Sunday, December 31, 2023

Review: Star With a Broken Heart (2020)

By Ernie DiGregorio

The story of Ernie DiGregorio's book, "Star With a Broken Heart," might be as interesting as the book itself, based on a limited amount of information. 

When I was writing a book on the Buffalo Braves of the NBA (Ernie D played for that team), I found a reference or two to a book that DiGregorio had written. A search on line for it proved futile though - although I was prompted to try again when basketball writer Peter Vecsey said he had a copy of it. Still, no luck.

My Braves' book came out without the help of using that as a reference source, and DiGregorio even came to Buffalo for a launch party. (Thanks, Ernie.) Shortly after that event, the announcement came from Providence College that it was selling "Star With a Broken Heart."

Naturally, I immediately ordered a copy, and it came in relatively short order. (If you are curious, it's not available on The book held a few more surprises. It was written in 2020, although the copy that arrived proudly announced "First Edition" on the front cover. There's no sign of a publisher within the book's pages, so I guess we can assume it was self-published. 

That's all rather odd, but it's nice to have Ernie's take on the events of his life on paper. It was quite a ride for a while, and the book centers on Ernie's relationship with Marvin Barnes and Dave Gavitt. 

DiGregorio came out of North Providence, a six-footer who was an absolute wizard when it came to passing the basketball. There were always doubters along the way, but he kept climbing the ladder of success in the game. DiGregorio eventually landed at Providence College to play at the next level, and it was there where he met two people who were instrumental in his success.

One was the coach, Dave Gavitt, who achieved a string of successes during a career in basketball. Not only were Gavitt's teams usually good, but he also was the key member in the creation of the Big East Conference and played a part in the growth of basketball nationally and internationally. The other was another player from Providence, Marvin Barnes. He was a freakishly talented big man who came out of difficult circumstances to become one of the nation's best players. 

DiGregorio's relationship with those two men is at the center of the book. It proved to be immediately beneficial to all of them, as Providence reached the Final Four in basketball in 1973. The Friars had hopes of knocking off UCLA that year - admittedly a tall order - but an injury to Barnes in the national semifinal essentially ended those hopes. Along the way, DiGregorio and Barnes became very close friends - an odd couple if there ever was one. Both men relied on Gavitt for advice while they were in college and beyond. 

Both players reached the pros and had some success before their careers were derailed. For DiGregorio, it was a knee injury that he suffered early in his second season. For Barnes, it was drug addition. The big man battled those demons for the rest of his life, and Ernie D did his best to provide support. (He also knew how to make an assist.) But Barnes' victories proved to be temporary, and he died too young in 2014. 

By the way, DiGregorio doesn't spend much time on the rest of his basketball life. His time in the NBA receives a few chapters, and there's nothing about what happened after he left basketball. 

There are some problems with "Star With a Broken Heart" that probably could have been solved with a coauthor. A few facts are wrong along the way, some material is duplicated, and a handful of the sentences don't make a great deal of sense. With those "buyer beware" warnings in place, this comes across as having a nice, long personal conversation with DiGregorio. That means that you may wander a bit along along the way and some of the details don't quite work, but hearing his stories - especially about this Providence trio - will keep you interested from start to finish. 

In other words, "Star With a Broken Heart" ought to keep the interest of anyone interested in that era of Providence basketball. That no doubt was the goal, and it's a success in that sense. 

Three stars

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Monday, December 25, 2023

Review: Bingo (2022)

By Ralph Lawler with Chris Epting

Here's a tough basketball trivia question, at least for the good people in Buffalo:

Who succeeded Van Miller as the Voice of the Buffalo Braves?

Yes, it's a trick question. When the Braves moved to San Diego in 1978, Van stayed in Buffalo. Ralph Lawler picked up the microphone for the brand-new Clippers, and spent most of the next 40 years or so describing that team's play in San Diego and Los Angeles.

Lawler lasted until the age of 80 or so before finally retiring. It took him a few years, but eventually he came out with his life story in the form of "Bingo!" Yes, that was one of his catch phrases as a broadcaster. The book is another pleasant enough entry in the category of autobiographies from sports broadcasters.

"The Voice of the Clippers" grew up in central Illinois, attending Bradley University. While he says he would have been quite content to be the broadcaster for the Braves for his entire lifetime, fate had other plans for him. He moved to Southern California, and except for a small detour to Philadelphia early in his career, stayed in the San Diego/Los Angeles area for the rest of his career. When the Clippers moved to Los Angeles, Lawler had the chance to follow them. 

Now it's time to discuss the elephant in the room when it comes to the book and the Clippers. If you've followed the NBA for a few decades, you know that for most of that time, the Clippers have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst. They have never even reached the NBA Finals, let alone won a championship. It's almost as if someone in Buffalo put a curse on the team when they moved out of town; well, it wasn't me - although I might have thought of it at the time. 

That fact dictates where the book goes for the most part. Usually such publications contain details of what championships are like, which offer good memories to the readers. But there's nothing like that here, thanks to decades of poor play. So Lawler, with the assist going to coauthor Chris Epting, has to go to other places to fill up the pages in the book.

As you'd expect, the topics range from funny things that happened on the air to in-person encounters with NBA personalities. It's all handled well enough. Some of the best ones concern Bill Walton, a Hall of Fame player and Lawler's partner on broadcasts for quite a while. It's fair to say that it's never boring to have Bill Walton as a friend. Walton even contributes an article for the book, as does Chris Paul and Doc Rivers.

Lawler has some honest moments along the way, particularly when talking about the team. That certainly applies to "controversial" owner Donald Sterling. If you need more evidence that Sterling didn't have the slightest idea how to build a basketball team, there's some provided here. Sterling, as you might remember, was forced out of the league for some racist remarks that were recorded. The Clippers seem to be headed in the right direction now. They are getting their own arena (they've been sharing the Staples Center with the Lakers and Kings) in the near future, and have strong ownership. 

There are a few typos that were contained in my Kindle version that probably should have been cleaned up. The Clippers were rarely good enough to gain national attention, and that probably hurt Lawler's chances at receiving a national profile in broadcasting. But he's received all sorts of honors in California, and he comes off here as a nice man who seems worthy of the praise.

In other words, you don't have to be a Clippers' fan to enjoy "Bingo!" - but it probably helps. It's a nice trip down Memory Lane for all concerned, and will work well for those who remember (and who are trying to forget) names like Michael Olowakandi. 

Three stars

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Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Review: Behind the Mask (2023)

By Randi Druzin

Ah, goaltenders. They are a different breed. 

They work under tremendous pressure, since their only job is to prevent something negative from happening. Goaltenders can't win a game, but they can sure lose it. And when a mistake is made, a red light comes on behind them, and thousands of people at the workplace react accordingly. 

It takes a certain type of person to want that sort of job, and that's why there are references to a "goaltenders union." Many are a little, well, different in the personality department.

Toronto writer Randi Druzin already had some success at mining this particular area with a 2013 book called "Between the Pipes." But that look at 12 goalies hardly was the last word on the subject, as more have come along since then while others no doubt just missed the cut the first time around. So Druzin is back with another professional job called "Behind the Mask." 

The tough part from the start, no doubt, is deciding who should be included. Druzin went back into the 1950s and 1960s to include such greats as Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante in addition to more "modern" goalies like Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy. 

