Friday, December 3, 2021

Review: Playmakers (2022)

By Mike Florio

Mike Florio has some opinions about the state of the National Football League, and he'd like to share them.

No, that's not right. That statement doesn't go far enough.

Mike Florio has a lot of opinions about the state of the National Football League, and he'd like to share them. 

That's the premise for his book, "Playmakers." It is sort of named after the ESPN's fictional series that was an attempt to show some of the underside of football. That plan went over rather badly with the National Football League, who just happened to be one of a broadcasting partner of ESPN. The show died a relatively sudden death. 

The difference is that this version of "Playmakers" is real. It's written by Florio, who is the point man of the website of Pro Football Talk (if you prefer, ProFootballTalk.com). It is done in association with NBC Sports. If you've ever seen a Sunday night broadcast, you might notice that PFT ranks every starter in the league by position ... and puts the rankings under a photo of those starters as they are quickly introduce at the start of the game. 

Florio started his work life as a lawyer but moved into sports reporting. He held a job with ESPN before jumping to this venture. The question became - how could he turn the information he's collection and the opinions he's gathered into a coherent book?

It must have started with a list. Florio came up with 10 different sections of the book: the drank, free agency, quarterbacks, coaches, owners, health and safety, off-field player misconduct, major scandals, officiating, and the future. So far, so good. Then he listed at least 10 topics under each category. For example, the quarterbacks mentioned including everyone from Johnny Unitas to Tim Tebow. Each essay doesn't get a great deal of space, so think of them as quick snacks rather than large meals. It keeps the size down to a manageable 288 pages or so, based on prepublication information.

The good news is that Florio does a good job with this. It's not easy to come up with great information or opinions on this many items. For the most part, though, he comes up with some interesting, fresh thoughts that can carry the reader along. In some cases, it's a chance to revisit some old news items, while in others it's an opportunity to discuss news items of the present and possible ramifications of the future. 

Is it all interesting? All is a big word. Some of the stories about player misconduct and scandals don't work overly well, at least from my viewpoint. It's more of a case of recapping a story without a whole lot of analysis. Implied in the question at the beginning of the paragraph are the words "to me." Anyone who reads a book like this is going to be a big fan of the sport. This is not the place for impassive passengers. Therefore, everything should get a spark of recognition from the contents when a book like this comes out. 

And the size helps too. If something isn't too interesting to you, well, it doesn't last long. Another subject will come up along, just like the next bus. It might work better. The usual way of praising such work is along the lines of "it's good to bring into the bathroom." That's a little crude but true.

"Playmakers" comes off as a casual discussion with someone who spends his life around football and is happy to chat in an informal way. That makes it good fun without being life-changing. It should have little trouble luring in readers who will find the book worth their time.

Four stars

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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Review: Up and Down (2021)

By Bubba Watson with Don Yaeger

"Up & Down" gives us the chance to talk about the curious case (and accompanying autobiography) of golfer Bubba Watson. 

Here's someone who is almost tailor-made for a good book about his life. Watson came out of Bagdad, Florida (near Pensacola), and was something of a junior sensation. He won local tournaments even though he never had a lesson, and figured out a way to pick up a college scholarship although he admits he wasn't exactly a great student. Bubba eventually landed at the University of Georgia, where he was really good at times but still was demoted to sixth-man status - which is kind of like being the sixth man on a basketball team. 

Still, he turned professional and had a little success. Even so, that didn't prepare anyone for his win in the 2012 Masters. What's more, he proved the victory was no fluke by capturing the 2014 Masters. They were popular wins in some ways. That's partly because Watson wore his emotions on his sleeve, and partly because he was the classic bomber who clobbered the ball whenever it was necessary - and it usually was.

On the other hand, Watson seemed always to be carrying some baggage around. A 2015 ESPN survey of PGA pros voted Bubba as the person least likely to be rescued by their peers if they saw a fellow pro get in a fight. He's gotten into some public squabbles with those around him in golf. And his career is a bit of a puzzle, in that he seemed capable of doing more on the pro tour than he actually did. At this writing, Watson is 43 - and probably is past his prime.

In other words, Bubba seems like someone who was particularly ill-equipped to handle the spotlight that comes with being a star in American sports. Finding out what happened to him probably is the reason for giving "Up & Down" a read.

Indeed, autobiographies in which the central character is on the unpleasant side can be tough to read, and it's easy to see that Bubba's actions could make him unpopular. For example, he had a very public argument with his caddie on the course during a tournament that everyone seemed to notice. Watson writes about something of an intervention from Ben Crane, a fellow pro who essentially told him to change his behavior. But Bubba didn't quite turn things around at that point. 

Watson starts the book with a candid admission - one that has received most of the headlines from reviews and news stories - about how he hit bottom in 2017. His weight was down to about 162 (down 30 pounds from normal), and his head was such a mess that he thought about giving up golf. We're hearing more these days about athletes who have coping with the pressures of the job, and it's good that Bubba has come out as a member of that club. Watson opened up to people close to him, starting with his wife, and got his head back in order. That's worth more than a golf clap. He's also done a ton of charity work, becoming something of the PGA's face when it comes to adopted (he and his wife adopted two children). 

The biggest puzzle of the book, though, comes at the end. There isn't a great deal written about what happened to him. That starts on a personal level. It would have been nice to know if he did manage to change his ways a bit, and some examples of what he did. 

Then there's the golf side of that story. On the plus side, he made the Ryder Cup team in 2018. After devoting a chapter to service as a vice-captain when he was passed over for the 2016 American team, you'd think that might have been worth noting. On the minus side, Watson hasn't been particularly effective on the tour over the past few years. He hasn't won any events since 2018, and he's only been in one top 10 in a major championship - with 10 missed cuts - starting in 2015. I don't know if he's had physical problems in that time, but it would be interesting to know what if anything has gone wrong. Sometimes this book reads as if it was written around 2018.

There's also very little written about most of the other players on the tour. OK, it's his story, but Watson seemed quite self-absorbed in talking about his tournament years. There is a bit on how he became to be a frequent practice partner of Tiger Woods early in his career., and not much else. A little insight into others might have been nice. The book might have used one more edit, to take out a couple of redundant stories.

Watson has said his priorities in life are God, family, friends and golf - in that order, and I guess the book is something of a reflection of that. I'm not qualified to judge anything about his faith, but he does appear to be a devoted family man and a giving person toward others. Even so, the person revealed in "Up & Down" remains something of an enigma at the end of this very quick read.  

Three stars

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Friday, November 19, 2021

Review: Raise a Fist, Take a Knee (2021)

By John Feinstein

John Feinstein has a long list of books to his credit over the years, starting with "A Season on the Brink" - a look at Bobby Knight and Indiana basketball in the 1980s. He's written about basketball, football, baseball, tennis and golf, and it's fair to say that the books all have been of high quality.

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee," as Feinstein is quick to point out, is different. Instead of taking one aspect of a particular sport, here Feinstein crosses the spectrum of sports to deal with one subject. And that subject is race, which probably could be called "the third rail" of journalism. 

You know where he's going with this just by reading the subtitle of the book: "Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports." Illusion? You mean, we haven't made progress in the intersection of race and sports over the years?

Yes, we have. But Feinstein's point is that we haven't gone far enough in this area to approach anyone's satisfaction. Consider stories told about a couple of African Americans, just as an example. Eric Bieniemy has been the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs since 2018, and an architect of the NFL's most explosive offense during that time. You'd think that he'd be the hottest individual candidate for a head coaching job by now; he's not, and it's easy to wonder what's going on. Bieniemy certainly has. 

Then there's Lovie Smith, who spent nine years with the Chicago Bears - with four 10-win seasons and three playoff appearances. He was fired after a 10-6 season in 2012 - the only coach ever fired after that good of a record. Smith did take over a horrible Tampa Bay team in 2014, but was fired two years into a five-year contract after improving from 2-14 to 6-10. 

