Saturday, June 22, 2024

Review: Talk of Champions (2023)

By Kenny Smith

It didn't take long for Kenny Smith to tell the basketball world that he was a man who could work in a fast tempo.

Smith turned up at the University of North Carolina in the fall of 1983, and needed no time at all to claim a starting spot as a freshmen. Practically no one ever did that for the Tar Heels in that era. Smith was also smart enough to realize that he was on the same team as Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, and as a point guard figured it out to get the ball to those two. It's a little tough to believe that North Carolina only made it as far as the Sweet Sixteen that season, losing to Indiana. 

When Smith became an author in 2023, he more or less took the same approach. In "Talk of Champions," Smith moves the focus from himself to other people who have played a part of his life. 

Kenny and basketball have had a long relationship, dating back to his time as a child in New York City. After North Carolina, he went on to play for 10 years in the NBA. Smith won two championships, helping the Rockets to titles in 1994 and 1995. 

Once his playing days were over, Smith moved smoothly into a broadcasting role. He became part of TNT's studio show, which is considered by some to be the best program of its kind in television history. Smith worked with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and host Ernie Johnson on a show in which you never knew where they might wind up on a given night, but you always knew you'd enjoy the journey. 

The people who helped Smith along the way receive a chapter each. Some of the names are instantly known - Michael Jordan, Dean Smith, Barkley, O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Hakeem Olajuwon. There are a few others that are included too, such as Smith's parents and his high school basketball coach. The lessons are targeted at his children, but the stories are universal to work for almost everyone. 

The anecdotes are wide-ranging. Dean Smith talks about how he didn't recruit Charlie Scott to be the first Black basketball player at UNC; he simply recruited Charlie Scott. Barkley and Kenny may have different viewpoints on subjects, but that doesn't mean they can't talk about them in private and public. Johnson gave Smith some lessons about how he became a businessman. Kenny and Olajuwon knocked down some cultural barriers that were preventing their team from realizing its potential. 

Smith is particularly good when it comes to racial issues. When he graduated from high school, he received an award that came with a tag in the form of the principal's remarks. He said that Smith made everyone not think about color during his time at school. Smith points out that it probably was intended as a compliment in 1983, but couldn't be more insulting from a 2023 perspective. Then again, when Smith was complaining about Europeans coming over to America to claim NBA jobs, Russell pointed out that "as an African American, you should never disagree with inclusion." 

By the way, it's rather obvious that there's no sign of a ghost-writer here. This seems to be pure Kenny Smith, much to his credit. 

This all goes by faster than a successful fast break, which is only appropriate. Most readers will be left wanting more, which is OK. Maybe Smith will have more to say in the future. In the meantime, "Talk of Champions" serves up some tasty morsels that will be enjoyed by those who try them.

Four stars

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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Review: World Class (2024)

By Grant Wahl

Grant Wahl was in the right place at the right time during his too-short professional career.

Wahl came out of Princeton University in the 1990s, and landed a job with Sports Illustrated magazine. You might recall that the Nineties were the time when soccer had just started to make an imprint on the American sports scene, thanks in part to the placement of the World Cup tournament here in 1994. There weren't a great many sportswriters who knew too much about the game and how it was played, especially on an international basis. It was a perfect spot for Wahl, who had "studied" under future U.S. National Coach Bob Bradley at Princeton 

Almost before he knew it, Wahl was writing SI's soccer stories. No, they were never too plentiful, and they were rarely on the cover, but if you went searching for them they'd turn up. He'd found his niche. Grant also worked on college basketball during his time at the magazine. Those assignments lasted for almost 25 years. 

Then Sports Illustrated started to shrink in staff size, and Wahl was one of the casualties. Eventually he wound up freelancing on Substack, writing for an audience of about three thousand instead of many multiple times that number. But the readers were rabid soccer fans, and Wahl even paid his own way to major events to add his informed commentary to the conversation.

Wahl's career was unique in that he was the single unquestioned authority in his area of expertise, soccer. So when he died in December 2022, it was a particularly painful moment for those fans. The outpouring of sympathy was quite impressive and well deserved

"World Class," then, is something of a good-bye present to those supporters. It was put together by Alexander Wolfe and Mark Mravic, both SI alumni. It's Wahl's greatest hits, presented in anthology form and broken into a variety of themes. Realistically, though, the groupings of articles don't really matter much. We bounce from one subject to another rather easily. We're in good hands here. 

