Tuesday, December 6, 2005
Updated: March 30, 1:37 PM ET
Best sports book series
By Bill Simmons
As requested by the readers, here's a recap of all the books featured in my "Best Sports Books" series. At the bottom of each review, in italics, we specify whether the book is in print or not. If the book is NOT in print, you can probably find copies kicking around on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, abesbooks.com, ebay.com, or even your local library.
Here's the updated list through December 1st, 2005, along with the dates when I originally wrote the reviews:
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR
by William Goldman and Mike Lupica
(August 10, 2005)
At least twice a day, a high school or college student sends me an e-mail asking for advice -- they want to write about sports some day, they don't know how to go about it, and they're wondering if I can help. And I never know what to write back. How can you answer a question like, "I want to write a sports column, tell me what to do?"
Last weekend, I thought of an answer.
Just a quick back story: I probably own 800-900 sports books that I've been reading and collecting ever since I was old enough to read. The lamer ones are at my dad's house and my mom's house. The best ones came to California with me. And when we moved a few months ago, five boxes of the best and most relevant sports books ever written were dumped in my new garage -- taped up, stacked on top of one another, sitting in the dark.
Well, I was working on a book, and we had a baby, and it took a few months just to settle into the house, and two weeks ago, everything calmed down enough that I could head into the garage, carry those boxes out and unstack them in two living room bookcases. But as I was unstacking them, I realized something. Here was my answer for those aforementioned e-mails. The main reason I became a sports columnist was because I loved these books, because I read them and kept reading them. For instance, you know David Halberstam's book about the 1980 Trail Blazers, "Breaks of the Game"? To me, it's the perfect non-fiction sports book -- he gets to know the players, delves into their psyches, and inadvertently takes a snapshot of a troubled league at its most critical point, the 1979-80 season, when the NBA was in danger of crumbling and Bird and Magic saved the day. Since I love the way it's written, I try to read it once every two years. It's like taking a grad school course: Here's how you write a sports book.
And there's a lesson here. You don't just start writing a sports column, just like you just don't start recording music or writing poetry. Different people affect you along the way, and they inspire you, and you try to emulate them, and eventually, if you know what you're doing, you absorb the best of different people and come up with a style of your own. I was fortunate enough to grow up reading Ray Fitzgerald and Leigh Montville in the Boston Globe -- two of the best sports columnists ever -- as well as Peter Gammons, Will McDonough and Bob Ryan. And those guys were living in my newspaper every day, writing about my favorite teams. Not to sound like Joe Theismann, but you think that didn't affect me? You think I would be doing this for a living without those five guys? No way.
The same goes for my favorite sports books. You can't learn how to write unless you're constantly reading, just like you can't learn how to play music unless you listen to hundreds of different albums, or you can't learn to speak a second language unless you actually go to a foreign country and practice it. For whatever reason, many aspiring sportswriters either don't understand this, or they dismiss it altogether. In fact, I've had conversations at bars with younger people who have approached me, asked me for advice, and when I ask them what their favorite sports books are, they give me the Peyton Manning Face. I'm always astonished by this. How can you aspire to become a sportswriter without reading as many different styles and perspectives as you can?
So I'm here to help. Every Tuesday, I'm recommending a classic sports book in this space. Sometimes I might just write a few sentences about the book. Other times, I might write an entire column about the book. But you're getting a new book every Tuesday. Each one will be worth your time, whether you're an aspiring sportswriter or you just enjoy sports and are always looking for something to read.
This week's book: "Wait Till Next Year," which was co-written by William Goldman (the acclaimed screenwriter) and Mike Lupica (a columnist for the New York Daily News) about everything that happened in the New York sports scene in 1987. Lupica takes the reporter's side, Goldman takes the fan's side, and they alternate writing chapters about the Mets, Knicks, Yankees, Giants and everything else.
I don't even like the New York sports teams. You know this. But I have read this book at least 10-12 times over the past 17 years, and only because it's well-written and ages surprisingly well. For instance, I re-read the book two weeks ago. The Gooden/Strawberry stuff still holds up. So does the section on the NFL strike (imagine if that happened now?). The Hubie Brown chapter is funny to read in retrospect. Goldman's rant about a devastating Mets collapse in St. Louis isn't just entertaining, it's creepy to read i(because the game happened on September 11th, which he keeps referencing throughout the column). Not only does the Larry Bird chapter still hold up, but Goldman's overall premise -- that Bird was the best player in basketball, hands down, and that everyone would forget this years from now because they would be seduced the Best Player Du' Jour -- is one of the best and most salient points in the entire book.
