Thursday, August 20, 2020

Review: The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino (2018)

By Michael Sokolove

If you follow college basketball in particular or even sports in general, you probably heard about the FBI probe into recruiting in that particular sport in 2017. A variety of criminal actions were uncovered by the FBI in a good-sized probe. It seems that there's a very tangled web in the underbelly of the sport, which connects players, coaches, agents, shoe companies, and go-betweens. It's fair to say it's all something of a mess.

"The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino" is essentially a first draft of the story of that scandal; we'll need to wait a while longer than two years before all of the details are sorted out. In particular, author Michael Sokolove focuses in on the University of Louisville as symptomatic of the entire situation. 

The launching point from the Cardinals' standpoint was the arrival of a recruit named Brian Bowen Jr. It was something of a surprise when he announced he'd be going to Louisville. He wasn't believed to be on the team's recruiting list. Then-coach Rick Pitino said at the time of his signing, "In my 40 years of coaching, this is the luckiest I've ever been."

Then word came out that money apparently had gone from a shoe company, Adidas, to Bowen's family through intermediaries. Bowen himself denied any knowledge of the payments, which actually isn't that improbable in this particular world. Even so, he was the one who was barred from playing for Louisville; he eventually transferred to South Carolina. Bowen wound up in Australia and was not drafted by an NBA team in 2019. 

Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised that Louisville was part of this. The school has invested heavily in athletics in recent years to build up its reputation, paying some of the largest salaries to coaches in the country and spending more money on relatively lavish facilities. Athletic director Tom Jurich was good at fundraising and at building up the athletic program. He courted donors and spared no expense at achieving excellence. The problem was that the money had to come from somewhere, and the easiest place was the school's endowment - which took major hits during the 2010s. The story of Louisville athletics, with a complicated town/gown relationship, is the best part of the book.

The book mentions famous basketball coach Rick Pitino in the title, but that's a little misleading (someone probably thought it was cute). Pitino was the highest paid college basketball coach in the country and won a lot of games there. Even so, he already had a couple of strikes against him when the Bowen story broke. Pitino was involved in a short sexual relationship that led to an extortion attempt, which was messy for all concerned. Then came word about strippers "entertaining" recruits during school visits, followed by the Bowen situation. Pitino has claimed he didn't know anything about it and that certainly could be true. He also knows that there was plenty of pressure on everyone at Louisville to win, and that he was paid enough to try to guarantee that no corners would be cut. 

Sokolove does spent some time looking at the big picture, but doesn't see many easy ways out. The top level of college sports does generate a tremendous amount of money, but the players only see a scholarship - a not-incident benefit at most schools, but not for big-time football and basketball. Pitino was earning $7.8 million at the end of his run. You could argue that no college coach deserves that money. You could also argue that a college coach of a big program fills seats and sells television deals, and that a good one is worth it and then some to the school. Paying the athletes directly is a solution, but the details are rather miserable to consider. Do top players get more than others? Is there a bidding war for talent? Do scholarship athletes in the so-called minor sports get something too? It's a mess.

"The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino" isn't exactly beach reading. Some of the tales of investigations and regulations can't help but be dry. Still, it will make the reader consider what's happening in college sports. In a world where many college students aren't allowed to gather for classes but apparently can get together to play football this fall, we probably can use a little thought right now.

Four stars

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Sunday, August 16, 2020

Review: Smokin' Joe (2018)

By Mark Kram Jr. 

In individual sports, the great ones often need a talented rival to show just how good they really were. Jack Nicklaus needed to surpass Arnold Palmer before becoming the greatest golfer in history. In turn, Tom Watson had to slip past a slowly aging Nicklaus to grab the full spotlight. In tennis, Pete Sampras had Andre Agassi waiting for him, Roger Federer needed Rafael Nadal for inspiration, and Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert needed each other to take their games to new heights.

Such can be the case in boxing too. How do you think Muhammad Ali became the greatest of all time? It wasn't because he knocked out Henry Cooper and Joe Bugner. It took some special people for Ali to raise his level of artistry in the ring to heights that even he didn't know he had. 