Here are the 12 goalies she picked for Book Two: Roger Crozier, Rogie Vachon, Gerry Cheevers, Ed Giacomin, Tony Esposito, Vladislav Tretiak, Mike Palmateer, Grant Fuhr, Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury, Henrick Lundqvist, and Carey Price. It's hard to quarrel with too many of those choices. Most are either in the Hockey Hall of Fame, going to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, or are/should be at least a strong candidate for such honors. It could be argued that Mike Palmateer might be the outlier in the list, but we know that hockey fans in Toronto do buy books. 

All 12 goalies receive a good-sized profile. The articles take up an average of 20 pages of text, with Crozier's lasting 14 pages and Fleury's going for 29 pages.  That's enough space to allow more than just hockey to appear, as the individual personalities are allowed to come through. That's a particularly good idea in the case of someone like Cheevers, who was quite a character during his long career on and off ice ice. 

Points go to Druzin for research. She hits a variety of sources, and interviewed many of the subjects. That helps the profiles to remain interesting all the way through. She also can have some fun with turning a phrase along the way, which is a nice part of the story.

"Behind the Mask" is not a book for advanced hockey historians, since there probably isn't too much that is surprising to such students of the game. But it's not designed for that audience. Those who simply are seeking a full introduction into some top goalies in history ought to find that quite satisfactory in meeting that goal.

Four stars

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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Review: Kingdom on Fire (2024)

By Scott Howard-Cooper

I figured I'd meet the demographic to read and enjoy Scott Howard-Cooper's book on the UCLA basketball dynasty. I was a fan of the Bruins in my youth (I decided to pick a team to follow in 1966, and chose wisely), and it was a nice pairing with my interest in the Boston Celtics in that same era. In addition, I just wrote a basketball book on the NBA of the fascinating 1970s, and some of the names overlap.

Still, "Kingdom on Fire" topped of all my expectations. The story of that compelling dynasty era is fully told here, as tales familiar and surprising come crashing down like waves on the reader. There are plenty of names here, but three stand out: John Wooden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.

UCLA had won national championships in 1964 and 1965 under coach Wooden, but the two titles feel like a different era here. Howard-Cooper essentially starts with a fellow named Lew Alcindor, who became known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The high school sensation was perhaps most heralded prospect to come out of high school when he graduated from Power Memorial in 1965, and the recruiting battle was unprecedented and intense. UCLA somewhat unexpectedly won the right to have Alcindor on its team; Wooden rarely recruited east of the Mississippi, let alone in New York. 

The pressure on Alcindor started right away, when he led the freshmen team to a win over the top-ranked and defending national champion varsity in a preseason contest. That pressure never really went away until the final win of his career wrapped up the third of three straight championships in 1969 (and for the school, five out of six). There wasn't a ton of joy in winning games that everyone assumed you'd win, but in hindsight Alcindor and Wooden probably handled it as well as it could be done.

By the end of the 1960s, UCLA was doing more selecting of players than recruiting. The Bruins had more than enough to win championships in 1970 and 1971, but they weren't done winning. Walton had grown up a UCLA fan while living in San Diego. He was a little bit under the radar at first, but that took about a half to change. In terms of expectations, the Bruins were back to Alcindor-levels of expectations. And for two years, they met all of them but not losing a game. 

Finally in 1974, the dynasty showed some cracks. The biggest one was that Walton had injured his back in a game, and the problem was misdiagnosed - causing the center problems for the rest of the season, and really, the rest of his life. The team also became a little full of itself, in part because of the turbulent times. Wooden admitted later that he didn't do his best coaching with that group, maybe because he simply wasn't that good at bridging the "generation gap." UCLA still could have won a national title, but fell in the Final Four to North Carolina State. After the departure of players like Walton and Jamaal Wilkes, the Bruins had enough "leftovers" to win one last title in 1975. Then Wooden, tired of battling the pressures of the job, retired. 

By this point in time, all of the principles have had their say in one medium or another - books, videos, etc. Howard-Cooper talked to Abdul-Jabbar and Walton, among others. He also obviously went through a ton of sources to fill up the book with often fascinating material. Who knew that H.R. Haldeman, one of Richard Nixon's "henchmen," was one of UCLA's biggest basketball fans? Who has heard that Wooden became friendly enough with Jerry Tarkanian enough to recommend him for jobs? And who realized how ridiculously underpaid Wooden was? (He earned more in his first two years of retirement than he did in his entire tenure at UCLA.) This book offers a complete picture of the dynasty, which includes some not-so-flattering "photos" of Sam Gilbert, the UCLA "booster" who broke several chapters worth of NCAA regulations in supporting the team.  

Howard-Cooper also takes an interesting approach in that he doesn't write about the games very often. They obviously come up at certain points along the way, but the author is more concerned with the people involved. There's even a happy ending in that sense. Abdul-Jabbar and Walton couldn't have been more different than Wooden in personality, but they worked out their differences and became close friends during Wooden's long and fruitful retirement (he lived until he was 99). 

The Bruins were at their best a long time ago, but they still have the ability to fascinate. "Kingdom on Fire" shows that all of that winning wasn't as easy as we thought, and maybe we've found a new reason to appreciate those teams and a run that will never be duplicated. 

Five stars

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Friday, December 1, 2023

Review: Frank Grant (2022)

By Richard Bogovich

Frank Grant has one of the most interesting stories in Buffalo's long athletic history. It's too bad more people don't know it. 

Grant grew up in Western Massachusetts, and quickly displayed the ability to be a top-flight baseball player by the 1880s. You might remember that the National League started in 1876, and so for most people of that description at the time, Grant might have been given a chance to turn a pastime into a profession. But Grant was an African American, and ballplayers of that particular race were few and far between in the majors. 

Still he did darn well under the circumstances. Grant played some semi-pro ball, and joined the professional ranks in 1886. That led him to a contract with Buffalo's team for the second half of the season, and he stayed through 1888. The International League featured some good baseball in that era, but even so Grant became a star. What would you call a 5-foot-7, 155-pound second baseman who was one of the top batters (he even led the league in homers), and was considered the best fielder at his position in the entire sport - white or black? Today you'd probably say he was the spiritual ancestor of Joe Morgan or Jose Altuve - smallish players who excelled. 

Alas, by the end of 1888, white players were becoming more and more militant about the idea of playing against or with black players. That left Grant's days with the Bisons numbered, even if several teammates went public with their admiration of his skills. Grant was forced to drop to a lower level of play, and eventually had to resort to playing with all-Black barnstorming teams. The infielder, who also played other positions at time in his career, spent 20 years as a pro ballplayer. Even at the end of that run, people still talked about his skills - past and present. Several contemporaries described him as the finest African American baseball player of the 19th century.

The problem, of course, was that few people were paying attention. Coverage of baseball games didn't exactly offer a ton of feature stories back then, and the Black teams were at the end of the line for such stories. Therefore, we don't know that much about the players. But thanks to the efforts of Richard Bogovich, we  know a lot more than we used to know about Grant. 

Bogovich is the author of a book called "Frank Grant - The Life of a Black Baseball Pioneer," and he obviously put in an absolute ton of research into the book - to the point where he probably needed an eye exam when he was finished. Bogovich looked through miles of newspaper clippings and census data, among other records, to try to put together at least an outline of Grant's story.  

