Thursday, December 22, 2022

Review: The History of the NBA in Twelve Games (2023)

By Sean Deveney

The title of "The History of the NBA in Twelve Games" sets the concept before the book is opened, and it's an audacious one. Author Sean Deveney wants to explain the key moments for the basketball league, one game at a time. 

Remember, it's not 12 moments or 12 dates or 12 players - all of which might have worked for a variety of reasons. It's 12 games. So it's immediately a subject of curiosity about how Deveney is going to go about his task. Remember, he can't easily work business dealings into the equation - or trades, or league mergers, and so on. But a game is still a game, no matter where it's played. 

The format means that some readers will go through the book with a question in mind: Was Deveney correct in picking a particular game? Does it measure up? That makes this book a little more pro-active that most history lessons, and draws people in. So give him credit for that. It's a fun idea.

It probably not a spoiler to list the games here. You can go through the list merely by glancing it at the bookstore. Here they are in order in a way designed to save space here: 1954 - The 24-second clock; 1969 - Bill Russell's last stand; 1975 - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wants out; 1984 - Tanking on the way to the draft; 1984 - Larry and Magic meet again; 1988 - Michael's step forward; 1997 - Knicks vs. Heat in boxing match; 1998 - Kobe at the All-Star Game; 1998 - Nowitzki's coming-out party; 2002 - Kings have a win stolen; 2012 - A big win for LeBron; 2013 - Curry takes next step.

Hmmm. Lots to think about there. Dirk Nowitzki's appearance at a high school all-star game, as a representative of the coming rise of world basketball, seems a little forced here. The 1969 Final between the Lakers and Celtics seems less important in hindsight than the matchup a year later between the Knicks and Lakers, which probably showed the possibilities of the sport on a national basis for the first time. Abdul-Jabbar's trade demand really had nothing to do with the game itself. And a regular-season win over the Pistons by the Bulls seems a little less important with the knowledge that Jordan and Chicago didn't win a title until three more years had elapsed.

Could the first game after the original merger that formed the NBA in 1949 been included? How about Julius Erving's first game in the NBA in 1976 after serving something of a human urban legend while playing the ABA? Chamberlain's first game against Russell? Well, perhaps. 

I know. Picky, picky, picky. 

But it's important to say that Deveney does a great job of bringing to light the stories that he chooses to tell. I'm not sure I've read a better account of the birth of the 24-second clock. Danny Biasone of the Syracuse Nationals has received most of the credit for this development, perhaps because he was telling the story so often. It's clear that he had help. The account of the referee scandal from 2002 or so is reviewed nicely. Even the chapter on Nowitzki had plenty of information about his development that I never knew. He leans toward the individuals in his treatment of the subject, and the league certainly bends in that direction now. In other words, it sells stars.

"The History of the NBA in Twelve Games," then, is almost a launching point. If you want to learn about some big moments in basketball's history, this will work. If you want to argue some other points with your fellow readers, there's no harm in that. In fact, that helps to make the subject more interesting. It's also a nice, quick read. Therefore, you'd have to rate it a success - no matter how picky you are. 

Four stars

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Sunday, December 18, 2022

Review: A Lucky Life (2022)

By Steve Simmons

Before discussing Steve Simmons' new anthology, we need to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: the sports column.

Throughout my entire life, the sports column/columnist has been a fixture of newspapers everywhere. He or she is the person that has to come up with a few hundred words, usually on deadline, that make sense and make a point. That's not easy. It can be done a mediocre or poor way, of course. Writing a column, as the late Red Smith (considered the most literate of sports columnists) famously said, is like sitting down at a typewriter and opening a vein. 

But when it's done well (the writing, not the bleeding), it's beautiful to watch. The author needs to be knowledgeable as well as opinionated. The stories have to be good enough so that if even you've seen the event in person or television, you can't wait to see what will pop up in the newspaper. A fair and objective viewpoint is a must, of course. As of late, newspapers have been the major source of such viewpoints. Many television announcers these days root far too much for the home team, seemingly unaware they are destroying their own credibility in extreme cases. As for the radio guys, well, there aren't really many left without ties to a certain team or three that the station broadcasts. The internet features a mixed bag of talents, from solid professionals to people who aren't worth the time to find - let alone read.

Here in Buffalo, we lost our sports columnists in something of a business decision some years ago. I had left the newspaper at that point, and wasn't part of the discussion. But I often feel like something's missing when I read the latest sports section after a Bills' game.

So if we want to see an actual physical column in a printed newspaper, there's always Toronto. That's where you'll find Simmons, who writes for the Toronto Sun. It looks like this is another pandemic project that is popping up in the bookstores. An enforced break from events sounds like a good time for a sports columnist to review some of his favorite columns and put it into a book form. 

Simmons has put in the hours over the years, and this book reflects that. Yes, he's been to the usual home events over the years - Blue Jays, Raptors, Maple Leafs, etc. Steve also has been at a variety of other events, including several Olympic games and championship fights.They are all covered here, and he conveys his messages quite well.

But it sort of comes with a catch. Simmons mentions that most of these stories were written for the next day's newspaper, more or less. It's tough enough to write on deadline for an immediate reaction. It's even tougher to write for history at the same time, because that's what a collection of stories for a book is. The best stories in the book are the ones that aren't on a strict deadline. They are the ones that require more than an interview or two, and a little thought. There's a section of obituaries in here that qualify nicely.

My guess is that those deadline-produced stories in "A Lucky Life" will work better for those in Southern Ontario, who might have been recollections of the circumstances. Down across the border, the columns and features may not have quite the impact. But that doesn't mean you won't be able to read this without a smile or a nod, and wish we had the equivalent position filled in Buffalo by someone like Simmons.

Three stars

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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Review: Welcome to the Circus of Baseball (2023)

By Ryan McGee

There's something inherently charming about minor league baseball. 

It represents something of a throwback to a bygone era. For more than a hundred years, young baseball players have been working their way up a ladder in the hopes of reaching a dream of playing in the major leagues. Most of them don't make it, but a few do - enough to keep the pipeline filed. 

It's also a reminder of how some of the smaller cities and towns of America used to take enormous pride in their teams, with the population pitching in to help keep the team going. Minor-league teams often were right on the margins between success and failure, and community support was essential. The ballparks usually were a little substandard, but still quaint in their own way. 

Things have changed in the last quarter-century. The minor league teams often were bought in individuals and groups who updated business practices and tried to make it more of a money-making operations. Meanwhile, the majors have taken more control of the entire operation, mandating improvements that might have been necessary but were a little heavy-handed in the process - such as reducing the number of teams. Still, baseball fans of a certain type enjoy the atmosphere; some even plan their vacations around visiting new stadiums (although the word "park" seems so much more appropriate in this context.)

Enter Ryan McGee. He currently is an ESPN writer and radio host, but he still remembers where he came from. His first job after college was as an intern with the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists in 1994. It was such a small operation that McGee worked practically in every department. You learn a lot that way, and they even paid him for it - $100 a week. No, kids, that wasn't a great deal of money back then. The occasional $50 handshake from the boss helped make ends meet.

Now he's gone back into his past and revisited those days. The resulting book is called "Welcome to the Circus of Baseball," and it's as sweet as the memory of a first love. 

When McGee arrived, the minors hadn't quite made the transition out of mom-and-pop status yet. There was about one computer in the entire business, and not many more full-time employees. The few veterans had a ton of information in their heads, such as knowing to alter concession stand item orders by the night's promotion. The three or four interns (depending on the time of year) were sort of like utility infielders. They traded roles during the course of the season, and sometimes had to be slotted into something unfamiliar during emergencies. 

There are stories along the way, of course. McGee lost a memorable battle with an ice cream machine at one point, and the resulting damage was a little less than tasty.  The rookie employee one time was part of the grounds crew, and had to haul the tarp out on the field during a storm. McGee was thrown six feet up in the air while holding the tarp, one of the risks of that particular profession.  the league's All-Star Game, some quarreling during the official photo of all the teams' mascots resulted in punches being thrown. Ouch.

The funny part for me is that a few names were thrown about during the course of the book that were familiar. Jack Lamabe was the pitching coach; he threw for the Red Sox and Cardinals, among others, in the Sixties. I had his baseball card, of course. Fred Kendall, an opposing manager in 1994, played in Elmira, N.Y., in the late Sixties when I lived there. He reportedly dated the secretary in our junior high school guidance department. We all thought that was a really good move on his part.

