Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Review: The Formula (2024)

By Joshua Robinson & Jonathan Clegg

For years, Formula 1 auto racing held a very small niche in the American sports scene. Yes, enthusiasts knew that the sport was popular around the world, particularly in Europe. Admittedly, watching the annual race on Monaco was something of a curiosity, thanks to the unique nature of the course. But the Grand Prix circuit took a back seat (sorry) to Indy cars and NASCAR events for the most part on this side of the Atlantic. Champion drivers weren't well known unless they made a stop in Indianapolis for the month of May. 

All of that has changed in the past few years. Formula 1 racing has boomed in the United States in the past few years. The races are on television (ESPN) constantly now, and a documentary series on Netflix has proven to be a great way to collect publicity and fans. 

The transformation probably left some people here interested in the history of this particular divisions of the sport of auto racing. Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg are here to fill in that gap with the book, "The Formula." And they have a great story to tell.

The authors offer something of a course on the business side of the Grand Prix circuit. If this sounds like it could be a little dry, well, don't worry. Robinson and Clegg really made the characters come alive. It's an international cast with great stories involved. 

Heck, Bernie Eccelstone could be a book all by himself. This former driver took over financial control of a team on the circuit, which led to him buying the television rights to the series, which led to him taking over control of the entire Formula 1 operation ... which made him very rich. Some of that money was lost in 2023, when a tax fraud conviction cost him more than 800 million dollars. 

The book offers one key insight into the sport that is a valuable tip for the uninitiated. Why does it seem that Formula 1 teams have stretches where they just dominate the competition, race after race? It turns out that it has a lot to do with the rules. While there are pages and pages of regulations about how the cars are designed and built, it seems that designers are constantly looking for ways to bend those regulations in a way that couldn't be called outright cheating. Perhaps the tires are made of a new material, or the car design leads to more downforce that keeps the vehicle on the road at higher speeds. 

That can lead to a bit of an advantage, and that's important in a sport when a second per lap can be a huge edge in the competition. A team runs off some wins, and the rest of the field than either copies that change or the rules are rewritten to level the playing field again. Then the process starts all over again. 

A couple of fabled moments in the history of the series receive plenty of attention too. One centered on the time a driver was ordered to crash his car into a wall so that his teammate could take advantage of the yellow flag and move up in the field. The other concerned the time when a ruling on where lapped cars would be placed on a restart would determine the outcome of a season-long championship. Those may be well-known to longtime fans, but they are amazing moments for the more casual reader. 

Robinson and Clegg do a fine job of telling this as a human story for the most part. In other words, you won't get lost in the text even if you don't know the difference between a carburetor and wheel axle. They also give plenty of details of how Liberty Media came in as the new owners of the circuit and essentially revolutionized how the sport was presented to the public, which is greatly responsible for the current boom in interest (and, naturally, revenues).

You don't have to be a gearhead to enjoy "The Formula," which is a first-class job. You'll want to give it the checkered flag when you're done.

Five stars

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Friday, January 26, 2024

Review: The Real Hoosiers (2024)

By Jack McCallum

The 1950s certainly were an interesting period for high school basketball in Indiana.

If you are a hoops fan, you've certainly heard of the team from Milan High School. It won the state title in 1954, despite coming from a very small town with the corresponding small population of students who could potentially play for the team. It was a story ready made for Hollywood - and Hollywood came up with a popular movie, "Hoosiers," in 1986 that was "inspired" on Milan's championship run. (If truth be told, Milan was considered a very good team entering the season, so it wasn't really that much of a Cinderella story.) 

Along the way, Milan defeated Crispus Attucks High School of Indianapolis. That turned out to be a mere speed bump for the Tigers, who blasted their way to winning the next two state championships. As Jack McCallum points out in his book, "The Real Hoosiers," Milan might have been the most dramatic story, but Attacks provided the more significant tale in the larger scheme of things.