This discussion could get tied up pretty quickly, but Feinstein has a secret weapon to make points. He talks to people, at length. The list is impressive: John Thompson, Doug Williams, Tony Dungy, John Carlos, Warren Moon and Dave Stewart among others. He gives them the time and space to talk about their experiences at the intersection of race and sports. A common denominator for all of them is that race always lurks in the background whenever they walk out the front door of their home, no matter what their status in life has been. They all have been taught that in order to succeed in American society, they can't afford to be simply as good as the competition for success - they have to be a little better. They also have been stopped for Driving While Black, in some cases multiple times. 

For the most part, Feinstein gets out of the way of the interview subjects. That's not to say the reader doesn't know where the author stands on the issue, because Feinstein makes his viewpoints quite clear along the way. Subtlety isn't his strong point here, but that's fine. Yes, as a white man he doesn't know what it's like to have his skin color arrive on others before any other part of his being, thus causing some to jump to conclusions. Perhaps it's better that way, in that he can ask the "what is it like? questions without knowing the answers completely already. 

One of the key points along the way is that while the playing field has become relatively equal in many cases (if nothing else, discrimination by definition prevents a team from having the best possible roster on the field or court of play), opportunities in management are still limited to African Americans. It's frustrating to someone like Willie Randolph, who had a pretty good record as the manager of the Mets but who was fired in the middle of his fourth season. He's never had another shot at a managing job - in fact, he's supposedly only had one interview. 

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee" no doubt will be ignored by those who want to ignore it. But it serves as a good wake-up call and a down-to-earn discussion for those who we've come along way without realizing that we've still got a long way to go. If you are interested in a rational discussion of a subject that often turns people irrational, this is a good place to start.

Five stars

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Review: The Master (2021)

By Christopher Clarey

The number of people that hate Roger Federer must be close to absolute zero.

Yes, there might be a couple of tennis fans in Spain or Serbia who don't like the way that Federer has gotten in the way of their favorite players in big tournaments. But even fans of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic probably have plenty of respect for Federer. 

What's not to like?

Roger has been on top of his game for around two decades, a ridiculous run. He set the record for grand-slam wins, and he's been gallant even in his defeats. 

And has anyone been nicer along the way? Is there an athlete who could make you feel more comfortable in a chance meeting? Is there anyone who has been more of a class act while in the blinding spotlight of fame?

The answers are no, no, and no. Federer appears to be close to the age where he should be thinking about retirement, but he's not shutting any doors yet.

Still, his amazing career certainly is much closer to the end than the beginning. It's a good time, then, for a full biography to be written about the most famous athlete from Switzerland in history. Christopher Clarey, who works for the New York Times, has answered that call with his deep dive into All Things Federer with "The Master."

Federer first started to attract attention with his game as a teen, as he played in his first junior tournament at the age of 14. Eventually, Roger climbed up the ladder and attracted attention with his talent. About the only blemish in a lifetime of behavior came up then, when he developed a reputation as someone who could not control his temper and be a sore loser. How un-Swiss like! But that's hardly uncommon for that age, and eventually faded.

Clarey then moves into Federer's pro career. Roger turned pro in 1998, cracked the top 100 in 1999, and won a tournament in 2001. That was the year that the 19-year-old Federer caught everyone's attention by surprising Pete Sampras, the world's best player, at Wimbledon. Roger won that tournament in England a couple of years later, the first of 20. 

Federer had a few years where he was unquestionably on top of the mountain; it just seemed like longer. Eventually, Nadal and Djokovic came along, and they developed one of the great three-sided rivalries in sports history. In 2008, Federer and Nadal played one of the great matches in tennis history at the Wimbledon final; it's odd that we remember Roger for a couple of his epic losses as well as his many wins. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title in 2008 in Australia. And we were all off for a ride in which those three dominated the sport of men's tennis for more than a decade. If one of the three didn't win a major title, it was an upset. By the end of 2021, all three had 20 career titles. Part of me wishes that the numbers would stay that way, so they would be forever linked in history.

There's plenty of tennis in the book, of course. But Clarey certainly takes the time to explore other tangents on the subjects, with short biographies of the major influencers in Federer's life. That includes coaches, business associates, family, etc. What's striking is how well Federer has done to strike a balance in life, making sure he doesn't get overscheduled along the way. Yes, it helps to have a billion dollars stashed away, but his longevity doesn't seem to be an accident.

Clarey comes off here as a classic international reporter, vaulting around the world to cover the sport. I didn't know his name before reading this, but certainly he knows his stuff. Clarey has collected a ton of information here, even taking the time to fly to the town in South Africa where Federer's parents met. 

There's only one drawback to this story, and it's a fairly big one. Federer can't be criticized for not having any drama in his life. He's succeeded by any standard on almost every level of his life. However, that lack of conflict or troubles that were overcome may not help the readability of the book for some. I'm not sure if someone who is less than a casual fan in the sport will want to go through this. 

But those that do pick up "The Master" will find it rewarding. Federer wasn't much of a factor in 2021, mostly because knee problems and the pandemic. But, like Phil Mickelson on the golf tour, it's easy to think that Roger had one more great run left in him if his body will cooperate. If that happens, we'll all get to see the depth of the affection earned over these many years on display.

Four stars

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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Review: The Year's Best Sports Writing 2021

Edited by Glenn Stout

The idea of having an anthology of a given year's best sports stories has proved to be resilient to the point of being pesky. It just won't go away.

The first such book appeared in 1945 and ran for almost a half-century. If you have a good-sized library in your town, you probably can find them on some slightly dusty shelves. That lasted annually (one exception, due to illness for decades); I believe the Sporting News picked up the series at some point late in its run. Then it was reborn as The Best American Sports Writing, where it lasted 30 years. Readers of this blog know that the series was a staple of my annual reading.

That version died a year ago, and the chances of a rebirth at least from the outside seemed small. But Triumph Books came along and offered to revive, if that's the right word, the series under a slightly different management structure. Glenn Stout, who was something of a caretaker of the series before, moved up to be the editor on a one-time basis. He'll be giving up that role next year, and an editorial board has been picked to oversee the contributions. Let's hope for another 30-year run.

As we know, there's a lot of good writing out there every year, and it's tough to weed it down to the best of the best. We all carry our individual biases into such a book. In my case, the stories that deal with sports on a tangential basis have to work a little harder to draw me in. The book has articles on two bicyclists who happen to meet as they pedal in opposite directions while crossing the Eastern Hemisphere, and of two basketball-playing poets. They were a little outside my comfort zone.

But then came "The Inheritance of Archie Manning" by Wright Thompson of ESPN, and life was more than good again. This profile of a great athlete in his 70s who remains tied his glory days in college is one of those stories that you just don't want to end. And that was quickly followed by the amazing tale of pitcher Richard Dotson and his father, and "Hook Shot Charlie," and life in the NBA's bubble, and Kobe Bryant from two different perspectives, and ... well, you get the idea.

After almost 350 pages, the batting average for success stayed up to the series' usual standards. There were well-researched stories on the pandemic, Ivy Leaguers in baseball management and Andrew Giuliani. A piece from Runner's World on the death of an African American jogger hit home, in part because the trial of the case started when I was reading it. A story on the first inter-racial boxing match in Texas history was a favorite. And even some of those barely-sports stories lured me in - a burglar who stole Super Bowl rings, a hiker who disappeared, and a heart transplant recipient who bicycled across the country to see the grave of the donor. 

I thought I had lost an old friend a year ago, but "The Year's Best Sports Writing" perhaps shows that you can't keep a good concept down. Welcome back. 

Five stars

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Friday, October 29, 2021

Review: Loserville (2022)

By Clayton Trutor

Any discussion about a book called "Loserville" must start with its title. If you only knew that a sports volume was coming out by that name, where would you guess the story was centered?

The winner is indeed Atlanta, as indicated by the subtitle, "How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta - and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports." The actual titles comes from a series of articles in an Atlanta newspaper a few years ago about what went wrong with the city's teams. After reading the book by Claytor Trutor, it's easy to think that he's got a case for that particular title. It's a wide-ranging look at the circumstances surrounding Atlanta and its professional teams. 

When the 1960s began, the four major pro sports were a tight fraternity bunched mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. But changes already were underway that would alter the landscape considerably. The population was shifting - first to the West Coast, as evidenced by the moves of baseball's Dodgers and Giants to Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it was also moving to the so-called Sun Belt states of the South.

