Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Book Review: True (2022)

By Kostya Kennedy

It was particularly appropriate - and perhaps a little scary - to read this book shortly after the mass shooting in Buffalo that killed 10 African Americans.

As you might know, it was a typical Saturday afternoon, and people were shopping for the week's food as usual. Then a gunman, who had driven about 200 miles, opened fire. Our city may have had worse days, but none come to mind. 

The shooter was an 18-year-old supporter of white supremacy concepts. He thought that shooting random African Americans would somehow help his cause. In other words, the victims' only crime was to have dark skin.

That was Jackie Robinson's problem too. There hadn't been someone who looked like him playing major league baseball in the 20th century. When he arrived, some people chose not to play on his team, others on other teams offered vicious taunts at him, and fans sent hate mail to him and his team. 

Have we made much progress since 1947? It's easy to think about such matters while reading Kostya Kennedy's fine book on Robinson, "True."

Many of us already know Robinson's story. He was a superb all-around athlete who was picked by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers to break a color line in organized baseball that had been around for more than 50 years. Robinson signed shortly after the end of World War II, and after a year in minor league baseball spent a decade in the major leagues. Breaking that barrier was never easy, and it took a toll on him. But with the help of wife Rachel, who might be as classy a person as anyone in public life, Jackie survived and thrived. 

It's easy for a writer to fall in love with Robinson. His story is so obviously one about good versus evil, the long man fighting ridiculous odds to bring justice to his profession. Plenty of trees have come down to tell the story. I even contributed a few to the pile when I wrote a short biography designed for school children.

It's easy to wonder at first if we need another biography of Robinson. Kennedy, though, is a good enough writer to make it work. He takes an interesting approach by concentrating on four different years of Robinson's life. There's 1946, where Jackie got some baseball lessons playing in Montreal of the minor leagues. Fast forward to 1949, when Robinson was at the height of his baseball powers. Then there's 1956, when those powers were fading and he was headed toward retirement. Finally comes 1972, when Robinson is slowed by various ailments and dies in the 25th anniversary year of his debut. If you want to call these years the spring, summer, fall and winter of his baseball life, you wouldn't be wrong.

This is a tough assignment for Kennedy, and it might not have worked so well with another, less skilled writer. He has to tell the tale of a man's life, but forces himself to concentrate on four particular years while not completely overlooking the rest of his life. Luckily, Kennedy is good enough to pull it off. The author did a ton of research into the book. I usually become suspicious when a biography has some sentences about what the subject was thinking at a particular time, and there's some of that here. However, Kennedy's version of events comes across quite plausibly, and reads well. He may be a little less than objective about Jackie and Rachel along the way, but that's understandable.

The epilogue also is worth noting, because it brings us up to date on Robinson's influence. Pioneers in almost any field, particularly athletics, pick up the nickname of "The Jackie Robinson of (Blank)." The name still has relevance to us, 75 years after his first at-bat for the Dodgers.

Other biographies of Robinson might work better for those who want the complete story. But "True" works quite well for those who are new to the subject and want to learn what the fuss is about. Take it from a guy in Buffalo - it's still very relevant.

Five stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)

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

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Review: When Buffalo Stood Atop the Sports World (2020)

By Sal Maiorana

Some of the Buffalo television stations seem to be having a contest about who can be the most relentlessly optimistic about the local sports scene in 2022. It's understandable to some extent, as station executives usually think it's good for ratings. Still, it's not a good look for journalists to be cast as cheerleaders. 

You'd probably guess by that coverage that Western New York has never had it so good when it comes to its sports teams. And you'd be wrong.

Life was even better in the mid-1970s around here. All of the major local sports teams found themselves in first place during a week in 1974. Even better, there were three of them - Bills, Sabres, and Braves.

And even better, they all features players who were arguably the most exciting players in their respective sports. Take a bow, O.J. Simpson, Gil Perreault and Bob McAdoo. 

There's a good chance that many of you weren't around to see that era, or at least old enough to appreciate it. Luckily, Sal Maiorana is here to help you. The Rochester sportswriter, who has a ton of books to his credit, has come up with "When Buffalo Stood Atop the Sports World."

It's probably fair to say that Maiorana has been waiting his entire life to write this book. He attended Buffalo State in the years in question (1973 to 1976), and thus had a good seat for all of the action. What's more, he's been close by for most of the years since then. Not only has he been able to follow the fortunes of the local teams, he's had the chance to write about them. One of the jobs of a sports reporter is to grab heroes of a previous era, and ask them about the good times of the past. It's often one of the rare pleasures of the job. The interview subjects usually love to talk about such triumphs, and the readers like to relive them. 