One way to judge anthologies is to count the number of stories that hold the reader's interest all the way through. In my case, I'm not going to say I'm a major follower of the sport of soccer. I've only written about it a few times, and know most of the rules and few of the strategies. Still, there were only a few stories here that didn't compel me to keep reading to the conclusion - mostly on international soccer subjects. 

Then again, some of the non-sports articles were definite keepers. Wahl's profile of then-new North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams was written at just the right time. Williams had just arrived from Kansas, and he had almost Shakespearean doubts about whether he was doing the right thing. Speaking of basketball coaches, Wolfe and Mravic reach back to Wahl's Princeton days for a column on why legendary coach Pete Carill wasn't quite the saint he was often portrayed to be by the national media. 

Perhaps my favorite piece in the book has never been published before. It was a paper written for a course taught by New Yorker David Remnick about Gloria Emerson, one of the only women who covered the Vietnam War for a major media outlet. The experience left some serious baggage on her psyche, and Wahl's profile of one of his mentors can stand up with any story of its kind done by more experienced reporters.

The proceeds of "World Class" are going to establish a journalism award at Princeton in Wahl's name, which is nice. Those who enjoy good writing and reporting certainly will find this book rewarding. Those who are big soccer fans will take that level of enjoyment up a notch.

Four stars

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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Review: The 2,003-Yard Odyssey (2024)

By Joe Zagorski

The Buffalo Bills' 1973 season was unique. When did missing the playoffs ever feel so good?

The Bills had been more or less dead from 1967 to 1972, at least as far as the rest of the league was concerned. They didn't come close to a winning record in that time, and had the first overall draft choice twice in that span. At least they picked a good year (1969) to be terrible, as they "earned" the right to draft O.J. Simpson - perhaps the greatest running back in college football history. But those running the team couldn't figure out a way to use Simpson properly, and the Bills still were awful.

Then Lou Saban arrived to coach the team in 1972, and he knew what to do: Give Simpson the ball. A lot. O.J. won the NFL's rushing title for the first time that season, so there was a little optimism going into the '73 season. Simpson magnified those feelings in Week One with a 250-yard day against New England, setting a league record in a victory.

Buffalo went on to a 9-5 record, missing the playoffs by a game. As for Simpson, you might have heard that he finished the season with 2,003 yards to set a one-season NFL record. He still is the only person to reach 2,000 in the first 14 games of a season. Buffalo was never the most glamorous of sports cities, but at that point it had the brightest star in the sports universe playing within its area. 

Simpson's achievement still captures the imagination, since there's only one person who can be the first to reach the 2,000-yard milestone. That makes it a reasonable subject for a book, and Joe Zagorski has jumped into it with both feet with his book, "The 2,003-Yard Odyssey." The problem is that the author seems a little too enthusiastic about the subject to be at all objective. Not many discouraging words are written here, and the relentless praise feels overdone.

The framework starts off well enough. Zagorski reached out to speak with several members of the team, including Joe Ferguson, Dave Foley, Joe DeLamielleure, Reggie McKenzie, and Simpson himself. He also has charts that outline every single one of Simpson's rushing attempts. It's nice to have those quotes and stories as well as that reference material in a book like this. 

But there are some conclusions that don't really add up, and several paragraphs that could have been lost very easily. A little more editing would have been nice too; the number of "admitteds" and "Author's Notes" could have been decreased painlessly. . 

Here are a few of the problems that come up along the way:

* Quite a bit is made here about the team's preseason record of 0-6. That's a little strange, since no one probably can recite anything about those games the moment that preparations for a regular season game begin in September. 

* While the Bills' new stadium is mentioned along the way, its impact on the team and the community is underplayed. At long last, Buffalo had a facility that ranked with others in the National Football League, saying farewell to ancient War Memorial Stadium (born in 1937) in the process. The pride that came with showing off a new home added to the enthusiasm level of the fans and the team. 

