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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