The Tourists' manager was Tony Torchia. Not only do I remember him as an Eastern League player in Elmira in the 1960s, but he was an Eastern League manager in the 1980s in the Red Sox system. I still remember him telling reporters a story about how some of his players one night were walking down a hotel corridor in Buffalo when a prostitute was physically thrown out of a room in front of them. Torchia said, "The players have to get used to dealing with odd things. They'll have a lot of pressure on them if them make the majors. It's a different sort of pressure here, but they still have to learn to cope with it."

If you think Torchia's words can be applied to what McGee went through in Asheville, at least in a general way, you're thinking what I'm thinking. 

McGee had to get in touch with the old gang in Asheville in order to write "Welcome to the Circus of Baseball." It sounds like he had a great time doing so, to the point where McGee probably received more enjoyment writing the book than most people will have reading it. That's more of a comment on the unexpected pleasures of "paying your dues" when you are young and relatively stupid. 

McGee still loves minor league baseball, to the point where he keeps tracks of stadiums that he's visited. If you fit into that relatively narrow demographic, you'll probably get some enjoyment out of this quick and pleasant read.

Three stars

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Monday, December 5, 2022

Review: The Blood and Guts (2022)

By Tyler Dunne

It's two of the best words in football: "go long."

It means that the wide receiver should take off down the field as fast as possible. Maybe, if the conditions are right, the quarterback will try to throw him a pass that results in a big gainer and/or a touchdown. 

The phrase also can be used in journalism, although the meaning is obviously different. Many writers don't get the chance to really air out a story, thanks to time and space limitations. 

And if there's one thing Tyler Dunne can do when it comes to a story - particularly one about football - it's "go long." That's coming from someone who used to edit his work at The Buffalo News for a living. When one of his stories arrived for editing, it usually was going to be something worth reading. No wonder Tyler's newsletter is called "Go Long!" He wrote the best story that I've seen on the Bills' 13-second meltdown against the Chiefs in the playoffs last season.

Take a writer like that, and naturally some sort of book is in order. Dunne has gotten around to that now, a new publication called "The Blood and Guts." It's as good as you'd expect.

Tight ends occupy a unique place in the football universe. In order to be a true success, they really have to master two separate skills. A good tight end needs to have the speed to be an effective receiver when needed. In other words, he has to be faster than an NFL linebacker. On the other hand, they have to be able to block opposing players when needed. So a tight end must be ready to bump up against defensive linemen. A sprint on one play, a collision on the next. 

Tight ends aren't particularly well paid, perhaps sometimes they can be a bit anonymous. Offensive coordinators probably would rather see the ball go to wide receivers, since that's their specialty, so the tight ends usually don't put up the big numbers. As for the blocking, well, few people have been rewarded with fame for that skill.

Luckily for Dunne, the modern tight end only came along about 60 to 65 years ago. Therefore, it's relatively easy to talk to the best in the business at the position over the years. Most of them are still with us - and available for interviews.

The list of subjects starts with Mike Ditka. He's better known now than he was during his playing days, thanks to coaching, TV work, and commercials. Let me assure you that he was a bull on cleats. It was difficult to figure out how anyone tackled the guy. Tight ends like Ditka took a lot of punishment, and their shelf life particularly in the good old days wasn't too long. But Iron Mike was a definite trailblazer.

Dunne also has chapters on John Mackey, Jackie Smith, Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow, Shannon Sharpe, Ben Coates, Mark Bruener, Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen, Dallas Clark, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and George Kittle. That might not be the definite list of great tight ends - Bills fans might be ready to Travis Kelce of Kansas City on there at this point - but it's a great starting point.

What's more, almost of all of the guys have interesting background stories to tell. Dunne does his homework here, getting the players to open up as well talking to some of the important people in their lives. He even cleared something up for me along the way. The story making the rounds about Rob Gronkowski's transfer to a Pittsburgh-area high school usually was associated with a search for better competition. Instead, it turns out that Rob headed to Pennsylvania because his parents had just gotten divorced and he wanted to live with his father. So noted. 

If there's a drawback to the way the subject is approached, it's probably that the aspects of the game concerning contact and violence feel a bit overdone. I don't want to discount that element of the game in football's popularity growth over the years. But Tyler seems to enjoy a good hit more than I do. In the introduction he writes, "No sport captivates America like football because football is the most primitive form of competition in human existence."  I'd probably argue that boxing and ultimate fighting might have a slight edge there. It's OK; we can agree to disagree on this one. 

The players profiled in the book probably would agree with Dunne in this matter. Some came into football the hard way, and many enjoy the demands of the position. The key is that they all have a story to tell, and Dunne tells it well.

Most football fans who have more than a passing interest in the game should find "The Blood and Guts" worth their time. Let's hope there are more such attempts to "go long" in Dunne's future. 

Four stars

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Thursday, November 24, 2022

Review: The Book of Joe (2022)

By Joe Maddon and Tom Verducci

Time has a funny way of changing the perspective on a book. 

Case in point: "The Book of Joe."

We start with the names on the book. Joe Maddon certainly ranks as one of the most interesting people to be involved in the sport in the past few years. After playing briefly in the minor leagues, Maddon became something of a baseball lifer. He managed in the minor leagues and became something of a roving coach and administrator. Joe always was picking up knowledge about the game along the way. If he ever got the chance, he was going to do things his way - which was a little different from the conventional wisdom in such matters. 

Maddon took a job with the lowly Tampa Bay Rays, who never knew what it was like to win in their history. Soon, under Maddon, they won. In fact, they won often, even if their payroll was just a small fraction of the big-market teams that sometimes tend to dominate the baseball standings. No, they didn't win the World Series during Maddon's time there, but they reached it once - which was a tremendous achievement under the circumstances.

Then Maddon moved on to the Chicago Cubs as a manager, and that was a team that knew something about not winning the World Series. It had been more than a century since the Cubs won a title, but Maddon helped push them across the finish line in the fabled 2016 season. For that, Joe certainly won't have to buy an adult beverage for the rest of his life. 

That proved to be a hard act to follow, and by 2019 Maddon and the Cubs management weren't seeing eye to eye all the time. Sometimes you're only as good as last week's game. The two sides went their separate ways at the end of the season, which felt a little sad for all concerned. 

That brings us back to "The Book of Joe." He teamed up with Tom Verducci, the baseball writer for Sports Illustrated who is about as good as it gets in that business. Verducci had written a fine book on the end of the Cubs' curse after the 2016 season. Having the two of them work together is a pretty good start to a baseball book, and the finished product works out reasonably well. There is a catch in all of this, but we'll get to that in a minute. 

We go through a variety of areas for discussion here in no particularly order. For starters, it's not a typical autobiography. Yes, Maddon goes over his life in baseball - but it's more of a review of some of the lessons he learned than anything else. It's a good chance for him to credit some of the mentors and role models that he had along the way. As you might expect, that leads into some discussions about leadership techniques. While that's sometimes a tough subject for Joe and Jill Fan to understand, Maddon at least is willing to explain what went into his personal techniques in that area.

Other areas are covered too. There are some fascinating facts about the game itself. For example, at one point, Joe goes over some of the little "tells" about some the great Yankee teams in the late 1990s - how manager Joe Torre made a certain gesture when he wanted a play run, for example. Maybe that's partly why the Angels (Maddon's employers at the time) played New York so tough in that era. Maddon even reviews all of the cars he's owned over the years, and how he came to obtain them. OK, his book.  

There also is plenty of comment about how managing has changed since he took his first full-time job in 2006. Managers had a lot more autonomy back then, and he could press all sorts of buttons without complaint from the front office ... as long as the team did well of course. By the end of his run with the Cubs, the dynamic had changed. The analytics revolution had empowered other staff members to "suggest" that the game be played in a certain way. Maddon probably was out of the "if ain't broke, don't fix it" school in such matters. In fact, you probably could argue that this subject is covered a bit redundantly in the book. But by the end of 2019, Joe was sick of fighting the Cubs on such matters and moved on. 