Certainly Ali scored points by knocking off Sonny Liston and George Foreman - two "bullies" who looked unbeatable at the time when they ran into Ali. But when it came to digging deep, no one did it better for Ali than Joe Frazier. Their three fights were classics, both men came out of the trilogy much worse for wear but as legends.

It's good, then, that Mark Kram Jr. has given Frazier the full biography treatment in the book "Smokin' Joe." Kram has done a good job with it too. 

The story essentially starts out very nicely. Frazier spent his early youth in rural South Carolina, and Kram does a fine job of recreating what life was like there - which is to say, difficult. There's no poverty like rural poverty, especially for African Americans before the 1960s. Frazier was shipped off to live with relatives in New York at a young age, and was on the verge of becoming another broken soul on the road to nowhere as a teen.

But then he found boxing, which was a good distraction for Joe as opposed to life on the streets. He put in the necessary work with a dedication that he probably didn't even know he had, and was good at it. When you fought Smokin' Joe, you didn't have to go looking for a fight. He'd be right there, willing to take three punches to get one good one in. It led to a gold medal, which led to a pro career, which eventually led to the heavyweight championship. 

The centerpiece of the book obviously is the first Ali-Frazier fight, which really was the fight of the century. Ali had lost his title despite an undefeated record when he refused to enter the Army. Frazier was essentially the replacement. When they did fight in 1971, it was essentially a fight between undefeated champions - and that set of circumstances caught the attention of the world. Ali may have been a little rusty after only two tune-up fights, but the moment wasn't too big for Frazier. That last part was important 

Joe had his ups and downs the rest of the way. He was no match for Foreman the night he lost his title. Styles make fights, and Frazier knew no other way to come in slugging. Joe just went back to work, winning most of his bouts. No defeated combatant in modern boxing history brought more honor to himself than Frazier did in "The Thrilla in Manila," the third bout with Ali. Both men gave it everything they had; Ali famously said it was the closest thing to death he ever experienced. Kram does some great work amplifying a point about the bout that hasn't received much attention. Frazier was essentially blind in one eye going into the fight because of cataracts, and probably shouldn't even have been allowed in a boxing ring.  When the other eye was swollen shut by Ali's punches, Frazier couldn't see a thing ... but it took his manager's decision to stop the bout. 

Joe certainly had some issues later in life. While his former management team did its best to set Joe up for life financially, Frazier was a little too generous for his own good and had some expensive tastes. You wouldn't expect someone growing up poor with little education in Beaufort, South Carolina, to be a whiz at money management. At least he never hit bottom. Joe also believed in most of the commandments, but had a bit of a zipper problem. It's not easy to sort out all of the children that Joe fathered over the years, and it's a little confusing to follow them all in the book. Kram did his best, though, although there's a little jumping around in this section.

Then there was his relationship with Ali. Most of us wanted the two men to be pals instead of rivals once their careers ended, sort of like Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson, or - more to the point - Ali and Foreman. Ali had crossed a few lines with Frazier with his words during their common era, and Frazier took it personally.  For years, Joe seemed to be carrying that hate with him - although the degree of anger seemed to depend on the day and the situation. Kram isn't sure what Frazier's attitude was on the day he died, but he did come across a story which gives people a reason to think that happy endings are possible and that man's capacity for forgiveness can be underestimated. 

By the way, Kram is the son of the late Mark Kram (Sr.), who gained some journalistic fame mostly as the boxing writer for Sports Illustrated during the Ali/Frazier era of boxing. There are a few odd references to "my father" in the book, but it's difficult to complain to much about a son's pride in the work of his dad.  

Muhammad Ali was like the sun, shining light everywhere in the solar system. Joe Frazier was more like one of the planets, obscured at times by the blinding light of the sun but still full of interesting stories. "Smokin' Joe" gives Frazier his due nicely, filling in a gap in the boxing library. And his fans ought to love it.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Review: The Blueprint (2017)

By Jason Lloyd

It's the most obvious rule in the book of sports publishing. A team wins a title in a major sport, and you put out a book about it. It could be a story all about the tick-tock of the season, or it could be a picture book. But it gets done. (If it happens in New York, you put out a dozen - because NYC-based publishers think they'll sell.) But no matter where it happens, people want to read about a memorable season.