That's because the Tigers were the first all-Black team in the entire United States to win a state high school title. In the process, the team opened up some possibilities for the sport. For much of the previous years, basketball had been an over-coached, don't-run, run-the-plays sport. Attacks did it differently. The Tigers were full of athletes who could run and jump, and they played that way. 

The result was one-sided. Attucks lost one game in two years, and ran its way to two state titles in 1955 and 1956. Of course, it helped to have a superstar on their side, and the Tigers certainly had one of those in Oscar Robertson. You might remember him as the man who once averaged a triple-double in the NBA before anyone noticed that it should have been a big deal, and was a perennial All-Star. Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan might have overshadowed "The Big O" in terms of publicity about basketball's best all-time guards these days, but Oscar could play. Check out the videos of him on You Tube if you don't believe it. It was his game and his basketball, and he seemed to be letting the others play once in a while. No wonder John Wooden - himself a superstar guard from Indiana back in the day - once said that Robertson could have made the jump from high school all the way to the pros. That's quite a statement for someone playing in 1956.

As you'd expect from the description of those two championship seasons, there wasn't a great deal of drama along the way. Attucks had a few close games, but not very many. They took care of business, and moved on to the next contest. In fact, the team members realized that the officiating in that era was not going to do African Americans any favors, so it was to their advantage to put the game away early and not allow a single call determine their fate.

Even so, McCallum finds plenty to write about here. Indiana in the 1950s was an interesting place in terms of race relations. The state had those Midwestern roots that left the people there somewhat reserved. But Indiana also was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and it was called America's most northern Southern state at one point. 

Crispus Attucks High School was itself something of a monument to those racial pains. It was built in the Black part of town, as integrating the schools was a little too much too soon for Indianapolis. There were all sorts of snubs along the way, even dealing with fears about how "that part" of the city might celebrate a simple high school championship. Remember, the 1955 championship was won only months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The research is first-rate, with plenty of voices supplied either directly or through quotes from other sources. Interestingly, Robertson turned down the chance to talk about those days. He did his business and moved on, which sort of describes his approach to life. But Oscar did write an autobiography and has given a few interviews, so he's certainly represented here. 

McCallum always was the proverbial good read when working as the main basketball writer at Sports Illustrated. He was always good at turning a phrase and making the reader smile. McCallum still has those skills, but this shows he can handle the more serious stuff as well.

"The Real Hoosiers" does justice to the team and the time. You can't ask for more than that in a book like this. Well done. 

Five stars

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Thursday, January 18, 2024

Review: Making Waves (2016)

By Shirley Babashoff with Chris Epting

It's unusual to review a book that's more than five years old in this space. The reason is that one of suppliers of books, NetGalley, included it in its offerings recently, and the publication sounded interesting from a distance. 

It was interesting at close range too. In other words, "Making Waves" is worth your time even now.

Shirley Babashoff should be remembered as one of the greatest swimmers in American history. She won just about everything in sight at a variety of distances leading up to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. With Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in swimming not too far back in the rear-view mirror, there was talk that Babashoff could be something of a successor to him as America's swimming superstar. 

But during the build-up to the '76 Games, a problem was lurking for Babashoff and the American team. It came in the form of the squad from East Germany. The women's team was improving its times at a rate beyond comprehension. It didn't take much effort to Babashoff to notice that something was wrong - one look at the East Germans showed their muscles were getting larger and their voices were getting deeper. It wouldn't have been a surprise if they needed to shave each morning. Today we'd instantly look at steroids and other drugs as the causes of the changes, but the 1970s were more of an innocent era in that sense.

Babashoff performed spectacularly well by her own high standards at the Games, but for the most part couldn't keep up with the East German machine. When she went public with her views that something wasn't quite right with all of this, she was criticized for being a bad sport and picked up the nickname of "Surly Shirley." Babashoff did have the satisfaction of serving as the anchor of a relay team that had a perfect race to win the gold medal.

Babashoff went off to live the rest of her life, admittedly without the hoopla that would have come had she won multiple gold medals. But once the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, news about an East German drug program for athletes started to leak out. Eventually, those women were revealed to be either guinea pigs or pharmacies - pick your metaphor - and suffered physical damage that lasts until this day. 

