both sides. 

All of them are filled with stories about those days that, in hindsight, are worthy of a good head shake or two. Even in the 1960s, players were often more money to work for company teams like Phillips 66 than to be in the NBA. (Some of the guys who did that, by the way, are multi-millionaires now.) Players often had to take part-time jobs in the offseason to make ends meet, and owners were barely getting by in some cases. Although Smith does touch on the 1950s and early 1960s, he spends plenty of time on the competition with the American Basketball Association. That really was the Wild, Wild West of pro hoops, a league that broke all the rules - including coming up with generally fair contracts - and was filled with characters. 

And remember, racial attitudes in basketball still hadn't come around by the 1960s. The Celtics were the first team to start five blacks, and that came in the mid-1960s. The Hawks might have won some titles in the 1960s had they chose to keep a talented roster of African American stars together. Instead, when they moved to Atlanta, they signed Pete Maravich to a huge deal that helped grease the skids for others to depart. 

Still, there's plenty of fun along the way. Mullins tells about how he received something of a full-court press from the entire state of Kentucky when he was thinking about a college choice. He went to Duke, which didn't exactly go over well. The shooting guard had a nice career and played a key role in the Robertson settlement as a moderating influence. And you'll love reading about the Van Arsdale identical twins, whose careers in basketball were almost - you guessed it - identical. 

The biggest flaw here is that the story does jump around a bit. This isn't a straight line to the settlement and its effects. That may not go over well with some readers. The manuscript also has trouble with the usage of "its" a few times. That's a personal pet peeve; someone once said that the use of that word is the single biggest way to determine if someone knows the language or not. 

But Smith accomplishes his goal of paying tribute to those who helped make the success of today's players and league possible. "Hard Labor" will leave you entertained and informed about that history lesson - no easy task.

Four stars

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Monday, July 2, 2018

Review: Football for a Buck (2018)

By Jeff Pearlman

"Football for a Buck" received plenty of attention shortly after its publication for a somewhat strange reason as these things go.

The President of the United States plays a relatively good-sized role in its story. Donald Trump doesn't exactly come out as the hero of it either.

The book is about a football league that lasted three years and went out of business with something of a whimper. It was a labor of love for author Jeff Pearlman, who had no idea when he was planning this book that Trump would become an occupant of the Oval Office.

So it's a happy coincidence that Trump finally did something good in the world of sports. Because "Football for a Buck" is fabulous and fun for more than 300 pages.

Author Jeff Pearlman has written a variety of good books over the years, and never steered away from controversy in the process. This effort, though, is a little different. Pearlman admits that he had something of a crush on the United States Football League when it was formed in 1983 - when the author was in school - and he obviously had a ball doing the research (something like 400 interviews) and writing for it.

For those who are too young to remember, here's a refresher course on the USFL. The idea was to form a nice little football league in the spring - when there would be no pressure to compete with the NFL, and give the nation's football fans something to watch. Remember, the NCAA basketball tournament was just starting to grow in the early 1980s, and the same could be said for basketball and hockey playoffs. In other words, it was easy to picture a niche for the new league.

It's a rather typical story for the a new sports league. Some teams were well financed and professionally run, and did fine. Others had poor ownership and very limited talent. It set up something of the haves and have-nots when it came to on-field play. Sometimes the teams folded up their tents and moved quietly to the next city. While there was a plan to keep budgets in place in order to slowly build a winner, rich owners quickly decided to violate that rule when they had a chance to win. For example, the Michigan Panthers signed some expensive offensive lineman in the league's first season, and the move produced a champion.

It's the stories that make the book come alive, and Pearlman collected bunches of them. There are tales of fights and drug use. A tale about two busloads of prostitutes greeting a football team that had just moved to a town, handing out business cards to their new potential clients. Stories about missed payrolls and players who invent new reactions to being cut from a pro team - like punching the coach. Since the league was in business more than 30 years ago, everyone seems free to open up to everything that went on. It's all great reading, and frequently hilarious.

Trump certainly gets plenty of attention in this story, and it's fair to say that many blame him for the demise of the league. Trump spent wildly and foolishly on his New Jersey Generals, couldn't control his ego, frequently lied, and alienated himself from practically everyone - according to the accounts here. Anyone going to his  New York City office for an appointment - anyone - had to sit through an eight-minute video explaining how wonderful Trump was. I particularly liked the story about how Trump disguised his voice slightly and called reporters as "a public relations man" to leak stories out. this sort of behavior may sound familiar if you've been reading newspapers in the past couple of years.