This certainly applies to Cleveland and the 2016 Cavaliers. The city hadn't celebrated a title since the 1964 Browns, a 52-year wait.

The historic victory prompted Jason Lloyd to get to work. He had been covering the Cavaliers, one way or another, since LeBron James originally left the team as a free agent in 2010. That gives him the perspective and the knowledge to come up with plenty of good information in writing "The Blueprint."

The Cavaliers obviously were shell-shocked when James made "The Decision" to jump to the Heat in 2010. Owner Dan Gilbert issued a public statement about the departure that was inflammatory at the least. A reunion didn't seem possible, but Lloyd writes convincingly that the organization never gave up on the idea of bringing James back to Cleveland. The hard feelings from James' side slowly went away, and the Cavs went about the business of trying to set up their roster in order to make it possible for the team to win if King James did indeed stage a second coming to Cleveland.

Luck was on the Cavaliers' side, since they won three lotteries to obtain the first overall draft pick within four years. They were also lucky that Kyrie Irving was available on one of those years. They were also unlucky that the 2013 draft class was a bad one, and they were stuck with several less-than-helpful options in their selection. Anthony Bennett wasn't much help in Cleveland, but he became a piece in the acquisition of Kevin Love later in the story.

The first half of the book leads up to the day when James announces he is returning to Cleveland, which meant all was forgiven when it came to the original separation. The player, the organization and the fans all regained their enthusiasm about the merger. There were some growing pains in those two years, relatively speaking, but everyone got it done.

General manager David Griffin sent out an email to members of the Cavaliers after the team had fallen behind the Golden State Warriors, three games to one, in the 2016 NBA Finals. He said the team had made plenty of history already, so it would be only fitting to be the first team in league history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals to win. That's exactly what happened. It's easy to think of the 2004 baseball season for an analogy. The Boston Red Sox hadn't won a title in 86 years - something that always hung over them during that drought. But when they fought back from a 3-0 deficit to set up a Game Seven with the New York Yankees, the pressure was suddenly equalized. Boston won Game Seven and eventually a title.

Lloyd brings up plenty of good stories along the way. For example, the departure of David Blatt as coach in midseason seemed like a curious move from a distance. Lloyd dug out plenty of stories that indicate that the Cavaliers were winning not because of Blatt's work, but in spite of him. The front office apparently agreed with that assessment, showing him the door midway through the 2015-16 season in favor of assistant Tyronn Lue. The Cavs won the title under Lue, so it worked out well for everyone but Blatt.

Books that review championships are a little tough to review from a distance. In this case, I know the basics of the story but not the details - a disadvantage when compared to the residents of Northeast Ohio. Therefore, most of the information here is fresh and well-presented for me. For those in the Cleveland area, they might know more but they'll also have memories of the games in question - it's always good to relive those. Even so, most probably will learn some things along the way.

Add it up, and it's difficult to believe that "The Blueprint" could have been done any better. Future authors of books on championship teams should use as, yes, a blueprint on how to do it right.

Five stars


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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Review: The Wizard of Foz (2018)

By Bob Welch with Dick Fosbury

If you are going to buy one book on a high jumper, this is the one to get.

On the surface, Dick Fosbury has a great story. His high jump career in high school was going nowhere when he started to work on a completely new way of trying to jump over a bar - upside-down and from a different angle, for lack of a more vivid description. What do you know? It worked. Fosbury rapidly improved almost overnight, and became a top high school jumper.

Then it was on to college at Oregon State, where the improvement continued. Dick soon became one of the best high jumpers in the country, won some meets and qualified for the Olympics. Everyone, it seemed, was fascinated by "The Fosbury Flop" - except for a few coaches. Because, well, we've never done it that way before.

No one had ever won a gold medal that way either ... until Mexico City in 1968. Fosbury stood on the top of the platform that day, on top of the high jumping world and the leader of what became a revolution in his specialty.

Like I said, that's a great story. It wasn't ignored at the time. Now, 50 years later, the full story of Fosbury and his Flop have been published in the form of "The Wizard of Foz." And about time, too.