The Sixties saw increased numbers in the old Confederacy states, which were mostly left out of big league sports around then. The Miami Dolphins were one of the few exceptions. It was also the time of the civil rights revolution. African Americans still were leaving rural areas of the South by then, but they were just as likely to be landing in the big cities of the South as opposed to going into the big cities of the North and Midwest. 

That brings us to Atlanta, which featured a rapidly growing metropolitan area in that era. While it can be a nice problem for a government to have, it doesn't mean the problems are insignificant. You can start with housing, infrastructure, poverty, and go from there. Atlanta had all of that, and it also had something called "white flight" - whites leaving the city in droves and moving to the suburbs. Atlanta soon became a majority black city - and economicially, that almost made the area look like a doughnut on the map. 

Politicians and civic leaders got together and search for the old standby, the proverbial "silver bullet," to change the equation. Maybe pro sports could be the answer. It would provide benefits to the community, making it "big league" to a country that from the outside of the South had looked down on the region because of its civil rights policies. Sports could provide benefits in the quality of life for those who wanted to be fans.

The problem, as Trutor points out, was that Atlanta made quite a few mistakes. It was anxious to build a new stadium to lure teams to Georgia, so it build a new multi-purpose stadium. That had the intended goal, as the Braves landed in Atlanta from Milwaukee and the NFL granted an expansion team to the area (Falcons). The stadium was built in Atlanta proper, in an era where new housing for residents was supposed to be built. So the overcrowded and poverty in the city only became worse. What's more, the stadium was near a high-crime area. If suburban fans needed an excuse not to go to games, they had one - and used it, at least when the teams were poor. And they often were.

It was a similar story when the Hawks and Flames arrived soon after the Braves and Falcons did. A shiny new arena soon was built downtown that was part of a large real estate development complex. But other businesses really didn't follow the teams to the area, in part because the area's economic muscle was moving out of the central city. Throw in the fact that no one in Georgia had much of a tradition of following pro sports, except for transplants. It was tough to make a dent into the fans' interest in college sports as well as outside recreational opportunities. 

So what happened? The Braves had one long run of success during their time in Atlanta; we can call them the Glavine/Smoltz years. The team eventually moved to the suburbs. We will see if the team's World Series run in 2021 can spark several years of success. The Falcons are on their third stadium but remain one of the few teams that has never won a Super Bowl. The Hawks have rarely been relevant, having never reached the NBA Finals since arriving in Atlanta. The NHL has been in the city twice, and both times left relatively quickly. 

The author is quick to point out that Atlanta isn't the only city in the Sun Belt to go through this. Tampa has had an uneven transition into the world of pro sports. The Rays still don't draw anyone, and the Bucs were usually mediocre to bad ... at least until Tom Brady arrived. The Lightning had the same status for several years, but have won three Stanley Cups in this century to build up interest.

Trutor is remarkably thorough in going through all of these. It's easy to get a little lost in all of the anagrams presented here; there are government agencies, authorities and other groups here. This is also rather dry material in many cases, and it's a big book - about 400 pages. If you are looking for any sort of recap of Atlanta's on-field problems, well, this isn't the place.

It's tough to picture many people who might consider "Loserville" to be "leisure reading." I'm not sure many people outside of Georgia will be interested enough to pick it up. However, those that do will discover some rewards on what to do and what not to do when it comes to the relationship between municipalities and sports teams. 

Four stars

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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Review: Hang Time (2018)

By Elgin Baylor with Alan Eisenstock

The first time I noticed Elgin Baylor was in 1974, when I was 18 years old. I was in the Basketball Hall of Fame - the old, old building on the campus of Springfield College in Massachusetts. I was old enough to have seen him play, but not old enough to remember how he played when he was in his prime after he turned pro.

The Hall of Fame used to show old basketball highlight films in those days, and my friend and I couldn't get enough of them in those pre-YouTube days. One of them was a highlight film of a particular season. And Baylor was the clear star. He was years ahead of his time, pioneering a game that was played more in the air than on the ground. Julius Erving, David Thompson and Michael Jordan all owe something to this pioneer of hoops.

That was a good lesson, but there are others to be learned from this remarkable player. "Hang Time" provides a good education into his life.

Baylor grew up in Washington, D.C., which was still quite Southern in its outlook on race relations. Every day was something of a battle for African Americans, particularly when they bumped up against established policies. Elgin - yes, named after the watch company after his parents apparently ran out of ideas for names - found an escape route from all that through basketball. Still, there were possible detours along the way. You will be stunned at the reason why Baylor missed the first semester of his senior year of high school, and how the situation was resolved.

From there it was on to junior college in Idaho - Idaho? - and then to Seattle University, where Baylor made the team a national powerhouse. He turned pro and joined the Minneapolis Lakers, who were soon off to Los Angeles. There Baylor put up numbers straight out of video games. He averaged more than 30 points per game for three straight years, including a remarkable 38.3 figure in 1961-62. And he did it with a spectacular style that would have made him a social media favorite had he been born about 55 years later. 

Unfortunately, high flying athletes usually get grounded by injuries over the course in time, and Baylor started to have knee trouble midway through his career. His description of his kneecap essentially exploding during a game is still tough to read. But Elgin adjusted, and he was still an effective player through the age of 35.

Baylor comes through with plenty of good stories here about his playing days, told with honesty. The NBA was different in those days, almost a fraternity more than a sports league. Baylor played with and against the top players of his era. His biggest problem was that he was never on a team that could never get past the Boston Celtics and their dynasty of that era. Sadly, it wasn't until Baylor retired that the Lakers finally got that long-coveted title in 1972. 

This is frequently told in an unusual first-person style that requires a little time for the reader to adjust to it. The anecdotes are almost always fascinating, although sometimes the story gets a little bogged down in statistical recaps about playoff matchups. The other complaint about the book is that essentially ends after the 1969 playoffs. The 1970 final against the New York Knicks, which was a fascinating and dramatic matchup, only receives a small mention. Baylor also served as the general manager for the Clippers under the team's notorious owner, Donald Sterling. Elgin stayed for 22 years, and he regretted the long stay until the day he died by the sounds of it. Sterling was essentially kicked out of the NBA for being a racist, and Baylor regrets hanging around so long. His reason is that he wanted an African American to have that job, but he writes that he'd take a do-over for that part of his life if he could.

Baylor died in 2021, and after years of prompting it's good that he finally got "Hang Time" down on paper. The kids might not be initially interested in a player from the 1950s and 1960s, but I'd guess that most fans will thoroughly enjoy this trip into a basketball time machine.

Four stars

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Friday, October 15, 2021

Review: From Hang Time to Prime Time (2020)

By Pete Croatto

For those of you who think the National Basketball Association has been the proverbial big-league organization forever, well, think again. 

It wasn't that long ago - in the mid-1970s, more or less - that the NBA was barely hanging on for survival. Attendance levels were low, television presence was rare, and the players - while talented - had image problems. The level of play was relatively good, but as a business this was hardly the hoop equivalent of the National Basketball Association.

It took less than 20 years, more or less, but the NBA eventually cleaned up its act and became a worthy partner to football and baseball at the top of the American sports pyramid. How that happened is an interesting story on its own, and it is well told in Pete Croatto's book, "From Hang Time to Prime Time." 

Croatto gets things off to a great start. In the first 100 pages of the book, he outlined just where the NBA was about 45 years ago in a fascinating way, full of new details and information. The situation wasn't pretty. The number of people working for the league probably couldn't staff a small supermarket. The presence of the American Basketball Association had driven salaries up to unsustainable levels (at least, by the standards of the time). Some playoff games were either not seen nationally at all or on tape delay. 

Larry O'Brien was hired as the NBA Commissioner in 1975. His first major actions were to settle an on-going legal dispute with the players to a satisfactory conclusion for all, and to help forge a merger between the NBA and ABA. I've always thought O'Brien's contributions have been a bit underrated as these things go, and Croatto gives him full marks for those accomplishments. But from there, O'Brien sounds like he didn't know what to do next. Instead, he'd sit in his office and talk about his good ol' days when he worked at high levels of government. 