As much as I like Lupica's contributions, Goldman is the one that takes the book to another level. The ultimate fan, he twists things around and looks at things from a non-traditional way -- like the chapter on Gooden's drug suspension (which ranks among my favorite things I have ever read about sports), or the chapter about how sports is really air (I won't spoil it for you, but it makes sense after you read it). Would you be reading my column on ESPN.com if it wasn't for this book? Honestly? I don't know. Goldman's chapters made me think, "Why don't more people write about sports from a fan's perspective?" And every time I read the book as a struggling writer, that question nagged at me -- it seemed like there was a different way to approach sportswriting, that you could care about sports, have your little biases, live and die with your teams and still write about everything. Seventeen years later, here I am. Coincidence? I don't think so.
Here's what kills me: When I was writing this little piece, I planned on sticking the Amazon.com link for "Next Year" at the end of the post, so it would be easy for people to purchase the book. Much to my surprise (and dismay), it's out of print. Unbelievable. One of the best sports books ever, a book that still holds up to this day, with two name authors ... and it's out of print. Sure, you can find used copies on eBay or Amazon or you can locate an old copy in the library, or maybe even grab one in the right used book store (like the one on Newbury Street in Boston). Other than that, you're out of luck.
But if you care about writing about sports for a living, you need to find books like "Wait Till Next Year." Need to read them. Need to re-read them. Need to figure out what worked and didn't work. Need to learn your lessons and move into the next one.
That doesn't guarantee you can do this for a living ... but it's a pretty damned good start.
**STATUS: OUT OF PRINT**
THE LAST SHOT
By Darcy Frey
(August 16, 2005)
If you loved the documentary "Hoop Dreams," the literary equivalent is "The Last Shot," which was written by Darcy Frey in 1994. Frey followed four star players from Lincoln High's basketball team in New York, a school located in a depressing, dangerous part of Brooklyn, and it's not your typical "Friday Night Lights" ripoff in which the writer follows some random high school team around for a year and expects you to care about them. This book delves into the stranglehold that basketball has on African-American culture; the cultural biases of Prop 48 and the SATs; the complete and utter hypocrisy of the college recruiting system; and even how those summer basketball camps vaguely resemble cattle calls. It's an amazing book, with one overriding theme: When you're a talented basketball player from the projects, there are a million things that can go wrong, and only one thing that can go right.
The book was great when it came out 11 years ago, but it's even better now, and here's why: The four players that Frey followed were Darryl Flicking (called "Russell Thomas" in the book for legal reasons), Tchaka Shipp, Corey Johnson & and Stephon Marbury. That's right, Stephon Marbury. He's a cocky, precocious ninth-grader in the book, the last NBA hope for the Marbury family (his three older brothers didn't make it). As it turns out, he's the only one of the four who "made it," so to speak -- which gives the book a whole new perspective when you're reading it now, especially when you read the updated afterword from the 2004 edition (I won't spoil it for you, but it's devastating to read after the fact).
**STATUS: STILL IN PRINT**
GHOSTS OF MANILA
By Mark Kram
In case you missed it, ESPN2 aired its Frank Deford documentary ("You Play Better Than You Write") Monday night. I didn't plan on watching it because it seemed like such a blatant ripoff of the Dick Schaap documentary & but it ended up sucking me in. There are some weird aspects to it -- how Deford wrote and narrated it himself, how they devote an entire segment to his NPR gig, how he refers to himself in the third person a few times, even the goofy footage of him walking his dog -- but overall, it's a pretty powerful show (especially the segment about his daughter, which is agonizing to watch).
One thing saddens me about Deford: An entire generation knows him only for his NPR pieces, his columns on SI.com (where he proved that even the best writers don't make good columnists sometimes) and his surreal appearances on "Real Sports" (which always ranked in the low-80s on the UC Scale). There's really no way for these people to understand how influential his writing was in the '70s and '80s, when he pretty much mastered the takeout feature and spawned dozens of pompous imitators (with only Gary Smith and a few others able to carry on that art form, which can basically be described as "writing about a real person in sports like you're writing a short story"). I like this genre and I don't. In the right hands, it's fine. In the wrong hands, it's semi-excruciating.