It turns out the key moment in Fosbury's life was generally kept out of the public view. He was riding a bicycle in Oregon as a youth with a little brother when the two were involved in an accident with a car. Ten-year-old Greg was killed. The 14-year-old Dick felt guilty over that, and felt guilty a while later when his parents were divorced. That's enough to drive anyone into isolation, and Fosbury soon was drawn into a sport that required his mind to shut out the rest of the world and concentrate on the task at hand - even if it only took a few seconds at a time.

I suppose the best analogy about the new approach would be what happened to football kickers. The place-kickers also approached the ball from directly behind. Then Pete Gogolak showed up at Cornell, kicking "soccer-style" - from an angle. He had success, signed with the Buffalo Bills, and had more success. Eventually, everyone was kicking from the side.

In recounting this tale, Welch takes a slightly unusual approach. He starts with the complete cooperation of Fosbury, who reviews his life in high jumping as well as his thoughts along the way. But it's not written as a "as told to" book. Welch talks to relatives, friends, competitors and coaches along the way. That gives the story a great deal of depth, since the reaction of the outside world is part of the fun - and Fosbury really had no idea what was going on around him. It's quite seemless.

And what was going on was a revolution. The world looked at Fosbury hopping over the bar and into the pit with out-and-out glee. Every kid no doubt at least tried to jump into a couch or sofa that way in an effort to mimic. Many stuck with it. It only took a decade or so for the flop to replace the straddle as the preferred way to high jump. It turned out that jumping that way had its physical advantages for the right type of athlete, but only Fosbury could muster the leap of imagination and the determination to pull it all off. We salute people who think "outside the box," but sometimes it takes a while.

There's only one complaint to make about the book. The year 1968 certainly was an eventful one in American history, and the author brings in a lot of references to it. Some of it is necessary, particularly because some African Americans decided to boycott the 1968 Games while others - notably John Carlos and Tommie Smith - made their statements at the event. Some of the other history lessons don't work quite well. The rules were changing in society in that era, but I'm not so sure that those alterations has much to do with Fosbury's breaking with tradition. It's more of a case that he was willing to experiment and find something that worked. 

Still, it was easy to root for Fosbury then, and it's easy to root for him today. Stories of a revolution are always interesting, and "The Wizard of Foz" works extremely well in explaining what happened.

Four stars


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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Review: Madness (2018)

By Mark Mehler and Charles Paikert

Veteran college basketball fans probably looked at the cover of this book and thought, "I probably could write this."

After all, they thought, how hard is it to come up with a list of the 10 best finals in NCAA basketball history? Recap the games, add background on the seasons of the two teams, and - presto - you have a book.

To a certain degree, "Madness" is that book. The difference, though, is that Mark Mehler and Charles Paikert did their homework when it came to putting this altogether.

The potential for arguments starts with the list itself naturally. They have been playing NCAA tournaments since 1939. The authors say they used four standards for choosing the top 10: quality of play, influence, significance and personalities.

It's interesting, then, that only one of the selected games took place since 1990 - Duke vs. Butler in 2010. In fairness, there is an honorable mention list, and 2016 (Villanova), 2008 (Kansas), 2003 (Syracuse), and 1993 (North Carolina/Michigan) are on it. It's interesting to note that the 2010s weren't a great decade for finals. Come to think of it, we haven't had a particularly great century.

Sometimes, of course, the biggest games in a given year aren't played in the final. For example, Duke defeated UNLV in the semifinals in 1991, and the Blue Devils and Kentucky may have played the best game ever in 1992 ... in the regional final.

You probably could argue that some of the honorable mention games could be moved up. However, the 14 games covered here are a more than fair list. The only one that might come to mind is Cincinnati's overtime win over a memorable Ohio State team (Lucas, Havlicek, etc.) in 1961. And the Bearcats repeated it a year later, so maybe it wasn't that significant.

The authors reached out to as some of the participants in order to gain some perspective on that particular game. They also read all of the available books and watched game videos and documentaries. Since most of the games are at least 30 years old, everyone involved has a good sense of perspective on what that game meant. That helps the authors put the game in context.

This is an easy book to read; you can plow through the 230 pages relatively quickly. "Madness," then, will provide some good memories if you watched the game, and add some insight into your understanding of what happened if you didn't. The book therefore succeeds in its goals nicely.

Four stars


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