Luckily, help was on the way. O'Brien was smart enough in 1978 to hire David Stern, who had been working with the NBA as an outside attorney. And Stern changed everything, slowly but surely. The league started to figure out how to solve its problems. It realized it was not really in the sports business, but in the entertainment business. The role model forward went through Disney. Helping matters was the fact that two huge stars arrived in the same year - Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. They double-handedly destroyed the stereotype that basketball players were a selfish bunch, as their passing skills were off the charts. 

The other steps came soon after that. The NBA All-Star Game was turned into a showcase event on the season's calendar. The owners and players agreed on a salary cap and rules concerning drug use. Most importantly, Stern took over as commissioner in 1984 - a few months before Michael Jordan arrived in the NBA. Soon the success stories started mounting. 

The league was wise enough to embrace the fact that the players were the league's best sales tool. They were young, athletic, and essentially - as one person put it - running around in their underwear. Stars could drive the product, and they did. Jordan and Company not only were well suited for that job, but all of the players bought into the concept. That led to television programs, videos, international sales, etc. The league also embraced its African American side, as rappers and hip-hop artists picked up on such items as jerseys and sneakers, making them a way for young people of all types to have a route to connect with the game. In other words, people who didn't know Michael Jordan from Rick Robey still wanted basketball-connected merchandise. 

Croatto certainly put his time into this project. He talked to a variety of people - the list of interview subjects goes on for five pages. Croatto had a few people turn him down, including Stern (the last request came shortly before Stern's death), but this sure feels like the complete story.

"From Hang Time to Prime Time" doesn't have much actual basketball in it, so be forewarned. It's a little difficult to make all of it fascinating. Still, for those looking for an explanation of how the NBA blossomed as a business entity, this book will rank as the definitive explanation.

Four stars

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Sunday, October 3, 2021

Review: You Are Looking Live (2021)

By Rich Podolsky

It doesn't take much for a football fan to return to the 1970s. The phrase "you are looking live" ought to do it.

That was the phrase that Brent Musburger often used to begin a CBS sports broadcast in that era. The words also served as an introduction to something of a new era in TV production, since it was relatively early to show several live scenes, one after another, in a broadcast. Musburger and Company did it on "The NFL Today," which established the template for the form in that time period. You really had to watch the show if you are a pro football follower in those days. 

Rich Podolsky takes a look back at those days with something of a history of the show, entitled, of course, "You Are Looking Live!"

Watching football had become something of a national obsession by the 1970s, and CBS was interested in expanding the amount of programming devoted to the game. To do that, it had to put together some sort of compelling show that would force people to turn on their televisions at 12:30 p.m. instead of 1 p.m.

The cast of characters was crucial. Musburger was at the center of the action. From a technical standpoint, what CBS tried to do was close to insane in terms of complexity by Seventies standards. Not only did he handle it smoothly, but he added a touch of urgency to the proceedings. Irv Cross was a former NFL player who knew the game and was a polished broadcaster. He's not remembered as a trailblazer among African Americans broadcasters, but he should be. 

Phyllis George, a former Miss America, blazed a trail in her own right. She showed that women could be a good-sized part of a successful broadcast. George did interviews that didn't have an X and O in sight. That was a time when some men refused to believe that a woman had a place on any sort of sports broadcast, and would complain about it loudly to anyone who would listen. I can't imagine what George's Twitter feed might have looked like back in those days - but it would have been ugly. Finally, there was Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, a gambling expert given legitimacy by his mere presence. He also added an air of unpredictability, since you never knew what he might say. They all filled 30 minutes of programming nicely, and accomplished the goal of attracting an audience.

A couple of things are rather obvious about this book right from the start. It's rather thin at 200 pages or so. Therefore, it's going to be a quick read - which is fine for a subject like this. Podolsky in the introduction talks about how working on "The NFL Today" was the best five years of his professional life. That's something of a double-edged sword. He knows most of the principals involved in the show, on and off the air, and that allows him good access to those involved who are still around to talk about it. (Cross, George and Snyder have died in recent years.) But it also means that it's tough for him to be objective about the show, the people involved in it, and its impact. The author does talk to some people who competed against the show, and their comments are instructive.

At least Podolsky covers the major issues that come up during the course of the show's run. Snyder was the biggest problem for all concerned, occasionally doing something that embarrassed the network. The cast changed a bit as the years went by, and it wasn't as interesting. The pregame shows on CBS and Fox now last for an hour, and they aren't exactly Must See TV in my house. The lesson of "less is more" comes up, at least as compared to the original version.

"You Are Looking Live" isn't going to stay on the bookshelf forever. But if Podolsky set out to write a quick, relatively interesting read, he has succeeded nicely. Just make sure you're old enough to remember the original show before getting out your credit card.

Three stars

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Friday, October 1, 2021

Review: Olympic Pride, American Prejudice (2020)

By Deborah Riley Draper & Travis Thrasher

A good case could be made that the 1936 Summer Olympics were the most dramatic event of its kind in history. Few of the reasons why concern athletics.

The 1930s are associated with a worldwide depression. While it's difficult to try to rate levels of poverty, it's fair to say that Germany was in as much chaos as any nation at the beginning of the decade. That nation had been devastated by World War I, and the collapse of the economy proved too much for the existing government to overcome. That in turn led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

While the overall costs (in all areas, it should be said) were horrific, Germany did settle down economically for a time. Hitler was anxious to show the world the new German state, and thought hosting an Olympics was the way to do it. By 1935, the Nazis' anti-Jewish policies had collected the attention of the world, and many wondered if the United States should boycott the Olympics. American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage went to Germany, was assured that Jews would not face discrimination, and helped get the formal invitation to the Games accepted. In hindsight, Brundage set an Olympic record for naiveté. 

America had another problem entering the games. "Separate but equal" was the law of the land in regard to African Americans, but some had overcome major obstacles to become potential Olympians. While racism was in full bloom in this site of the border, it seemed hypocritical to ignore that while working to obtain an open Olympics. 

The Games went on with full military precision, and they took place with the participation of 18 athletes who were part of the American team. Their story is told in the book (and accompanying documentary), "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice."

Authors Deborah Riley Draper and Travis Thrasher take a look at all of the African Americans on that team, although some receive more attention that others. All of them certainly overcame a lot to get that far, as economics certainly worked against them. Keep in mind that many of the athletes had to raise money to simply pay their expenses involved in such trip. That was on top of the racist obstacles that were often thrown in their way during their years-long journey to Berlin.

The book neatly highlights a couple of stories that probably deserve to be told. The first centers on Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field to neatly destroy any thoughts that Hitler might have had about using the Olympics as a demonstration of "Aryan supremacy." The catch comes in the tale that Hitler snubbed Owens by not greeting him when Owens had won a gold medal. Draper and Thrasher point out that on the day in question when Hitler was in the stadium, Owens had only won a heat and wasn't a candidate to meet the Fuhrer. Cornelius Johnson did win the high jump that day, and if was snubbed that day, he was. But Hitler had left the building that point, and we'll never know if it was a deliberate act to avoid shaking hands with African-American winners.

The other story centers on the relay races. Two Jewish runners on the American team had been replaced at the last minute on the 4x100 team, probably in an attempt to avoid embarrassment of the Olympic hosts. A similar plan was hatched to change the lineup for the 4x400 team - except that the three "replacements" refuse to run. The United States team still finished second. 

The biggest complaint about the book might be the way it is approached. Much of it is written in the present tense, with notes about what the principals were thinking at a given moment. It's a dramatic way of telling the story, but it's easy to wonder how much of it is accurate concerning a given moment. 

We shouldn't forget the stars of "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice." President Obama salute them with a ceremony for their descendants during a White House ceremony in 2016. If you prefer movies on such matters, the documentary of the same name is available on YouTube. The books, though, works quite well.

Four stars

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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Review: Wish It Lasted Forever (2021)

By Dan Shaughnessy

Dan Shaughnessy can be a tough sportswriter some times.

That's a little more rare than you might think. Criticism of sports figures has become increasingly rare, particularly in an age where athletes can go on their own outlets of social media - or, better yet, pop up on a team's ever-cheerleading site - in order to get a point across to the public. 