* While much is made about the Bills' run-first offense, and deservedly so, Saban didn't really have much choice. His quarterbacks didn't offer much in 1973. Joe Ferguson started most of the games, but he was only a third-round draft choice from Arkansas and wasn't ready for prime time yet. He threw for four touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 games, despite having two good receivers in J.D. Hill and Bob Chandler.

Meanwhile, Dennis Shaw had no TD passes and four picks in a back-up role. It's a surprise that Shaw was even on the roster that year. In Chandler's book about his football career, he writes about a 1972 incident between Shaw and some African-American youngsters who were near the bench. That caused a huge problem for the Black players on the team, who had to be talked out of rebelling by Simpson. Therefore, Saban probably should have gone out and found a veteran quarterback for 1973 who could have served as a mentor to Ferguson.

* The book generally moves along chronologically, but the Monday night game with Kansas City is moved back in the narrative for some reasons.  That was a big game for the city, since national television audiences for the Bills in those days were relatively rare.

* In a discussion about the secondary, Robert James barely gets a sentence's notice - even though he had become one of the game's best cornerbacks at that point. He was even a first-team All-Pro in one vote, although usually he finished behind Hall of Famers Mel Renfro and Willie Brown on such lists.

* Walt Patulski's problems on the field in 1973 are outlined, but the fact that he didn't get along with Saban doesn't come up here.

 * Buffalo's weather gets a few shots, particularly concerning a rematch with New England in December. It feels quite over the top. The Bills have had more weather-related problems in the last few years than ever before, simply because the schedule now goes into January and the team has had some success in reaching the playoffs. 

"The 2,003-Yard Odyssey" comes up short of being a clear-eyed look at an interesting season in football history. Those interested in the subject might look to Sal Maiorana's book on that era, "When Buffalo Stood Atop the Sports World" for a more professional accounting. 

Two stars

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Friday, June 7, 2024

Review: Why We Love Football (2024)

By Joe Posnanski

There are a couple of references to the joys of repetition in Joe Posnanski's book, "Why We Love Football."

One centers on Jim Brown. He was/is the greatest fullback in the sport's history. Occasionally the Browns would try to get a little cute about their offense. Then the light bulb would go on, and the team would simply hand the ball to Brown and let him run with it a lot. Wash, rinse, repeat. Maybe, that should read - wash, rinse, repeat, win. Brown would lead them into the end zone for the score, and good times would follow.

Then there's the story of the Vince Lombardi and the Power Sweep. Football fans can still picture it in the mind, as Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston lead Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor around the end for a good gainer. Lombardi had specific assignments for that play, and one time at practice at one time he did nothing but go over that one play. It was tough to execute perfectly, but the Packers were really good at it in the 1960s. No wonder they won a lot of games. No wonder it's now called the Lombardi Sweep.

In 2023, Posnanski wrote "Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments." A year later, he has come up with "Why We Love Football: A History in 100 Moments." The first book went over extremely well. Why wouldn't you want to try something very similar a short time later? Of course, you would. So it's good to see this football version arrives, and it still goes down very smoothly - as most of Posnanski's work does.

There are a couple of differences between the baseball and football version of the same thought. In baseball, the book more or less sticks to the major leagues. But the football side of the coin covers all of the sport. That means that we hear about Stanford-California ("The band is on the field"), among other interesting moments. High school ball isn't completely ignored either. So maybe that's why we go from 50 moments in baseball to 100 moments. There was a lot of ground to cover.

Posnanski's writing style probably works a little better with baseball. He does sentiment and romance well, and there's a lot of that in the history of baseball. Football usually has a little less of those qualities attached to it, perhaps because it has been a major sport for a smaller amount of time. It's a minor point, one that won't get in the way of your enjoyment of the book. Posnanski starts with Aaron Donald (he reveals the reason why later in the book), and races through everything from trick plays to NFL Films, from a rendition of the National Anthem to Appalachian State's amazing win over Michigan. 

Once again, Posnanski doesn't get hung up in the order of the selections (although the football list has fewer gimmicks than its baseball counterpart). He simply has fun with the choices.  By the way, I never saw the No. 1 choice coming, and I'd bet you won't either.

Posnanski hasn't written a book that's not entertaining yet, and "Why We Love Football" continues that winning streak. If you see his name on the front cover, you'll enjoy it and get your money's worth. That's the type of consistency we can all enjoy.