(It's also frustrating to me that the "Best American Sportswriting" series falls all over itself picking these specific styles of stories and ignores everything else out there -- it's like how the Oscars nominates the same types of dramas every year and ignores anything else that's successful. That used to be a fantastic book -- not only did I look forward to it every year, I own every version since the late-1970s -- and now reading that thing is like attending a film festival where they show a Holocaust movie, followed by a Depression movie, followed by a civil rights movie, and so on. Many of the stories don't even have anything to do with the major sports anymore; for instance, if you're a blind, club-footed, diabetic, hemophiliac long-distance runner in Cambodia, and somebody did a piece on you in a major magazine, and you didn't end up in this book, you really need to reevaluate things. But that's a whole other story.)
Anyway, If you grew up reading Deford in the '70s and '80s, and you remember his stories about Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Billy Conn and everyone else, you should watch this show. It's worth 90 minutes of your time. And don't forget to take your allergy medication, because it gets a little dusty a couple of times.
That brings me to this week's sports book. Back in 1975, two things happened:
1. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had the greatest fight of all time. With all due respect to Hagler-Hearns, Leonard-Hearns, Foreman-Lyle, Castillo-Coralles and everything else, for sweeping drama, clashing styles, mutual hatred, historical significance and sheer brutality, the third Ali-Frazier bout in Manila stands by itself. Nothing comes close. Neither guy would ever be the same.
2. Writing about that same fight in Sports Illustrated, Mark Kram submitted the greatest on-deadline sports story ever. It's a masterpiece. Nobody has ever done better.
Three decades later, Kram expanded that piece into the book called "Ghosts of Manila." Maybe it's a little uneven, maybe he self-plagarizes some of his Sports Illustrated stuff, maybe it's too sympathetic to Frazier and too unfair to Ali & but it's still worth reading, partly because it's so well written, partly because he's one of the few writers who dares to challenge the myth of Ali. According to Kram, Ali wasn't nearly as smart or as visionary as other writers led you to believe, and he was much nastier than some wanted to admit -- especially in the ring (everyone forgets how vicious Ali acted during the Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson fights) and even outside the ring (where he hammered Frazier relentlessly about being an Uncle Tom and even compared him to gorillas and apes). If you're like me and you loved Ali and revered his place in sports history, this is a jarring book to read. I haven't felt quite the same about Ali since I read it, actually.
Since Kram intentionally shifts the perspective of the book against Ali to make Frazier more sympathetic, you have to take everything with a grain of salt. For instance, at the end of his SI piece about the fight in Manila, Ali praises Frazier for an entire paragraph and calls him a great man, an anecdote that Kram conspicuously leaves out of the book because it hurts his premise that Ali never gave Frazier credit. He also skirts around the crucial reason Ali baited Frazier so much -- in his own short-sighted way, Ali riled Frazier because he wanted to bring out the best in Frazier, and only because he knew a possessed Frazier would bring the best out of Ali himself. Once he returned from his four-year exile, Ali's fatal flaw as a boxer was that he always rose/sunk to the skill level of his opponents -- like Ken Norton, who gave Ali two tough fights because Ali just couldn't bring himself to take Norton seriously, or even the Chuck Wepners and Leon Spinkses of the world.
But he knew Frazier had the toughest possible style for him, and I always thought he wanted to push Frazier as far as he could go. It's just that he went too far with the never-ending barrage of racial comments, and to make matters worse, he swayed the black community (especially influential members of the media establishment like Bryant Gumbel, whom Kram rightly skewers in the book) against Frazier, painting himself as the symbol of black power and Frazier as the symbol of the white establishment.
Here was the end result: Frazier despised Ali about as much as one human being could despise another human being without actually murdering him. That's what made the Manila fight so special, and that's what made the next 30 years so ugly, as Frazier spent much of that time smoldering about the Ali rivalry, even taking a sick pride in Ali's increasingly incoherent state. And so Ali brought the best out of him, but he brought the worst out of him, too. That's what this book is about. As one of Frazier's cronies tells Kram, "Ali's influenced Joe so much he's determined the man he is today. A couple of ghosts, if you ask me. One is still in the ring in Manila, the other doesn't even know there was a Manila. It was a bad reckoning for both, that day."
One other interesting wrinkle to keep in mind if you end up reading this book: For all of Kram's gifts, he ended up having a checkered career at Sports Illustrated. In Michael McCambridge's superb book "The Franchise" about the history of SI, it's revealed that Kram sometimes sent friends out on assignment to do his research for him. According to the book, Kram even ended up getting fired for gross misconduct from SI in 1977 after questions arose about some of the stories he had written and whether he had been paid by the principals involved to give them a positive spin, including a flattering story about Don King's heavyweight box-off that ended up being rigged. The end result was that Kram failed to realize his considerable potential as a writer, for whatever reason.