That's where the story ends, and that's fine. The odd part is that Maddon went back to the Angels and became their manager starting with the 2020 season. His tenure there was an odd one, marked by Covid-19 and a lot of losing. Even Maddon could get the pieces to work together for long. After a great start in 2022, the Angels went on a 12-game losing streak, and Maddon paid the price when he was fired.  

After reading this book, it's easy to wonder what Maddon's opinions on that entire episode might be. Is he so disgusted that he wants to get out of the business? Would he taken another job under the way baseball is managed? 

We'll have to guess about such things, maybe until another book is written. In the meantime, "The Book of Joe" has plenty of information about an original thinker in baseball circles. This is not a book for baseball begineers. But those who like the idea of having a long dinner with Maddon will find plenty to chew on here.

Four stars

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Friday, November 18, 2022

Review: Unfiltered (2022)

By Matthew Barnaby with Kevin Shea

Matthew Barnaby was a hockey writer's dream. 

Take it from someone who was there at the time. The National Hockey League player was one of the most interesting personalities on a Buffalo Sabres' team that had a number of them during the late 1990s. Barnaby was candid, funny and available during his time with the Sabres. Who could ask for more? Not me.

He was also capable of proving some great stories during the game. One time, Barnaby was lined up with Sergio Momesso of the Rangers for the opening faceoff. Matthew was talking - no surprise there - and I found out later that he had challenged his opponent to a fight as soon as the puck dropped. Of course, he did it while calling Momesso a man of Puerto Rican heritage (a slur was involved), which didn't go over well with the Italian. The puck was dropped, Momesso started punching, and Barnaby "turtled." That earned Momesso a two-minute minor for roughing. The TV camera then showed Barnaby on the bench, staring at Momesso across the ice in the penalty box, and giving him the traditional "finger to the side of the head" gesture that means "I've got brains, and you don't."

That story doesn't show up in Barnaby's book, "Unfiltered." There are plenty of others, though, that fill up the 238 pages.

Barnaby's life was something of a psychologist's dream. He grew up without a father, living with his single mother and a much older brother. Every since then, it's fair to say that he's sought out attention. Mom was quite a character. One time on a team flight, I spent most of the trip talking to her between Ottawa and Buffalo ... and found her chatty and very entertaining.  Barnaby looked up to brother Brent, who kept a lookout for him as best he could.

Like every good young Canadian boy, Matthew gave hockey a shot - and found out that he was pretty good at it. Even better, his desire to climb the ladder of the sport was intense. Once he had a late growth spurt, he was big enough at least to get a look from those at a higher level. Barnaby was willing to do whatever it took to take that next step - which in the hockey of that era meant he'd be willing to be punched in the mouth. 

Barnaby was drafted by the Sabres in 1992. He spent some time in the minors, but in 1995 Matthew landed in Buffalo and the NHL for good. Waiting for him was Ted Nolan, who seemed to be something of a father figure for Barnaby. Not surprisingly, Matthew played his best hockey under Nolan. Barnaby was at his most effective when he was the classic hockey pest. Yes, he piled up the penalty minutes, but he also could play. Matthew was never better than he was in 1996-97, when he had 19 goals and 24 assists with 249 penalty minutes in 68 games.

But the honeymoon ended as soon as Nolan's time as coach of the Sabres ended in 1997. Barnaby didn't get along well with new coach Lindy Ruff, and his play suffered a bit. The exception came in the 1998 playoffs, when Barnaby had a great run that included a hat trick on Mother's Day. If a Conn Smythe Trophy had been awarded after the first two rounds of those playoffs, Barnaby might have won it. 

Eventually, Barnaby finally got his wish to be traded, going to Pittsburgh for Stu Barnes. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for - Matthew did some major bouncing around in the years after leaving Buffalo. He played for the Penguins, Lightning, Rangers, Avalanche, Blackhawks and Stars. Part of the problem was that he was the designated fighter on some of those teams, which wasn't a good use of his talents. Barnaby was too small to match up against tough guys like Bob Probert and Stu Grimson, and he needed minutes to show he could contribute on the ice. 

Finally, the game took a toll on Matthew, and he walked away from the game after 834 career games in the NHL - about 834 more than could have been expected out of him. Barnaby has struggled finding his role after hockey. A stop as a commentator at ESPN doesn't received much coverage in the book. He's had a couple of well-publicized but probably somewhat misunderstood incidents that involved law enforcement along the way too.

That's his story in several paragraphs. So how's the book, you ask? A bit of a disappointment, considering he has quite a life story. Matthew is still honest and funny, and that helps him here. The best parts probably concern his time with the Sabres, since he has some good stories to tell about what happened behind the scenes. 

However, there are problems. The book feels a bit padded, as some information is more or less repeated (and the same quote from Nolan shows up word-for-word twice along the way). Many of the stories seem to center on excess drinking. While such tales no doubt will be greeting enthusiastically by some, others at best may put them into the "you probably had to be there" category. Barnaby seems to group people into two categories - awesome or awful, black or white. There's not much gray here. If only people were that simple to judge.

Matthew's post-hockey life hasn't been a straight line toward happiness, but he seems to have settled into a better spot. Barnaby is in a good domestic situation, and he's working for a sportsbook now. "Unfiltered" offers Matthew's perspective on a life that certainly didn't go down the usual roads. Those who remember him from a quarter-century ago are still rooting for him to find happiness.   

Three stars

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Saturday, November 5, 2022

Review: Moving the Chains (2023)

By Erin Grayson Sapp

Sometimes advances in civil rights in the United States have come along so slowly that it's like waiting for a glacier to recede. At other times, the changes that come in succession leave us almost breathless.

If there's a theme to Erin Grayson Sapp's book, "Breaking the Chains," that might be it. What's more, it's one of those books that seems to be all about football, but is upon reading about a lot more than that. 

The bowl games have been part of the college landscape for more than a century in some cases. They were originally designed to lure tourists from the North to come to warmer climates for the holidays. That worked rather well for several years, as the Sugar Bowl (New Orleans), Rose Bowl (Southern California), Cotton Bowl (Dallas), and Orange Bowl (Miami) became part of the annual sports schedule on New Year's Day.

But by the 1950s, a problem had started to develop in some of those cities. African Americans had started to become a big part of college football outside of the South, but they weren't particularly welcome in New Orleans at that time. Even the seating for the massive Sugar Bowl was segregated by race. Soon the New Year's Day game's board was starting to have trouble finding teams from anywhere but the South willing to come to New Orleans. Even if integrated teams did arrive to Louisiana, they were faced with rules that kept them out of such places as hotels, restaurants and nightclubs. 

So how did we get from that point to the awarding of a National Football League franchise in 1967 to New Orleans? That's Sapp's story, and it's a good one.

The story behind all of it is, naturally, money. Segregation was cutting into tourism dollars in New Orleans, as large conventions such as the American Legion's were moved elsewhere because the Louisiana city wasn't open to all. Its old ways were leaving New Orleans isolated. 

It took some federal legislation to move the ball down the field - or if you prefer, to move the chains. Discrimination nationwide was outlawed in many fields, including voting, housing and transportation. President Lyndon Johnson gets the credit for a lot of that. Still, it took some time to change hearts and minds in such matters. A flashpoint came in January, 1965, when the American Football League scheduled its All-Star Game for New Orleans in an attempt to judge its interest in pro football as see if it could be a site for expansion down the road. 

That turned out to be, quite simply, a disaster. Several African Americans were the subject of discrimination and racial taunts. It took them little time to decide that they didn't want to play in a city that was so unwelcoming, and started a boycott. Jack Kemp of the Buffalo Bills, a union leader, backed those efforts. The game was moved to Houston, and that served as a national black eye for New Orleans.

Louisiana figured out it needed to speed up change, and it did. Soon skin color didn't matter when it came to riding in a taxi. Football became a relatively small but very visible public part of that effort. In the football sense, the movement received a boost, when the NFL and AFL announced a merger in 1966. But in order to get that through Congress, the football leaders needed help. By chance, two key figures in Congress were from Louisiana, and the price tag for an assist in getting the merger approved was a franchise. Deal. The team began play in the NFL in 1967.

Admittedly, these are subjects that can be pretty dry - especially to sports fans. There are plenty of politicians, committee members and business owners who are part of the story. It's a pretty big cast of characters, and it can be difficult to sort them all out. There aren't many people here that sports fans will recognize, and they play a minor part in it all. That is going to make the book slow going for the football fans who pick this up in the first place.

