Nothing but Net: Playoff Caliber Basketball Titles

Breslin, Ed. The Divine Nature of Basketball: My Season Inside the Ivy League. Sports Publishing. 2014. 224p. ISBN 9781613216361. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781613216651. SPORTS

Divine Nature of BasketballBreslin (Drinking with Miss Dutchie) clearly loves basketball, and his passion for the game comes through on just about every page of his book. Unfortunately, he fails to fulfill the promise of his prolog, which claims that readers will be given something in the vein of George Plimpton’s participatory journalism classics. Instead, they will find tedious, blow-by-blow accounts of every Yale men’s basketball team’s play in the 2011–12 season. These narratives are interspersed with Breslin’s thoughts about and memories of the game, many of which are captivating reading. We learn less about the players and coaches beyond that they are excellent at what they do. And though the author includes a fair amount about what it’s like to compete in the Ivy League it’s hardly insider information, which is surprising considering the access Breslin was given. If he had simply written a straight­forward memoir about his love of basketball or his time following the Yale team this would have been a far more successful work. ­VERDICT Yale men’s basketball fans may be unable to resist this book and they will surely find some value in it. Everyone else should try John Feinstein’s The Last Amateurs instead.

Frei, Terry. March 1939: Before the Madness—the Story of the First NCAA Basketball Tournament Champions. Taylor: Rowman & Littlefield. 2014. 264p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781589799240. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781589799257. SPORTS

Ostensibly about the 1939 University of Oregon men’s basketball team the Webfoots, winners of the very first NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) tournament, Denver Post journalist Frei’s book also tells the story of the Long Island University Blackbirds men’s team from the same year, as they were winners of the second-ever NIT (National Invitation Tournament). Much of the narrative is framed by the buildup to World War II in Europe, all chapters in Part 2—which makes up the bulk of the title—being interspersed with fact-based “newsreel” items clearly written by the author. Frei’s purpose here is difficult to discern since it is otherwise unclear whether the players, nearly all of whom later served in the war, were at the time aware of or concerned about these events. Frei also focuses on who the real national champion was for 1939. Solid arguments can be made in favor of both teams, and leaning toward one team over another seems to be based less on fact than on which criteria are considered. At any rate, Frei’s case for Oregon is not entirely convincing. VERDICT Though well written and thoroughly researched, the title lacks focus. Still, those interested in basketball’s early years and the origins of the NCAA Tournament will find much to interest them and a lot of new information.

redstarLazenby, Roland. Michael Jordan: The Life. Little, Brown. 2014. 720p. photos. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780316194778. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780316228763. SPORTS

Michael JordanLazenby’s thoroughly enjoyable biography is an impressive portrait of a man consumed by his competitive ambitions. It is also by far the most complete book on Michael Jordan to date, covering every aspect of his life (b. 1963) from his North Carolina ancestors to his current ownership of the Charlotte Bobcats. The number of interviews Lazenby appears to have conducted is particularly admirable. Of special note are long quotes from former Chicago Bulls guard Steve Kerr and from longtime Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach. Both men seem to understand ­Jordan very well and are alert to his foibles and his considerable charms, making for the most delightful reading. Lazenby also deserves praise for the attention he devotes to Jordan’s impact on the economics of professional sports, endorsement contracts, and advertising. That much of this was owing to circumstance and Jordan’s likable personality—not strictly his athletic skills and accomplishments—is not surprising but nonetheless revealing. The author’s take on the story of Nike and Jordan is the most thorough and fascinating version yet. ­VERDICT Essential reading for all sports fans and particularly for those interested in American cultural history and popular culture.

redstarMcGill, Billy & Eric Brach. Billy “the Hill” and the Jump Hook: The Autobiography of a Forgotten Basketball Legend. Univ. of Nebraska. 2013. 328p. photos. ISBN 9780803246874. $29.95. SPORTS

Billy the HillBilly “the Hill” McGill, apparent inventor of the jump hook shot later made famous by Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Earvin “Magic” ­Johnson, is unknown to many basketball fans but was a legendary and record-setting high school and college player. This book, focusing primarily on 74-year-old McGill’s life up until his retirement from basketball in his early 30s, is at times unbearably and unbelievably bleak. Collaborator Brach occasionally overwrites and applies language that is hard to imagine the player using, but in general the narration is straightforward and unsentimental. The major theme of the work is McGill’s alienation. His parents attended exactly one of his basketball games, he was the first black player at the University of Utah, and he hid a nearly debilitating knee injury for his entire college and pro career. The most moving sections detail his descent into homelessness after retiring from the American Basketball Association. VERDICT Much more than a book about basketball, this is a very human story of will and determination triumphing over tremendous hardship and adversity. As such, it should appeal to all sports fans as well as to readers of autobiographies. It would also make a terrific movie.

