Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review: Off Mike (2020)

By Mike "Doc" Emrich with Kevin Allen

Mike Emrick deserves all sorts of credit in the field of sports broadcasting. He's outlasted just about everyone when it comes to hockey announcing in the United States. Emrick started calling hockey in the early 1970s, and here he is - almost 50 years - later still working hard at his craft. In fact, he turned up on some of the broadcasts of the NHL's long playoff system in the summer and fall of 2020. 

At least the pandemic came up at a time that Emrick was free to finish his autobiography. The finished product, "Off Mike," is scheduled to be released in October. It's about what you'd expect - pleasant, with a few good vocabulary words thrown in along the way. After all, who else can describe a goalie's equipment as his "paraphenalia"?

It seems unlikely that a veteran American broadcaster would grow up in a small town in ... Indiana. That seems like "Hoosiers" country to most, a place where basketball is kind. But on December 10, 1960, he caught his first hockey game in person in Fort Wayne as the Komets hosted the Muskegon Zephyrs. Mike caught the bug right there. 

It seems like every broadcaster had to go about the business of paying his dues in order to reach the big time, and Emrick was no exception. He worked as an announcer at small radio station, took any job he can get, and made the usual mistakes along the way. The good ones learn and get better. Broadcasting is sort of like the music business when it comes to hitting the big time. You never know when someone will be in the right place at the right time. Emrick worked in such places at Port Huron, Michigan, and Portland, Maine. 

If anything, Emrick gives the impression that he was very content working on minor league hockey games. Some of the best stories of the book comes from those days. One favorite was the time that a drawing was held in Portland to determine which of the ticket-holders would become the winner of a car. Sue Hamilton's name was announced; so far, so good. And then two women showed up by that name. Which one would win? The fans started chanting "two cars!" Somehow, the team figured out which Sue Hamilton was the rightful winner, and the other received enough free gifts to leave her content as the first runner-up. As you'd expect, some of the legendary minor league brawlers of that era comes of as well.

Emrick eventually got the call to the big time, and he has followed the bouncing rights contracts when it comes to employers. Mike has worked for Emrick has also done play-by-play for CBS, NBC, NBCSN, ABC, TNT, ESPN, Fox, CSTV, SportsChannel America, SportsChannel Philadelphia, PRISM, Fox, and a few others. He must have a lot of blazers stored somewhere. Emrick also has done a lot of traveling over the years, and he didn't help himself at times by living quite a distance from the home rink. For example, while working for the Flyers, he and his wife commuted from Hershey - no small task. 

"Doc" (his nickname because of a Ph.D in communications) mostly has been working for national broadcasts for almost a decade. This has allowed him to brush up against some hockey legends, like the time he sat down with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr for a long interview. Emrick also is famous for collecting little bits of information to drop into broadcasts, such as the fact that Gretzky and David Letterman attended the same high school in Indianapolis (but not at the same time, of course). 

It's easy to guess that the drawback of that sort of schedule in terms of the book is that he's not around one place long enough to get to know many of the principals well. So most of the other tales that fill the rest of the book are about his life - with or without a microphone. It all goes dowm smoothly enough, but it's hard to say it is compelling reading throughout the book. 

Emrick in person is a lot like his on-air presence - a good guy who wears well over time with most. "Off Mike" isn't a book that will leave you with tons of anecdotes to pass along to others, but it goes by quickly in a pleasant way. There's nothing wrong with that. 

Three stars

Learn more about this book from

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Review: 24 (2020)

By Willie Mays and John Shea

My favorite quote about baseball legend Willie Mays comes from, of all people, actress Tallulah Bankhead, Apparently around 1962, she said something like “There have only been two geniuses in the world – Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare still has his fans, a few hundred years after his prime, of course. But just about everyone loved Willie Mays during his baseball career and during his life in retirement.

Mays was more or less than the best all-around player in the history of baseball. He cranked out great seasons like he was a copying machine, year after year after year. If the phrase “five-tool player” (someone who could hit, hit for power, field, run and throw) wasn’t created for him, it certainly applied to his tool box of talents. What’s more, he played baseball with a mixture of joy and showmanship so that no one could look away.

More importantly, he made his debut in major league baseball with the New York Giants in 1951. Willie played in the Negro Leagues for a while, but then crossed that barrier to play with baseball’s best. Once Mays had gotten some experience at that level and served time in the military, he was ready to take centerstage. When he did that, he wouldn’t leave it for close to 20 years. Everybody loved him so much that it was hard to make any sort of argument that the majors were no place for a black man. If anything, it was the other way around – Willie deserved to play in an even better league.

Mays hasn’t played since 1973, so the number of people who remember him in his prime are growing fewer. At 64, I remember Willie as a veteran star by the time I began to pay close attention to baseball in the Sixties. So anyone too much younger than I am probably doesn’t remember much about Willie the player, at least in terms of first-hand information.

There have been some good biographies of Mays. James Hirsch’s book, “Willie Mays,” certainly qualifies. The book “24,” by Mays with John Shea, isn’t an autobiography in strict terms. Still it serves a couple of functions. For those who remember Mays on the field, it will bring some good memories of the way he patrolled center field for the Giants for about two decades. For those who don’t, the book serves as an educational tool as to why he is remembered so fondly today.

Shea did most of the heavy lifting on this book . The San Francisco baseball writer found out that Mays wanted to do something that kids could use for inspiration. I guess the chapter headings could serve that purpose. They are given such titles as “Honor Your Mentors,” “Have Fun on the Job,” and “Strive for Excellence.” But it would be an exaggeration to say that this belongs in the self-help section of the bookstore.

