Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Don Cherry's Sports Heroes (2016)

By Don Cherry

It doesn't take much time to figure out who is the star of this book.

One look at the cover ought to do it.

Yes, Don Cherry, he of uncensored commentary and sartorial splendor, is back with "Don Cherry's Sports Heroes." Just for the record, Cherry's name on the side of the book is much bigger than "Sports Heroes."

This is called good marketing strategy.

Cherry, for those outside of the Canadian market (and border states), remains one of the most popular personalities north of the border. He last coached in the NHL in 1980, and has put together quite a second career since then.

Cherry might be best known for his television work, but he's also become a rather prolific author as these things go. He's put out several books over the years. And just when you think he might be almost out of material, Don is back with this effort ... which requires a little explanation.

About 25 years ago, Cherry hosted an interview show in Hamilton, Ontario. Cherry interviewed a variety of people on the program at some length. That's rather common now, but in those days some sports personalities were quite nervous at the idea of speaking before a live television camera and a studio audience. As you might expect, most of the guests had a connection to hockey, although Cherry did talk to a few other people in sports. The chapter headings include Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Ken Dryden and Danny Gallivan. Oh, Joe Frazier and George Plimpton also made the list, although Plimpton sticks to the time he joined the Bruins in preseason while Cherry was coaching.

Now, Cherry has gone to the video tape to go over some of those shows, and had his impressions and memories placed on paper. My first thought was that this would be mostly transcripts of memorable shows. There is some of that, but not too much. The snippets of conversations often serve as launching points for Cherry to go into a monologue, and not necessarily about the show or the guest. That sort of conversation is what the people want out of him, and he certainly delivers that here.

Now there are a couple of points to be made here. One, this book goes by mighty quickly. It's about 250 pages, but can be read in a day or so. This may be a plus or minus, depending on personal preference and whether that's enough reading for $30 (Can.). Two, this is a book about personalities from at least quarter-century ago. Young readers may have heard of Bobby Baun, Red Storey and Paul Henderson at some point, but it's going to be tough to lure them in at this point in the conversation.

Still, Cherry has never lost his ability to entertain, a skill that dates back at least to his time as a coach in the NHL - when his postgame news conferences were anticipated by reporers like comedy shows. "Don Cherry's Sports Heroes" ought to find a good-sized audience of people who enjoy Cherry's winning formula.

Three stars

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Olympic Collision (2016)

By Kyle Keiderling

It's another one of those "time flies" stories.

For those of us who were paying attention in 1984, a track event at the Olympics in Los Angeles was highly anticipated beforehand, and highly scrutinized afterwards. That doesn't happen very often.

Here we are, 32 years later, and much has changed. But the story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd still carries some fascination. Their tales, which have connected a few times over the years, drives the book, "Olympic Collision."

Author Kyle Keiderling, in this well-done summary of the two runners' careers, puts the '84 Olympics right in the middle - as well he should. Decker was one of the stars of the U.S. team that year. She was coming off an amazing year and was considered one of the favorites in Los Angeles at the 3,000 meters.

Adding some drama was Budd, a South African who had been barred from the Olympics until she took advantage of a loophole in the rules to run for Great Britain. (She was, more correctly, asked to take advantage of that loophole by those who sought to profit by it - family, coaches and business interests.) Budd came out of absolutely nowhere to join the list of world-class runner at the distance, barefoot and shy.

In the Los Angeles Coliseum that fateful, Budd had a small lead on Decker when the two bumped into each other, and Decker fell. She suffered an injury and couldn't get up. Budd continued on but was showered with boos by the pro-American crowd and essentially gave up. Decker blamed Budd for the collision, while the timid and devastated Budd simply headed home. Experts watched the video of the race very, very closely in hopes of assigning blame, but the consensus appears to be that no one really did anything wrong.

The personality differences couldn't have been much greater. Decker comes off here as extremely driven, and not particularly well-liked or likeable. She ran from the front and took command, but she was also hard to coach and her style took its toll in terms of injuries over the years. She spent more time in an operating room that some surgeons. Still, Decker probably is the greatest woman's middle-distance runner in American history. Perhaps the best comparison of her ability would be with Ron Clarke, the great Australian runner from the 1960s who is known for setting records but falling short of gold at the Olympics.

Budd comes off here as running from something rather than at something - from sadness over the death of her older sister, from anxiety caused by an uncomfortable dynamic within her family, from outsiders telling her what to do. She comes across as someone who would have been happy to run in South African races, and then head home to play with her pets.

The stories have different endings, too. Decker, who became Mary Decker Slaney after marriage, tried to compete for many more years, but injuries usually got in the way and a conviction on a failed drug test effectively ended her competitive running days. Budd serves as a college coach in, of all places, South Carolina.

Keiderling certainly did his homework here. He talked to many people who were involved in the 1984 race, as well as others who have played a part in the lives of the two people. Budd talked at length to the author, which probably helped her receive a more sympathetic treatment in the book. Decker declined to comment at all. Based on the comments presented here, some people weren't too upset that Decker had some humbling times - especially since they suspected her of drug use before the '84 Games. The story does bog down a little along the way as race times are recited, but it's tough to avoid that.

While track fans are the obvious target for "Olympic Collision," the book shows us that one false step can change the lives of people for good. Budd's story seems to have a happy ending. Decker's legacy is much more confusing. And who would have seen that coming?

Four stars

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Review: Now I'm Catching On (2016)

By Bob Cole with Stephen Brunt

Name-dropping time, at least for my Canadian friends.

I actually worked a couple of games with Bob Cole - as a statistician.

I helped out the NHL's public relations department at the Eastern Conference Finals between Montreal and Philadelphia in Philadelphia in 1989. In that role, I supplied information to Bob and Scotty Bowman, the commentator for those games.