Is it successful? It's fair to say that Bogovich did as good a job as could be done. If Grant's name popped up in a box score or a story, it is represented here. The author did an exceptional job figuring out some information about the quality of the opposition. Grant had the chance to play against major league players at times, and he almost always showed that he belongs in that company. Grant's family situation is a bit more sketchy, but Bogovich makes some good guesses as to how events played out in his life. 

The biggest drawback to the book is that the story almost has to be very choppy. It mostly consists of descriptions of games and events without many themes running through it. That is unfortunate, since it might drive most potential readers away. Perhaps skimming would work best for them. Still, it's part of the package. I can't imagine the story being any more thorough, and thus gives baseball fans of that era an idea what the fuss was about. Therefore, "Frank Grant" works on that level quite nicely.

What's more, the work of baseball historians has not been in vain when it comes to Grant. He was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988 - 100 years after his last game in Buffalo. Even more impressive was his induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2006. His grave in Clifton, New Jersey, was unmarked until 2011, when he finally received his own gravestone with a brief inscription outlining his baseball accomplishments.  

Now we'll have to work on getting him into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.  

Four stars

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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Review: Brave Face (2023)

By Ron Vanstone

Once upon a time, hockey goaltenders didn't wear masks. 

That idea may sound like a fairy tale these days. After all, skaters have been known to shoot pucks at more than 100 miles per hour. You might have guessed what happened when vulcanized rubber traveling at that speed strikes the head of a human being. The puck usually wins, and so do doctors who are paid to sew up the damage. 

But it wasn't always that way. As ridiculous as it sounds now, no one between the pipes used to wear masks - even in the NHL. That raises the question, what happened?

That's what is at the center of Ron Vanstone's book, "Brave Face" - a title that probably will force you to start humming the Paul McCartney song of a similar title, "My Brave Face."

As the author points out here, the hockey mask went through something of an evolutionary process. In the good old days of hockey's beginnings, no one shot the puck particularly hard ... or particularly high. While accidents certainly did happen, there weren't enough cases of injuries to cause people to search furiously for a cure for the common puck to the face. 

But by the 1950s, the shots were getting faster and the risks were growing quickly. Finally, in 1960, all-star goalie Jacques Plante had had enough. He started wearing a mask full-time and started a revolution. The early masks weren't great. They weren't well ventilated, the goalies sometimes lost the puck at their feet, and the equipment didn't offer that much more protection. Besides, some coaches didn't like the idea of them for some reason. Inertia is a powerful force in life sometimes. But eventually, one goalie wearing a mask turned into two, and two turned into three, and so on. By the late 1970s, mask-less goalies had become extinct.

Vanstone's story is wisely broken into sections. The first goes back to the pre-mask's days and Plante's decision to wear one regular in games. The second covers the great goalies of that era, who eventually came around to the idea that reducing the chances of losing an eye was a good idea. The third reviews the final holdouts, featuring such names as Joe Daley and Andy Brown. Vanstone tips his hat to Dave Dryden, a goalie in the 1960s and 1970s who helped push the revolution along. 

Credit must be given to the author to the amount of work that goes into this. Vanstone tracked down several of the goalies who were mentioned here for interviews, and found out plenty of other information about all of them. He also has the definitive word about several milestones in the history of goalie masks, which ought to solve a few arguments. Vanstone also has plenty of fun along the way here, showing a nice command of the language. You'll definitely smile a few times while reading this. 

This adds up to a good book on the subject ... for a while. In the second half of the book, there are some details of goaltenders' lives, featuring injuries and decisions about wearing a mask. After a while, they start to seem to go down the same path. It's rather easy to go from reading to skimming. The problem is that this is not a particularly long book, and some deletions of material probably would put it under the amount of type needed for a decent-sized publication. 

To be fair, the subject of goalie masks is a rather small niche in the world of hockey. If you have an interest in it, then "Brave Face" will be worth reading. The guess is that most sports fans probably don't want something so detailed. A good-sized article probably would cover their curiosity about it. Still, authors often come up with books like this, complete with a personal drive to tell the full story. Vanstone deserves plenty of credit for putting this together.

Three stars

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Monday, November 20, 2023

Review: The Football 100 (2023)

By Mike Sando, Dan Pompei, and The Athletic NFL Staff

It was easy to see this book coming from, well, somewhere. 

Joe Posnanski wrote a book on "The Baseball 100" last year, as he "sort of" ranked the top 100 players in the sport's history. The "sort of" part of the book centers on the fact that he didn't take the rankings that seriously. If there was a particular number that applied to a certain player and was roughly around where he should be ranked (i.e. Joe DiMaggio, No. 56), then that number was assigned to him. That book worked really well because of Posnanski's dedication to finding out facts about all of the players that weren't common knowledge, and presenting them in an entertaining way. He succeeded in those goals beautifully.

And then ... well, with the success of that book, it was natural to assume that other sports might receive the same treatment. The Athletic's staff went to work on it, and the result is "The Football 100" - a massive project that will help fill that empty spot on the bookcase with its 656 pages. 

The stories start with Fran Tarkenton at No. 100, and run through No. 1 (no spoilers here, although you probably can guess the top four in some order rather easily). There are some similarities in the profiles as we march through the greatest in football history. The stories are all about the same size. Some of their statistics are presented when available, including Pro Bowl appearances, all-league and all-decade teams, etc. 

All of the stories have some backing support information and stories and quotes from the player himself or other people that usually show the greatness of that player in some way. Most of these athletes are beyond criticism, at least on the football field. Otherwise, they wouldn't be here. There are no real complaints to be found in each of the profiles. They serve the purpose well enough. 

However, something odd happens along the way after a few dozen of these articles. Since a few different people contributed to the book, the stories by nature have to be self-contained. In other words, there's no connection between the players profiled. They stand alone. 

For example, Merlin Olsen, Bob Lilly and Alan Page are grouped together in the top 100, and all are deserving of superlatives. Was there any reason why one was ranked a little better than the other? There must have been one, but all three greats receive nominations as great players. Along those lines, Jim Parker, Bruce Matthews and Larry Allen also have a literary blanket thrown over them. 

In my neighborhood, O.J. Simpson is the chapter that probably will receive the most attention. He was ranked No. 52, which struck me as a little low. For five years Simpson was as good as any running back in football history, and was the league's brightest star. Personally, I'd put him above Gale Sayers, Eric Dickerson and Bronko Nagurski, which would put him in the low 30s. Admittedly, Simpson's life after football has taken some terrible turns. Tim Graham's worthwhile profile addresses Simpson's full lifetime legacy, but it's tough to know where Simpson might have been ranked in, say, 1993. 

It would have been interesting to have some pages devoted to the ranking process in some detail here. Failing that, I'd listen to a podcast with the authors discussing their thinking at certain points of the discussion. 

If you are looking for a well-researched review of football's all-time greats, then "The Football 100" will do the job nicely enough. But the lack of fun and flow along the way might drag down your enthusiasm level after a while.