Babashoff gets to take a few well-deserved "I told you so" moments in telling the story in the book. She's still a little bitter than the media, etc. didn't make more of a fuss about the East Germans back in the day, although in fairness it wasn't exactly easy to investigate anything going on in the Communist bloc in that day. In addition, Olympic officials weren't exactly inquisitive in those days. 

It hasn't been an easy life for Babashoff. The problems began as a child, with parents who had a strict Russian heritage and never did fit in too well in America. Shirley's father was a sexual predator, and her descriptions of that era are very painful to read; it's difficult to imagine how hard it was to write. Her only refuge was in the pool, and her drive mixed with athletic ability made her a champion every step of the way. 

Obviously Babashoff's post-Olympic life would have been different if she had brought home a bunch of gold medals from Montreal. But she eventually started working for the Postal Service, and seemed content with her life as of 2016 when the book was written.

While there have been attempts to rewrite history by stripping the East Germans of their gold medals retroactively (and such actions have been taken before), the International Olympic Committee has chosen not to take that step in this case. That's too bad, because that wrong can still be righted. Babashoff did receive the Olympic Order, the IOC's highest honor, but that's not the same as having those gold medals in the safe.

"Making Waves" is something of a mixture, then. It's part victory lap and part a story about the search for ultimate justice. The book goes by quite quickly, and it doesn't get bogged down in swimming minutia, so a general audience will find it interesting. Don't let any more time go before you get to it.

Five stars

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Monday, January 15, 2024

Review: The Speed Game (2020)

By Paul Westhead

Paul Westhead had quite a long career in basketball. He held a number of jobs in the college and professional versions, reaching some admirable heights and hitting a few stunning lows. 

That makes him a good candidate to tell his life story when it comes it comes to roundball. He's done exactly that in his book, "The Speed Game," which suffers from its relatively small size. 

I followed Westhead for quite a bit of his ride. He was a college coach at LaSalle in the late 1970s, and his team used to come to Buffalo every so often when I was a radio reporter. Westhead had some decent players and teams, and seemed quite sharp in interviews, so he turned out to be memorable. I even saw him at a small Catholic high school one night, watching a potential recruit while chatting with then St. Bonaventure coach Jim Satalin. Neither landed Mark Rzemek, who went to Canisius. I kept an eye on him from a distance after that when I could.

Then Westhead received a couple of unexpected breaks. He left LaSalle to take a job as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. When the head coach, Jack McKinney, was in a bad bicycle accident in the fall of 1979, the Lakers needed a coach, and fast. Westhead was about the only logical choice, even if  he had very limited experience in matters of the NBA. 

That Laker team had plenty of star power - and plenty of egos, but somehow he guided Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Company to an NBA title. Life was pretty good for a while, but sooner rather than latter Westhead got caught up in some of the egos involved with that organization, and unexpectedly (to him) exited a bit more than a year after winning the title.

Part of the problem in Los Angeles was that Westhead had an idea for a brand-new approach to basketball. To put it in ancient terms, he wanted to speed the game up to something like 78 revolutions per minute on the record player, while the rest of the world literally was playing at 45 or 33 rpm. Innovators always have it difficult, but Westhead was crazy enough to think it could work. 

It did work, more or less, but it took a few more stops for him to make his point. It came about 10 years after the title when he was coach at Loyola Marymount. The idea was to have a fast break on every offensive play, taking the first available shot after a few seconds. If the other team didn't want to play that fast on offense - and it usually didn't - Westhead's team would put on a full-court press to increase the tempo. The scores were usually in the 100s, and frequently the other team would run out of gas along the way. The comparison that comes to mind is with "Mouse" Davis, a football coach who used the so-called "Run and Shoot" offense that was very wide open and high-scoring.

