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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Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Review: Conflicted Scars (2022)

By Justin Davis

The first person to come to mind when reading Justin Davis' "Conflicted Scars" was Andre Agassi. Yes, the tennis player.

Agassi wrote a fabulous autobiography called "Open." He candidly discussed the fact that he generally hated many parts of his tennis career, even though he was always really good at it. 

Davis has a similar mindset. He enjoyed portions of the game, but other parts brought him depression and sadness. Along the way, he paid a price for the toll that he had to take to chase a hockey dream. The book is an attempt to figure out what the heck happened along the way.

One thing probably needs to be set straight at the start. The subtitle - "An Average Player's Journey to the NHL" - might be a little deceptive. Yes, he was drafted by the Washington Capitals in the fourth round in 1996. However, Davis was merely invited to a couple of training camps for a few days and never reached the NHL. 

He was, however, a heck of a player at the lower levels - one who simply wasn't good enough to reach the big leagues. Davis often would dominate games as a child, as he was big for his age as he eventually grew into a 6-foot-4 body.  However, he learned that fame and talent brought some baggage. The game came easily to Davis, prompting jealousy and slights from teammates, parents of teammates and opposing players, fans, etc. That can be rough on a seven-year-old. One time Davis scored six goals in a 7-1 win in a championship game. You'd think that would be enough to earn MVP honors, but no - organizers thought Davis won awards all the time, and someone else should get a turn to be honored. Try explaining that to a kid. 

The hazing came later. At a rookie initiation, Davis was ordered to strip, drink a glass of liquid that was shall we say left behind from the previous rookie in the process, and then do push-ups while putting private body parts into the cup. The 15-year-old Davis had his first beer after that, naked while surrounded by teammates. 

Soon it was on to junior hockey and the Ontario Hockey Association, where Davis suffered his first major concussion. A team doctor told him, "Take your equipment off, try to shower, turn off the dressing room lights and lay down in the shower until we get back ... Try and stay still." That's rather bad advice, but 16-year-olds figure out not to argue with anyone in authority. There was another bit of hazing there during a long bus trip. The rookies were stripped and had to do a "walk of shame" in the back of the bus while the veterans slapped their butt and pulled a string that was tied to the players' genitals. Then all the rookies were stuffed into the bus' bathroom, where the heat was turned up to full blast. Their clothes were tied into a knot and thrown into the room, where they had to figure out what went where. It took a few hours before everyone was dressed and freed. Coaches ignored this stuff - it's all part of "team-building."

Mature behavior was hard to find back then. At one point, Davis and some teammates decided to have a little fun with someone else's expensive paintball gun, leading to an confrontation with police. While nothing too serious came out of it, some newspaper headlines about the incident followed Davis around for much of his remaining hockey career. 

Davis had some injury problems as well as issues with management, so he bounced around a bit in junior hockey. In one game in Michigan, Davis was knocked out and had convulsions on the ice. While the team acted as if it just wanted him to get on a bus and go back to Canada, where medical care was covered financially, a trainer insisted Davis be taken to a hospital. The young player ended up in intensive care; his family (and not the team) received a bill for $15,000 for the three-day hospital stay. The forward finally thrived in Ottawa, where legendary coach Brian Kilrea could look good among his peers simply by acting like a grown-up. No wonder he's in the Hall of Fame. Davis played well enough to win a championship there - and be a good scorer in the process. 

After finishing his junior eligibility, Davis headed to the University of Western Ontario. He was 21 when he started there, and played five seasons including one that saw the team win a national championship. Then it was on to Germany for two years to finish the formal part of his career, although Davis has played some senior hockey once in a while. He also has done a little coaching.

Youth and junior hockey have received plenty of criticism for its dealings with such matters as penalizing diversity and not dealing with sexual abuse over the years. There have been some efforts to change that lately; it's tough to say how successful it has been at this point - especially from a distance. Davis raises these points to show that other activities within the so-called "hockey culture" might need examining too. He admits he more or less forced himself to "buy in" to all of it, figuring it was just part of the price needed to move up the ladder. But now while looking back, Davis knows that attitude came with a price of its own - such as 12 concussions, OCD and shoulder problems. 

The resulting book from all of this comes off a little unevenly. It's a little difficult to make old tales of generally forgotten hockey teams too interesting, particularly when looking across an international border. There are also some stories about practical jokes that either fall into the "you had to be there" or "grow up already" categories. Some readers certainly will enjoy stories about ketchup being secretly spread on the good shoes of a teammate in a restaurant. The stories, often told in a locker room after a game over a cold beer, are part of what keeps luring Davis back to the game in one form or another. 