Sal reviews the Bills during the Simpson years, when O.J. was the biggest star in the sports universe. He set the all-time rushing yardage record in 1973, led the team to the playoffs in 1974, and had his best all-around season in 1975. The Braves follow the same arc in a sense. McAdoo emerged as a superstar in the fall of 1973 once he had a new cast around him. His team made the playoffs for three straight seasons, their only postseason appearances in their eight-year history. The Sabres followed a slightly different path. But the 1973-74 season was still eventful and interesting for the wrong reasons, but the team bounced back and reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1975. The 1975-76 season was another good one, although in hindsight there weren't going to be any happy endings around with the start of the Montreal Canadiens' dynasty arriving at the same time. 

Maiorana went into his own scrapbooks for a lot of information. But he also mined some other research materials to go into this story. (I'm proud to say a book I did on the Sabres was included here.) I'd like to think I know something about the subject here, having written extensively on these areas. Yet Sal came up with some facts that I didn't know about - which makes it more fun to read.

This is a self-published book, and it's not particularly slick as a result. There are only a handful of photos, for example. But I can't say I noticed more than a couple of typos along the way, which beats the usual standard for this publishing technique. A little editing could have been done on the stories of individual games without much pain, but that's a relatively minor complaint.

"When Buffalo Stood Atop the Sports World" covers the necessary areas of a sports history lesson in an entertaining way. Can't ask for more than that. I know a few people that should read it. 

Four stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)

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

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Review: The NBA in Black and White (2022)

By Ray Scott with Charley Rosen

It's time for a history lesson, and Ray Scott is your teacher. 

Your textbook is his autobiography, "The NBA in Black and White." 

Scott is remembered by semi-old-timers for playing 11 seasons of pro basketball in the NBA and ABA. But that's only part of the story, albeit the portion that will attract the attention of most readers. 

Scott was an outstanding high school player in the city of Philadelphia back in the 1950s. He couldn't stop one of his contemporaries in those days, Wilt Chamberlain, from winning championships. Then again, no one could. Ray moved on to college, and eventually turned up at the University of Portland on the West Coast. 

But that didn't last long, thanks to some academic issues, and Scott went back to Philadelphia to live. He turned up in the Eastern League, which was the closest thing that the NBA had to a formal minor league in those days. Even if Ray missed some time in college, he certainly got an education in the small gyms of Pennsylvania.

And here's the remarkable part of his career: he gained enough attention from pro scouts to be the No. 4 overall selection in the NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons. Really, No. 4? Obviously, foreign players turn up high in the NBA draft now, but those guys usually have played for club teams in Europe. It's a different system of development there. Scott must have been really, really good to catch the eye of Earl Lloyd, a pioneer in African Americans in pro basketball and certainly one of the most interesting men to ever work in that business. (Check out some of his interviews on YouTube some day.)

Scott averaged double-digits in points in his first eight seasons in the NBA, and was around that number in rebounds most of the time as well. In other words, Ray was a consistent, good player.  He was dealt to the Baltimore Bullets in a complicated, three-way transaction in 1967. Then he jumped to Virginia of the ABA in 1970 for a couple of seasons. Knee problems eventually ended his career.

Then career number two started. Scott was hired as an assistant coach of the Pistons by Lloyd, and then replaced Lloyd as head coach. Ray is best remembered as the NBA's Coach of the Year in 1973-74, when the usually mediocre Pistons won 52 games. But Detroit couldn't stay at that level, and Scott was let go after a year and a half. He moved on to coach at Eastern Michigan University for a while, and then went into the insurance business (career number three) for a long, successful run. 

While Scott was around as the NBA took baby steps toward becoming the force we know today back in that era, his story is more about the fact that he was a black basketball player in that era. America was trying to figure out the issue of civil rights in those years. This is someone who as a 12-year-old, had take "safe" roads to drive any distance into the South. That changed, thanks in large part to the Interstate Highway System. Scott's method of travel improved a bit when he reached the pros. But even there, he had to figure out what restaurants and clubs would allow him to walk in the front door when he visited those places on road trips. 

Scott, who was assisted by Charley Rose in the book, tells an interesting story here about the time when the Pistons acquired Dave DeBusschere. The team simply gave him No. 22 upon reporting, since he had worn that number in other stops in his sports career. But that had been Scott's number, and he was surprised to discover one day that a uniform with No. 31 was in his locker. The best that could be said is that the Pistons were thoughtless in the matter, and Scott was left wondering what would have been done if the names in the story had been reversed. 