Three stars

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Sunday, November 12, 2023

Review: George Allen (2023)

By Mike Richmond
For a while in the late 1960s and early 1970s, George Allen might have been the most interesting man in the National Football League.
The story about why that's true probably is justification for Mike Richmond to write this full-fledged, detailed biography, naturally called "George Allen."
Our subject had a great run in the football spotlight. Allen first became known as the brains behind the Chicago Bears' defense on their 1963 NFL championship team.  After a couple of more years in that role, he was offered the job of head coach of the Los Angeles Rams - and Bears' owner/coach George Halas wouldn't let him out of his contract to advance professionally. That wouldn't happen today, but Halas won the lawsuit ... and promptly released him from the deal. Allen wound up in Los Angeles after all, although the relationship between the two men was never the same. 
The Rams quickly turned around their fortunes under Allen, becoming a very good team throughout the rest of the 1960s. They were 32-7-3 in the final three years of the decade.  But he never did get the Rams into the Super Bowl, and he was an odd mix with Los Angeles owner Dan Reeves. They finally parted company after the 1970 season.
Then Allen immediately landed with another team had enjoyed little recent success, the Washington Redskins. It was there where he established his reputation as an unusual operator - one who was unafraid to do what ever it took to win, even if meant trading the same draft choice twice or spending the owners' money freely. Allen traded draft choices for veterans as fast as he could to win immediately, and it worked. The Redskins reached the Super Bowl in second year in Washington. It's indicative of how good people thought Washington was that season that the team was favored in the Super Bowl against Miami, which had won all of its games in 1972-73. The Dolphins made it a perfect season by beating the Redskins, who might have run out of gas after two emotional playoff wins.
Allen stayed in Washington through 1977, but by the end he was butting heads with ownership frequently by then. He jumped back to Los Angeles to coach the Rams in 1978, but didn't even last the preseason there. Somewhat surprisingly, George never coached in the NFL again. Allen never had a losing season in 12 tries in the NFL, and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 
Richmond highlights those years, of course, but the origins and endings are interesting too. Allen worked his way up the coaching ladder in the usual way, taking small steps forward and then moving to the next job before reaching the top of his profession. On the downside, he did some of that in reverse, coaching a USFL team and then a bottom-feeder of a Division I college football team at Long Beach State (he even had a winning record there). 
The Allen family seems to have fully cooperated with this book's research, supplying some helpful details of Allen's life - particularly off the field. A number of other people chime in with quotes from fresh interviews or old stories. It's all done rather nicely.
The resulting book is on the massive side. Including notes at the end of the book, this checks in at more than 600 pages. Without the notes, it still approaches 500. That's a lot of material about someone who hasn't been around for more than 30 years. Certainly the reader will find himself wondering if some of those pages could have been edited out.
Those who are old enough to remember and follow the veteran coach certainly will find plenty to enjoy in "George Allen." The guess here, though, is that this may be a little slow-going for the rest of the football audience. 
Three stars
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Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Review: The Year's Best Sports Writing 2023

Edited by Richard Deitsch

My personal streak of reading every different copy of "The Year's Best Sports Writing" takes a very small personal turn with the 2023 issue. Richard Deitsch is the editor of the new version. I knew Rich slightly when he was more or less just out of school in the Buffalo area, as our paths crossed a few times. 

He's obviously done quite well for himself. Deitsch's career is mostly noted for a 20-year stay at Sports Illustrated, where he did some coverage of the media as well as working on college sports, Olympics and tennis. Now he's doing media stories out of Toronto for The Athletic

In the introduction, Rich raises the basic problems of being an editor of a publication like this. The first is the "Am I worthy?" question, considering the talented list of people who have preceded him in this annual position. Then there's the chore of picking out the articles that belong in the anthology. Chore is a carefully chosen word in this case, because there is a great deal of fine material out there and picking one story over another is agonizing. 

But Deitsch does what all of would do in this situation. He received some help from several esteemed contributors. From there Deitsch tried to narrow down the candidates for publication. He writes that he asked questions like "Which pieces stayed with me days after I let them go?" and "Which pieces demanded I read them again and again?"

Any insecurities about the picks should be gone at this point. It's another worthwhile collection, for the upteenth straight year. (It depends on how you count.)

If there's a theme here, it's that sometimes the line between sports and the rest of the world sometimes is blurred. For example, baseball only touches on "She Made Us Happy." It simply a way to introduce the subject of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The same could be said about Michael Rosenberg's story about of a school shooting in Michigan. The sports connection might be even more blurred as sportswriter Jonathan Tiarks describes his eventual losing battle with cancer, leaving a son behind in the process. You probably can argue whether the stories belong here, but they will stay with you. 

There are other stories that if you read them in the original form, you'd know they'd probably appear here. The great Wright Thompson checks in with the tale of the Ukrainian national soccer team, men trying to find a little sanity through a game while the rest of their lives have turned to chaos because of the war there. David Remnick's tribute to Roger Angell hits all the right notes. Some good investigate work on such subjects as Deshaun Watson and the killing of Auburn's iconic trees on its campus take a bow here too.

Then there are the surprising topics that draw the reader in just by the subject. Stone skipping? The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders? Cornhole? Port-A-Potty?

Not surprisingly, Deitsch ends with a tribute to Grant Wahl, the former Sports Illustrated writer who died while covering the World Cup. Wahl was incredibly liked and respected, based on the outpouring of stories upon his passing. He was said to have been very proud of his piece on the migrant workers of Qatar - again, another story that only touches on sports but shows an excellent mixture of fine reporting and fine writing. 

I may not have gotten through every single story here in its entirety, but few books bat 1.000 in that sense. "The Year's Best Sports Writing 2023" is a worthy addition to the series.

Four stars

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Friday, October 27, 2023

Review: The Game That Saved the NHL (2023)

By Ed Gruver

Amy discussion of Ed Gruver's book probably starts with the title. 

The publication is called "The Game That Saved the NHL."  That's a rather powerful statement that begs the question, "From what?" We're going to need a little background information about that moment in time before discussing how it is covered. 

The game in question was played between the Red Army team of the Soviet Union and the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL in January, 1976. Hockey fans certainly remember the unique moment in 1972 when the all-star teams from the Soviets and the NHL met in an eight-game series which was barely won by the North Americans. That generated interest in the potential of a series of "exhibition games" between NHL teams and their Soviet counterparts in midseason.

The USSR sent two of their best teams, the Red Army and the Wings, to play a total of eight games. Both of the Soviet teams picked up a couple of reinforcements from other teams, which meant it wasn't exactly a true test of comparative abilities. Through the first seven games, things had not gone well for the NHL. The two Soviet squads had five five games, while the NHL had one win (Buffalo over the Wings, the lesser team of the two). The other game was a tie between Montreal and the Red Army.

Going into Game Eight, then, the Flyers were the NHL's last chance for a win over the perennial power of Soviet hockey. Philadelphia also was a two-time defending champion of the Stanley Cup. It certainly figured to a contrast in styles. They didn't call the Flyers the "Broad Street Bullies" for nothing. While they featured some terrific skill players in Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish and Bernie Parent, they were more known for a rough and tough playing style that often left opponents intimidated. Essentially, the Flyers perfected an approach that had started in the expansion era because the new teams didn't have the talent to keep up with the Original Six ... and thus had to try something different in an attempt to win and sell tickets. 

Flyers' coach Fred Shero had studied Soviet hockey, and came up with a game plan that worked well. It probably was helped by the fact that an NHL referee worked the game, since a Soviet official might have not let some infractions go unpenalized. At one point late in the first period, the Red Army squad was furious enough at the Flyers' tactics to leave the ice and to threaten to leave the building. It took a while, but eventually the Soviets returned ... and little changed. Philadelphia poured on the shots and came away with a 4-1 win. It might have been the team's signature performance of that era.

