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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