But it's necessary, and the pace picked up nicely in other times. Sapp in particular does a fine job of explaining just what happened to the AFL All-Stars; the boycott comes off as a completely rational act under the circumstances.

"Moving the Chains" is published by the LSU Press, and it naturally feels like the sort of weighty history book that such a company would publish. (In other words, lots of footnotes.) Naturally, you aren't going to see this sold in many bookstores located outside the Saints' television coverage area. But if you have an interest in the subjects involved in the story, the book will supply plenty of information. In other words, you'll learn something - and that's always good.

Four stars

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Saturday, October 29, 2022

Review: Three Ring Circus (2021)

By Jeff Pearlman

The biggest story line in the NBA in the years between 1996 and 2004 was the Los Angeles Lakers. They won three championships along the way, and - not by coincidence - there were three future Hall of Famers in the mix there, having a huge role in their fate.  

For those watching from a distance, it seemed as if the Lakers had pulled off quite an accomplishment. It's not easy for three different Big Dogs to be mixed in the same group and figure out a way to win titles. That was when happened when Shaquille O'Neill, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson teamed up to create something of a dynasty.

But now we know how "not easy" it was ... thanks to author Jeff Pearlman. He's outlined the problems that team in his book "Three Ring Circus." It wasn't just a miracle that the Threesome put up results in the standings and in the postseason . It was a miracle, however, that no one got hurt via internal battles along the way. 

While O'Neill certainly gets more than his fair share of coverage here, and the other players of the team get their say too (which is one of the good parts of the book), Bryant probably ranks as the star. This book overlaps with the first six years of his career, and Kobe was, well, different. 

The son of a former NBA player, Bryant grew up with basketball. He spent part of his youth in Italy, thanks to dad's own hoop travels. Kobe ended up in Philadelphia, where he surprised just about everyone by jumping to the NBA immediately after high school. While that wasn't incredibly unusual in that era (1996), it was unusual for someone who wasn't a center/forward type to do so. Players from the other positions usually need some seasoning to prepare for pro ball. The Lakers, guided by general manager Jerry West, saw enough potential in Bryant to trade for the right to pick him.

But Bryant wasn't like other players - and absolutely not like other rookies. He was really different. Basketball has a nickname for a guy who will take a pass and then shoot no matter what the circumstances on the court. It's called a "black hole." What goes in does not come out. That was Bryant in those early years, even though passing might have resulted in easy baskets and though he wasn't quite good enough (yet, if ever) to dominate like Michael Jordan. Throw in some aloof behavior, such as a general refusal to mix socially with his teammates, and you get one odd teammate. 

Compare that to O'Neill, who was a very different personality. His former teammates just loved the guy, more for the way that he looked out for anyone associated with the Lakers - whether it be passes during the games or at social functions after them. He and Bryant just never did mesh on a personal level - probably because both wanted to be the Big Dog. 

Jackson arrived as the head coach along the way. He's not fully explored here, although there are plenty of insights along the way. Give him credit - he managed to keep everyone on the same page long enough to win three straight championships. But even Jackson grew tired of it all and exited for a while. 

A large complicating factor in all of this, of course, was a rape charge issued to Bryant in 2003. He continued to play basketball during the legal proceedings, sometimes flying to Colorado for court hearings and then flying back to Los Angeles in time to play in games. (It's at least a subject for discussion elsewhere that Bryant received standing ovations from Lakers' fans during that period just by walking on the court,) Pearlman prints a great deal of evidence here, as authorities believed Bryant was clearly guilty. It's tough reading in spots, but probably necessary.

By the end of the run, Pearlman describes Bryant this way: "... the superstar guard came with all sorts of contradictions and complications. He was selfish, moody, arrogant, dismissive, brash, rude. In no particular order." Still, he was the player that was something of a surrogate son to Lakers' owner Jerry Buss. He's the one that hung around when O'Neill and Jackson went their separate ways. Bryant is said to have grown up considerably after that era, although from an extreme distance it's easy to wonder just how complete that transformation really was.

Pearlman always gets people to talk for his books, as he puts in the time and effort. The author gets the details right. This book might not be quite as enjoyable as some of his other stories, perhaps because there isn't a whole lot of joy to be found in the characters. 

Pearlman still keeps you turning the pages, though, with a writing style that's always entertaining. "Three Ring Circus" works quite well as an in-depth look at a time and place in basketball history. And if you followed that team closely, you won't want to miss it.

Four stars

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Thursday, October 20, 2022

Review: A Giant Win (2022)

By Tom Coughlin with Greg Hanlon

Former New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin has written a book about the Giants' surprising and memorable win in the Super Bowl over the New England Patriots in 2007 (which, to be clear, capped the 2006 NFL season). 

Veteran fans of the team might read that bit of news and mutter to themselves ... "Again?"

Coughlin has gone through this territory before. Immediately following that championship, Coughlin wrote "A Team To Believe In." It appeared in the bookstores in September, 2007, and at 224 pages it checks in as a quick recap of the season. Now one of the great rules of publishing in sports books is that if a team from the New York City area wins a title, books will quickly follow. The New York market is huge, of course, and the parts of the publishing industry have been known to be carried away about such things. (Was there anyone on the New York Knicks roster in 1970s who didn't write a book?)

Coughlin won another championship after that, and has since retired. Apparently he has decided to go back to the well on that first title, as he's written "A Giant Win." 

The sequel, if that's the right phrase, covers the territory you'd expect. The skeleton of the book essentially covers the play-by-play of that Super Bowl, hitting most of the big plays in detail. There's a lot going on in one single snap at the line of scrimmage in a football game. Coughlin takes his time in reviewing how the slightest action often can make the difference between an incomplete pass than a long gainer. It's a thinner margin than most civilians can imagine. The terminology is occasionally a problem, especially for those who couldn't describe the various routes by a wide receiver without hints.

That format allows Coughlin to go off on some tangents, and one thing remains clear. The coach is still very fond and thankful for the players that helped him win a championship. The bond between players and coach on such teams is stronger than most people realize. John Muckler had coached the Edmonton Oilers to a Stanley Cup in 1990, and for years he obviously stayed in touch with players over the years - even trying to acquire them when he ran the Buffalo Sabres. You really do walk together forever when you win a title. 

Maybe Coughlin is a little over-the-top when describing some of his players, but it's quite understandable under the circumstances. And it is interesting to read about some of the interactions between player and coach. For example, defensive end Michael Strahan one time had to calm down Coughlin, explaining that the players were in good shape and in control of the situation. 

The coach also uses the opportunity to discuss his own life, starting in upstate New York. It's not easy to put Waterloo, New York, on the map. Its major claim to fame is that it was the first place in America to celebrate Memorial Day right after the Civil War ended. Now, naturally, Coughlin's name is on the welcome signs in the town and on the high school football stadium. He went to Syracuse University and then moved into coaching.

Coughlin also takes time throughout the book to plug "The Jay Fund." That non-profit group was started when one of his players at Boston College, died of leukemia. The idea is to help those families who are affected by childhood cancer; it has raised $13 million for that cause. Family members have embraced it, and ex-players still turn up for events. Good for Tom; good for the others too. 

The last chapter is a sad one. Tom's wife, Judy, has been sick in recent years and needs constant care. Coughlin, with his help, tries to make her comfortable. It's not the retirement they envisioned, but Tom's devotion under difficult circumstances is noted and appreciated.

"A Giant Win" goes by very quickly. After reading it, it's easy to agree with Coughlin on a major point. The win by New York over a previously undefeated team was not a fluke. The better team won. For the Giants fans who want to relive one of the most memorable Super Bowls of all time, this ought to work.

Three stars

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Monday, October 17, 2022

Review: Head On (2022)

By Larry Csonka

Remember fullbacks?

More to the point, remember when they actually ran the ball once in a while?

As football has evolved over the years, the passing game has become more important. That means that teams often use only one running back in the backfield, mostly to get another fast wide receiver on the line of scrimmage. When a fullback does come into the game, his main chore usually is to block for the featured running back. 

But kids, it wasn't always that way. Fullbacks started to disappear in the 1980s, more or less. Before that, teams used a fullback and a halfback in their regular lineup. The former pounded the opposing defense, while the latter ran away from it. (If you want to go back to a more distant time, there were three running backs who joined the quarterback in the backfield ... but that idea finally died when the wishbone offense faded away from college football in the 1970s.)

