Monday, January 25, 2016

Review: NFL Confidential (2016)

By Johnny Anonymous

Put a bit of mystery out there, and someone is going to try to figure out the answer - and then spread it all over the Internet.

Such is the case with the author of the book, "NFL Confidential." He writes that he's a current player with an NFL team who kept a diary of his season. Clues: He played for a major college, and was on his second team at the time of the writing.

The diary contains the play-by-play of the season, except all of the names and some of the details have been changed. The last paragraph of his introduction ends this way: "All so you can't figure out who I really am. Go ahead, try. I dare you. Catch me if you can."

I received a copy for review just as the book was coming out. After getting about halfway through the book, I checked on line to see if anyone had some guessed. Sure enough, someone had a pretty good line on the real name of Johnny Anonymous.

No spoilers here. But it's fair to say the points that are raised in the book by Mr. Anonymous are valid and sometimes interesting to the casual fan.

At its heart, the book is the story of a substitute's battles to try to sane in an NFL world that can drive someone crazy pretty easily. Yes, he is making more money than most of us. But he knows that the money can disappear at the whim of an assistant coach, or at the improper bend of a joint. A pretty good life can go away sooner than you'd expect.

Speaking of crazy, one of the stars of the book is the assistant coach of the offensive line, called Lopez. His behavior frequently ranges from odd to damaging, and he clearly doesn't know how to deal with someone like Anonymous who is willing to question authority every so often. There are a lot of coaches out there like that. Remember, if his unit has a bad year for whatever reason, or if his head coach gets fired, he's out the door. Every coach in America has seen a lot of the country for many years, especially in the early going. That will create some insecurity in a hurry: "Honey, we're moving to Tulsa."

There are some interesting insights about the game and life along the way. Ever wonder why a team seems to fall apart right from the opening kickoff? In one case here, Anonymous' opponents came out with a completely new defensive approach that left the offensive line wondering who the heck to block. The result: one, two, three, kick - or worse, in the form of a fumble or interception .Off the field, those meetings between players and fans or owners' friends or sponsors or whomever go over with athletes about as well as you'd expect for the most part. 

Without making this sound too much like a book report, there are a couple of themes that run the book. The first is that a certain "jock mentality" is alive and well in our locker rooms, no matter how far society has come along. That turns up in a lot of ways, such as in regard to profanity or attitudes toward women. Anonymous would probably be above that, but he seems to enjoy parts of the atmosphere. In other words, one of the chapter headings is simply the f-word by itself.

Secondly, Anonymous actually shows a little personal growth along the way during the year, which was a little unexpected. He starts in training camp by being thoroughly fed up with the game and its business side, which might not be unexpected after a few years on the fringes. But an odd turn of events allows him to get into action a little bit, and he rediscovered his love of the game in the process. Anonymous also shows some signs of maturity and acceptance in other areas of his existence, which makes him a more sympathic character as he goes along.

The "Johnny Anonymous" gimmick gets in the way a little bit, but "NFL Confidential" is still a reasonably good look what life in the football margins is like. What's more, the author probably will have more to say about the game later in the life ... and maybe he'll get to use his own name that time.

Three stars

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: Players (2016)

By Matthew Futterman

The business of sports certainly has exploded in the past 60 years or so. Our games used to be pastimes, as in baseball's description as "the national pastime." The stakes were low, interest was limited, and mass media attention was basically limited to newspapers and some radio broadcasts.

Now our sports are a multi-billion enterprise, with pictures and accounts circling the globe. The costs of some franchises exceed one billion dollars, and salaries have soared into eight figure territory.

Matthew Futterman has written an account of that change called "Players." It's something of a "one person at a time" account of what the author calls a revolution ... and he's right.

The story starts with Mark McCormack, a Cleveland lawyer who saw a business opportunity with golfers. At that point, golfers were lucky to make the proverbial peanuts, even if they were successful. Golf was just starting to grow at a serious rate, but players still had to do well as professionals just to make a living. McCormack came along and first started working out exhibition matches and endorsements, guaranteed money that could take out some of the risk of playing golf on tour.

One of his early clients was Arnold Palmer, just becoming a superstar. He was a man full of talent and charisma. McCormack became Palmer's agent, and the money started to mushroom. The combination worked so well that Palmer was usually on any list of wealthiest athletes in terms of income (including funds from endorsements) right through his 70s. From there, McCormack was smart enough to branch out into other areas, such as producing television programs.

From there, Futterman goes into other case histories. Jim Hunter was just another great pitcher before he got into a contract dispute withe his boss with the Oakland A's. Hunter was declared a free agent, and became far richer than anyone could have imagined in the 1970s. Once the financial bar was raised, everyone saw what the true market value of top players was - and everyone wanted a piece of that pie.

Other athletes and sports followed like dominoes. Edwin Moses was part of the fight by top amateur athletes to get paid by promoters and associations for his track accomplishments. Stan Smith had the most to lose with tennis players went on strike at Wimbledon for more money and better working conditions. Nick Bollettieri came up with a completely new way to train young athletes, and changed the sport in the process.