Shea gets good-sized points for not taking the easy way out here. He tracked down all sorts of people to get them to talk about Mays. That includes Presidents of the United States (Clinton and Bush), Negro League teammates, Giants and Mets teammates, opposing players, and current stars. It’s quite the All-Star lineup, and apparently almost all of the material is fresh. Even Barry Bonds is happy to say nice things at length about his “godfather.”

Each chapter focuses in on a certain aspect of Mays’ career. Shea provides some perspective, Willie adds some quotes, and Shea takes it from there with background information and other interviews. Perhaps the best sections are the ones where Mays does the most talking – he gets to do that a lot in the section on his status as a five-tool player, and that might be my favorite part of the book. As for the "genius" description, it seems that Willie tried to notice everything on the field - to the point where he'd move the other fielders around depending on the situation. In addition, he never seemed to forget anything that happened in a game. Perspiration really joins with inspiration to make a genius.

Now, to be fair, this book was written to make Willie look good. There’s nothing in here that reflects badly on Mays, not a word that tarnishes that good image. The problem is that some stories get repeated quite a bit, and the praise piles up. Sometimes that can be a little, well, tiring … as in, we get the point.

But a book by and about Willie Mays is review-proof. People interested enough in the subject at this point will love it from page one. I might as well criticize chocolate ice cream or Santa Claus. Willie deserves all the praise he gets here. Needless to say, those who still appreciate what he did on and off the field will love “24.”

Four stars

Learn more about this book at

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Review: I Came as a Shadow (2020)

By John Thompson with Jesse Washington

On a personal level, my first reaction when I heard the news of the death of basketball coach John Thompson was that the timing was a little odd.

After all, an advance copy of his autobiography was sitting in my Kindle at the time. I guess Thompson timed this out just right. After all, a good basketball coach knows how to milk the clock when he or she is ahead right until the final seconds.

What's more, I knew this was a book that needed to be read. In a summer of racial troubles in our society in which conversations need to be held among all of us, it's good to have Thompson be part of the conversation - even in this form. After all, you just know that he'd be disappointed to miss it. 

As a result, "I Came as a Shadow," written by Thompson with ESPN's Jesse Washington, is not to be missed either. Not only does he have plenty to contribute in serious discussions about race in America, but he has had a fascinating if unlikely life story.

I can't say I knew much about Thompson's upbringing, but it's quite a story. His father was not an unintelligent man, but he never had the chance to learn to read and write. Therefore, he did whatever he could to feed his family - such as telling the different types of cement on construction projects apart by taste. His mother was a teacher, but she wasn't given the chance to teach because of the color of her skin. As for Thompson himself, he was placed in the back row of a classroom growing up, and not because of his height. That was where the kids who didn't figure to get good grades wound up. (Note I didn't use the word "dumb kids" there, because they hadn't been given the chance to show their intellectual potential in many cases.)

Basketball, as you may have guessed, gave Thompson a chance at a better life. He was tall, as in 6-foot-10 tall, and learned to shoot and rebound. That earned him a chance to go to Providence College, which led to a degree and a brief ticket to the NBA. Thompson won a couple of titles as a backup center with the Celtics. Then he decided to get on with the rest of his life, and work as a teacher of some sort. 

He may have left basketball, but basketball didn't leave him. He ended up as a high school coach in his native Washington, and did well. Then in 1972, Georgetown University needed a coach. More specifically, it needed an African American coach. Georgetown had a great academic reputation, but its relationship with the surrounding community was a bit shaky. For once, it was an advantage for Thompson to be black.

If you are reading this, you know what Thompson accomplished at Georgetown. His teams won a national championship, qualified for three final fours, and won several conference championships. As Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim pointed out, that was even more remarkable because it was so difficult to win at Georgetown. The Hoyas had never done it in the past before Thompson's arrival, playing in no NCAA championships and two NITs before Thompson's arrival. OK, Patrick Ewing's time was largely responsible for reaching the Final Fours, but he was a lot of games before and after that too.

As one of the few black coaches of prominence during this time, Thompson stood out. It's difficult for a large, 6-10 man not to stand out. He had something of a platform, and he used it. When the NCAA came up with Proposition 48 to set floors via standardized tests for freshman participation, Thompson went public and took a game off in protest. He always brought his own set of experiences to an argument, and that gave his points more validity.

Thompson had teams that were physically tough most of the time. He points out that he taught his players never to push first - but when they were pushed by opponents, to give back more than they got. He also points out that his teams always worked hard on the court and played disciplined basketball - belying the stereotype about how inner city kids played basketball. Yes, they could run plays and play suffocating defense when given the chance. 

Yes, the book shows that Thompson came to compete. He didn't want to just in the conversation as a good coach; he wanted to be the best coach that he possibly could. That included some "tough love" for his players - actions that the public never saw because his practices were usually closed - as well advice on how to be a better person. He also took some chances on recruiting certain people. Sometimes Thompson won the argument with the school's admissions department, and those players became better players and people during their time in Georgetown. Sometimes those players didn't turn out to be a good fit in the college atmosphere and fell away. Power forward Michael Graham, a key part of the 1984 championship team, was the most publicized example of that. Some didn't make it through the front door of the administration building. 

After retirement in 1999, Thompson moved on to the next stage of his life. He became a member of the media, serving as a talk show host in Washington and a commentator. Along the way, Thompson revealed more of his personality. It turns out John Thompson knew how to laugh, and liked doing it. That didn't mean he was any less serious about the issues of the day.

Add it up, and John Thompson was a man with no apologies and only a few regrets. He overcame many obstacles to reach the top of his chosen profession. I don't agree with all of Thompson's actions, but i certainly understand them better now. "I Came as a Shadow" (taken from a poem) is a window into the life and times of a man who is still worth hearing, even when he's gone.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.