Gruver covers the bases well enough here. He reviews the international hockey situation during the 1970s, which the game started to become more of a melting pot than its previous status as one that practically had a "North Americans Only" sign at the front door. Graver has mini-bios of anyone who played a role in the series. The second half of the book is mostly dedicated to the game itself. It's not easy to devote a lot of space to the play-by-play of a sports event that has been over for almost 50 years, particularly in the case of a free-flowing sport like hockey. There's a little repetition along the way, and it's a little surprising that the Soviet walkout wasn't a bigger deal in the story.

Still, this book essentially comes down to perspective and legacy. Those Flyers teams are very well remembered in the Philadelphia area, and Gruver comes off as a fan of them. After all, they won the only two Stanley Cups in team history. That's enough to make names like Clarke and Parent legends, and then some. But the team's playing style generated a lot of debate about whether the ends justified the means, and whether the intimidation tactics were good for hockey as a whole. 

If there was a game in that international series that might have "saved" the NHL, it might have been the one between the Canadiens and Red Army. It was an instant classic in terms of quality of play, and taught many people how exciting and beautiful the game could be played in a certain style. (The book, "The Greatest Game," by Todd Denault, covers the contest well.) The Flyers' approach when done without all of the wins turned off some potential fans by the amount of violence involved. The transformation of hockey took a long time, but the game today features much more skill and speed than ever before. The players are better, and the game is better to play and to watch.

Yes, the Flyers did beat the beat the Soviets had to offer on that January afternoon. That means that the NHL's three best teams - Philadelphia, Montreal and Buffalo - all did not lose to squads from the USSR. That was good for some debating points, especially since the Soviet teams had extra weapons. But it is tough to argue that its effects were long-lasting.

If you have fond memories of those Flyers' teams and that day in 1976, you'll certainly enjoy the look back at "The Game That Saved the NHL." Others are going to have trouble with the premise.

Three stars

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Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Review: The Last Miracle (2023)

By Ed Kranepool with Gary Kaschak

Most fans of the New York Mets of a certain age have a soft spot in their heart for Ed Kranepool. 

After all, he was part of the original Mets in 1962. Kranepool was signed right out of high school, and had some at-bats for those lovable losers who lost 120 of 160 games in that initial season. The difference was that while everyone else from that team soon moved on, Kranepool hung around..

And hung around, and hung around. He stayed through 1979, which means he spent 18 seasons wearing the orange and blue of the Mets. Kranepool was part of the furniture for a long time, and you can build up a lot of good will that way.

Therefore, it was a bit of a surprise to read "The Last Miracle." It turns out that Kranepool was always something of an angry young man during his playing days. Billy Joel would have been proud of him.

Ed grew up in New York City and was a good-sized prospect out of high school. In those days, players could sign with any team - a decision that often came down to money. The fact that Kranepool had ties to New York City made it easy to want to stay home and play baseball. Besides, the Yankees were rather loaded with talent then, while the Mets were running on empty. The National League team offered the quickest path to the majors possible. 

In fact, it was probably too quick. Kranepool did play in three games for the '62 Mets before he had even turned 18. He also spent time in Triple-A, Class A, and Class C. But realistically, Kranepool should have gone to the low minors and learned how to be a pro ballplayer. It was the same story a year later, when the first baseman/outfielder split his time between New York and Buffalo (AAA). For a guy who hit .209 with the Mets in 1963, he seemed to carry a grudge over the assignment to the minors. He seemed to take it out on the city of Buffalo, even turning down a chance to work on the movie "The Natural" in the 1980s after retirement.

From there, Kranepool became a regular through 1967, and usually hit around .260 in that span. Eventually the Mets figured out that Kranepool was better off platooning. That was his role on the 1969 Miracle Mets, who ended several years of frustration with a surprise World Series championship. Those players will walk together forever, and Kranepool has some stories about that amazin' season in the book.

But the magic soon wore off, which usually happens in baseball as players age or get shuffled. New York did get back to the World Series in 1973 despite a mediocre regular season. Soon Kranepool was left filling a pinch-hitting role that kept him employed in the big leagues but apparently wasn't too satisfying. He finally retired after the 1979 season.

The possibilities for a good book seem obvious enough, but Kranepool's attitude drags things down quite a bit. It's interesting how Ed didn't seem to appreciate manager Gil Hodges much until Hodges took Kranepool's side in an argument with Tim Foli. Suddenly Hodges could do no wrong. In the meantime, Kranepool didn't think much of the managerial abilities of Hodges' successor, Yogi Berra. Ed is still angry over the fact that George Stone wasn't picked to start Game Six of the 1973 World Series over a less than fully rested Tom Seaver. To be fair, he might have a point, especially since Berra's plan didn't work out. 

The anger comes out in other places. Kranepool thought he deserved more consideration for a Gold Glove at first base, even though perennial winner Wes Parker of the Dodgers played a lot more games. Ed thought he could be a player-coach once Joe Torre took over as manager. When Torre had other plans, his stock dropped with Kranepool. At the end of his career, Ed thought he was ready to move into a front office job - perhaps general manager. That didn't come true either, although considering the way the Mets handled things in the late 1970s, Kranepool couldn't do any worse than those on the job. 

Oddly, Kranepool sticks to the old belief that winning the close games is the sign of a champion. According to most of the research, the good teams usually have a one-sided record in the blowouts ... because you are only doing bad opponents a favor by letting them hang around. Luck has a lot more to do winning the close ones. The '69 Mets went 41-23 in one-run games, even better than the 21-12 in blowouts. A year later, the Mets were under .500 in close games, and the team turned mediocre. Everything went right, including the breaks for the Mets in 1969.

Adding to some bad feelings about the book was that the fact that there were some typos and other mistakes along the way, and sometimes the story jumped in some odd directions. One more read of the manuscript by an outside source probably would have helped a lot. 

Autobiographies often rise and fall on how the person at the middle of them come across. "The Last Miracle" suffers because of that. If you carry warm feelings about the Mets of that era, maybe you'd better go elsewhere.

Two stars

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Thursday, October 19, 2023

Review: Life in Two Worlds (2023)

By Ted Nolan with Meg Masters

One of the problems with big-time sports these days is that it is difficult to obtain explanations for behind-the-scenes activities even well after they happen. The money has gotten bigger, and the stakes have gotten higher. That's led to non-disclosure agreements in many cases, the equivalent of a gag order that would be costly if ever broken.

But sometimes, we do hear a version of what went on - even if takes a while. In this case, Ted Nolan gives his life story in th3e book, "Life in Two Worlds." And it's positively fascinating, particularly those who are old enough to remember a particular era of hockey.

The centerpiece of the book is the story of Nolan's time with the Buffalo Sabres. He was hired by the team after only one year as an assistant coach in the NHL in 1995. Nolan lasted two seasons in Buffalo, and it sometimes seemed like every day was a soap opera ... with the tension building as the end of his tenure approached. 

There's only a couple of chapters on this part of his life, but it's really the centerpiece of his hockey career. Nolan won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's coach of the year in 1996-97, only to lose his job that summer when he turned down something of a token contract offer from new general manager Darcy Regier. 