By the 1989-90 season, the Lions had accumulated such players as Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, who were perfect for that system. LMU won a lot more than it lost, and accumulated some honors and records along the way. By the arrival of the postseason, no one wanted to play the Lions. But then Gathers collapsed during the conference tournament, and died that night. Loyola Marymount still almost made the Final Four, but fell short against UNLV. 

I count 12 jobs that Westhead had after leaving the Lakers. He even won a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury in 2007. The veteran coach never lost faith in his system, even if it didn't always work out for him.

As you'd expect, Westhead is an interesting man who has had quite a career. He has some good stories to tell, particularly about the two-plus years with the Lakers. But the book has a couple of flaws to it. The first is that the hard cover version came out in 2020. That was 40 years after the Lakers' championship and six years after his last job (women's basketball coach at Oregon). It probably should have been written sooner so that more people could relate to the stories. 

Second, a lot of his coaching experiences go unreported. This checks in at under 200 pages, and several years and jobs are simply ignored. The uptempo system is the star of half of the book, not Westhead. So it feels incomplete. There was room for more. 

"The Speed Game" is a pleasant enough if brief read, and basketball scholars certainly will enjoy one man's attempt at a revolution. Just don't expect much more than that. 

Three stars

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Saturday, January 13, 2024

Review: A Whole Other Game (2024)

By Neil Longley

The title of Neil Longley's book doesn't tell you much about what's inside. "A Whole New Game" could be about practically anything, and not just about sports.

However, the subtitle does a better of describing the context. "Economics, politics, and the transformation of the business of hockey in Canada" sounds like we're going to have some serious discussions about hockey on the pages, and indeed we do.

The author seems well qualified for such discussions. He's a retired professor at the management school of the University of Massachusetts, and has a PhD in economics from Washington State University. Longley also has done some writing about sports economics. Maybe the arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights inspired this Las Vegas resident to do some thinking about hockey in regard to Canada. 

So you'd expect something well done here, and the good Professor has come through with some unique and valuable information in his relatively short book.

There are five different essays of sorts here that cover some specific areas. Describing them briefly isn't too fair because of the scope of the writing, but it will have to do here. We have the story of how the Montreal Canadiens became just another team in the NHL. There's the matter of how French-Canadians are doing in hockey as a whole. The story of pro hockey in Alberta is examined, as its two NHL teams' success seem to mirror what the economy and politics of the province have done. There's a chapter on how the composition of National Hockey League rosters changed starting with the expansion of the NHL in 1967 and the existence of the World Hockey Association in the 1970s. Finally, there's the matter of junior hockey and how it used cheap labor and monopoly status to become a much bigger financial enterprise. 

This is all mixed together with the culture and politics of Canada at the time. The first two chapters obviously share some information because they are intertwined. The Canadiens have been a symbol of French Canada since the 1940s or so; Ken Dryden once pointed out that Maurice "Rocket" Richard was the first player of that group to become a super star and thus created a lot of pride in the community. The French speakers always have been in the minority in Canada, and the efforts by those people to have their voices heard have been a subplot in Canadian politics from time to time for a few decades. The Canadiens went on to put together one of the greatest dynasty in sports in the years after World War II. They were helped by a system that allowed them to mine the best players Quebec had to offer. But when the universal draft was phased in during the 1960s, that pipeline eventually dried up. It was somewhat inevitable at that point that the Canadiens would become just another team at some point, and they essentially have been exactly that since 1980 or so. Longley also reveals how French-Canadian players have found more or a home in the United States than they do in other parts of Canada. 

The chapter on junior hockey in Canada might be the most infuriating. Way back when, NHL teams used to sponsor junior teams as a way to tie up future talent. But those sponsorships died off once the league went past six teams. But junior leagues now have a draft of talented 15-year-olds, forcing players to move hundreds of miles in some cases to play hockey at that level. What's more, they aren't really paid anything at all, even though Longley's research indicates that if they received half of the team's revenues (as NHL teams must give to players as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement), they'd earn something like $100,000 each. As a group, it sure sounds as if the junior players need the equivalent of Marvin Miller to level the playing field. If college athletes can start getting paid indirectly, there must be room for changing the system in junior hockey.

