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

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, 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

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, 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

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.

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

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.