Two of the things I remember about those games is that, one, Bob Cole was a very nice man who did his job well. It was fun to sit next to him as he worked, eliminating the television set as the middle man. Then there's, two, the fact that he's the last man I ever saw use a cigarette holder. It's funny what sticks to your memory.

Naturally, I've had another relationship with Bob over the years that's much more common - listener and fan. He's done a lot of hockey over the years, and I've gotten to see some of it from my perch on the border. So it was with some interest that I read his autobiography, "Now I'm Catching On."

It's a little difficult to draw a comparison between Cole and a United States sports announcer. Hockey has such a valued place in Canada's culture, and Cole has done a ton of big games over the years. Maybe Al Michaels would be a good dance partner, since he's been a national voice for our fun and games for many years on this side of the border.

Perhaps the most surprising part of this book is that it takes Cole quite a while to get into the tales of the hockey broadcasting business - almost 100 pages in a book that checks in at 244 pages of text. There are stories about growing up in Newfoundland (he never left), stories about flying, stories about entering the salmon business and curling and dogs, and so on. It's good to get to know more about the subject of the book, although it will be easy for some people to think, "OK, get to the full stuff already."

Luckily, the stories do come. Cole did the Summit Series of 1972 on radio, a couple of Olympics, and plenty of other big games. He tells about how Joe Sakic used to rub his cap for luck before each game of the 2002 Olympics, and Sakic ended up as the star of the Games as Canada finally won the gold medal. There are tales about Wayne Gretzky, thoughtful and polite behind the scenes even when no one is looking. Harold Ballard, the late Leafs' owner who could be a little, um, eccentric, comes off well. Admittedly, Cole's job description did not include making enemies, so he saw the best in people. But even so, there are no axes to grind here.

Sportscasting at that level isn't easy, particularly in terms of raising a family. That's particularly true for someone who lived full-time a few hours by plane of significant events. But he seems to have made it work, in part because he loved the business so much. Cole writes about how much of it a thrill it is to have an office at a hockey rink, and a game still gets him excited to this day - 50 years later.

Fans of Cole certainly will enjoy "Now I'm Catching On." It's not profound or heavy reading, but merely a pleasant read about a pleasant man.

Three stars

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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: Bad News (2016)

By Mike Carey

The original "Bad News" basketball player was a guy named Jim Barnes, a pretty good college forward out of Texas Western who didn't do much in the pros.

And when it came to bad news, the original couldn't come close to the actions of Marvin "Bad News" Barnes."

Marvin was bad news to his opponents, because he had so many skills - a 6-foot-9 filled-out body with speed, strength and agility. He was also bad news to his own team, because Marvin wasn't the most dependable teammate in the world. You never knew if was going to show up at practice, or do something odd at a game.

Most important, though, was the fact that Marvin Barnes was bad news to himself. He was, as the saying goes, his own worst enemy.

Mike Carey, a former NBA reporter out of Boston, is well qualified to writes Barnes' story. He knows the game and encountered Barnes when he was at his best and at his worst. That makes his book "Bad News" quite a dramatic read.

Barnes is a classic story of poor circumstances leading to missed potential - and there's nothing sadder than the latter. He grew up in a dysfunctional family, but had a gift to play basketball. Barnes was one of the best prospects in the country coming out of high school, and flooded with scholarship offers. He ended up staying close to home at Providence College, and this tall African American quickly bonded with a short white point guard by the name of Ernie DiGregorio - on the court and off. The story of Ernie D inviting Barnes over to the family house for dinner - and watching Barnes react to all of the food that was put on the table - is a memorable one.

The two helped the Friars become a basketball powerhouse. They missed a chance at a national title in 1973, when Barnes hurt his knee in the NCAA tournament. UCLA won that year, and in 1974 Barnes couldn't lead the team back to glory without Ernie D.  Trouble occasionally followed Barnes in college, but he got through it.

From there, it was on to the pros. Barnes signed with the Spirits of St. Louis is the American Basketball Association; his contract negotiation with Philadelphia of the NBA somehow got botched. Barnes had some good moments in the ABA in the early days, including a playoff upset of Julius Erving and the New York Nets, but it was also the time that Barnes first became caught up in the drug culture. He became friends with one of the biggest dealers in the country, who was stationed out of St. Louis. Barnes was paid to host late-night parties for high rollers, and the amount of drugs and money said to be involved is staggering.

By the time Barnes reached the NBA after the ABA merger in 1976, he was a addict. Sometimes he'd show flashes of ability, but at others he gave in temptation. That started him well down the road of erratic behavior, and Barnes bounced around the NBA. There was usually someone who would take a chance on his talent, but sooner or later that person would look patience and give up. Eventually, Barnes ran out of chances.

The last third of the book details Barnes' life after basketball. If you've read other stories about addicts, you know the drill well - the patient means well, but after a while something goes wrong and he gives in to temptation again ... and has to start over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Barnes was by all accounts a fun person when he was straight; sportscaster Bob Costas writes about his friend in the foreward - "my unlikely and unforgettable friend."

Carey somehow became acquainted with Barnes once again later in life, and actually gave him a room to live for quite a while. Here Barnes no doubt told the stories of his life, which are still pretty amazing. Carey went to the trouble of checking them out, and they seem to be true.

This is written in a comfortable style, as the pages go by pretty quickly - even if we know what's coming. Finally, Barnes ran out of chances and died. Costas said he epitaph should be "Squandered Talent," and he's right.

"Bad News" isn't a pretty story, but it's an instructive one. You'll come away wondering if Marvin ever really had a chance to make it, in spite of some gifts. And you'll ask who might be the next Marvin Barnes out there, someone who threw a lot away, and how we can stop another similar story from being written.

Four stars

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