Shaughnessy, a columnist for the Boston Globe, often isn't like that. He'll say what he thinks, and worries about the damage later on. It's not a way to be popular, but it's probably necessary. An objective viewpoint can be an important counterpoint these days.

Yet, in the book "Wish It Lasted Forever," Shaughnessy comes across as downright happy and occasionally apologetic. This may surprise his regular readers in New England, who are used to crusty. 

The biggest reason that Dan is happy in this book is that he was more or less in the right place in the right time. He covered the Boston Celtics during the early 1980s. If there was a better assignment for a sportswriter to have in those days, it doesn't really come to mind.

First of all, the Celtics were good. Really good. They had Larry Bird on their side, at his peak. Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson were around for much of that time as well, and K.C. Jones and Red Auerbach are in the picture as well. Bill Walton even shows up for a too-brief appearance, and provides the title in talking about what is is like to play on a team like the 1985-86 Celtics. No matter what happened, this bunch was not going to lose too many games. Losses lead to unhappy people on a team; ask those who cover the Buffalo Sabres these days. The game stories start to read alike. Shaughnessy's biggest question in a given year was, will the Celtics win the NBA championship again?

What's more, this is a very interesting group of guys.  Bird comes off as having a very sharp mind, McHale and Walton are funny, Parish is silent (as opposed to his wife), Ainge is intelligent, Cedric Maxwell is charismatic. The group got along well. Shaughnessy was not a member of the band - there's always a wall up between the two sides - but he went to practices and games with the Celtics almost every day for months. Dan also traveled with the team, taking the same planes and riding the buses. It's a great seat, and Shaughnessy certainly enjoyed the vantage point. There's a really fun story about how Bird and Shaughnessy wound up in a free-throw shooting contest.

It's not all easy of course. One time Bird apparently got into a bar room fight and hurt his hand. Shaughnessy found confirmation of the story and found a eyewitness. The reporter told his boss that someone else should write the story because Bird would cut off access indefinitely, but was told to do it anyway. The story was written, and even teammates confirmed it later, but Shaughnessy did indeed pay a price. 

The author also made the wise decision to reach back to the list of people from that era and ask them today about what happened back then. It does supply some good perspective into events. 

The publisher has played up the fact that the book is something of a printed version of "The Last Dance," about Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Based on "Wish It Lasted Forever," it seems like being around Larry Bird's Boston Celtics was a heck of a lot more fun. Celtics' fans will love this, and most sports fans should enjoy it.

Four stars

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Monday, September 20, 2021

Review: Finding Murphy (2020)

By Rick Westhead

"Finding Murph" is one sad story. 

It's the latest in something of an informal series of articles and books on the problems in the form of concussions and head-related injuries that take place during contact sports. Considering how long this issue was ignored by all concerned, I have no doubt that we'll be hearing and reading such stories for years to come. 

Joe Murphy had it all by hockey standards, once upon a time. He was the first college player ever to go first in the NHL Entry Draft, as Detroit took him in 1986. He had trouble breaking into to the big leagues - it's tough to judge how 18-year-olds will do immediately when they are asked to compete against men. However, a change of scenery seemed to help. Joe was a part of the Edmonton Oilers team that won the Stanley Cup in 1990. 

Less than a year later, Murphy took a huge hit to the head from Detroit's Shawn Burr during the game. He didn't miss much playing time, and actually rebounded to play rather well in the months after that. But Murphy's behavior, which could always be a little unusual at times, seemed to change for the worse after the hit. Murphy was still a decent player, but found himself bouncing around the league - Chicago, St. Louis, San Jose, Boston, and Washington. Can you be a disappointment after playing 779 games in the NHL, scoring 233 goals and earning a few million dollars along the way? Perhaps, because Murphy seemed as if he was capable of more.

Murphy fell off the grid for a while, floating from place to place. He came back into the news around 2018 when author Rick Westhead and former NHL goalie Trevor Kidd caught up with Joe. He was homeless, sleeping where he could in such places as the floor of the forest, in Kenora, Ontario - located near the Manitoba border not too far from Minnesota. The book idea started with those interviews with Murphy.

Westhead did an impressive job of collecting information about Murphy's life for this book. He talked to all sorts of people who have encountered him over the years, from people in his childhood all the way through the good times in the NHL and to the family, friends and strangers who deal with him now. You probably could argue that Murphy was on the immature side throughout his entire time in hockey; sometimes it's tough to deal with the entitlement that comes with people telling you how special you are in a particular skill. 

Westhead also reviews the issues with the game of hockey and its accompanying concussions as seen through the prism of hockey administration. In other words, the NHL was quite slow in recognizing the risks associated with head injuries, and you probably could say the same about other levels of the game as well. The fear of lawsuits seemed to be paramount on their collective minds. Things are better now in this area, with baseline testing and mandatory layoffs after head trauma. Westhead does a good job of compiling a list of incidents that have affected hockey players in previous years, showing that this is hardly a new problem. 

The only complaint with the book is that the portions about the NHL's reaction to the concussion issue, while quite damning in some ways, is a little disorganized and hard to follow easily. But you'll get the idea.

The last couple of chapters are tough to read. It's a review of what life was like for Murphy as of 2018. Governments always have had trouble effectively treating the effects of mental illness, and Joe is something of a poster boy for that. After much of the research was done, Murphy turned up in Quebec. Then in 2020, he was spotted wandering the streets of Regina, Saskatchewan. 

Here in Buffalo, we're very conscious of concussions and their effects. Pat LaFontaine's career essentially ended the night he took a hit against Pittsburgh in 1996, although he hung on for a while. Kyle Okposo has had a couple of concussions and other medical issues. They helped to rob him of much of what seemed to be a promising career. 

This is not light reading by any means. Still, "Finding Murph" puts a flashlight on the potential downside of athletic glory. It's certainly necessary to do that once in a while.   

Four stars

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Monday, September 13, 2021

Review: Year of the Rocket (2021)

By Paul Woods

Books about the Canadian Football League don't pop up on this blog very often, and for a very good reason - I live in the United States.

"Year of the Rocket," written by Paul Woods, is the exception.

Raghib "Rocket" Ismael's career is quite a story, at least at the beginning.  He was raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and went to Notre Dame to play football. The Rocket may not have been the best pure player in the country, but he certainly made things happen. His blinding speed made him a threat to score a touchdown whenever he had the ball in his hand. Ismael finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year, and certainly figured to go high in the first round of the 1991 draft. 

However, Bruce McNall had other ideas. He thought he saw a back-door method into the National Football League by buyig the Toronto Argonauts of CFL. If the NFL wanted to expand to Toronto someday - and really, why wouldn't they? - the owner of the Argos might have the edge in winning that franchise. But the CFL team would have to become much more relevant than it was at the time.

So McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings, decided to take a shot at making this all work. To do that, he enlisted Wayne Gretzky, who was playing for the Kings at the time, and John Candy, an actor/comedian from Ontario. They put up a little money, and bought the Argonauts. Then the group essentially bribed Ismael to skip the NFL and play in Toronto. The rookie received $4.5 million per year for four years, making his annual salary larger than the rest of the team's income. 

But it didn't work for a couple of reasons. The Rocket was supposed to serve as a spokesman for the team in its attempt to gain attention, and he really wasn't the least bit ready for such responsibilities. Candy tried to fill in for Ismael in a sense, and worked hard to make the Argos go. But the other problem was that McNall was a crook - a go-to-jail-for-financial fraud crook. His sports empire was made out of paper. The Argos hemorrhaged money, and even a championship didn't help. The team, and McNall, ran out of cash rather quickly, and the experiment ended when the franchise was sold. By the way, McNall says in the book that he never could figure out how to get the NFL to add a team in Toronto as long as Buffalo's Bills were just down the highway.

Woods worked for about four years putting all of this together. Some of the principals wouldn't talk about it, even today, and others like Candy had died. But most of the other key personalities were more than happy to speak about this era of Canadian football. In hindsight, most treat it as something of a dream where they look back and say, "Did all of this really happen?"

Clearly Candy is the star of the show here. He was a huge football fan, and it was his childhood dream come true to own the Argos. Candy was full of ideas, and was willing to do almost anything - well, except for investing more than $1 million - to make it work. What's more, John had a ton of fun doing it - as the stories show. There are plenty of other people who were a smaller part of the story who turn up in the book to provide facts and perspective.

