The narrative and historical strands of a sport not much older than the modern age and incubated in blank-slate form haven’t always been woven together in consistent fashion. While basketball writing has existed as long as the game invented to fill the dead of winter, its evolution has required some dedicated caretakers to give it shape for contemporary readers.
The very first sampling of Alexander Wolff’s new collection “Basketball: Great Writing About America’s Game” (Library of America, published Feb. 27) comes from James Naismith, the game’s inventor, and it’s a clear exposition of the physical educator’s aims that passionate fans will appreciate.
While trying to devise a new version of a team ball sport, Naismith gives us a revealing glimpse of an innovator who knew what he wanted to achieve conceptually but had to experiment quite a bit to get there.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also in This Issue: Dave Kindred; Squaw Valley Olympics; Dick Button; Hermann Maier; The Limits of Endurance; Roberto Clemente Film; Bud Harrelson; Briana Scurry; Hugh McIlvanney on Boxing
In the 1890s, he was looking for a vigorous, but less violent indoor alternative to gridiron football that was already becoming deadly and notorious. As he writes in “Basketball: Its Origin and Development:”
“The next step was to devise some objective for the players. In all existing games there was some kind of goal, and I felt this was essential.”
We all know the rest of the story, and Wolff, the distinguished Sports Illustrated writer and author of three other basketball books, skips ahead about a half-century to pick up with 43 more non-fiction stories or book excerpts from prominent sportswriters, basketball figures and even a few literary luminaries.
“If basketball has now found its stride, it helps that the Sixties happened, but that the New Journalism did, too.”
Bylines from that tradition and time are found here, in Jimmy Breslin on Al McGuire, as well as Red Smith, Stanley Cohen, Pete Axthelm, and John McPhee and Herbert Warren Wind in the run-up to that period.
Best known for his many golf writings, Wind wrote compassionately about the end of Bob Cousy’s career for The New Yorker in 1963 in “Farewell to Cousy,” one of the many revelations of this collection for me.
Familiar author-subject names abound: Frank Deford on Bobby Knight, Dave Kindred on Pete Maravich, Wolff on John Wooden and Gary Smith on Pat Summitt.
But it’s the little-known or long-forgotten player, coach or even writer who stars for me in this book. Wolff deftly chooses from David Halberstam’s magisterial “The Breaks of the Game” the saga of Billy Ray Bates, who most emphatically did not fit into Jack Ramsay’s cultivated system with the Portland TrailBlazers. Halberstam used the tale of his subject, “a child of the feudal South,” to expound on issues of black athletes coming out of the 1960s.
Bates got a chance to play in Portland only due to a rash of injuries, and his window to make an impression wasn’t open for long.
The most compelling pieces in this collection for me are from players turned writers, ruminating on coaches and coaching.
In Tom Meschery’s memoir “Caught in the Pivot,” he writes movingly about being a rookie coach in the American Basketball Association in the early 1970s, with inconvenient travel, meddlesome owners and hard-to-motivate players giving him sleepless nights. He figured his coaching career would not be for long not long after it began:
“I will never be able to capture the elusive dream of being both a coach and a fellow comrade. . . . If all I’m able to do is sustain the belief of coaches and players being separate and the ideas of a coach as a dictator, then I don’t want the job. My feelings for the players run too deep.”
James McKean also bristled under his freshman coach at Washington State, with whom he had a complicated relationship. In “Playing for Jud,” published in “Home Stand: Growing Up in Sports,” McKean came to understand the crusty, demanding Jud Heathcote, if he didn’t always like his methods.
In calling those years playing for Heathcote, later of Michigan State fame, and Marv Harshman, “a classic education without books, corporal and exhausting,” MacKean was bewildered by the player-coach dynamic. Yet he draws nuanced, admiring portraits of his mentors, who helped him grow up and whose voices he still hears today:
“Players need a coach to convince them the pain they are going through is worthwhile. There is a fine line here between push and shove. When that line is obliterated, it is the coach’s job to redraw it. That’s what Jud did. He took charge, and we all moved on.”
It isn’t a surprise that Meschery and McKean later had successful writing and poetry careers, cultivated by attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Wolff’s collection is a classic workshop of basketball writing that has arrived at a promising time in the development of the game, and in the popular reception to it. His 2010 book “Big Game, Small World” ably examined the growing global appeal of basketball, especially as the NBA continues to grow in stature, and by stockpiling many of the best players from around the planet.
Michael Novak, another contributor to this volume, anticipated that appeal in the 1970s, in “The Joy of Sports,” in referencing the “solidarity of basketball” as something that easily moved beyond national boundaries and cultures. However, he didn’t think that other nations could surpass that essential American experience:
“A part of our deepest identity is uttered in this game. Those of us not black are taught possibilities we might otherwise have never known or emulated.”
What about hoops fiction? Last year, Adam O’Fallon Price ruminated at The Millions about what he regarded as the absence of the Great Basketball Novel. He might have missed this from 1978 by the esteemed book critic Jonathan Yardley, reviewing two basketball-themed novels from what he termed “a young and growing genre.” It’s a genre than remains rather fallow, however, at least in the adult vein, and Price is hopeful his quest ultimately will not be in vain:
“Basketball could never serve as a good metaphor for America’s glorious past, or even its fallen present . . . but it might be just the sport for a more skeptical and circumspect twenty-first century, an era when we need a literature of certainty less than ever.”
