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

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, 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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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