So this book ends up being special, but it's also a little sad to read, because you can't shake the feeling that Kram should have had a better career than he did. As it turned out, Frank Deford was the one who ended up getting the 90-minute documentary about his life, but Mark Kram was just as talented in their respective primes. Maybe "Ghosts of Manila" isn't as good as the deadline piece he wrote for Sports Illustrated, but it's still one of the best 40-50 sports books ever, and it makes you wonder if there were three ghosts from that night, not just two.
**STATUS: STILL IN PRINT**
By Stefan Fatsis
(August 30, 2005)
A few years ago, Wall Street Journal reporter Stefan Fatsis threw himself into the world of competitive Scrabble, which has so many tortured freaks, it makes the World Series of Poker look normal by comparison. As with any good author, Fatsis ends up getting a little too involved, messing around with Scrabble on his own and slowly understanding how this game can consume people. The end result was "Word Freak," a unique, well-written, entertaining, fascinating, thoughtful sports book that still holds up four years later. If poker can be considered a sport, then so should Scrabble ... which is why I'm making the executive decision to give this "top-50 sports book" status.
**STATUS: STILL IN PRINT**
BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING: 1994
Edited by Thomas Boswell
(Sept. 13, 2005)
A few weeks ago, you may remember how I poked fun at the "Best American Sports Writing" series and its increasingly sappy direction. Here's what I wrote:
"It's like how the Oscars nominates the same types of dramas every year and ignores anything else that's successful. That used to be a fantastic book -- not only did I look forward to it every year, I own every version since the late-1970s -- and now reading that thing is like attending a film festival where they show a Holocaust movie, followed by a Depression movie, followed by a civil-rights movie, and so on. Many of the stories don't even have anything to do with the major sports anymore; for instance, if you're a blind, club-footed, diabetic, hemophiliac long-distance runner in Cambodia, and somebody did a piece on you in a major magazine, and you didn't end up in this book, you really need to reevaluate things. But that's a whole other story."
The next day, editor Glenn Stout was nice enough to e-mail me, and we had a lively exchange about what I wrote (to his credit, Glenn didn't take it personally). According to Glenn, he narrows the field down to 75-80 potential picks every year, then sends those pieces to the guest editor, who ends up making the final choices on what ends up in the book. Fair enough. Glenn also sent me an advance copy of the 2005 book by guest editor Mike Lupica, who chose 29 pieces in all. And you would think these pieces would offer some common reflection over the sports year as a whole, right?
Of course not. The first three choices are weighty pieces about an embattled Mexican high school track team, an embattled Compton football team and Ken Caminiti's death. So we're off to a happy start. As it turns out, probably two-thirds of the book is ultra-serious and depressing (rape, steroids, Pat Tillman, you name it), with some other bizarre choices that speak for themselves (including four fishing pieces and two about Howard Cosell). Astoundingly, nothing from ESPN.com or ESPN The Magazine made the book -- I'm glad future generations will think the ESPN empire took the year off from publishing a single worthwhile piece -- although Sports Illustrated was represented five times. Even more astoundingly, Chris Jones' jaw-dropping Ricky Williams profile in Esquire -- which was the most entertaining piece I read last year, hands down, with nothing else coming close -- didn't even make honorable mention. How is that possible?
(Note: You would think somebody had to have written a worthy piece at some point during the Red Sox-Yankees series, which finished with one of the most memorable four-day stretches in the history of sports, right? Nothing made the cut. For instance, I made honorable mention for my piece about Game 5 of the ALCS, which was nice of them ... but if that piece was the best thing anyone wrote about the ALCS, it should have made the book. If somebody else topped it, he should have made the book. Seriously, how can you not have one piece about the ALCS in a book about the best sportswriting in 2004? Lupica even spends a page in his introduction remembering the Dave Roberts game, which he calls "the biggest comeback story in the history of sports" and adds, "Columnists live for a moment like that." I agree. So you're telling me that there wasn't a single writer in the country who wrote anything memorable about that game or the next three?)
Not every choice was bad, obviously -- I was happy to see Tom Verducci's excellent SI piece about Red Sox fans make the cut, as well as Jon Wertheim's well-reported feature about Roscoe Tanner's scummy life (count me among the growing number of Wertheim fans, his tennis stuff is truly superb, and I don't even like tennis), and I even enjoyed the piece about Mexican runners (if only because Gary Smith wrote it). Even David Shields' Cosell piece was excellent (and far superior to the other Cosell piece that was inexplicably chosen for the book). This stuff is subjective to a degree, so you might like some of these choices more than I did. But overall? It's the sappiest "BASW" yet. In fact, I think that's how they should promote these books: "If you thought last year's book was sappy, think again -- this is the sappiest 'BASW' book yet!"