"Conflicted Scars," then, is something of a therapy session - someone's attempt to sort out "how did I get here?" There's plenty to unpack here, and it might take others to figure out what happened to people like Davis and what to do about it. This isn't a great book, but it's good enough to start some  conversations that we've been avoiding for decades. If that happens, it will be a success.

Three stars

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Monday, July 11, 2022

Review: Blood in the Garden (2022)

By Chris Herring

It was easy to hate the New York Knicks of the 1990s. They were, in the eyes of opposing players and fans, thugs in shorts. 

That makes it a huge surprise how easy it is to love "Blood in the Garden," a book on that era in the team's history. 

The style of those Knicks' teams was a little unexpected at the time. They had brought in Pat Riley to coach the team. He had established a reputation during his championship run as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. They didn't call that era "Showtime" for another. Players like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy always put on a great show, fast-breaking their way to slam-dunks, wins and titles. They could have been called the Hollywood Lakers.

This Knicks team was, well, different. A role model might have been the Pistons, which followed the Lakers to a run of success. Detroit pushed people around in winning a couple of championships. Riley arrived in New York in 1991, and didn't have "Showtime" talent. So he adapted like all good coaches do. The Knicks got tougher. As one opposing player said, when you came to Madison Square Garden, you didn't know if you'd win. But you knew you'd bleed. 

Riley did have one major piece of the puzzle in center Patrick Ewing. Considering how well-known Ewing was when he came out of a great college career at Georgetown, he might be one of the most underrated players of his era in the pro ranks. Ewing developed a reliable jump shot with the Knicks, but still could battle anyone in the paint. Add that to an unsurpassed work ethic, and you had a heck of a player.

Ewing's supporting cast was sometimes good, but never quite good enough. It also was a little odd. John Starks and Anthony Mason weren't the typical set of players, but both had a relatively unique skill set by NBA standards that make them good-sized parts of good teams. The Knicks had some memorable playoff losses to Chicago and Indiana in the early 1990s and lost in the NBA Finals to Houston in seven games in 1994. Yes, there were some well-publicized fights along the way.

It was more of the same for a while after that, even though the cast changed somewhat - starting with Riley's departure to Miami in 1995. The Bulls and Pacers often were in the way, but the Knicks made it back to the Finals in 1999 ... only to run into a San Antonio team that was ready to dominate the league in the next few seasons. The Knicks blew up from there, and haven't been too relevant since then. 

The key to the book, though, is in the telling. Herring, now with Sports Illustrated after a stint with the Wall Street Journal, talked to everybody associated with the Knicks, and a few people outside of the organization. Everyone seems honest and forthcoming about what happened. The stories come pouring out - legendary practice sessions, trade discussions, discreet meetings at restaurants, deliberations about firings and hirings, etc.  Herring even found out how John F. Kennedy's Jr.'s request for season tickets was handled.

As one sportswriter said, you do your best writing when your notebook is full. Herring's notebooks were jammed with information, and a lot of it was entertaining. Some of the Knicks of that time period probably could look up several times while reading this and say, "I didn't know that." 

What's the overall result, then? "Blood in the Garden" is as entertaining as any sports book of its kind. And if I enjoyed it so much, imagine what a fan of the Knicks in that era must feel while turning the pages. We're talking died and gone to heaven. Herring has put together a superb look at a team that never could get over the last hurdle or two.

Five stars

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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Review: Path Lit by Lightning (2022)

By David Maraniss

Those who are driving along Interstate 476 in Eastern Pennsylvania for the first time might be a little surprised to see an exit sign that reads "Jim Thorpe." After all, the famous athlete never set foot in this part of the state in the time he was alive. The mystery becomes a little deeper when those cars drive into town and find a little park that hosts Thorpe's grave. Here? Really?

There's a story behind it, of course - one of many that surrounds one of America's greatest all-around athletes. Now David Maraniss explains all of them in massive detail in his book, "Path Lit by Lightning."

Most sports fans know at least the basic details of Thorpe's athletic life. He was born in what is now Oklahoma as part of the Sac and Fox Nation in 1887. Thorpe eventually landed at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was designed to "Americanize" some of the young members of the Native population. His athletic abilities were noticed along the way there, and he quickly became something of a one-man program.

