Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Review: Basketball: A Love Story (2018)

By Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew and Dan Klores

It's not the usual procedure, but sometimes the movie gets a head start on the book.

That's the case with "Basketball: A Love Story," which fans whose memories go back beyond Stephan Curry will thoroughly enjoy.

ESPN put together something of an oral history of basketball for this project. It grabbed all sorts of interviews from people involved in the game over the years.

At some point, it was decided that there was enough material there for a book, and then some. So Jackie MacMullan and Rafe Bartholomew, two first-rate writers, came on board to help put together a printed version.

You may have seen parts of the documentary over the past few months. It has popped up on television at odd times, with a ton of fresh interviews on a variety of subjects. The filmmaker, Dan Klores, obviously was given the time and space to do everything right.

The first point to know is that the book doesn't go all the way back to the beginning of the NBA, which dates back to just after the completion of World War II. The book is arranged by topics, and the first areas of discussion are the Celtics dynasty (1957-69) and the UCLA run (1964-75), the civil rights era of the Sixties, and the gambling scandal of the early 1960s.

And away we go from there. There are topics that obviously were converted into parts of the documentary and are therefore more complete - Olympic play, North Carolina, New York City ball, the ABA, Michael Jordan, UConn vs. Tennessee, and international play.

It's the voices along the way that you'll remember, though. Time has allowed many of the participants in the game to ability to give a very honest account. Here's Elvin Hayes on the time that his Houston team beat UCLA in the Astrodome - a game that really put college basketball on the map:

"(Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was all-everything, and I wanted to take his star down and put mine up there. ... Before that, we were friends, but after that Houston game, we never talked again. We could play on teh same All-Star team and never talk to each other."

Or UConn women's coach Gino Auriemma on Pat Summitt of Tennessee: "What the outside world wanted us to do was compete like that and then go to dinner and have a great time. I'm saying, 'Where does that happen? What part of the world, in any sporting endeavor, when you've got two fierce rivals like this, do they really enjoy each other's company?'"

How about Kenny Smith on Shaq and Kobe? "These guys are like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, but they live in the same house, so they just gotta learn to get along. ... They could have done a better job at it, honestly."

The group also interviewed some media types to provide some perspective along the way. Most of the time, this works well. Who wouldn't want to hear what Bob Ryan has to say about a particular area?

But it's the players and coaches who really shine here. Their first-person accounts are frequently fascinating, and they make "Basketball: A Love Story" a fascinating read for anyone who loves basketball and its rich history.

Five stars

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: Glove Affair (2019)

By Randy Gordon

Sometimes a young boy is asked what he plans to do for a living when he grows up, and he gets it right.

Randy Gordon was one of the lucky ones.

Gordon was taken with boxing almost right from the start. He actually skipped school the day that Rocky Marciano died in an airplane crash to talk about the tragedy with Nat Fleischer, the editor of Ring magazine - at the time, boxing's bible. It took a while, but Gordon got into Fleischer's office, had a nice chat with him, and was told by the publisher to call him when he was done with college. Fleischer would have a job waiting for him.

That's how Gordon got started in the boxing business. He's still at it all these years later. Finally, he has typed out some of the stories he's collected over the years into the book, "Glove Affair."

Gordon's career has done a little winding over the years. He did graduate from college, and got that job writing about boxing. Gordon also became the editor of Ring, and did some television commentating on some good-sized fights on networks.

Then there was the most unusual career move of all - he became Commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission. That's a big job in the boxing world, mostly because New York City traditionally has hosted some of the biggest fights in the world - at least the ones that don't land in Las Vegas. Gordon now does some radio work with former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney.

This is not a traditional autobiography - more of a collection of stories in no particular order. Perhaps the most interest will come when Mike Tyson's comes up. The heavyweight champion of the world still has the ability to fascinate us, even years later. Gordon devotes plenty of time to his role when Tyson tried to dump his old manager, Bill Cayton, in favor of the legendary and notorious Don King.

Alexis Arguello, another boxing great, gets plenty of ink here too. Gordon met him by chance when Arguello was walking into an event, and the two became fairly close. Gordon had the chance to chat with Muhammad Ali a few times, and The Greatest still fascinates. The author also recounts the tale of Billy Collins Jr., who was essentially murdered when some shenanigans took place with his opponents' gloves. Gordon is still furious about it, these many years later, as well he should be.

I suppose the rule here is that the fighters are interesting and the hangers-on are sometimes scoundrels. There's a funny story about how Gordon kept "running into" envelopes filled with money when he visited a boxing convention in Mexico City. And there's an odd episode involving an employee of the Athletic Commission who had figured out a way to stay on the job even though no one seemed too sure what he did - besides leak information to the media. Gordon figured out a way to get rid of him through a rather elaborate scheme.