If there's a downside to the book, at least for Americans, it's that the Argos' football story needs to be told along the way. Almost all of the names besides the Rocket on the roster and coaching staff will be unfamiliar to U.S. readers. Therefore, it's tough to draw people in to read about a quarterback battle during Toronto's 1991 season. 

Even so, 'Year of the Rocket" goes by as quickly as a punt return for a touchdown, as it checks in at less than 200 pages. No, the cast will attract a very specialized audience. If you qualify, you will be entertained.

Four stars

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Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Review: Papi (2017)

By David Ortiz with Michael Holley

It's time for another discussion about that literary phenomenon - the double autobiography. And the person in question is baseball standout David Ortiz.

Fans of the Boston Red Sox might remember the book, "Big Papi." The slugger came out with the story of his life in 2007. He was in the middle of his career then, a hero already because of his work in leading the Red Sox to the World Series title in 2004. You might have heard that it ended an 86-year "curse."

After that book was written, Ortiz went on to continue his exploits in Boston. He was a big part of two more World Champions, and eventually went past the 500-homer milestone. Ortiz retired after the 2016 season. 

What happened next? He wrote another book.

"Papi" is that book. So what's it like?

For starters, it takes Ortiz and coauthor Michael Holley 114 pages to cover the years of his life through 2006. That's about half of the book. That particular fact might give you a little pause about reading this version. It's fair to say, though, that retirement freed Ortiz up to be a bit more candid about his entire baseball career. So from the perspective of more than 10 years later, this probably is the story that you want to read to get something of the inside scoop on his life. I say probably, because I'm not sure I read the first one.  

Ortiz's story is relatively well-known among baseball fans. He signed with Seattle out of the Dominican Republic, and was traded to Minnesota. Ortiz did relatively well with the Twins when given a chance, but Minnesota opted not to sign him when he was finding his way through the majors. By the way, the reviews of the first book indicate that David didn't like Twins manager Tom Kelly in 2007, and he didn't change his mind a decade later. Ortiz signed with the Red Sox, eventually won a job, and was on his way to being arguably the best designated hitter in history.

The Red Sox went through a variety of ups and downs after 2004. What stands out here is that Ortiz is very loyal to his teammates, which is understandable. He was close to Manny Ramirez during their time together, even if Manny wasn't much easier to figure out if he was your friend. So when the Red Sox didn't try hard enough to keep established talent on the team - see Jon Lester - Ortiz was angry about it. He still is, years later. Such personalities as Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington take a hit along the way here, and not without some justification. Big Papi is still upset that Terry Francona pinch-hit for him with Mike Lowell way back around 2009. Ortiz has a long memory.

Number one on the hit list, though, is Bobby Valentine. He was the manager of the Red Sox for only a year, 2012. But Ortiz was convinced that the team was on the wrong track as soon as spring training ended. In fact, some veterans almost went to the team's ownership on the first road trip to ask for a switch in managers. The mutiny was delayed, but Valentine didn't last the year. 

This is all told in a breezy way. Sometimes those who speak English as a second language can produce a book that's a little choppy, but Holley deserves credit for making it flow rather nicely.  By the way, the coauthor of the first book, Tony Massarotti, takes a hit along the way too. It comes with a description of what happened when Ortiz's name popped up on the Mitchell Report. By the way, there's not too much behind-the-scenes description of that episode, at least until the end when Ortiz finds out Major League Baseball isn't assuming he was on steroids in that era.

"Papi," then, should satisfy your curiosity about Ortiz and the Red Sox teams of his era. Just don't expect too much more than that.

Three stars

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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Review: Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised (2021)

By Carmelo Anthony with D. Watkins     

At its heart, "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised" isn't about basketball.

It's more about sociology and urban studies than any other category. The book will be in the sports section of the bookstore, because the author has been one of the best basketball players on the planet. Just don't expect a recap of his achievements here. There's more at stake.

Carmelo Anthony has been a sensation ever since he burst on the national scene in 2002. Rapid fans of high school basketball, especially in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, had heard about him. Carmelo is the type of unique name that is simply fun to say and hard to forget. When he helped Syracuse University win the national championship in 2003, just about everyone in the sport had heard about him, and had seen what a special player he was.

This is the first part of the story, from birth to the NBA draft, and it's an interesting one. Anthony began life in New York City in one of the toughest sections of that town. He didn't even know his father, who died when he was an infant. Carmelo moved to Baltimore at the age of eight or so, with his mom and, at least toward him, generally angry stepfather. The family settles into a neighborhood there that's more of a place to survive than to thrive.

The people there do their best to move from day to day, but it's not easy. Families are far from traditional. The neighborhood economy has little to offer, particularly when it comes to jobs. That forces people to dive underground into drugs and other social ills. Guns are plentiful, and deaths are almost expected at some point.   

Anthony was lucky. His mother did whatever she needed to do to keep Carmelo in line and happy. If a relative or a friend needed a place to eat or sleep, the Anthonys would make room for him or her. Somehow. They might sleep in a closet, but they'd be warm and dry. As a child, Carmelo really didn't know how it all worked, but he certainly appreciated the effort.

The transition toward maturity wasn't without its bumps, of course. Anthony was on the edge of trouble at times. It's sometimes a balancing act between following the rules of the streets as well as the laws of the community. But among the many people that come out of such places, Carmelo had an advantage - he was good at basketball. That got him a ticket into a private school, allowing Anthony to see how the other half lived. But there were cultural clashes on the way.

Anthony spent the summer between his junior and senior years of high school in summer school, working off a string of detentions and raising his grades a bit. That actually hurt his visibility in the basketball world a bit, since he missed most of the summer camps and competitions where reputations are made. Anthony was urged by the Syracuse coaches to get out of Baltimore at that point, and he spent his final year of high school at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. There he played on a team filled the stars, and was ready for the big time when he walked in the proverbial front door of Syracuse University.

The key to the story is that it is "authentic." It's a serious, straight-ahead story of the ups and downs of his experiences. The fact that it's coming from one person doesn't hurt the story at all. These are his experiences; it's up to the read to make generalizations from there. Certainly some people are going to feel like going on-line and looking up some phrases in the Urban Dictionary. It won't hurt, and you might learn something. The story moves along quite well as Anthony tells the story with the power of simplicity.

"Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised" is hardly a conventional memoir.  But, it works. The publication should hold your interest throughout. The book is another sunk basket in the second half of a life that's had a lot of them.

Four stars

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Saturday, August 21, 2021

Review: Ice Bowl (2021)

By Ed Gruver

Almost a year after the birth of the Super Bowl, the Ice Bowl was born.

That became the unofficial nickname of the NFL Championship game of the 1967 season. It was played in Green Bay between the Packers and Dallas Cowboys. The winner would go to the Super Bowl, which made its debut on the American sporting scene a year before. It matched the AFL and NFL champions.

Why Ice Bowl? Well, it was cold. Frightfully cold. The temperature at kickoff was minus-15 degrees. It didn't get any warmer as the day went on. Since it was the coldest NFL game ever, the images from that game became memorable. Green Bay picked up a reputation as an ice box on that day, and it lingers to this day. 

Naturally, the game led to the production of a few books over the years. One of them was "Ice Bowl," by Ed Gruver. It seems to have originally been published in 1998. Now it's back for something of an encore run. 

Gruver wrote the book in a brisk (pardon the accidental pun), easy-to-read way. After setting up the day of the game, the author dives into the history behind the game. That essentially begins with the arrival of the respective coaches in the Ice Bowl, Green Bay's Vince Lombardi and Dallas' Tom Landry. The two had been coordinators with the New York Giants in the 1950s, and it's hard to believe the Giants let both of them go. They both won a lot of games as head coaches. 

By 1967, the Packers had established themselves as the gold standard for football. They had won NFL titles in 1961, 1962, 1965 and 1966. So 1967 would make it three in a row, which is rare air. Green Bay was getting old, and Lombardi was about ready to leave coaching, so there was a sense of urgency. The Cowboys had only started playing in 1960. After a slow start, Landry had put together a powerful roster. Their ascension to the top almost seemed inevitable. Almost, because the Packers were in the way.