Take it from someone who was there, Larry Csonka was a pounder. He hit defenses, as opposed to waiting for them to hit him. Larry was good, and he was tough. That combination got him into the College Football Hall of Fame, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It's almost always interesting to read autobiographies of Hall of Famers in sports, and Csonka - or, if you prefer, "Zonk" - finally gets to tell his story with "Head On." Yes, the title describes his playing style nicely.

Csonka played college football in the 1960s and moved smoothly into the pros to have a long career in the 1960s and 1970s. You might be wondering at this point what took him so long to get around to finishing the book. It sounds like it was put on the shelf for periods of time, and that he needed a little motivation to finish it. 

That motivation came when the approach of the fall of 2022. It's the 50th anniversary of the Miami Dolphins' perfect 17-0 season. It had never been done before, and it still hasn't been duplicated. Csonka might have been the face of that team, at least on the playing field. The man most closely associated with that perfect team probably is its coach, Don Shula. 

Somewhat surprisingly, Csonka takes his time in the book to getting around to that 1972 squad. In fact, Larry isn't in a big hurry to get anywhere. The story jumps around a bit in subject matter. That can be a risky literary tactic, but Csonka manages to pull it off quite well as he goes from one part of his life to the next. It's something like a conversation with him; one moment from his life reminds him of something from the more distant past. 

The story starts outside of Akron, Ohio, where Csonka was a classic unsophisticated farmboy. He got big and strong the old-fashioned way - doing chores around the farm. It took him a while to realize that football was a good outlet for his energy, with some coaches giving him some needed extra attention along the way. Larry was good enough to attract attention from college recruiters, and he was willing to go to Syracuse as long as he received the chance to be a running back at some point instead of a lineman.

Ben Schwartzwalder was willing to do that. The veteran coach of the Orangemen (as they were known at the time) loved his running game ... and why not? When you have running backs such as Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Jim Nance and Floyd Little, you'd hand the ball off as well. Csonka became part of that tradition. 

The stories about Schwartzwalder were quite interesting, at least to this Syracuse grad. There's a story here about his World War II exploits that was passed along to Csonka by an assistant coach. Supposedly he personally gunned down some German prisoners in order to collect American soldiers for a mission elsewhere. While Schwartzwalder did collect a group of medals during the war, this episode sounds a little too close to a war crime to be anything but a little apocryphal. 

Schwartzwalder gets some credit from Csonka here for being color-blind in an era when that was a little difficult. Csonka even was assigned a black roommate as a sophomore, which was a little ahead of its time in such matters. The future star points out that African Americans had thrived in Syracuse for more than a decade by the time he was an Orangeman, and that Schwartzwalder deserved the credit. The interesting part of that story is that in 1970, a group of eight African American players boycotted spring practice due to long-standing grievances with the lack of a black assistant coach. That sent Syracuse's football program on a downward spiral that lasted for more than a decade, damaging Schwartzwalder's reputation in the process. As usual, there's more to the tale than meets the eye.

After college, Csonka was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 1967, a relatively new team that had growing pains. It slowly accumulated talent, and then lured Shula from Baltimore as head coach in 1970. It didn't take long for the Dolphins to emerge as a power. Shula and the scouting department put the pieces together quickly, and it was climaxed by the 1972 perfect season. Miami won the Super Bowl the next year too, and came close in 1974. 

Then Csonka and teammates Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield jumped to the World Football League. They made big money by the standards of the time, but the league quickly collapsed and their careers never reached those heights set in Miami again. Csonka ended up with the New York Giants for a while, and then returned to the Dolphins for a brief encore. Larry doesn't spend a great deal of time review life after football; he's spent a lot of those years in Alaska with his beloved great outdoors. 

There's no co-author listed on the cover of the book, although he did have some help along the way. That makes the readability of the publication a nice surprise. It can be read - and enjoyed - in a couple of days, flowing through 334 pages in short order.

Admittedly, "Head On" will have more appeal to those who are old enough to remember Csonka's powerful presence on a football field. But there are enough good stories to make it an enjoyable - if not memorable - read for anyone who follows football.

Four stars

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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Review: Barkley (2022)

By Timothy Bella

Who doesn't like Charles Barkley?

And who wouldn't like to hit the town with him for at least a little while (knowing that you'll never keep up with him for long)?

Barkley has established himself as one of the great personalities in sports over the past 40 years or so. Everything about him seems a little bigger than life - particularly when it comes to body type. Charles never seemed afraid of taking that second or third slice of pizza, a trait shared by many of us. But it didn't prevent him from becoming a superstar in a couple of different areas.

Therefore, there's a built-in audience of Barkley fans waiting to read a full biography of him. Timothy Bella comes through with a good one in his book, entitled "Barkley." It's fair to say that few are going to see the title and think it's a book on Harry Truman's Vice President, Alben Barkley.

Bella put in his time here, and it certainly shows as it covers more than 400 pages. About 370 people were interviewed for the book. What we discover along the way here is that Barkley always was an original. That dates back to high school in Alabama, where his body shape didn't exactly match the stereotype for success in basketball. Charles comes off a little rough around the edges in terms of his style on the court, but no one could stop him from scoring points and grabbing rebounds. 

It was easy to wonder when that lack of physical training might catch up to him, but it never really did. Barkley was on some good but not great teams at Auburn University. When it came to turning pro, Charles might not have fit the computer printouts for success by draftees ... but he could play. Barkley joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 1984, and was off on a superb career that lasted until 2000.Along the way, he was the league's Most Valuable Player in 1993, an 11-time All-Star, a 10-time first-team All-NBA selection, and still the shortest man ever to lead the league in rebounds. Charles also was part of the American "Dream Team" that achieved everlasting fame as the greatest hoop squad ever assembled at the 1992 Olympics. The Basketball Hall of Fame naturally followed all of that. The only thing missing was a championship; sometimes fate just doesn't cooperate in such matters.

What's more, Barkley seemed to be bulletproof. He'd have the occasional problem during run-ins with fans when out late at night. That led to some problems with the law, but they never seemed to damage his image. (My favorite line from Charles was when he was asked in court if he had any regrets about throwing a guy through a first-floor window. He said, more or less, that he wished he had been a higher floor.) You never knew what Barkley might say at a given moment, but you knew it would be honest and original. 

That last quality certainly caught the attention of the broadcasting industry, who lined up to sign him after he retired from pro basketball. Sometimes the guys at the networks turn really conservative when it comes to such choices, but Barkley turned out to be an inspired pick. He was willing to go almost anywhere - and not just in basketball - during his conversations on Turner Sports. That meant viewers didn't reach for the remote once the action was paused or over. His frankness caused grief for himself and others, but most chalked it up to "Charles being Charles." An exception might be Michael Jordan, who became upset about Barkley's views of how the Charlotte Hornets had been run under Jordan's leadership. 

Four decades in the spotlight is quite a run, and Bella chases down information on the highs and lows along the way. Most probably would say that there aren't many surprises along the way here. One area that might qualify is Barkley's generosity is as ample as his stomach ... which is saying something. He's given away millions of dollars, some to individuals and some to charities and schools. That's in addition to the millions he probably has donated to a less worthy cause - owners of casinos. As Charles put it, he can afford it. 

Since everything about Barkley seems a little outsized, it's only fitting to think that a biography would fit into that classification. There is a lot to read here, and perhaps a little more editing might have been in order to pick up the pace a notch. But for his many fans who can't get enough about "The Round Mound of Rebound," "Barkley" ought to satisfy their appetite for information about this interesting subject. 

Four stars

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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Review: The Series (2022)

By Ken Dryden

My strongest reaction to Ken Dryden's latest book, "The Series," came from a single photo - and the accompanying coincidence it raised in my mind.

It's a shot of the stands during a practice in the hockey series between Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972. In the middle of the photo is Alan Eagleson, essentially the organizer of the eight-game matchup that changed hockey forever. He's next to Jean Beliveau, the Montreal Canadiens' classy superstar who had just retired. 

Seven reporters are surrounding them in the seats, including Red Fisher of the Montreal Star, Dick Beddoes of the Globe & Mail, and Mark Mulvoy of Sports Illustrated. The man in the top left, though, is called "unknown" in the caption.