Do I recommend it? Yes. I always recommend "BASW" for anyone who cares about sportswriting, no matter how inexplicable the choices are, and it's certainly the only book of its kind. There will always be five or six pieces worth your time. If there's a flaw in the system that Glenn currently uses, it's that he gives the guest editor waaaaaaaaaay too much power (after all, everyone likes different things) and opens the door to some obvious conflicts of interest (just about every guest editor manages to include pieces from some of their friends and/or favorite colleagues, which demeans the process). I also think they should pick the top 10 sports stories of each year and run the best column or feature about each of them, just so there's some cohesive perspective on the year that just passed.
Anyway, if you want to buy the 2005 book, go ahead. But for this week's "best sports book" recommendation, I'm selecting the 1994 edition of the "BASW," which was edited by Thomas Boswell and features a murderer's row of pieces, including five transcendent ones that rank among the most memorable of the last 25 years: Bruce Bushel's hatchet job of Lenny Dykstra playing at a baccarat table in Vegas; Gary Smith's unforgettable piece on a dying Jim Valvano; John Ed Bradley's piece on Buster Douglas' post-Tyson fall; Davis Miller's essay about meeting Muhammad Ali (which was so good, he was able to extend it into a book); and Charlie Pierce's profile of Magic Johnson, post-AIDS (my favorite Pierce piece ever, and he's written some good ones). All five of those pieces are twice as good as anything in this year's book, and they're about sports figures that people actually know. At least 8-10 other pieces are worth your time, including Susan Orlean's 25-page profile of schoolboy hotshot Felipe Lopez (much funnier to read now that we know how his career turned out). It's a true reflection of that sports year in every sense.
**STATUS: OUT OF PRINT**
By Terry Pluto
(Oct. 20, 2005)
Since we're coming up on the 30-year anniversary of the last ABA season, if you're one of the few NBA diehards, and you haven't read "Loose Balls" ... I mean, I don't even know what to tell you. So many books try to do the "oral history" thing, but it's a harder concept than you think -- you need funny stories, and it needs to be organized in the right way so everything makes sense -- and it's much easier to screw up than pull off. But this book was just fantastic; I think it's a top-20 sports book.
First of all, the ABA was a goofy, ridiculous, once-in-a-lifetime league, and if you don't know all the stories, or even some of the stories, it's worth reading. Second, any book that glorifies Doctor J, Connie Hawkins and David Thompson is worth your time, since those are three of the most underappreciated basketball greats. Third, you couldn't even make up some of the ABA characters (Warren Jabali, John Brisker, Joe Caldwell, Wendell Ladner) in a million years, and the Marvin Barnes section ranks among the funniest chapters in any sports book (my favorite is the story where he misses the team plane, charters another one and shows up 10 minutes before a game holding a McDonalds's bag, wearing a mink coat and his game uniform underneath it). And fourth, few appreciate how influential this league was (the style of play, the 3-point line, the underclassmen, the promotion of individual players), or how devoted these guys were to fighting the good fight (battling the NBA and doing everything they could to make sure the league would survive long enough for a merger). Plus, since there was pretty much no TV coverage, and few remaining game films, this league almost happened in a vacuum. It's like the lost great league.
I'll go this far: in my opinion, all the NBA titles from 1970-1976 (including two Boston titles, by the way) should have an asterisk next to them because so many talented players were in the ABA. For instance, in 1976, when a really shaky Celtics team won the title, the ABA was so loaded that 10 ABA players (of a possible 24 spots) made the 1977 All-Star Game following the merger (and guys who did NOT make it included Moses Malone and Artis Gilmore). For whatever reason, just about everyone forgets this. Fortunately, Terry Pluto did not.
**STATUS: STILL IN PRINT**
By Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad
(Oct. 25, 2005)
I hate playing the "jumped the shark" card, the most overplayed angle on the web -- everyone is in a big race to say that something or someone isn't good anymore, whether it's a TV show, movie, musician, writer, web site or whatever -- and that mentality ties into how hostile the Internet has become in general. Everything sucks, everyone sucks, everyone's mailing it in, and so on. You just can't win. In the case of SNL, because I still watch it every week, obviously it can't suck that much. On the other hand, I love sketch comedy shows, and let's face it -- SNL has a monopoly on this format. If I like late night talk shows but dislike Jay Leno (which is true), I can watch Letterman, Stewart/Colbert, Kimmel, Conan, even Carson Daly. If I enjoy a late night show with sketches, fake news and musical guests, I have SNL and that's it. So when the show stinks, there's nowhere else to turn ... at least until HBO wises up and challenges the SNL monopoly some day with a bawdier, riskier version of the show.