But there's one central fact to Nolan's first time around in Buffalo. John Muckler was kicked upstairs to be a general manager only after the 1995 season; he had been the coach as well before that. Basically, he wanted someone he could control as the head coach. Based on the book, I'm not sure Nolan realized that. But clashes were almost inevitable in that situation, and they eventually happened. 

Nolan writes about those unpleasant moments that in hindsight don't make a whole lot of sense. For example, Nolan became an instant fan of his best player, Pat LaFontaine, upon his arrival. Pat was the captain, and Ted was immediately impressed about how his star worked the room. That what made, and makes, it so puzzling that Muckler asked Nolan to strip LaFontaine of his captaincy. It's hard to know what happened between the GM and star. I do know that once when Muckler was asked about LaFontaine's leadership abilities, Muckler supposedly replied (more or less) than LaFontaine couldn't lead a prostitute to bed. 

Eventually, Nolan developed a reputation as a "player's coach." That usually meant he tried to be someone who took the time how to figure out what was best for the player and his development. Muckler was more old school, and thought a good screaming session was necessary every so often. Muckler asked Nolan to be tougher, and Nolan refused. It was a basic difference in philosophy that probably should have come up in the interview process.

Then early in the 1996-97 season, LaFontaine suffered a serious concussion on the ice. Nolan could see something was seriously wrong, even after some recovery time. Muckler tried to order Nolan to play LaFontaine, pointing out that Pat was cleared for play and was earning $5 million per year. Nolan wouldn't do it, saying LaFontaine wasn't healed. A few months later, a story circulated that Muckler wanted to fire Nolan and replace him with assistant coach Don Lever, but that the Sabres' front office told Muckler he'd have to coach too if wanted to make that change. So the idea died, and the frayed relationship between general manager and head coach continued. 

The team still played well under Nolan, winning a divisional championship. But the rift grew. In the book, Nolan said that an opposing general manager had said he was drunk on the bench at times. An exhausting season ended with the only Game Seven victory in Sabres' history (still true), and a second-round loss to Philadelphia. Then star goalie and league MVP Dominik Hasek added to the story by saying he didn't want to play for a coach in Nolan that he had no respect for. Nolan writes that has no idea where that came from - but he did hear all the rumors that he was having an affair with Hasek's wife. Bizarre stuff. 

Muckler exited right after the end of the playoffs, and Regier took over. He greeted Nolan in their first meeting without taking his feet off his desk. For someone who battled his entire life for respect, Nolan thought it got the relationship off to a horrible start. Nolan soon first heard from Buffalo News reporter Jim Kelley that he was going to be offered a one-year contract with no bonuses. Nolan eventually turned that down, and the Sabres eventually hired Lindy Ruff as coach. 

Nolan's luck wasn't much better when it came to his other coaching jobs. The Islanders hired him as a head coach in 2006 after a long gap from his first departure from the Sabres. But New York hired a new general manager in Garth Snow shortly after that, and GMs always like to have their own man in such an important job. Later on, Nolan returned to the Sabres as coach in 2013. But later Tim Murray was hired as GM. Murray was in the process of guiding a tank in an ill-fated attempt to land Connor McDavid in the draft, and that tank ruined just about everything it touched within the organization in those years. When Nolan wouldn't hire Murray's uncle, veteran hockey coach Bryan, for his coaching staff, Tim fired Ted - at least in Nolan's version here - in 2015. The in-between periods might have been even tougher for Nolan. From what I've heard, Ted was in a rather dark place at times, and did a couple of things in trying to find a coaching job that didn't go over well with the rest of the NHL coaching fraternity.  

This is all quite interesting to hockey fans, particularly for those who follow the Sabres. However, the rest of the book is quite well done as well. That might be the biggest surprise of the entire publication. 

Nolan overcame a lot to do as well as he could. The systemic problems of Native communities are quite well known, including such issues as poverty, racism and alcoholism. It's difficult for anyone to come from that environment into the world beyond the reservation and not be changed by it. Nolan was no exception. He came from a large family in Western Ontario, and has gone through more than his share of tragedy over the years. Nolan also has been a victim of stereotyping along the way, which was a large problem for Native players in hockey. But he overcame them, paid his dues, and reached the top of his profession. 

It's really difficult to read some of this material. Then again, it's really difficult to understand what people are thinking when they hand out abuse to someone because he or she is a member of a particular group. Nolan comes across as an innocent during his youth, sometimes fighting back and sometimes giving in to temptations like alcohol use and quitting. He even had to deal with insults and abuse from his own teammates - such as "What are you doing here, ya stinkin' Indian?" Fans might have been worse. To his credit, Ted battled his way up the hockey ladder as a player and as a coach. Nolan rightfully thanks several mentors here who helped him along the way.

Nolan is 65 now - seems impossible at first - and lately he's been working on a 3Nolans program that's designed to help the youth of First Nations make their way in society. Ted is helped by his two sons, Brandon and Jordan, who also were pro hockey players. It sounds like he's somewhat at peace by end of "Life in Two Worlds," although he'll always wonder what might have been in a different world. 

As will we.     

(Footnote: There is one story from the book that needs to be told here because I've never heard it anywhere else. Nolan was welcomed by a group of Native Elders to Buffalo. He writes,"Apparently,in the 1930s or 1940s, one of the best First Nations athletes in the area tried out for a Buffalo team, but because he was Indigenous the team wouldn't sign him. Upon hearing of this injustice, some of the Elders put a curse on all sports teams in the area. ... Now that I had arrived, however, these Elders told me they were going to remove the curse." Did someone put the curse back on?) 

Five stars

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Sunday, October 8, 2023

Review: If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills (2023)

By John Murphy with Scott Pitoniak

This must have seemed like a simple enough task at the time.

John Murphy has been announcing the games of the Buffalo Bills on radio for many years. He started on the broadcasts as the color man for the legendary play-by-play announcer, Van Miller. When Van finally retired, John moved over a spot to take over those duties. A few different former Bills have worked with Murph on commentary over the years.

That's obviously a good starting point for a book. Murphy has been around the team for a few decades, and he knows several of the personalities involved in the game well. Certainly, Murphy and coauthor Scott Pitoniak had visions of sitting around with a beverage, cranking out some good stories, and publishing an entertaining book. The deal for "If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills" quickly came together.

But fate got in the way. The Bills were preparing to play the Bengals in Cincinnati late in the 2022 season when Murphy started to have some physical problems.  He never did make it to that game, which is also remembered as the one in which the heart of Bills' defensive back Damar Hamlin briefly stopped after a hit to the chest. Hamlin returned to action in 2023; Murphy wasn't so lucky. He was diagnosed as suffering a stroke, and he's been recovering from it since then. 

From the writing sense, it must have been interesting to try to figure out how Murphy should handle the issue - especially since it figured to be a long-term issue that wouldn't be completely solved by the time the book was out. Murphy and Pitoniak chose to deal with it quite simply as part of the life story; it's not particularly highlighted but several pages are devoted to it. This was a wise move, since Murphy is something of a public figure in his role as the Bills' radio announcer and many people have been rooting for him to fully recover. 

Otherwise, this is exactly what you'd expect in a book like this. The authors start with a chapter on Josh Allen, which is rather interesting. It probably shows just how popular the quarterback is in the Bills' community. Then Murphy spends a little time on his background. He reveals a few things that I didn't know, even though we've been friends for quite a while. We went to Syracuse University at the same time for three years, but our paths did not cross then.  That had to wait when we bumped into each other at sports events in the Buffalo area some years later. 