But wait just a minute. I know that guy. It's Bill Wolcott!

Bill worked for the Niagara Gazette for several years, and he covered the series in Canada and the Soviet Union for his own newspaper and the Gannett News Service. Those games were one of the highlights of his career.

The reason I know so much about this is that it was printed in his obituary ... only a couple of weeks ago. That's quite a coincidence. I no doubt first met Bill at a Sabres' game in the late 1970s. We were friendly but not quite friends over the years, if that makes sense.

And speaking of surprises, the arrival of this book also qualifies. Dryden kept a diary of the series at the time and turned it into a book with the help of Mulvoy (speaking of coincidences) called "Face-off at the Summit." That volume isn't mentioned here at all, which is somewhat curious. 

Dryden hasn't written about the experience of playing in that series since then, and didn't plan to do so. Then the pandemic came along, and the Hall of Fame goalie needed something to do. The subtitle sums it up. "What I Remember. What It Felt Like. What It Feels Like Now."

Some of the memories have faded away, of course, after 50 years. One of the most striking aspects of his description of those days, however, is what it is like for an athlete when he or she is simply expected to win when it matters the most. In this case, an entire country was counting on Team Canada to prove that it had the best players in the world. Short answer: It's a very difficult situation, especially then things turn sour at the start. 

Dryden has a couple of other interesting points to make along the way. Since he was in the eye of the hurricane, he had no idea what was going on back home when the series was concluding in Moscow. Life in Canada stopped, to the point where about three-quarters of the country stopped what they were doing on a workday morning to watch the game. The country was united in a way that was unique, and the winning goalie of the deciding Game Eight wishes he could have felt what that was like.

Then there's the matter of the game itself. Dryden has argued in the past that this was one of the few times in sports history in which the winners learned from the losers. The Soviets played the game of hockey in an entirely different way - more east-west than north-south. That style worked just as well as Canada's approach. Some people in North America took notice - slowly, to be sure. But the series turned out to be a revolutionary moment in hockey's development, and not simply an evolutionary moment. As Dryden points out, Wayne Gretzky played like a Soviet player when he arrived in the NHL in 1979 and became the greatest scorer of all time. Alexander Ovechkin of Russia came along 30+ years after the series and became a superstar playing like a Canadian. The lines have blurred. 

You'd probably call this volume a "coffee table book" if it were a bit bigger. The photos are plentiful and unusual. However, the problem is that there isn't a great deal of text to go along with it. It can be read in a morning, which seems like it is too quick for a $24.95 purchase. Dryden always has something to say, but this left me wishing for more from him.

Even so, "The Series" captures the feelings involved in one of the great moments in hockey history. It will even help those on the other side of the border from Canada understand what the fuss was all about then, and what it's about 50 years later.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Review: The Grandest Stage (2022)

By Tyler Kepner

The subtitle of "The Grandest Stage" is "A History of the World Series." That sounds rather deep and ponderous. You can almost imagine paragraphs that begin with "Then in 1922 ..." It's not easy to write about long-forgotten events in an interesting way ... and sometimes the reader never gives the author a chance to be judged.

Don't worry about that here. You are in good hands with Tyler Kepner. He's been with the New York Times for more than 20 years, and has been the national baseball writer since 2010. By all accounts, he's smart, thorough, knowledgeable and entertaining. He showed that in his first book, "K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches." That publication shed a lot of light on a subject that in an under-discussed (at least in the public) part of the game.

Kepner made the decision early on to break this into seven chapters, but the seven possible games of the World Series. (It was actually a best-of-nine at a couple of points in history, but we're sort of used to seven at this point.) You get the idea of where he's going with the subtitles of each chapter. Handling the pressure. The sidebar stories to great moments. Unlikely heroes. Managing. Building a winner. The other side of glory. The ultimate World Series lists.

Let's take the first chapter about World Series pressure. Kepner devotes sections of the chapter to some people who had to deal with such issues, with mixed results. You know about Reggie Jackson and the nickname "Mr. October." Jim Palmer had to face that pressure at the beginning (1966) and the end (1983) of his career. Mike Schmidt had some problems at World Series time, struggling at the plate when he was needed the most. David Freeze made his reputation in the Series; David Price rebuilt his storyline at the same time of the year. And it goes down various other paths from there. 

How about some overlooked facts about a particular series in Chapter Two? Kepner has nine of them, and here are the first few: The Reds were the better team in 1919; Charlie Root never got over Babe Ruth's called shot in 1934; Clem Labine blanked the Yankees right after Don Larson's perfect game in 1956; Bill Mazeroski's homer in Game Seven in 1960 wasn't the biggest hit in that game; Rick Wise was the winning pitcher of Game Six in 1975.

Kepner sought out some of the people involved to review those moments. They provide a sense of perspective about the events from the past. The author also goes back and reviews what was said at the time about those crucial moments. That's obviously the correct combination in such cases. You'll hear some stories you don't know, and you'll gain some perspective on some events you do know. 

Maybe this won't be completely entertaining to those who don't follow baseball too closely. Then again, they aren't likely to be interested in it anyway. "The Grandest Stage" serves its natural audience well, and it's a worthwhile read for those with an interest in baseball history. 

Four stars

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Monday, September 19, 2022

Review: Boston Red Sox (2022)

By Sean McAdam

Sometimes I think I've been reading a little too much lately - at least on a particular subject. I can blame retirement, at least in part, of course, although there's probably something else at work.

Case in point: "Boston Red Sox," by Sean McAdam. It seems like the first in a series of books about sports teams, based on "The Franchise" going on the cover in good-sized letters. The subtitle is more interesting: "A Curated History of the Sox."

The use of curated jumped out at me. It means "selected, organized, and presented using professional or expert knowledge." McAdam certainly qualifies. I've been reading his material for years, and he's been a fine reporter about all things Boston Red Sox for many years. McAdam used to write for the Providence Journal; now he's with

It's a history of the team in a sense, but it is presented in an unusual manner. The book is not particularly interested in a complete history. It simply gives some broad categories - History, The Media, The Rivalry, the Icons, The Aces, Just Missed, The Golden Age, and Transformative Figures - and then has a few essays for each category. If you've been paying attention to Boston's baseball history, you can guess how it might work. Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski aand David Ortiz re considered Icons, Just Missed covers the 1967, 1978 and 1986 seasons, The Aces are Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. Each championship season in this century gets a chapter too.

If you getting the idea that there's not a heck of a lot of information about life before, say, 1960, you'd be right. The creation of the team and its early champions and stars are pretty much ignored. I'm OK with that, since there are plenty of other sources for such material. But the point that this is selective and comprehensive history. 

The story of the championship seasons and the near-misses probably can be recited by rote by many of those in Sox Nation. The accounts are in here, and it's easy to wonder if a fresh audience can be found there. I'd also guess that  the story of the Icons and the Aces are familiar to most. 

That essentially leaves only a couple of the eight sections that feel quite fresh. Three media members receive profiles: Ned Martin, Peter Gammons and Jerry Remy. The Transformative Figures are Dick O'Connell, Theo Epstein and Terry Francona. There are no complaints with any of those names and their inclusion here, and McAdam does a good job of explaining who they are and why they matter in the story of the Red Sox. 

This checks in at under 300 pages, and the stories flow quite well. We're obviously in skilled hands here - a good curator of the information, if you will.

"Boston Red Sox," then serves its intended purpose nicely; it gives an overview of the franchise's history with an emphasis on recent times. It might not be filled with new information about the team's background, but don't blame the author for that. Blame your own reading habits. 

Four stars

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Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Review: Majesty and Mayhem (2022)

By Tom Danyluk

One of the best parts of reviewing books is that sometimes you receive a nice surprise after opening the book.

That's what happened with Tom Danyluk's book, "Majesty and Mayhem."

It's never easy to predict what you might be picking up when a self-published book arrives in your lap. Sometimes it's a "this one's for the kids" project; sometimes it's a serious effort. It was particularly difficult in this case, because there was no biographical facts about Danyluk included in the volume. 

There were a few clues about his background in the book - including some articles that were reprinted from Pro Football Weekly - but that was about it. An on-line check showed that he's a sales manager for a steel company out of Chicago, but managed to make some money on the side writing about pro football. Good for him. 