More than that, Trump urged the league to move to the fall and compete with the NFL head on, probably in the hopes of getting into the established league one way or another. He also assured his fellow owners that the USFL would win an anti-trust suit against the NFL that would change everything. The new league did win the suit, but only award $1 in damages - times three, because it was an anti-trust case. The USFL was instantly dead, and legal analysis indicated that Trump's own testimony was a major reason why the upstarts did not win the case.

The USFL may not have survived past three years, but its influence was felt for quite a while. Players like Jim Kelly and Reggie White became Hall of Famers, while executives such as Carl Peterson and Bill Polian became major players in NFL executive circles. It also helped push the NFL toward such rule changes as replay challenges and the two-point conversion.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for books on new leagues - I've tried to read them all. "Football for a Buck" is right up there with "Loose Balls" (an oral history of the American Basketball Association) for entertainment value. Don't miss this one.

Five stars

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: The Breakaway (2018)

By Bryan Smith

You don't have to be too old to remember when the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League were a bad team all the time. After all, it only dates back 11 years.

Back in 2007, the Blackhawks were quite dreary. They had missed the playoffs for the previous four years and in eight of the nine previous seasons. Attendance was awful, and apathy reigned supreme.

Contrast that to where the team is in 2018. OK, the Hawks missed the playoffs this year for the first time in a decade. But in between, they won three Stanley Cups - including a win in 2010 that ends a drought that stretched back to 1961. The building is full, and no one can complain about the state of the team for the time being ... at least too loudly.

What happened? It's a not-overly-long story. What's more, it's well told by Chicago writer Bryan Smith in his book, "The Breakaway."

This is a hockey story to some degree, and there are lessons here about the sports business and its management. But mostly, though, this is the story of a family called Wirtz. And it's quite a tale - a fellow named Shakespeare might feel right at home with it.

Arthur Wirtz had made a fortune in the depression and  bought the Blackhawks in 1946 when things weren't going so good for that franchise. He had some success with the team, and it had some stars such as Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and won that Stanley Cup in 1981. When he died in 1983, son William - who had been involved with the team for many years - officially took over. Bill was a complicated figure, and he liked to do things his way for better or for worse. The team eventually slid into mediocrity as the game changed much more quickly than he did. For example, his was the last NHL team to televise home games. Bill valued loyalty over everything, but that didn't change the dynamics of the franchise.

It took his death to do that, and that came in 2007. Bill's will included instructions that son Rocky (shortly for Rockwell, a middle name) was to take over the team. That's in spite of the fact that father and son sometimes weren't on good terms either. And that move and other business decisions. that followed split the family part to the point where some of them only communicate through lawyers now.

One surprise followed another for Rocky when he took a look around the Blackhawks - although he wasn't shocked when fans booed during a moment of silence for his dad before a game. More disturbing was that the front office was in a shambles, and the team was losing something like $30 million per year. That sort of money was starting to take a toll on the whole financial empire.

Get the idea? Smith outlines the particulars nicely here, as Rocky was quite generous with his time in telling how the Blackhawks went from bums to champions in only three years. It's fun to read stories like the one about Rocky taking over his grandfather's office, which had been left more or less idle since Arthur died. Wirtz also allowed the author to interview several other people in the organization, which helps a lot. By the way, Rocky's brothers and sisters declined to comment for the book, perhaps not surprisingly under the circumstances.

Smith does point out that a couple of big pieces were in place for a recovery when Rocky Wirtz took control. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were already part of the organization, and they were the centerpieces for a return to glory. Another piece was when John McDonough left the top position with the Chicago Cubs to take over the business side of the Blackhawks. While it took common sense to see some of the moves needed to revive the franchise, McDonough still got all of it done in an extremely short period of time.

"The Breakaway" isn't a particularly long book, and it's easy to get a little lost following the names of family members and the various business that were part of the Wirtz empire. But the hockey material ought to be very interesting to anyone who follows sports and its management relatively closely.

I'm fond of saying that sports teams lose for a reason. That's a point that is fully illustrated here, and the story of the team's turnaround is a worthwhile one.

Four stars

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review: Golden Days (2017)

By Jack McCallum

In one very important sense, this book has not dated at all since it was released late in 2017. The Golden State Warriors are the champions of the NBA.

The Warriors rolled past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals once again in 2018. That's three championships in four years for Golden State. Therefore, a book that has the Warriors and the key personalities celebrating a title looks much the same as it did a year ago when it was written.

"Golden Days" is that book. And no matter when you read it, it's great fun to go through.

The format is an interesting one. Author Jack McCallum, who you might remember if you have been reading Sports Illustrated for a while, does his impression of describing a ping-pong game in the story. He flips between the story of the present-day Warriors and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.