Scott's coaching career also is interesting in hindsight. He was the first African American to win the NBA's Coach of the Year Award. Right after that, the Pistons' ownership changed hands, and Scott's relationship with management changed. The front office forced the trade of Dave Bing, and soon after that assistant coach Herb Brown sounds like he tried to work behind the scenes to move up to the head coaching job. That eventually happened; OK, the team has an owner for a reason. But the man who was deemed the NBA's best coach at one point never got a second shot at an NBA job. It was a time when white coaches seemed to be recycled like plastic milk containers are now. 

The small consolation for some of the slights was that Scott did have some good times along the way. You'd expect him to establish bonds with players like Chamberlain and Bill Russell, since there was more that brought them together than separated them. But Scott also was on a first-name basis with people like Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin, and he has some good stories here. 

This is all told in a relatively breezy way, with plenty of tangents. The biggest catch is that there are good-sized stretches where Scott seems to be naming names without much point. There's a lot of material that feels like padding here, and that's a problem in a book that is on the short side to begin with. That makes this feel a bit on the slight side. A few typographical errors and factual mistakes also bothered me a bit.

"The NBA in Black and White" may not be an all-time keeper of a book, but it will hold your attention. It certainly will be of interest to those who want to learn about what basketball was like for the players in the 1960s - particularly those who were African American. It's easy to wonder how many people qualify for that. Whatever the number is, more people should get that education from Professor Scott.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)

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

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Review: Across the River (2021)

By Kent Babb

The sports book industry has made plenty of money over the years publishing stories about a team and a particular season. In fact, it's easy to wonder how many books are started ... only to have something go terribly wrong along the way, and never get finished or published. 

"Across the River" is another of those books that did make it across the finish line, and happily so. Kent Babb here writes about a 2019 high school season, and all that entails.

The team in question is Edna Karr High School in New Orleans, but not the New Orleans that tourists come to visit every year. This is the New Orleans that is across the river from the French Quarter and Lafayette Square. This is the New Orleans that features almost suffocating poverty, a place where the murder rate is almost off the charts. 

There aren't many success stories on the other side of the bridge. Karr's football team could be called one of then, especially on the field, since they had a great run of success in the late 2010s. Even so, the coaches - including head coach Brice Brown - realize that disaster can be right around the corner at a given moment. They win a few and lose a few in terms of individuals, and hope they can make an impact. Even so, they never know what it means when a cell phone rings late at night and early in the morning - but it's probably not good.

Babb spent a lot of time in New Orleans researching the book; he counted 19 trips to Louisiana during the course of the year. That commitment shows up throughout the publication. He obviously worked hard to earn the trust of the people around the program, and it shows throughout the book. 

So we get a good luck at what happens when a team's former star quarterback is murdered one night, and there's no trail toward solving the case. We see what happens when one of the players lives alone with his single mother, and that mother goes off to prison for a while. And we take a look at people with dreams, who are living in a place where dreams go to die. Some of them - players and coaches - are interested in moving to the next level. A college scholarship or coaching job might change everything in terms of their life's prospects.

One of the biggest surprises in this book is that there isn't a great deal of text devoted to the actual football games. Some of the early contests are handling almost in passing, as the preparation for those games and the response to their outcome receives more space. It's a surprising approach under the circumstances, but some of the details probably aren't missed too much. 

Books that cover the intersection of sports and culture always interest me. Tthe prototype in this area for high school is "Friday Night Lights." So much of this unfiltered look at urban football was of interest. Still, it should be said that this is not a particularly easy read as it takes a little time to get through it. The football talk about plays was a little over my head; it's never easy to know how much jargon to include. The same could be said about language that reflects the youth of today as well as African American culture. I'm not too in touch with either, which is probably my loss. There are quite a few characters in the story, particularly among the students, and it takes a little effort to separate them while reading. And if you don't like profanity in your book and prefer something closer to standard grammar and usage, well, you have the wrong volume.

The other day, someone told me that he worried about some of the excesses in the culture of high school sports. My response to that was anything that engages young people in school activities is good. Sports can keep kids in the classroom, and teach them some lessons they wouldn't get from a textbook. The same applies to several other extracurricular activities, which is why they shouldn't be the first item cut out of the budget when money gets tight. 

"Across the River" gives an upclose look at life in the inner city. Don't look away; you might learn something.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)

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