It was a little difficult to guess where Danyluk was going, basic on the rather non-descriptive title. But his goal comes across rather quickly. He has written a look back at several aspects of the NFL in the 1980s, with the additional knowledge that only time can provide. There's little rhyme or reason about the subject matter in a sense. It's just one good story after another.

Want some examples? Sure. The freezing Bengals-Chargers playoff game of 1982. The Frig. The after-effects of "The Play" in Cleveland. The Fog Bowl in Chicago. Dan Marino's great but unfinished career. What was wrong with Herschel Walker. What was right with Troy Aikman. The strange case of Chuck Muncie. The rebirth of John Riggins. The Eighties' top draft picks and top championship teams. 

There are 45 chapters here, so that list merely touches on some highlights. I found them all to be worth reading, and that's rather rare in anthologies. 

Danyluk sent me a copy of this for review, and he also included a book on how the AFL and NFL champs might have matched up in mythical games from 1960 to 1966. I'm always backed up on books, it seems, but it sure sounds like he might have had a lot of fun with it. I'll get to it someday.

There usually is a ceiling for self-published books. That is a limiting factor. There are a few more typos than in the professional published efforts. The size can be awkward for reading. Some of the photos don't have any purpose except to add a little variety.

It's not a big deal. If you read "Majesty and Mayhem," you expect to learn something. That goal is reached nicely here. Those of a certain age - 50 and up? - in particular certainly will enjoy this.

Four stars

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Monday, August 8, 2022

Review: Saving Buffalo Baseball (2022)

By Howard W. Henry Jr. 

Sometimes you just have to sit back in awe and admiration of someone else's literary effort. 

That's the case with Howard W. Henry's book, "Saving Buffalo Baseball." If you need to know anything about this team of baseball players from the International League that represented Buffalo in 1956, well, you've come to the right place.

Henry spent years tracking down facts and information for this book. It's easy to wonder how his vision is after looking at so much microfilm and other papers to fill this publication out.

The back story to this particular season needs a little explanation. Minor league baseball had exploded after World War II, as the population was ready to return to leisure activities. Every good-sized town in American seemed to have a team of some sort.

That couldn't last forever, and it didn't. Attrition took care of some of the teams, of course, but there was a greater problem on the horizon: television. Suddenly, people could watch major league games as they happened. How are you going to keep the people in, say, Batavia, engrossed if Mickey Mantle is as close as the television set? The economics of minor league baseball started to fall apart. The old system, which featured teams that owned some of its own players who could be sold to higher levels, was starting to crack. 

The changes hit the Buffalo Bisons for the 1956 season. The Jacobs brothers had sold the team in 1951 to the Detroit Tigers when the franchise was starting to drown in red ink. But owner Walter O. Briggs had died in 1952, and that had triggered an examination of the baseball organization's structure. Then Walter Briggs Jr. was forced to sell everything in 1956 - which the Bisons saw coming and had to react accordingly. There were no guardian angels available who could swoop in and make financial problems disappear with a simple signature on a check.

The only answer, at the time, was community ownership. A group got together to put together enough money - a few dollars at a time from local fans and businesses - to keep the team going. Reginald Taylor, John Stiglmeier and Harry Bisgeier led the new organization, which had the twin tasks of finding players and selling tickets. That sounds a great deal like a major league team's mission statement then and now. The difference, of course, is that the Bisons had to take any players they could find. That was no small task, especially when the Tigers didn't quite meet their original commitment of talent to the Bisons. 

Henry steps in with the play-by-play of how the team came together. The author summarizes the newspaper accounts of the time in the lead-up to the season. Then the actual season starts, and every game, rainout, and other development are covered completely. (I might have restricted stories to a page per game, but it's not my book.) If that's not good enough for some, and I find it hard to believe that it won't be, Henry has all of the box scores from the '56 season on a website. It's all quite impressive and overwhelming.

One of interesting parts of the recap is that it's amazing how local sportswriters covered the team and the league as if it were the majors. There are previews about the other teams in the league, emphasis on finishing "in the first division" (the upper half of the league standings), and so on. Heck, Buffalo-based visitors to road games even were mentioned in the paper. It's a far cry from the few paragraphs most Bisons' game receive in the newspaper today. That's not necessarily inappropriate or worse; it's just really different. 

The team wasn't too good. It ran on a financial shoestring, and injuries caused big holes in the lineup. The Bisons sank to the bottom of the International League relatively quickly, and stayed there. But they finished the season - their greatest accomplishment - and lost a handful of dollars (less than $100) that season.

The sad part of the story is that the 1956 season didn't prevent Buffalo's Triple-A team from eventual collapse; it merely delayed it. The franchise had a revival in ticket sales through the rest of the 1950s, but a move to War Memorial Stadium proved less than helpful. The times, and neighborhoods, were changing. The franchise was off to Winnipeg in 1970. It took the financial support of Bob Rich for organized baseball to be a strong part of the local sports scene again.

Still, 1956 was a unique season. Henry obviously fell in love with the game because of the team from that year, and his passion shows through on every page. Self-publishing is an obvious choice for a book like this which doesn't figure to have wide appeal. It's a professional-looking publication, with some good illustrations. I particularly liked the drawings of all of the stadiums of the International League. Nitpickers obviously will point out a couple of uses of "today" and "yesterdays" in the midst of the daily recaps. I'm not sure how that happened, but a little forgiveness must be used in a book that doesn't have a bunch of professional copy editors at the ready.

Your enjoyment of "Saving Buffalo Baseball" obviously would be helped by having lived through that era. But I was zero years old at that point in my life, and I enjoyed the team's story as well as reading names that were either on old baseball cards I had from the 1950s ("Where have you gone, Carl Sawatski?") or that were local political or public figures from the day who still come up from time to time. That includes Pat McGroder, who did a great deal of behind-the-scenes work and who later popped up as the Bills' general manager for a short time. 

Those days aren't coming back. It's nice to have a record of them on the bookshelf.

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Saturday, August 6, 2022

Review: The Point After (2020)

By Sean Conley

Every so often a movie comes along out of absolutely nowhere and catches on with the general public. The best example of that probably was "Rocky" - the low-budget story of a boxing underdog that caught the imagination of those who saw it.

Rocky, meet Sean Conley - who tells his life story in "The Point After." I suppose practically everyone who turns up in a National Football League training camp - especially among the free agents who are long shots - has a story to tell. Conley is one of those people.

The native of Erie, Pennsylvania, had a dream of being a professional kicker. To do that, he had to take the long way to success. Long way? An understatement. 

Conley joined a Division III program that was just getting started, and somehow made the team ... where he put up some of the worst statistics in the country. Even so, he was convinced he could be a quality kicker, and moved over to the University of Pittsburgh where, against all odds, he made the team. Conley put up some good, if not great, numbers at Pitt. 

That wasn't quite enough for Sean, even when his name went uncalled in the 1993 NFL draft. He spent the next few years still trying to grab one of those coveted kicking jobs in the NFL. Conley was so devoted to the idea (ADD plays a role in the story) that he probably overtrained, and suffered some injuries that prevented him from getting even closer to that dream. He had tryouts with Detroit, Indianapolis, and the New York Jets, and even got to kick in a European league for a while. Still, he won't pop up on the Pro Football Reference website of those who played in at least one NFL game. 

Along the way, Sean picked up a wife, Karen, who certainly will be nominated for sainthood for her nonstop support of her husband's attempt to beat the odds. She also started delivering children along the way, which probably helped deliver some perspective to Sean as he realized that maybe fate wasn't on his side.

Along the way, though, Conley delivers a excellent and interesting account of the ups and downs of placekicking. The pressure is extraordinary; a couple of bad kicks, which can be caused by hitting the football a fraction of an inch from the sweet spot, can send the kicker to the bench or the unemployment line, depending on the level. 

Once Conley gives up on kicking, the book takes a turn away from the sports world. Sean became a salesman but gave that up to help his wife in her yoga studio. Perhaps the ending won't be as interesting to a football fan, but many who have gone through his journey through the pages of the book will be happy to see that the story turns out nicely as a wiser person emerges. Rocky Balboa learned some lessons along the way, too.