Eventually, we get to the 1967 season, and the teams begin a march toward another showdown. They both took some detours, but they reached the NFL championship game. No one wanted a game played below zero, if only because skill took a back seat under those conditions. But as football coach Chuck Knox used to say, you have to play the hand you're dealt. 

Gruver gets to the game in the final few chapters, and the story picks up in intensity. He nicely mixes descriptions of each play with comments from those involved. Toward the end, the story has the added benefit of the play-by-play of the game as delivered by the Packers' radio network. So you'll learn a lot about what did happen, what the participants were thinking at the time, and what might have happened.

There are a couple of issues with the book, one old and one new. The old concerns the weather. Should the NFL have played the game, no matter how memorable it turned out to be? I think you could make an argument that playing at that temperature was unfair to players and fans as well as downright dangerous. It would be interesting to find out if any lessons were learned from the experience. 

In addition, this is a reprint of a book from almost a couple of decades ago. There isn't any need to do much updating most of the time here. Still, the last chapter had some references to participants that obviously are out of date - some of them have died, for example. It wouldn't have taken much work to revise those few portions. Otherwise, readers might be tempted to go to the library or used book store and look for an original copy of the book.

Even so, "Ice Bowl" was written to offer a review and perspective of a famous football game. That hasn't changed now. It still works as a review of a game for the ages.

Four stars

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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Review: The Big East (2021)

By Dana O'Neil

Talk to any basketball fan who was around in the 1980s, and they'll immediately become nostalgic when the Big East Conference is brought up. The league was formed in 1979, and had a magnificent run where almost every game between the best teams was a main event. The players were terrific, and the coaches were fascinating. 

While the conference still exists in a different form today, a look back at those crazy first 10 years is always appropriate. Dana O'Neil, now with The Athletic, covered some of those games. She's taken a fun look back in "The Big East" - a celebration of that era.

A little history lesson might be in order before we get going. The universities in the Northeast had some history when it came to college basketball. The problem was that there were so many schools playing. The state schools tended to dominate the sport in other parts of the country. That made groupings like the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference a natural. Most of the schools in the East were independents, and were only loosely associated in the 1970s. 

Then the NCAA started to insist on teams playing in a conference in order to gain admission into its lucrative tournament. Dave Gavitt of Providence had the idea of picking off the biggest schools and forming a conference in the late 1970s. The idea was to select universities that played in major markets. There were a lot of eyeballs in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. That in turn would draw television dollars. So on May 31, 1979, the Big East was born. Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Syracuse were the charter members, with Villanova joining the party a year later.

It took a little time, but soon the top players started to stay close to home to play college ball. The location was attractive, as was the fact that cable television was emerging as a power player in the sports business at that time. Then the Big East moved its conference tournament to Madison Square Garden to New York City. And everything sort of exploded. In tournament week, the Garden had almost as many stars as there were on Broadway. Names like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington turned up. Just as importantly, there was a fascinating cast of coaches that were constants, year after year. John Thompson intimidated, Lou Carnesecca charmed, Rollie Massimino laughed, Jim Boeheim whined, and Jim Calhoun competed. They were all great in their own way.

O'Neil talked to about 60 people and it shows. It seems that all of them have a bundle of stories about the Big East, and are happy to tell them - even if they've made the rounds before. It was obviously a magical time in all of their lives, and they have no problem with reliving it. The pages go by quite quickly in an entertaining manner. The author gives almost all of the original teams a moment in the sunshine in the form of a chapter, more or less. The seven squads eventually made it to the Final Four in the decade covered. 

If there are nits to be picked, this isn't a particularly analytic look at those days. It must have been rather frustrating for teams like Boston College, Providence and Seton Hall to do the equivalent of banging their heads against a wall in going against the big powers. It might have been nice to read what that was like. There were also about three too many shots taken at Syracuse about its weather there, but as a graduate I'm a little sensitive about that. 

The Big East Conference essentially blew up once football came into the equation in the 1990s, and conference realignment has changed everything - and maybe not for the better. Still, the Big East has changed in order to survive, mostly with schools that don't play football. There's something nice about that. The tradition continues, and if someone wants to know why that matters, "The Big East" fills in many of the details nicely. A lot of people are going to love this book.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 12, 2021

Review: Inexact Science (2021)

By Evan Dowbiggin and Bruce Dowbiggin

"Inexact Science."

When it comes to the National Hockey League draft, you've got that right. 

It's never easy to predict the future when it comes to a player's performance in professional sports. Hockey might be the most difficult of all of the major sports in that regard. A scout for an NHL team has to look at a 17-year-old and figure out what sort of player he might be at the age of 23 or so. Everyone makes mistakes in this area, but make enough of them when you do it for a living, and you might have to find a new living. 

The NHL's drafts are the subject of a book from Evan Dowbiggin and Bruce Dowbiggin called, yes, "Inexact Science." To be more specific, the Dowbiggins take a look back at some of the most interesting drafts in the last 50 years. That's almost as long as the NHL has had an open entry draft. 

The authors decided to pick six of the drafts, and look back at what happened. They start with 1971, when the Canadiens had the chance to pick either Guy Lafleur or Marcel Dionne with the first overall choice. There were no bad options there, of course, but Lafleur, a Quebec native, was a natural choice. However, the Dowbiggins reveal that the Canadiens at least talked about trying to obtain the second choice in a trade so they could have both. Montreal might have won even more Stanley Cups in that decade than the six they did claim if that trade had gone through.

And away we go through the drafts. The best player who could have been available in 1979 was Wayne Gretzky, but he wasn't eligible for some complicated reasons. That's also the year that 18-year-olds became eligible, which changed the draft business quite a bit. Mario Lemieux arrived in 1984, and the actions by the team looking to draft him helped change the rules of the draft down the road. The world started to open up to the NHL scouts in 1989, and the Red Wings got there first with a draft that set up their dynasty. Two years later, we had a repeat of sorts when Eric Lindros became eligible. He was supposed to be the next star, and he used his leverage to force a trade to the Flyers. Finally, there's the story of Sidney Crosby, picked by the Penguins in 2005 after they won a unique lottery for the first choice.

The Dowbiggins covers the subject in a professional manner. They talk to some people to obtain fresh perspectives on some of the issues. For example, Lindros's actions about refusing to play for the Nordiques look a little different now, knowing what we know about Aubut (charges of sexual harassment led to his resignation from the Canadian Olympic Committee) may alter our perceptions of the player's actions. They also do a redraft of the players available in a particular year, knowing what we know now. That's always fun.

One complaint about the choices might center on Gretzky, who receives most of the coverage in that chapter. That was a heck of a draft because of the extra talent that became eligible that year, although it was hard to sort it all out. Eleven players who were taken in the first round played at least 1,000 games in the NHL, and six more turned up in the later rounds. The best player taken in the first round might have been Ray Bourque, who went eighth. Michel Goulet was taken at No. 20. The latter might be more interesting than the former, although it's tough to go wrong when you are writing about the best player ever.

This is a relatively easy read, although I wouldn't call it compelling. I was guess a lot of big hockey fans know a great deal about the circumstances about each of these famous drafts. That means they might not learn a great deal here. 

Therefore, those looking for some basic information about the specific stories and years in the book will enjoy it. Others not in the sweet spot still will find "Inexact Science" at least entertaining. 

Three stars

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Monday, August 9, 2021

Review: Indy Split (2021)

By John Oreovicz

In hindsight, it all seems so silly.

Auto racing in this country used to be rather simple. On one side was the events that used one type of cars, mostly notably on Memorial Day weekend in Indianapolis. Let's call them Indy Cars for the moment. On the other side, NASCAR used vehicles that looked more like something you'd have in the garage - thus the name "stock cars." Each had its own niche in the world of auto racing, and everything was peaceful.

Then came the arguments and the battles. The Indianapolis side of the sport blew up, over and over again over the course of a couple of decades. It caused hard feelings and financial losses. 

If you weren't paying close attention to what was going on, it was difficult to follow. After all, it's tough to sort out CART and Champ Cars and IRL and USAC without a program - not to mention the types of cars and their parts involved. 