You might remember those Lakers. Thanks to Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Company, that team demolished the league in a season that included a record 33-game winning streak. It won the NBA championship relatively easily. Interestingly, it's a Laker team that got better when a Hall of Famer, Elgin Baylor, retired very early in the season. He was a replaced by a young player, Jim McMillian, was an improvement at the position compared to Baylor at their respective times in their careers. (Personal note: McMillian was one of my all-time favorites, and it's nice to read McCallum's praise of the forward's play here.)

There is a common denominator in the two teams, a fact that McCallum exploits nicely. West not only was a star as a player for the Lakers, but he was a consultant in the Warriors' front office during their run while in his 70s. In between he had a variety of roles, including general manager of the Lakers. There he put together some of the great teams in basketball history, and established a reputation as one of the sharpest minds in the game. West also is something of a tortured soul; he wrote at length about his life in "West on West," one of the most revealing sports autobiographies ever written. Admittedly, the '72 Lakers and '17 Warriors were very different teams without much in common, but they were both fun to watch when everything was working well - which is usually did.

McCallum obviously admired what that 71-72 Laker team did, and he happily goes back to talk to several of the principals on that team about what went so right. The winning streak gets the most coverage, as it reached a number that hasn't been approached in any of the four major sports in history. Don't hold your breath on that either.

But the Warriors get plenty of love and appreciation too. What they have done in the last few years has been revolutionary in its own way. Golden State was good before it had the chance Kevin Durant to its lineup in the summer of 2017. His addition created a little backlash with cries that the Warriors bent the rules a little to create a superteam, but you have to give them all credit for what they have accomplished. Durant, perhaps basketball's most pure scorer, did what he needed to do to fit in. The group is now two for two in championships.

Both Durant and Steph Curry are well explored. It's fascinating to read about Curry's game and what makes him so special - a list of traits that includes incredible range on his jump shot and a shooting release that is the fastest in basketball history. Steve Kerr also gets some credit for his team's success. Sportswriters always love talking to Kerr, who not only is smart and knows the game but is worldly and opinionated on things that have nothing to do with basketball. About the only drawback to this story is that it's difficult to make the tale of new ownership and front office actions too interesting, but they are probably necessary in telling how the Warriors went from irrelevant to the most charismatic professional sports team in the country.

Even with names like Chamberlain, Durant and Curry around, the star of the book is obviously West. McCallum obviously spent a great deal of time with "The Logo" during the book's research, and he remains an endlessly interesting person. West has always stayed in the present and not lived in the past, an easy trap for someone who was one of the game's best ever. You can tell that McCallum loved being around him for extended periods; they even watched Game Four of the 2017 Finals together, with West supplying analysis.

McCallum obviously loves his hoops, and its easy to become caught up in his enthusiasm for the game and its players. Yes, there will be some young adults that aren't interested in a team that won a title 20 years before they were born. But otherwise, this is almost as much fun to read as McCallum had writing it - and his sheer joy in "Golden Days" comes across in almost every page.

Four stars

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: I'm Keith Hernandez (2018)

By Keith Hernandez

For a guy who has spent almost all of his life around a baseball field, Keith Hernandez is becoming a prolific writer.

He had written two books earlier in his life, "Pure Baseball" and "Shea Good-Bye." Now he's back with book number three, "I'm Keith Hernandez." And it sure looks like there is at least another one to come.

Hernandez's first book was a pitch-by-pitch breakdown of a typical game, and it was the best one of the three - especially for those who wanted to learn how the game was played. The second book was a day-by-day account of the New York Mets' last season in Shea Stadium. It came across as forgettable, particularly as that year moved further back in the rear-view mirror.

This new one, though, has a much more interesting approach than the last one. Hernandez, a former standout first baseman who now works as a commentator on the Mets' telecasts, starts off this one by saying he wanted to write a book that was different than other sports stories. Therefore, he concentrates on the period of his playing career between when he first signed with the Cardinals and when he "made it" by winning a share of the MVP award in 1979. (Hernandez and Willie Stargell tied in the voting.)

And that works quite well for the most part, mostly because of the fact that time has allowed Hernandez to be honest about his feelings in that era. We rarely notice, but very few people arrive in the major leagues of any sport fully formed - a Hall of Famer from Day One. Albert Pujols and Mike Trout might be the best examples of that in baseball in recent times. For mere mortals, those early years are filled with fits and starts. How the adjustments are made along the way determines how well a particular player's career might take shape.