redstarPearlman, Jeff. Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. Gotham. 2014. 496p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781592407552. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780698148611. SPORTS

ShowtimePresented as a chronological narrative this volume wins the reader over with its enthralling anecdotes. It is notable that the better part of these stories collected by Pearlman (Sweetness) are told by or revolve around players little known to most NBA fans, many of them backups or journeymen making a brief stop with the Los Angeles Lakers. Assistant coaches, trainers, media-relations men, and other “behind-the-scenes” employees are given ample coverage as well. No original interviews appear to have been conducted with Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, or Pat Riley, and longtime owner Jerry Buss died before he could be questioned. As a result, Pearlman gives the impression that the 1980s Lakers succeeded because of the commitment of all members of the organization. This is refreshing, especially given how often sports journalism substitutes hero worship for genuine insight into why certain teams are more successful than others. The sections on Jack McKinney, Pat Riley’s predecessor as head coach and the inventor of the Lakers’s run-and-gun “showtime” style are revelatory, as is the short, final chapter on Magic’s announcement that he was HIV-positive. VERDICT This essential book is the definitive history of the “showtime” Lakers and is a must-read for all NBA fans.

Ravin, Idan. The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Heads of Basketball’s Best Players. Gotham. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781592408917. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780698157033. SPORTS

The Hoops WhispererRavin, a private trainer for NBA players, has written a moving book that is an intriguing mix of memoir, basketball instruction, and self-help. Impressively, for a first-time author with seemingly no ghost writer helping him, the author balances facts with emotion. The reader learns much about his training techniques and about basketball while also being inspired by his journey from bored lawyer to personal trainer for LeBron James, Chris Paul, and other stars. His compassion for all the players he works with comes across subtly and articulately in his writing. The word Zen comes to mind often while reading the book, as do the coaching styles and philosophies of Greg ­Popovitch and Phil Jackson—like Ravin they are notable in their approaches because they often let players figure their way out of difficulties rather than demand change immediately. It’s no surprise that Ravin has encountered a lot of resistance from coaches because of what they consider to be his unorthodox methods. He details some of these confrontations, which ends up revealing a lot about how the coach-player relationship is structured, at least in the NBA. VERDICT This book should be of interest to all NBA fans. Readers of memoirs and nonreligious, inspirational stories may also find the account appealing.

Derek Sanderson is a Librarian at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY

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  1. Terry Frei says:

    Re: March 1939: Before the Madness.

    One of my pet peeves is a sports book that does not place its material in the context of its times. In all seven of my books, most notably the sports histories “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming” and “Third Down and a War to Go,” and even the novel “Olympic Affair,” I have done that. I take you to those times. In this case, the Introduction of “March 1939: Before the Madness” clearly lays out what I am about to do and why. It also explains the double meaning of “Before the Madness,” which so obviously in this case involves the drumbeats of a coming war in a very momentous month both nationally and internationally. And as I note at the end of the Introduction:

    “The young men on these 1938–39 basketball rosters, and the young people in the bleachers and on their campuses, at least subconsciously wondered as the season progressed: Could we be drawn into war again? And could we have to fight it? Basketball and sports could be diversions, but this was a month when world events became harder to ignore, even on campuses where goldfish swallowing was an escapist craze. On more than one level, then, theirs was an eventful and even tumultuous March. A March before the Madness.”

    As the book documents, in March 1939, both before and after the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia in mid-month, there were vehement debates and forums taking place throughout the U.S., and on many campuses (including the University of Oregon), discussing potential American involvement in another European war. The isolation-intervention debates became largely moot, of course, but these men did not know that at the time. The events taking place around the nation and the world were part of the context of their season, and I briefly drop in what I label “Newsreel” snippets on the appropriate days to establish that linkage.

    As I related in the epilogue-type material, most members of the Oregon championship team served during World War II, several heroically with medals to prove it. The leading scorer in the first championship game became a Naval pilot, eventually captained the super-carrier SS Saratoga and was a rear admiral when he retired. An examination of that championship season against in brief snippets establishing the backdrop of local, national and international events in March 1939 — events they knew could affect them — sets the stage for a later discussion of what these men became.

    The feedback I have received is that most understood why placing this tournament and that team in the context of their times enhanced “March 1939: Before the Madness” and made it a more enjoyable and provocative reading experience.