With that established, Murphy is off with his recap of the Bills over the years as he's seen it. The players, coaches and front office executives all get the once-over. There have been a lot of them, which isn't surprising since the Bills have been bad more often than they've been good during this tenure. As you'd expect he grew fond of the chief architects of the Bills' best run of success, Bill Polian and Marv Levy. 

There are a couple of points told along the way that surprised me. The first is that Murphy is absolutely, positively convinced that "Home Run Throwback" - the play that gave the Titans a playoff win over the Bills in 2000 - was a forward lateral. Having looked at that play a few dozen times (it's tough to avoid when researching team history), I've concluded that at best it's too close too call, meaning the play stands. But if I had to pick a direction, I'd say it was a legal play as a lateral.

Murphy also writes a bit about the problems that developed between Polian and owner Ralph Wilson. John is clearly on Polian's side on most items. I'm not going to say that Wilson was faultless in that relationship, but everything I've heard indicates that Polian could have handled the situation better ... something Bill admits now. 

Here's the key point, though, about Murphy. He's that rare individual who can take strong opinions, and still be universally liked. That's less common than you'd think. 

Reading "If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills" is like sitting down and having a nice long chat with John. I've done that on several occasions, and it's always been a pleasure. The book is the same way. 

Four stars

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Thursday, October 5, 2023

Review: Banana Ball (2023)

By Jesse Cole and Don Yaeger

There's something going on in the world of baseball, and it's really difficult to describe from a distance. 

After some modest origins, a new form of the sport has taken the business by form. The rules were blown up, with the emphasis on fun. Pitchers on stilts? Foul balls that are caught by fans in the stands becoming outs? Time limits? Bats literally on fire? Let's try them all and see how they work. 

Now within a couple of years, the Savannah Bananas - and who doesn't love that name - has become something of a talk of the sports business world. It went on a national tour this summer, and packed in the crowds wherever it went. 

A good promoter knows how to spread the word, and Jesse Cole certainly is that. He has a book out on how it all happened from his standpoint. "Banana Ball" is that story. 

Cole was something of a prospect while growing up, good enough to reach the college ranks. Any chance that he had of turning professional essentially ended with an injury, so he had to find another way to scratch his baseball itch. Jesse found work in the world of organized ball, doing a little bit of everything. Eventually, he moved on to run a college-age summer league team in 2016. While Cole probably didn't realize it at the time, it was the perfect laboratory for his creative brain. After all, no one is paying close attention. 

Slowly but surely, the concept grew a bit bigger, week by week. Concepts were tried and discarded like jokes in a late night television monologue. But do that enough, and you'll find out what works. And the fans responded nicely. 

Cole and Company decided to take the act out on the road in 2022, turning the Bananas briefly into a barnstorming team. It seemed to work, and the concept was expanded in 2023. Yes, those bright yellow uniforms turned up even in Cooperstown this past summer, and trips to major league parks seems rather likely. It's easy to think of this as something along the lines of baseball's answers to the Harlem Globetrotters. The biggest difference is that both teams really are trying to win while putting on a show on the side. 

And so Banana Ball seems destined to find a niche in the sports entertainment business in a good-sized way. But how is "Banana Ball," the book?  It's easy to be less enthusiastic about that. 

This is written as a straight autobiography. While the story has some charm - struggling young couple beats the odds - there is some repetition and some self-congratulating along the way. That makes it relatively easy to speed through the book. It's easy to wonder if an "outside in" approach would have been the better way to write this, as the other participants could have added some perspective on the experience. 

There are video programs on the Bananas - ESPN did one - and the team itself has embraced social media to complete effectiveness. That's probably the best way to learn about the team. As for the book, it's quick and easy and spreads the word well enough. It's another tool in the promotional toolbox, and after finishing it you'll probably be curious enough to go to a game when the opportunity becomes available. 

Three stars

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Thursday, September 14, 2023

Review: Long Run to Glory (2023)

By Stephen Lane

If your memories of the 1984 Olympic women's marathon are anything like mine, you probably remember a single person running almost by herself. 

Joan Benoit pulled away from the pack fairly early in the race, and no one went with her. So Benoit was lacking in company as she maintained a good-sized lead through much of the 26 miles, 385 yards that comprise the event. That can happen in a marathon, in which more than two hours of running can be decided by a single moment at almost any point. Benoit always will be remembered for winning that race, particularly since she had arthroscopic knee surgery shortly before the Olympic Trials.

With that in mind, it might seem ought to consider reading about a book that describes that race. After all, there wasn't much drama. But there were some dramatics just to get to a starting line, and author Stephen Lane wisely concentrates on that "run up" in his solidly written book, "Long Run to Glory."

The miracle of that Olympic marathon was not the race itself, but that it happened in the first place. It took a long, difficult battle over several years to allow runners of both sexes to go through the biggest test running has to offer on a large scale. 

The problem was that women were considered too fragile and feminine to even consider running such a long distance. It took quite a while just to allow females to run farther than 800 meters at a time, as ridiculous as it sounds now. Those attitudes were still in place in the late 1960s, but cracks were starting to develop. You probably can credit the women's movement of that time with helping to change some minds. But more importantly, a few women simply liked to run long distances and were determined to do it. The walls eventually came down during the course of the 1970s, and a women's marathon was greenlighted for the Los Angeles Games of 1984. 

After setting up the backstory, Lane moves toward the main event. We were lucky to have some great runners then who were really ahead of their time. They may not have had the depth of competition that today's runners do, but their achievements can hold up in any time period. Benoit joined with Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen and Rosa Mota to dominate the sport for several years. They combined to win all of the Olympic and World Championships in the 1980s. 

They for the most part were generally unprepared for the rush of fame and publicity that hit them as the sport became more popular with fans. Running is often a solitary exercise, and glory probably was that last thing that all of them expected when they hit their final finish line as world-class athletes. But they did it anyway. 

And they did it without often competing again the other top runners. It's fascinating to think that this group of runners all lined up on the same starting line once in their lives - and it came in Los Angeles in 1984. 

Lane has the time and space to include some of the lesser players in the story. Other runners turn up as well, and some of the administrators - like the New York Marathon's Fred Lebow - are memorable in their own way. He talked to some of the principals as well as several others for the book, and he obviously did as much homework as he could under the circumstances. The one oddity I noticed is that for all of that research, there aren't many quotes in the story. But that won't affect your enjoyment.

It took a little more than 17 years to go from Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to be registered for the Boston Marathon in 1967, to Benoit's win in Los Angeles. Those years probably seemed endless to those involved then, but common sense eventually won out. "Long Run to Glory" is a good place to fine out how that happened.

Four stars

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Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Review: Freezing Cold Takes (2022)

By Fred Segal

For those who are considering entering the sports media business in the near future, there's something you should know. At some point, you will be asked to make predictions. It comes with the territory.

Oh right - at some point, you will be wrong. Horribly wrong, at times. 

This is no sin, naturally. If sportswriters and broadcasters could predict the future, they wouldn't waste their time on the outcome of the next NFL game in their city. They'd concentrate on the Powerball lottery, collect the winnings, and head to the Caribbean island they just bought with the proceeds. 