Here's an example of someone who didn't adjust. A young hockey player came up to the NHL as a first-round draft choice. He didn't find instant success, and had a chat with a psychologist about how bad things were. The analyst pointed out that he was about 21 years old, making almost a million dollars a year. In the big picture, how bad could things be? The player admitted that the psychologist was right, even if it didn't feel like it. Too bad he never acted like he believed it, as he washed out of the sport after a brief, uneventful career.

In Hernandez's case, he tells about how the help of others often gave him a boost when he needed it most. It might come from a fellow player, telling him to adjust his swing in a particular way. It might be a coach or manager who expressed confidence that Hernandez was going to be a very good player in the very near future, and put him in the lineup every day. It's evident in the book just how appreciated the advice was.

Hernandez also scores some point by being painfully honest about his behavior in those years, especially the early ones in the majors. The temptations of sex, drugs and rock and roll were everywhere and obvious in that time period, and Hernandez dove into the pool at times. 

You could argue that Hernandez makes one good-sized mistake in the literary sense here. The story more or less ping-pongs by chapter between the story of Hernandez's development as a player, and other areas. In the first part of the book, those "odd" chapters (as opposed to "even," I guess) are spent with stories of his youth. But later on, Hernandez moves into some odd areas, such as analytics or broadcasting. They may be interesting, but they feel like they are from another book - such as "Shea Goodbye."

Reading the reviews on are rather interesting. They read as if some people saw the cover, thought they'd be reading a great deal in an autobiography about the Mets of the mid-1980s, and were disappointed that stories about that era were nowhere to be found. So let's make the point again - this is not that book. You'll have to wait, apparently, for a review of his life as a New York ball player.

What we have, though, is pretty interesting. "I'm Keith Hernandez" reminds us there are few short cuts to success - it's a long route that few of us must take to get to the desired destination.

Four stars

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Friday, June 8, 2018

Review: Upon Further Review (2018)

Edited by Mike Pesca

Historians love to ponder the "what ifs?" of their subject. What if Germany constructed an atomic bomb before the United States? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed? What if Ralph Nader had not run for president in 2000? (Those who are interested in such things definitely should pick up Jeff Greenfield's books on recent political history.)

That concept also applies to sports. You could come up with an interesting list of questions to ask about the potential doorways opened to sports in my city, Buffalo, by changing a few key facts or two. What would have happened if Scott Norwood's kick was good? And if Brett Hull's goal was disallowed? Or if major league baseball granted a franchise to Buffalo in the early 1990s?

It's all fun to think about all of this. Therefore, it's fun to pick up a copy of Mike Pesca's book, "Upon Further Review." It covers several areas that you might have thought about, and a few that you certainly haven't.

Pesca lined up a series of interesting contributors, who combined to write 31 essays on a variety of subjects. Most are rather short, although Claude Johnson comes up with a long essay on basketball in the late 1940s and how a bad pass in a tournament might have changed the integration of the sport in that era. A partial list would include Leigh Montville on Muhammad Ali, Jason Gay on football around 1900, Stefan Fatsis on the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game in 1978, Mary Pilon on Title IX, Jeremy Schaap on Tyson-Douglas, Michael MacCambridge on Super Bowl III, and Bob Ryan on a Portland Trail Blazers' dynasty featuring a healthy Bill Walton.

The authors go in a variety of different directions and approaches here, and some work better than others. For example, Louisa Thomas makes a convincing argument that sports history wouldn't have been all that different had the United States' Women's World Cup soccer team lost the 1999 title in a shootout instead of winning it. Will Leitch wonders what baseball would look like if it were played only once a week, like football. Paul Snyder wonders what would have happened if track and field exploded as a sport in the 1950s. Hint: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell have a rivalry after all ... but as high jumpers.

The outright fantasy stories don't work as well. Ethan Sherwood Strauss speculates on how today's Golden State Warriors would do if they traveled to the past to play a couple of great teams under the old rules. Jesse Eisenberg projects that his fan letter to Dan Majerle altered the course of basketball history. Nate DiMeo speculates on what might have happened if the tug-of-war had remained an Olympic event. Josh Levin ends the book by turning Game Seven of the 2016 World Series into every baseball movie ever made. After Malcolm Gladwell's foreword and Pesca's introduction that gave weight to the idea of studying revisionist history, the handful of just-for-fun scenarios come off a little forced. But they are all relatively clever, and certainly will work for some.

I'm a believer that chance plays a good-sized role in sports history, and that it wouldn't take much to change short-term and long-term outcomes dramatically. "Upon Further Review" will get you to thinking about such possibilities, and thus works pretty well.

Four stars

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