And every so often, the book drops a very surprising bit of information. For example, Longley reveals that there were more Canadian-born players in the NHL in 1970 than there are today ... even though there were either 12 or 14 teams (depending on what time of the year you count) in the NHL then, and 32 now. 

Admittedly, this is not for every taste - even among sports readers. The writing leans to the academic rather than the popular style as you'd expect. There's a little duplication of facts along the way. The descriptions of regional politics in a particular era in Canada, while no doubt necessary, may leave some a little cold.

Still, "A Whole Other Game" makes some conclusions that are worthwhile and yet don't pop up in the morning newspaper. Longley is after bigger points, and he makes them quite well. Those looking for some wider perspective on hockey and Canada will find plenty of ponder here.

Four stars

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Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Review: Boston Ball (2023)

By Clayton Trutor

Here's a bit of a history lesson about college basketball in the Northeast, a necessary ingredient before diving into Clayton Trutor's book, "Boston Ball."

It starts with the fact that college sports there were relatively decentralized in that part of the country until relatively recently. 

In much of the country, the big state schools dominated the landscape. There are other colleges besides those universities in Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado, for example, but the big ones attract all of the attention - particularly in sports. Who played in the championship game in college football in January, 2024? Michigan and Washington, two institutions that fit the description nicely. 

But that's not true in the Northeast. The states are smaller up there, and there is a tradition of private schools. Penn State and Connecticut are the exceptions to that, although Rutgers is trying hard to move into that territory in New Jersey. The big state school in New York probably is the University at Buffalo, at least in football and basketball. 

Just as an example, here are some teams that played Syracuse in men's basketball in 1976-77: Colgate, Boston College, Canisius, Penn State, Cornell, Fordham, American, Buffalo, St. John's, Temple, Pittsburgh, Northeastern, West Virginia, St. Bonaventure and Niagara. Some of those teams have been quite good in the past decade or two, but some haven't.

That all changed in 1979. The Big East Conference was formed in an attempt to link the region's top basketball programs. The idea was to play good games in big arenas before big crowds .... that, oh by the way, was ready-made for television. It worked. 

But while the Big East proved its point relatively quickly, it took some time for everything else to settle down. There were still some good teams floating around in the East in late 1970s and most of the 1980s. While the Big East was starting to grab the best players, there was enough flux in the rest of the sport to make winning more than possible - if you had the right coach to collect the talent overlooked by the Big Shots.

As it turned out, the city of Boston collected three of those coaches in the same era. Jim Calhoun landed at Northeastern, Rick Pitino went from a Syracuse assistant's job to head coach at Boston University, and Gary Williams landed at Boston College - one of the Big East schools, but not a powerhouse at the time. The three were considered up and coming coaches, but few could have predicted that all of them would land in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But that's what they did. Trutor tells their story in great detail in this book.

The author gets good marks for researching the subject. He interviewed two of the three coaches that play the major roles of the story, and spoke with many others from that era. Take it from someone who covered Canisius and Niagara basketball during the early 1980s - that was pretty good basketball back then, and coaches like Calhoun and Boston's Mike Jarvis were always interesting in interviews. And since the level of play was more or less the Big East and Everyone Else, it was relatively easy to find some good players who had been overlooked. It was good fun to read some of the names mentioned here, even if they weren't future NBA players. 

But this comes with some drawbacks. Trutor gives a great deal of detail to games and names from about 40 years or so ago. That's going to have trouble finding an audience, particularly since a relatively small audience followed the teams and their players in that era. Meanwhile, the author organizes the book in a slightly odd way. We ping-pong from Calhoun to Pitino to Williams through the first 15 chapters. They don't cover the same time period, and their stories only occasionally overlap. Sometimes it's easy to get confused with the time line of a particular story.

For those who do remember those days in the late 1970s and in the 1980s in college basketball fondly, this will strike a nice chord. But it's easy to wonder if a book concentrating more on the three coaches might have worked a little better at this point.

Three stars

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