If you like books with your basketball, there’s a podcast for that, too, called “Fan’s Notes,” that’s been around since 2016. What Bill Simmons is to hoops and pop culture, Adam Price and Jesse Paddock are to the game and Martin Amis, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Proulx, Barry Hannah and more.
Straight Outta PyeongChang
- How the Olympics Got Disneyfied: At The Atlantic, Michael Weinreb writes on the glitzy legacy of the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960, the first to be televised to an American audience and embody the hyper-promoted spectacle of today, including massive cost overruns;
- One of the Olympians Weinreb talked to is Penny Pistou, a two-time medalist at Squaw Valley and part of a generation of young American female alpine skiers headlines as “Those Pretty Girls With the Killer Instinct,” published by Sports Illustrated from those Games;
- Also at Sports Illustrated, Tim Layden remembers Hermann Maier’s spectacular and terrifying fall in the men’s downhill race at Nagano, 20 years ago;
- Imagining an Olympics without anthems: A British prince tried to pull that off 50 years ago in Grenoble, at the height of the Cold War, and came surprisingly close;
- Winter Olympics and fashion statements, with those Norwegian curlers turning heads again in colorful threads your Uncle John (and mine) might’ve mowed the lawn in during the 1950s;
- The curling craze comes to Florida, imported from Canada, natch;
- Two from the Smithsonian magazine: Instagrammers to follow from PyeongChang, as well as this Olympiad’s artists-in-residence, part of a rebooted program to reintegrate sports and the arts, something the old grouch Avery Brundage dispensed with after 1948;
- Speaking of grouches, here’s one big humbug to the Olympics, and it has nothing to do with the vast time difference between Asia and North America;
- After the 2014 Sochi Games, Olympic historian David Wallechinsky stopped updating “The Complete Book of the Olympics” series he began in 1984, either in print or online. He e-mailed Sports Biblio to say that it’s “no longer cost-effective and it is difficult to write about events when the results keep changing because of belated doping decisions.” Case in point: the very last-minute decision to prevent Russian athletes whose lifetime doping bans were overturned from competing in PyeongChang;
- My former Atlanta J-C colleague and longtime Olympics writer Karen Rosen talks to Dick Button, now 88, on the 70th anniversary of his gold medal in the men’s figure skating event in St. Moritz, and why he is “not a happy camper at all in the world of skating today;”
- Also unhappy are quite a few cross-country skiers pushing back against a piece in The New York Times (a topic that led this newsletter last week) that made their sport sound like a miserable grind: Annie Pokorny at Outside, and Sam Evans-Brown at Slate argue that they have a blast out on the open snow.
- Dave Kindred is the PEN America/ESPN 2018 recipient for Lifetime Achievement in Literary Sports Writing, and his curiosity for new experiences is exemplified in this recent piece for The Athletic about his first basketball game at Hinkle Fieldhouse;
- Oh, to be a Philadelphia Eagles fan after the team’s first Super Bowl title and becoming NFL champions for the first time since the Chuck Bednarik era in 1960;
- The NFL’s first champions were the Akron Professionals, whose controversial 1920 trophy, and their legacy, have largely been forgotten to history;
- An argument that the creation of the NFL was a socialist act, which is a bit of a spurious argument (but hardly a new one, not at all) as the over-politicization of sports continues. Most North American professional sports are set up along similar, closed-market lines, but only gridiron football, the bête noire of the faux intellectual set, comes in for derision;
- Bob Klapisch tells the heartbreaking tale of Bud Harrelson’s battle with Alzheimers disease;
- A new Roberto Clemente biopic is forthcoming from Ezra Edelman, director of the acclaimed “O.J. Made in America” documentary. Also part of the Clemente project is Rowan Ricardo Phillips, a contributor to Wolff’s book referenced above and a poet who’s the sports columnist at The Paris Review. In November, Phillips will publish “The Circuit,” about the 2017 tennis season;
- At The Fight City, Ronnie McCluskey goes deep into Scottish journalist Hugh McIlvanney’s touted collection “McIlvanney on Boxing,” putting it in the same class as A.J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science;”
- An excerpt from “Endure,” by distance runner and physicist Alex Hutchinson and published this week, about the mind’s role in setting limits for physical exertion;
- One more on basketball: A fan who fell in love with the college game on ESPN is forlorn that the Worldwide Leader seems to haven forsaken it for the NBA;
- One of the most impressive athletes I ever covered is former U.S. women’s soccer goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who’s going into the National Soccer Hall of Fame this weekend. I always appreciated her humor and candor and honesty, all of which are on display in this piece at The Undefeated about her crippling brain injury that nearly took away so much more. I’m thrilled she’s being honored with induction, but more importantly that she’s battled back to live a better life than what seemed possible after her retirement.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 114, published Feb. 11, 2018. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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