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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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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