Thorpe had first caught the eye of Pop Warner, a legendary football coach, through track. But it was tough to keep someone of his ability off the football team. Sure enough, he soon moved up to a starting job in the backfield and became an All-American. It's really tough to explain how Carlisle became a college football powerhouse to a modern audience. It wasn't really a college in the traditional sense - more of an institution designed to reprogram the Native population into becoming "Americanized," and the admission rules were a little, um, arbitrary. But Warner was ambitious enough to build up a program that was more than competitive with the nation's best college teams around 1910. A highlight came when Carlisle went to West Point and knocked off Army - a small payback for the way that the real Army had massacred Native populations over the years.

Thorpe hadn't forgotten his track and field talents, and entered the Olympics in Stockholm in 1912 as a participant in the pentathlon and the decathlon. He won both events, earning recognition as the world's greatest athlete. But later it was revealed that Thorpe had played professional baseball during the summer of 1910 in North Carolina, and his medals were taken away. That sparked an argument that lasted literally decades, and it could be argued that matters still were never made right in this area.

Thorpe turned up on the roster of baseball's New York Giants in 1913, and was good enough to make the team but not good enough to play much. Jim also was around in the days when pro football was in its formative years. He was named the head of the league in 1920 that eventually became the National Football League for a while, although it was something of a figurehead position. Thorpe took part in athletics as long as he could, and then more or less living off his reputation for the rest of his life. He had a couple of strikes against him along the way - a lack of money management skills, and occasional issues with alcohol consumption. Thorpe wasn't too good at family matters either, going through three wives and several children along the way. 

Maraniss, one of the nation's top authors, has several top biographies to his credit on subjects ranging from Roberto Clemente to Vince Lombardi. Here he puts his usual exhaustive research effort into tracking down the details of Thorpe's whole life. That's not easy, considering how Jim and his families tended to bounce around the country in a futile search for some sort of stability. At times it's difficult to believe that Mariniss found so much information about someone who was prominent about 110 years ago, and whose origins weren't exactly documented thoroughly at the time.

Maraniss examines the details of Thorpe's journey through a definite prism. He puts him in his time and place when the Natives were treated horribly by almost any standard. Reading newspaper stories about Jim's athletic days are worth a cringe or six with their use of stereotypes. In other words, Carlisle didn't just beat football opponents, they scalped them. Indeed, the story reads something like many boxing biographies at times. A talented if somewhat uneducated athlete is used by others for financial gain. Then when his athletic usefulness has been chewed up, the athlete is discarded. 

Two of the major villains in that area are Warner and Avery Brundage. When the news broke nationally that Thorpe had played pro baseball and lost his Olympic medals, Warner essentially threw him under the bus by saying he had it coming. That's in spite of the fact that Warner knew about the baseball episode beforehand. He tried to make it look as if he was Thorpe's lifelong benefactor (particularly in the movie version of Thorpe's life), but really was just another guy out for himself. Brundage never really considered reopening the Thorpe case when he was head of the International Olympic Committee, even though there was a rule on the books that said complaints about eligibility had to be filed within 30 days of the competition. Brundage may have been a little jealous of Thorpe's Olympic acclaim, since he did little as part of the American team in 1912. History has not been kind to Brundage in other ways, due to his embrace of the Nazi government at the 1936 Games, and his handling of the terrorist episode in Munich in 1972. Replicas of Thorpe's medals were given to his descendants in 1983, although Jim was only declared a co-champion at the time. The fight continues.

As for the burial, Thorpe's third wife worked out a deal with the citizens of a Pennsylvania town that they would rename the town for him if his body was brought to it. Descendants again have fought that decision for years, saying that Thorpe himself wanted to be buried in his native Oklahoma. But court cases that even reached the Supreme Court haven't changed anything, and Jim remains in Jim Thorpe.

Reading this book is not exactly a casual commitment. It takes quite a while to go through the nearly 700 pages contained between the covers. (OK, about 100 pages of that are notes. But still.) The amount of research is shown on almost every page. For example, it's one thing to print a few of Jim's love letters to one of his eventual wives. It's another to print so many of them. 

That level of effort certainly makes "Path Lit by Lightning" the definitive biography of Thorpe. He's still the standard when it comes to all-around athletic ability, paving the way for such athletes as Bo Jackson decades later. Maraniss deserves credit for reintroducing Thorpe into our sports conversation; maybe we'll all learn some lessons from his story.

Five stars

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