"The Point After" ought to appeal to anyone who has watched a preseason NFL game, looked down at the guys playing in the fourth quarter, and asked, "What motivates these people?" The fact that Conley is so honest and articulate about his feelings along the way helps too. It's a book that might be a little hard to find outside of Western Pennsylvania. But it's a nice story, it can be read in a day, and it might just work well for you. 

Four stars

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Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Review: The Last Folk Hero (2022)

By Jeff Pearlman

I loved "The Last Folk Hero" at hello, as the line from the movie "Jerry Maguire" goes.

The hello in this case is the introduction. Author Jeff Pearlman writes that he was in the Atlanta airport one day, going through security. He is stopped, predictably enough, because he has a brick in his carry-on bag. That's right, a brick. The security agents have a predictable response: You can't take a brick on to the plane with you. 

Pearlman explains that this isn't just any brick. It's from the first house of Bo Jackson, a legendary athlete. The house was abandoned and allowed to crumble, but there were a few bricks still on the ground. Pearlman, deep into this writing project, thought he needed to have a brick for his inspiration of a biography. It took some convincing, but eventually someone at the airport who knew about Jackson decided that taking a brick from Bo's home wasn't a bad idea at all ... and let it through.

Speaking as someone who has a brick from Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium in the garden, I immediately identified with Pearlman's quest to explore Jackson's life - brick by brick. The finished building, er, product, is "The Last Folk Hero," and I doubt you'll read a more interesting and thorough biography this year.

Most of us know the skeleton of Jackson's story. He grew up poor in Alabama, and sports became something of a refuge for him. Eventually it was on to Auburn University, where he won the Heisman Trophy as the nation's best player. But Bo also was a heck of a baseball player, giving him some options when it was time to choose a career. He stunned everyone by signing with baseball's Kansas City Royals, even though he was the first overall NFL draft choice by the bumbling (at the time) Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Bo was a raw baseball talent, but seemed to have skills far beyond those of mortal men. He hit baseballs so hard and far that observers were simply left speechless. On the basepaths, he was essentially a truck. I happened to be at the game in Kansas City in which Jackson was a baserunner headed home, and Rick Dempsey of the Orioles was waiting with the ball. Bo put his shoulder down and tried to ram the catcher so hard that he'd drop the ball. It was a collision straight out of the NFL, as Dempsey wound up halfway between home plate and the dugout. But he held on to the ball, and Jackson was out. 

Baseball wasn't quite enough activity for Bo, and he decided he wanted to play football in his spare time. Who does that? He was occasionally sensational, even though he wasn't particularly interested in such aspects of the game as blocking and catching passes. But when he took off on a long run, it was breathtaking.

Alas, the story was shortened by a hip injury suffered during a football game. Hip replacement surgery was needed, and that ended the football side of Jackson's career. He tried coming back to play baseball, but couldn't match his own high standards. 

Skeletons only reveal so much, even to forensic scientists. It's the seemingly ridiculous episodes of Bo's life that make this book so fascinating. Pearlman tracked down more than 700 people for interviews, and it only seems as if they all had a "Did you see that?" moment when it came to Jackson. This was a man who picked up a discus as part of high school track meet, and with a few minutes of coaching threw it 20 feet farther than the Section champion. This is someone who could jump completely out of a swimming pool and land on his feet. (OK, it was the shallow end. But still.) He could throw out baserunners from more than 300 feet away, and he could leave football tacklers either grasping at air or left clobbered on the ground. He once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.13 seconds. Add that up, and it was hard to know with the person ended and the legend began.

That all made him one of the top celebrities in the country when it came to endorsements. You might remember Nike's "Bo Knows" campaign, which featured a commercial with him playing a variety of sports ... plus the guitar, with Bo Diddley. That's impressive for someone who had to overcome a childhood stutter and thus didn't talk in public much. 

Still, all of those sources help to fill in the stories around those incidents. What comes across quite clearly is that Jackson was a man who always did what he wanted to do. That could mean he would report to a team when he wanted to do so, and not when the team wanted him. That could mean he would be distant and rude to teammates and to the public and its proxies. But he also could be generous to a fault with others. Jackson seemed to mellow as he went along. Now he doesn't have much unwanted contact with others, as he's happily living with his family in the Chicago area.

It's quite a life story, and Pearlman tells it completely. It checks in at around 500 pages, but it's never boring along the way. If you want to read about the man who could be summed up as Paul Bunyon in cleats, "The Last Folk Hero" will be the place to go.

Five stars

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Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Review: Unguarded (2021)

By Scottie Pippen with Michael Arkush

It doesn't take Scottie Pippen long to make a point in his autobiography. It takes place on the cover, which may at least tie a record.

Scottie's name is in big red letters, the print equivalent of "Pay Attention!" The title, "Unguarded," is smaller and in white. It's a similar story on the spine of the book. This is a man with something to say, and he wants to say it. 

The autobiography has an interesting starting point. Pippen watched the ESPN documentary on the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s when it was shown a couple of years ago, and he was angry - angry enough to want to tell his side of the story. 

It's a little surprising that he was surprised. Michael Jordan supervised the project, and had a great deal of say on what actually appeared on the air. Now as we know, Jordan was one of the most competitive people on the planet, and it was unlikely that he would spread a great deal of the credit for the team's six championships to others. So what was Pippen expecting?

Still, the relationship between Jordan and Pippen is what people will notice here. This was not a case of Batman and Robin fighting the bad guys in the NBA together. They weren't the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the faithful sidekick. They were simply two great players who were thrown together on a team, and they helped each other win titles. Period. Think of businessmen helping the company during the day, and going their different ways at night. 

It's a little shocking just how distant that relationship was. Pippen didn't talk to Jordan after his father was murdered, although Scottie now regrets that he didn't make more of an effort. Pippen also didn't like the way Jordan sometimes got special treatment, or at least the benefit of the doubt from everyone connected to the sport. While he may have a point, what did he expect? The biggest star shines the most light. Still, when Pippen went into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he asked Michael to present him in the ceremony ... and Jordan did so.

That's not the only bit of complaining that Pippen does in this book, which struck many readers as excessive. He's still angry at the Bulls for not rewarding him quickly enough in contract negotiations. He's upset that Chicago may have tried to trade him during his time with the Bulls. He's angry at some of his media coverage, although he seems to have believed the stories about those trades - even if it's never easy to be sure just how accurate trade stories can be. And, while quick to praise coach Phil Jackson for all he did for the Bulls of that time, he's still upset about the 1994 playoff game when Jackson called a game-ending play for Toni Kukoc with the score tied. Pippen sat down to miss the final 1.8 seconds. The fact that Kukoc made the shot didn't matter to Scottie.   

This all gets in the way of the story, which is quite remarkable. Pippen grew up in a poor, huge family in Hamburg, Arkansas. That is in the southeast corner of the state, but it's essentially in the middle of nowhere by basketball standards. He was nothing special as a high school basketball player, and barely caught on at the college level. But Scottie worked hard, developed all of his skills, and had a late growth spurt. He eventually landed at the University of Central Arkansas, where against some odds caught the attention of NBA scouts. Pippen's stock rose as he went through the pre-draft workouts, and he went No. 5 overall and then went from Seattle to Chicago in a prearranged deal.

Pippen quickly became as good an all-around player as there was in the NBA at the time. He was a small forward who probably could play almost any position. Need someone to guard Magic Johnson? He could do it. How about someone smaller and quicker? No problem. It was unusual for an NBA team to be very successful without a star big man until the Bulls came along. No offense to players like Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright, but most didn't qualify. Dennis Rodman probably was the closest thing to a star in that area, although he had a different definition of that word in mind with some of his antics. You could argue that the Warriors of recent years have followed the Bulls' model. 

Once the Bulls' era is over, the book runs out of steam a bit. The remaining years of his career pass relatively quickly, and little is said about what he's been doing since retirement. In other words, as we suspected, this could have been written 15 years ago. At times Pippen comes off here as an interesting person, willing to admit some mistakes and happy that things turned out well. But at other times, well, that boulder on his shoulder - it's certainly not the size of a chip - gets in the way.

The usual test of an autobiography comes down to one question: Do you like the person more or less after reading this? "Unguarded" probably gives him a minus rating in that sense. Pippen provides some insights into a legendary team that Bulls' fans will enjoy. Even so, they'll do some headshaking along the way.

Three stars

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