So it's John Oreovicz to the rescue here. The veteran motor sports reporter has come up with what should stand as the complete version of the Car Wars (come to think of it, that might have been a better title) in his book, "Indy Split." 

Here's an attempt to simplify the story. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway put on a race every year that was known throughout the world. You win the Indy 500, you are a celebrity - at least back in the 1960s. The problem was that it couldn't leverage that popularity easily into a series of races that could hold fans' interest over the course of several months. The Speedway and United States Auto Club split on such matters, but an answer wasn't in sight.

Thus CART - Championship Auto Racing Teams - was born in 1979. That series staged races all over the world, essentially piggybacking on the Speedway's success. They co-existed for several years, but everyone had to figure that fights over money and power would come up at some point. And they did, with the Speedway setting up its own series (IRL). One side had the famous track, and the other had the famous drivers. It got to the point where CART staged its own race on Memorial Day weekend in 1996. That really didn't please anyone. 

CART and its successor, Champ Car, limped along for another dozen years, dragging down auto racing in the process. Finally in 2008, the two sides came together under one banner. Even so, it's been difficult to find the right formula for success since then. 

With that out of the way, we have a basis to discuss Oreovicz's book. It's really a step-by-step review of what took place during the almost 30-year span when there was no peace or harmony in the Indy Car world. He has a ton of information about the battles, and adds plenty of quotes from the participants that were published at the time. Oreovicz also doesn't ignore the racing aspect of the story, and it gets a hand-in-hand treatment with the business side.

But does it work? It's a fair question. The answer probably is "it depends."

Racing fans who can recite the last 18 Indy winners should find this quite interesting. As for the more casual fans out there (guilty), the book may not work as well. Part of that is the technical side of describing racing cars. I've certainly heard about inches of boost in race cars, although I am not prepared to explain what it means. And the various acronyms of the sport can be a little confusing. 

In addition, it would have been nice for the author to provide a little perspective on what happened along the way.  A few quotes from participants along the lines of "Looking back, if we had done this ..." might have been very helpful to improve the story flow. In essence, there are 400 pages of play-by-play here, and it does drag a little. One footnote to that: Oreovicz gives seven people involved in the story a few pages each at the end to tell about his experiences along the way. All of them, by the way, that the recent purchase of the Indy Speedway by Roger Penske should get the sport back on the right track - once this pesky Covid-19 stuff disappears.

It's tough to know if a book like this should be completely written for the zealots, or if it can draw in the casual observers. "Indy Split" probably leans toward the former a bit too much. But for those who will swallow up all of the details, they'll enjoy this review.

Three stars

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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Review: The Baseball 100 (2021)

By Joe Posnanski

Ever hear of "the sweet spot" in sports?

It usually comes up in baseball, although it probably applies to golf too. The sweet spot is that magic place where a ball meets the object perfectly in order to achieve maximum distance. 

With that in mind, let's discuss "The Baseball 100" by Joe Posnanski. 

The idea of discussing baseball's best all-time players is right on his sweet spot. 

When the pandemic arrived in early 2020, Posnanski started to write an article a day about the 100 best baseball players for the Athletic. It obviously required a lot of work, but each article was something of a mini-biography of baseball's greatest names. While it didn't linger on basic information, there were so many stories and rankings and quotes about each player that all 100 of them were a delight to read. Now it's all in one place in book form; there obviously been a little updating since the original version was published.

Posnanski always has come across as a bit of a romantic in his writing, particularly when it comes to the history of the game. He loves the idea that baseball has been played since the middle of the 19th century in one form or another, and therefore has a connecting thread from then until now. Posnanski is realistic enough to know that sometimes there are flaws in our heroes, but he emphasizes the positive for the most part here. It works really well in this format. When Posnanski wrote a book about Joe Paterno at Penn State, the Jerry Sandusky scandal was just breaking and I got the idea that he became uncomfortable with incorporating that aspect of the story within the large concept of Happy Valley.

I know a little something about these lists. In the last few years I've written four of them - Buffalo's sports numbers from 0 to 99, Buffalo's biggest trades, Buffalo's top free-agent signings, and Buffalo's draft choices (by overall pick number from 1 to 100). They aren't easy to do, and Posnanski spent more time on his list than I did in all four combined ... times five. My guess is that he made one very good decision when it came to ranking the players: he didn't take the exact placement all that seriously.

Therefore, Jackie Robinson comes in at No. 42, the only fully retired number in major league baseball. Joe DiMaggio gets No. 56, after his hitting streak. Frank Robinson and Mike Schmidt share No. 20, because they wore that number. No. 19 is skipped, because  the Black Sox scandal was in 1919 and this way the numbers even out at 100. You want to argue that DiMaggio should be higher? Go ahead. Posnanski is too busy coming up with fun information to care too much, and you're missing the overall point. That said, his opinions seem generally on target.

There are only a couple of warnings that come with this book. There are some advance statistics involved, such as ERA+ and WAR. Posnanski does explain what the figures mean at the beginning. I can't say they should get in the way of your enjoyment of the book.

In addition, this is 300,000 words. I read it on a Kindle, and just discovered that it translates to 880 pages. That's a lot of reading, especially if baseball is not one of the most important parts of your life. I think the only longer book I've ever read was "The Power Broker." Maybe you don't want to lug it to the beach. Read it while sitting on your favorite chair or couch instead.  

"The Baseball 100" will tell you about players you don't know, and about players you thought you knew. It does it in a style that will leave you more than interested every step of the way. Aaron Judge would be proud about how this one came off the sweet spot and exited the ballpark.

Five stars

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Friday, July 23, 2021

Review: Getting to Us (2018)

By Seth Davis

The bookstores have a very big selection of books on leadership, mostly in the business sense. Not all of them have connections to the sports world, but the percentage is surprisingly high. The best coaches sometimes sit down with a co-author, dash off some general statements that probably fit into the common sense department, mix in a few stories from his life's work, and sit back and wait for the royalty checks. 

The problem is that they usually aren't too interesting. That's why "Getting to Us" is a very pleasant exception.

Davis is a nationally known writer and has done some broadcasting work with CBS, particularly around the NCAA tournament. He's obviously good at what he does. Someone who had heard some of his interviews on top coaches told him he had the makings of a book on leadership. Davis decided that friend was right and got to work.

The result may not inspire you to lead your troops, business or otherwise, into battle. It's simply a heck of a good read.

Davis starts out with the premise that the best coaches are trying to build a small, successful community - one that has people thinking they are part of "us." Along those lines, he uses an acronym - because it's not a book on leadership without an acronym. In this case, it's PEAK - persistence, empathy, authenticity, and knowledge. 

Then it's on to the coaches. Davis may have started with a list of candidates for potential chapters, and then weeded them down on the basis of who would talk at length and who would be interesting. In any event, he chose nine great subjects: Urban Meyer, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Boeheim, Geno Auriemma, Doc Rivers, Brad Stevens and Dabo Sweeney. 

There are occasional references to "getting to us" and PEAK along the way, but don't worry about it. These stand alone nicely as profiles of interesting people that would be welcome in any quality magazine. The stories of the way their rising to top of the profession reminded me of musicians. Yes, you need talent to move up the ladder. But sometimes there are sacrifices made along the way, and a couple of wrong turns would have turned most of them into anonymous assistant coaches somewhere, or a salesman of some sort. They all had plenty of drive, but often needed a break or two to reach the pinnacle.

I can almost guarantee that you'll learn something about all of these coaches. Come to think of it, for example, I don't think there's been a more insightful piece on Boeheim written anywhere. While some of the stories may be familiar to fans of a particular coach, the tales should be unfamiliar and thus striking to many. The best example of that was Sweeney, whose parents split up in high school and left him and his mother essentially homeless for some time. There are plenty of "behind the scenes" stories here, particularly about how tough it is to be a coach and also be part of a family. Even the good ones struggle to find a balance. 

Davis wrote a couple of excellent books on the 1979 NCAA basketball final and on John Wooden in the past; the Wooden book probably will be the definitive word on that subject. "Getting to Us" is good in a different way. You'll enjoy every word.

Five stars

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