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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