Sunday, November 25, 2018

Review: Quarterback (2018)

By John Feinstein

John Feinstein has hit the magic number of 40 when it comes to books. Even if you consider that some of them were for children, and thus required a little less effort, that's a lot of books.

The number could inspire a discussion about what sport he does best. My guess is that his two biggest loves - and thus his best efforts - are college basketball and golf. Feinstein got off to a flying start in the book business in the late 1980s with "A Season on the Brink." He spent a season with the legendary and fascinating Bobby Knight at Indiana. From there he has bounced around a bit in terms of sports, with stories about pro basketball, major and minor league baseball, and college football to his credit. With that sort of range, it's easy to conclude that Feinstein merely is in search of good stories from people who can tell them well - and consistently finds them.

"Quarterback" represents a relatively rare jump into pro football for Feinstein. He did spent a year with the NFL with "Next Man Up," which (as I recall) spent most of his time with the Baltimore Ravens. But this is more general, and it's still a pretty solid effort, as usual.

The NFL is, at its base, all about quarterbacks - the most important position in any team sports. If you don't have a good one, well, you can wave goodbye to a good chance at becoming a champion team. Yes, there are exceptions, but not many. An injury to a starter usually dooms a team to mediocrity or worse. The quarterbacks receive most of the publicity; casual fans who don't know more than one name on the Green Bay Packers can identify Aaron Rodgers easily.

Feinstein picked out five quarterbacks to follow during the course of the 2017 season. Alex Smith, a former No. 1 overall draft choice, was hoping to lead the Kansas City Chiefs to the Super Bowl in what figured to be his final year in Kansas City. Andrew Luck of the Colts  was hoping to put an injury-filled year behind him in 2017. Joe Flacco had become the face of the Ravens' franchise, even though he wasn't at the very top tier of players at the position. Ryan Fitzpatrick came out of Harvard merely looking for a chance to land on an NFL roster, and has thrown for more than 25,000 yards and earned more money than almost all of his college classmates. He had bounced from team to team before finally landing in Tampa last season. The final choice is an odd one - Doug Williams is a retired quarterback. He had his big moment when he passed the Redskins to a Super Bowl title; now he's trying to help Washington do that again in the team's front office. 

The first part of the book is devoted to the back stories of the quarterbacks involved, and it's quite good. Feinstein always has been good about paying attention to detail, and it's on display here. All five players have stories to tell about their days in the game. Luck, for example, was a golden boy as a No. 1 pick out of Stanford, while Flacco came out of Delaware and Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round draft choice. They all have some things in common. The five of them realize that the quarterback gets too much of the credit when things go well for the team, and too much of the blame when things go badly. Oh, right - quarterbacks are usually in pain, even when they aren't injured.

The second portion of the book is devoted to the 2017 season. While the four playing QBs and the Redskins' quarterback situation receive the most attention, the whole league's season comes under scrutiny. That season is relatively fresh in some memories now, but others might think the story line jumps around too much and tries to cover a little too much territory. 

Be prepared for a little analysis along the way too. Feinstein usually has felt free to express his own personal viewpoints along the way. For example, here he has a few opinions about Donald Trump's remarks about players who knelt during the National Anthem, which caused quite a stir. Feinstein wasn't happy about it. If you don't like a dash of politics mixed with your sports, then don't say you weren't warned. But it shouldn't bother most readers.

There isn't much controversy about what's said in here by the quarterbacks involved. The subjects, though, are generally insightful and interesting people. It's nice to spend a few hours with them all. "Quarterback" isn't Feinstein's best book - and I've read all of the ones for adults - but it's another worthwhile effort.

Four stars

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Review: The Cubs' Way (2017)

By Tom Verducci

If you are a baseball fan, you might have heard that the Chicago Cubs' World Series win in 2016 was the team's first in more than a 100 years.

This had two obvious effects.

1. Cubs' fans, and there are bunches of them across the country, could no longer describe themselves as "long suffering."

2. The championship was sure to be followed by the publication of enough books to deforest large regions of the country.

Since I'm not a member of Cubs Nation, I chose to wait a while and try to pick up a copy of what figured to be the best book on the team's rise. After looking over the crop of publications the following spring, I knew that Tom Verducci's book would be the one to get at some point down the road.

Now that I've actually read it, I can safely say that "The Cubs' Way" was an absolutely perfect fit between subject and author.

Verducci is running out of mediums to conquer. He already covers major league baseball for Sports Illustrated, and is one of the best in the business there. Verducci does work for Fox Sports on baseball, and displays his insight nicely in that role. Here he is out with his second book. The first, which was done with Joe Torre, vaulted into best-seller land. This may not sell like that one, but it's an even more impressive effort.

This story more or less starts in the fall of 2011. That's when Theo Epstein, the "boy wonder" of the Boston Red Sox, decided he had become living under the microscope of running the Red Sox. He had already ended that team's curse - with plenty of help, of course - and the thought of doing it again in Chicago was appealing. So he jumped to the Cubs' presidency, surrounded himself with smart people, and went to work.

The Red Sox were almost a finished product when Epstein took the general manager's job in Boston; fixing the Cubs were a matter of starting from scratch. Epstein started by looking for building blocks that could be the foundation of a good team. He found them in the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell. Verducci nicely reviews the histories of those players, who panned out as well as the team could have hoped and then some. The Cubs specialized in taking hitters in the draft in those earlier years of the rebuild, they added pitchers from any available source such as free agency and trades.

It took time for everything to come together. Hiring Joe Madden as a manager after the 2014 season was a big move, since he was well regarded as one of the best in the business at his profession. Chicago reached the playoffs in 2015, losing to the Mets in the NLCS. Many thought the Cubs were ready for the next step. As you know if you've gotten this far, they were. But it wasn't easy, as Chicago had to rally from a 3-1 deficit in the series and a blown lead late in Game Seven to win the Series. Epstein certainly is headed for the Hall of Fame now, and others probably will follow.

Verducci had a great story as a foundation for the book, which jumps back and forth from each game of the Series to the development process. Plenty of authors have that initial idea for a story. He lifts the book up a couple of notches with his own good work.

First, he had a good group of individuals as major sources. Madden is one of the most interesting people in the game, a manager who is always willing to look for new ways to bind his team together. I've heard people say this book could be placed in the management section of the bookstore, as Madden has many tips on such subjects as communication that would work with any business. Madden, Epstein and some players are good talkers, people who can provide information and perspective on the situation.

Then there's the research. The book is filled with little facts that draw the reader in along the way. For example, the Indians' last surviving player from their 1948 championship team was first baseman Eddie Robinson. He was 95 in 2016, and he played his first big league game against the Philadelphia A's in 1942. The opposing manager for the Athletics that day was Connie Mack - who was born in 1862 and managed Philadelphia for 50 years. The entire history of baseball (the first pro team was formed in 1869) is more or less covered in that item. Verducci also is a talented writer who isn't afraid to throw in a rhetorical flourish every now and again.

It took about two chapters to realize that "The Cubs" Way" was going to be special. The other 18 chapters were confirmation of that judgment. I can't imagine this subject being covered any better than it is here. Cubs Nation, if you haven't gotten around to this yet, go find it now.

Five stars

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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-way 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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