The lack of continuity is a bit of a problem here. There are some references to other parts of Gordon's life that come up as asides that could have used more explaining. A little more editing might not have been the worst idea in the world, either.

Overall, though, "Glove Affair" is a quick and entertaining read. Gordon comes off credibly and as someone who loves the business and wants to see it work in a proper way. Boxing isn't what it used to be, of course, but those with an interest in the sport will like it.

Three stars

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Monday, April 1, 2019

Review: The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL (2018)

By Sean McIndoe

Anyone who has been around the National Hockey League certainly appreciates its rich history. The game dates back to the 19th century, and it has grown well past its roots from something to do in the winter in Canada to an international attraction with millions of fans.

The world's biggest league, of course, is the National Hockey League. It attracts most of the world's best players, and goes back more than 100 years.The NHL's grown has been spectacular in the second half or so of that span, jumping from six teams in the Northeast and Midwest to a 31-team circuit that includes teams from Florida to California.

But the youngsters out there should know that the NHL hardly has been the well-oiled machine that it now resembles over the course of history. It was a men's club of sorts for quite a while, and not a particularly well-run one. The joke back in the 1980s was that "the NHL is a great game, in spite of the people who run it."

Those little quirks always have made the NHL an interesting league to follow. Sean McIndoe is all over that, and he covers NHL's past in a breezy and fun way in his book, "The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL."

McIndoe has done a lot of hockey writing over the years. He has a website called, you guessed it, "Down Goes Brown." That appears to have something new just about every day in season, although some of the material is blocked as it links to full stories behind a paywall at The Athletic. Who am I to deny someone the right to earn some money via writing?

Sometimes bloggers try a little too hard to be edgy, and I had that worry when I first dove into the book. Luckily for all concerned, McIndoe's primary concern in his book is to compile a readable account of the NHL's story - as opposed to looking for laughs first and facts later. He is under control, and thus scores big points.


From that point, we take off into the world of NHL history. We should have known that it was going to a bumpy ride from the start. The original owners were part of another league, but they got fed up at an owner of a Toronto team and essentially started another league without him. The league grew out of a small all-Canadian loop but had some major growing pains that are rather typical. Teams frequently moved or folded, as it took time to find a business model that worked. Remember that these guys were pioneers in winter sports leagues, since a pro basketball league wouldn't really become a major entity until after World War II.

In 1942, the NHL settled into a six-team league - the Original Six, if you will, and stayed that way for a quarter-century. The Canadiens, Red Wings and Maple Leafs won most of the titles in that era, while the little sisters called the Rangers, Black Hawks (later Blackhawks), and Bruins usually were on the outside. The owners were never really interested in strong leadership, and found someone who wasn't interested in it. The teams sold a lot of tickets, but didn't have many ways to increase revenues. And if you weren't one of the best 120 players in the world, you were playing for peanuts in the minors - a high bar to hurdle.

Expansion finally arrived in 1967, and we were off on the second 50 years of the league. McIndoe starts to crank it up here, telling stories that you might find hard to believe now. Did you hear the one about the city that received an expansion team without applying for one? Or the time the league president was nowhere to be found when a playoff game had a confrontation between coach and official? How about when one team tried to buy another team's best player for a million dollars?

The format here is pretty simple. There are 25 chapters, and 24 of them either cover some chronological history or deal with a certain subject. No. 25 is about the future. Samples include the international invasion, the Gretzky trade, fighting and labor dispute. The first 24 also have a "strange but true" sidebar. Buffalo fans know all about one of them, the drafting of Taro Tsujimoto. No, make that two of them - the odd story about using a roulette-like wheel to determine the first draft pick in 1970. The Sabres won that spin, eventually, and Gil Perreault was the prize. But there are stories you don't know about too, like the time the Stanley Cup was missing at the Finals - or at least was late in arriving.

That's not surprising, because there are plenty of facts that I didn't even know, and I've read a lot of stories about hockey history.The footnotes are particularly good for such matters. It's all organized quite well, too.

This is hardly a definitive book on the NHL's past at 249 pages, but that's fine. There are big reference books for that sort of knowledge. This is designed to be a quick, fun read, and it succeeds in its goal quite nicely. Big fans of hockey certainly will love "The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL," and they might learn a few things along the way. The reviews on Amazon.com are overwhelmingly good. As for me, it's going to stay on my bookcase for quite a while.

Four stars

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