Usually, such predictions wind up in the trash and are quickly forgotten. But these days, it's a bit easier to bring them back to life. The Internet is forever ... at least in some cases.

What's more, Fred Segal has made something of a pastime out of resurrecting old quotes. It started as some posts on social media as a way to gently make fun of those trying to look into a crystal ball. The ex-lawyer followed that work, which became popular rather quickly, with a book in 2022 called "Freezing Cold Takes." And yes, many of them deserve to be in the ice box.

After a quick introduction, Segal jumps into some of the comments that were made at the time of some big moments in recent pro football history. (No, he didn't find a comment from a sports writer in 1940 saying that the Bears were no match for the Redskins in the NFL championship game ... although no doubt there is one out there somewhere.) The titles of the chapters tell the story. "The Patriots Will Regret Hiring Bill Belichick." "Trade Dan Marino, Keep Scott Mitchell." "Brian Brohm Has More Upside Than Aaron Rodgers." "Tony Manderick Is in a Class by Himself." "Why would we give up a first-round pick for (Brett Favre)?" It ends with a chapter on the Patriots of the early 2000s, with several reporters wondering why the team would ever turn to Tom Brady at quarterback when it had Drew Bledsoe at the position?

If a football fan saw one of the quotes by itself, he or she instantly would know what something had gone horribly wrong with the forecast. That makes it a very good fit for social media. This is an attempt to put the areas of conversation into some sort of context, as entire seasons get the once over. In addition, some of the authors of those quotes gone wrong are given the chance to explain their thinking at the time. I personally know a couple of the people quoted in this book, and I'd bet they'd have appreciated the chance to explain where and why they went wrong. That makes the publication less mean spirited than it could have been, which is a good idea.

If there's a lesson here, it's that the book's added perspective makes some of the predictions seem more rational than they are in hindsight. For example, Favre had done very little as a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons, and Packers' executive Ron Wolf seemed to be the only person in the NFL who thought the quarterback would turn out well. A trade was made, Favre got his act together, and he became a Hall of Famer. Bill Belichick hadn't done much to show that he'd be in the conversation as the greatest coach of all time ... until Brady walked through the locker room door and claimed the starting job. 

That leads to the key question about "Freezing Cold Takes": social media post or book? I think the idea works better with the former, since the short posts contain just enough snark to fit the target audience. The book is reasonably entertaining, and the quotes are still fun to read years later. Still, most of the back stories are familiar to many football fans, so it's difficult to see those other than the format's biggest fans to do anything but read this quickly (and it is a quick read, if you skip the many necessary pages of notes) and move on. 

And Segal has opened a door that could lead to other areas. Who wouldn't want to go through "Freezing Cold Takes" about current events, films or music? This could be the start of an industry.

Three stars

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Sunday, August 27, 2023

Review: The 50 Greatest Players in Buffalo Bills History (2023)

By Robert W. Cohen

Sports fans have to do something between games. After all, teams don't play 365 days a year. So ... they make up lists. And argue.

If they need starting points, there are plenty of books out there to begin the discussion. Ask Robert W. Cohen. 

He's written a long list of books about "the 50 greatest players in (insert team here) history." They mostly cover the teams in major league baseball and the National Football League, but he does have one coming out on the Boston Celtics. Cohen now has gotten around to doing the Buffalo Bills. This one is called, naturally, "The 50 Greatest Players in Buffalo Bills History."

As you'd expect, Cohen has the format down pretty well. After a brief introduction, he starts with the early days of each player's life, and works his way through high school, college and the pros. The highlights are told along the way, including some quotes from the player himself or those around him. The author deserves some credit for not turning away from some unfortunate or tragic events that have surrounded some of the players. Obviously O.J. Simpson comes to mind in that category, although a few others like Jim Dunaway also could fit in there. The chapters end with Cohen picking a particular player's best season, follow by individual highlights. 

By coincidence, I had to pick my own best player in Bills' history for a discussion recently. I used my own way of coming up with the No. 1 choice. What player on the Bills could be considered for all-time list of the greatest performer in football history? In my opinion, Bruce Smith fits that description. Simpson might have been higher on that list had he played a few more years; that would keep him below players like Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. But as you'd expect, both Smith and Simpson do really well here. 

I won't spoil the names and ranks here. Cohen went through the usual standards of rank on all-time team lists, games played, all-star/Pro Bowl selections, and so forth. It's always difficult to balance peak value in a season (think Josh Allen, at least for now) and career value (as in longevity as a high level). Let's just say I was surprised that Fred Jackson was ranked higher than Jack Kemp. 

I had a bigger problem with the career highlights. Many of them come up in the body of the story, and the others just aren't that interesting at this point in time. Yes, it fills out the book, but I found myself skipping over large sections of the individual chapters for that reason. That's a bit troubling, especially for a $28.95 list price.

Still, "The 50 Greatest Players in Buffalo Bills History" is a pleasant enough trip down memory land. If you like this sort of approach, it's professionally handled and will make you well prepared for any discussions that come up along these lines.

Three stars

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Monday, August 21, 2023

Review: Nowhere Else You'd Rather Be (2023)

From The Buffalo News

Well, this is a little awkward.

The Buffalo News came out with a book on the 50-year history of the stadium in Orchard Park ... only days after my own book on the history of the Buffalo Bills was published. I don't think anyone expects me to say that the News' book is the only football publication you should buy this year. 

But on the other hand, The News was my employer for 23 years. And some friends of mine, including Corey Desiderio, Mark Gaughan and Jay Skurski contributed to the News' book. I would expect a worthwhile effort from these fine journalists, and they delivered one.

"Nowhere Else You'd Rather Be," adapted from the famous quote from Marv Levy ("Where would you rather be than right here, right now?"), sticks to the story of the stadium. That means the Bills will receive the lion's share of the pages, but not all of them. 

The story starts with the arrival of the Bills into War Memorial Stadium in 1960. A decade later, with the team snugly a member of the National Football League, it was obvious that the Rockpile had outlived its usefulness. A new building was needed if the Bills wanted to stay in Buffalo. The process was pretty ugly, particularly the conviction of some politicians on bribery charges. But Rich Stadium (The first suggested name was "Coffee Rich Park," by the way) eventually got built. It opened on August 1, 1973. 

The book sails through the various eras in Bills' history, highlighting some games along the way. I had to laugh when I saw that some of the quotes about those games turned up in both books. From there it's on to the owners, top players, records, and fans. Then the subject changes to football from other events that have taken place at the Abbott Road complex. This includes hockey, rock concerts, college football, and high school football. We wrap it up a short section on the new stadium. 

I had been told that this book would includes original stories from the events that took place in the stadium. We see reproductions of such text in the form of images of clippings and full pages of The News. But the text is generally original. 

The photos in the book come from The News' archives. This publication really does show how good the photographers at the facility have been over the years. Too bad we don't know who took each one, since most shots are uncredited. I did do a double take at a photo used to introduce a story on 2008's Winter Classic. The News allowed me to use that shot for the cover of a book I did on Buffalo's sports history in 2013.

"Nowhere Else You'd Rather Be" is something of a classic coffee-table book, with images you'll want to look at frequently. I suppose I can get away with saying that the text almost by definition has to be a bit more superficial than my book, considering the difference in the word count. But it's fair to say that the two books compliment each other nicely. You certainly could get away with buying and reading both of them. 

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