Then there are the less-known personalities, such as Frank Vuono, who thought it would be a good idea to sell uniforms of NFL players to the public. No one else thought that way, amazingly in hindsight. Phil Knight of Nike (admittedly, relatively well known as these things go) started with a sneaker design made on a waffle iron, and pushed sports in a different direction. Leo Hindery helped put together the YES Network, which has made the New York Yankees large amounts of money. Their stories are all pretty interesting as they cover different approaches.

There is one key thread that seems to link most of them, particularly in the early days. The powers-that-be fought the revolutionaries every step of the way back then. Those unnamed officials had complete control, and liked it that way. Yet when the business changed and those authorities figures finally took advantage of the opportunities, they and their organizations profited enormously. Seen the cost of an NFL franchise lately? Notice any merchandise with the Wimbledon name on it? Watched all of your favorites' teams on television?

Futterman ends his story with a personal touch, adding that he enjoys watching the U.S. women's soccer team because it has more innocence than the pro teams. He also gives some signs that pro sports' financial might is in a bit of a bubble, and at some point the bubble might burst. Clearly, though, we're not going back to the "good old days" anytime soon.

Sports business books are never going to achieve mass popularity, with the exception being "Moneyball," I suppose. But "Players" is a nice job of putting together the pieces in showing the changed landscape. It's only a portion of the story of the subject, but it's probably the most interesting part. Those seeking an education in the field can benefit from reading it.

Four stars

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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: Back from the Dead (2016)

By Bill Walton

How many autobiographies do you get when you're one of the greatest basketball players of all time?

The number for Bill Walton is two and counting.

The center for such teams as UCLA, Portland and Boston (he won championships at those stops) wrote the story of his life more than 20 years ago, "Nothing but Net."

Now he's back with another book. Thanks to some medical problems that came up in the last few years, "Back from the Dead" has a bit more personal drama in the final chapters than its predecessor, which probably makes it the book to read if you want to know about the author.

For those of you too young to remember, Bill Walton was something like hockey's Bobby Orr. He was positively brilliant when he was healthy, one of the best ever, but he wasn't healthy very often.

Walton started having medical problems back in high school, when his agility and ability made him a big target of opposing players with fewer skills. He also talks here about the fact that his foot problems really started at that stage in his life. In hindsight, Walton probably never had a chance to be great for very long.

But he was great at UCLA, helping the Bruins win national championships in 1972 and 1973. The 1973-74 season was a different story, and it might be the most interesting story in the book. UCLA coach John Wooden apparently benched point guard Greg Lee when Lee may have admitted that he smoked marijuana. It's a little vague in Walton's description, and the center says he sort of dodged the same question from Wooden. In any event, Tommy Curtis gets ripped in the book for being selfish in that season, and Walton gives him the blame for losing that championship despite a stacked roster. Walton also talks about some major physical problems he had that didn't help matters.

Once he enters the pros, Walton was never healthy very often. But when he was, he gave us a taste of what might have been. Walton led the Trail Blazers to a championship in 1977 in a memorable final over Philadelphia. That team was a pleasure to watch. He was on his way to an MVP season and maybe a repeat championship in 1978 when he suffered a very serious injury that essentially ended his best part of his career. Walton spent years on the disabled list, but recovered long enough to help the Celtics win a title in 1986. He was the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year in a backup role. But then Walton got hurt again, and he was gone.

Walton overcame a bad stuttering problem and became, of all things, a color commentator for college and pro basketball. He even worked some NBA Finals. Walton was smart if offbeat on the air, matching his personal reputation. But physical problems popped up again, this time adding spine issues to his personal list, and Walton couldn't even get off the floor for a while about six years ago. Surgery and a long rehab program apparently has given him his life back to some extent, which is good news by any measure.  He's even back behind the microphone again.

Walton was a purist when it came to basketball, which made him a good fit for Wooden's style of play. The center pays tribute to his old coach throughout the book, and also shows his appreciation for many others who have helped him in his life. There are plenty of nice things here about his old teammates, especially Larry Bird, and his other friends and mentors picked up along the way. Curtis, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan are about the only people to get trashed here. And it wouldn't be a Bill Walton book without some references the Grateful Dead, including a bunch of song lyrics. Bill might not have been the biggest Deadhead around, but he was the tallest.

One other oddity: A reviewer of the first book mentioned that it was odd that Walton didn't mention the mother of his children in the first book. Well, there's no sign of her here either. At least his second wife gets plenty of credit, particularly when it comes to nursing him back to health. A couple of the anecdotes are repeated as well.

Walton always had the ability to fascinate us on the court, so it's interesting to read his account of his playing career and its effect on him later in life. This hasn't been an easy lifetime for Walton, but "Back from the Dead" makes him easy to root for again.

Four stars

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