Four stars

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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Review: 976-1313 (2024)

By Scott Orgera and Howie Karpin

OK, children, gather around. You're about to learn a lesson.

From the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, there was no Internet, no ticker on ESPN, and very few all-sports radio stations. So how did fans keep up with their favorite teams? 

By phone, naturally.

Huh?

Yes, you could call a phone number and you'd get 59 seconds of scores and sports news on a recorded message. It was called Sports Phone, and it was an interesting transitional method of getting information to people. There was a small fee involved, which could add up quickly if you needed a score for one reason or another. A lot of parents of sports-minded children received a monthly surprise when the phone bill arrived.

Not too many members of today's younger crowd have heard of Sports Phone, and they probably would have trouble grabbing the concept. Thus it's nice to see Scott Orgera and Howie Karpin come up with a book on the history of the service. Sure enough, it's called "976-1313." If you were a sports fan, particularly in New York City, you no doubt had it memorized.

Sports Phone used to regularly update its "programming," with the frequency of reports depending on what was going on. For example, for Sundays in the fall, those 59 seconds would be changed every couple of minutes. College football Saturdays were as busy as you'd expect, with extra numbers pressed into service to include more scores. 

But it wasn't just scores. Often they used audio tape to sweeten their reports. It took a small army of reporters and editors to do this constantly, and it was an excellent was for young people to break into the sportscasting business. 

It's amazing just how many people are familiar to me, as so many did so well in their chosen field later on. The list is a long one: Shelley Adler, Gary Cohen, Linda Cohn, Jack Curry, Brian Kilmeade, Don La Greca, Bob Papa, Howie Rose, Andy Roth, Ken Samelson, Peter Schwartz, Tommy Tighe, etc. Those are the ones I know; New Yorkers no doubt can add to the list.

And there was one other employee who didn't pop up on the list: me. I worked for them from 1980 to 1986.You can find my side of the story here. Don't look for me in the book, though. I was a very small piece of the puzzle from my lone outpost in Buffalo, although the face that Western New York was included in the service does come up a couple of times.

Based on this book, most of New York's broadcasters of a certain generation sharpened their skills by talking into a phone. Ever try to give 40 scores in 59 seconds? It made a typical broadcast on radio almost leisurely. Others have gone on to other things, but still remember their days with Sports Phone fondly. 

And that's basically the theme of the book. It's former employees looking back on their days with Phone Programs, which usually was the name of the company on paychecks. The company did several phone lines, depending on the era, which generated plenty of money and profits for those involved .... for a while. The owners of the company could see the end coming as soon as ESPN2 placed "a ticker" on the bottom of the screen in 1995. The scores were constantly updated there, and there was no additional charge to access it. The numbers for calls soon fell off a cliff. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

Karpin worked on Sports Phone from 1980 to 1992, while Orgera did/does a variety of other sports-related work in a variety of ways. Their enthusiasm for the subject is impressive. The two of them tracked down many of those who worked in the New York office, and grabbed a few other celebrities who used the number in their work. For example, agent Leigh Steinberg kept track of his football clients by calling for scores, while hockey player/horseman Ed Olczyk liked to call to catch up on the ponies. 

There are a couple of problems with the book from the reader's perspective. It's easy to guess that the book is self-published, since the publisher is listed as "Press Pass Chronicles" - which comes up on a Google search only in association with this book. So the layout has a lot of white space and isn't too efficient. (Note: Can't say I noticed many typos in it, so the authors did a pro-level job there.)

Meanwhile, a lot of the stories sound the same. Yes, the staff was happy to pay some dues there, and look back on it in a nostalgic way. But the tales of working in press boxes work much better than the stories from the office, which might fit into the "you had to be there" classification. Between those two points, we could have probably lost 100 pages and made it a little less intimidating to hold.

By the way, Orgera must have set the all-time record for using names in the acknowledgements. There are 13 pages on that particular subject. As he writes at the beginning, "Since this is my first full-length book and might be my last ..." I'm not sure how he missed his entire high school graduating class .... or maybe he didn't.

I definitely needed to read "976-1313" to complete my knowledge of the operation and to pay a small tribute to an important step in my career. New Yorkers who used the service will have similar thoughts about a unique moment in "broadcasting" history.  

Three stars

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