That's why I take SNL's demise so personally, and that's why others take it so personally, I think. Ever since Will Ferrell left the show, it's been consistently sub par -- unimaginative and uninspired -- and nobody over there really seems to care. It's almost like they're saying, "Hey, people are gonna watch, regardless, so screw it." Well, people are watching because A.) it's the only show out there like it, and B) they keep hoping it will get better. Nope. It's a stale and predictable show, the same two qualities that SNL always promised to avoid when it started back in 1975. I hate what has happened here. I really do.
Anyway, that brings us to this week's book recommendation, which isn't a sports book, but remains one of my ten favorite books of all-time, as well as the book I probably have read the most over the past 20 years. It's almost plays out like a sports book, because the original SNL cast and writing staff resemble a sports team in some ways, right down to the seasons, the championship year (1977-78), people leaving and everything else.
Here's the book: Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. Just to clarify: This is NOT the oral history that was released two years ago. As much as I enjoyed that book and all the stories, it doesn't even approach the Weingrad/Hill book, which was released in 1984 and painstakingly traces the first five years of SNL (as well as the debacle of the 1980 season and Eddie Murphy single handedly saving the show from 1981 to 1983). Six things stand out about this book, at least for me:
1. It's fascinating to read the nitty-gritty stuff about how the show started (the launch, all the censorship battles and everything else), then compare it to the predictable crap they're showing now. SNL meant something then, and Lorne Michaels in particular took great pains in weighing the show's cultural significance, as well as its place in cutting-edge comedy, with just about every decision he made. When you read these stories, you just get the feeling that 1975 Lorne Michaels would hang himself if he knew what would happen to the show 30 years later.
2. The Belushi stories. One of my all-time favorite people -- even 25 years later, there has never been anyone quite like him.
3. The Michael O'Donoghue stories. Absolutely the lost genius of that comedy era. Nobody even knows his name anymore. Read the book, you will understand.
4. The drug stories -- phenomenal. Who doesn't love a good drug story? About 100 pages of this book plays out like a fantastic "E! True Hollywood Story."
5. Even 20-plus years later, this remains the best book about what it's like to write for a late night TV show -- dealing with censorship, celebrities, constant pressure, lack of credit, lack of sleep, competitiveness, testosterone, egos and everything else. My experience on Kimmel's show was relatively tame compared to this stuff, but I think every TV writer deals with these same basic realities ... so if you ever want/wanted to write for a TV show, and you DON'T read this book, I don't know what to tell you.
6. The chapter about Chevy Chase's departure from the show, simply called "Fame," remains the best thing ever written about how becoming famous can screw up your mind and your life. That's one of the overriding themes of this book -- how becoming successful and famous can actually be one of the worst things that can happen to some people.
If you love the show, or even if you like the show, I can't imagine how you wouldn't enjoy this book.
**STATUS: OUT OF PRINT**
EDUCATION OF A COACH
By David Halberstam
(Nov. 15, 2005)
I read two football books in the past few weeks, one that I really liked, one that I didn't like nearly as much. The one I didn't like that much: "Next Man Up," by John Feinstein. Loved the idea (spending a season with the Baltimore Ravens), loved the premise, loved the reporting & but it reads like a 500-page AP article. It just didn't do much for me. If you're a Ravens fan, you should get it. If you're just a football fan, wait until "Next Man Up" ends up on a bargain rack for $4.99 or something, then skim through it for the interesting stuff. That's my advice.
But I will recommend Halberstam's "The Education of a Coach." I hate when people compliment me on a column with something like, "That was the best thing you've written in awhile!" Because the implication is, "You've been terrible lately, and it's about time you wrote something good again." So I always take that personally. But this was my favorite Halberstam book since "Playing for Keeps" (the one about the MJ era and his impact on the NBA), and I would have loved it whether it was about the Patriots' coach or not. The thing I have always loved about Halberstam's stuff -- he's a reporter, but he never relies on quotes that much. In other words, he gathers as much information as possible, then attempts to put that information in some sort of larger perspective. With this book, he's not telling us that Bill Belichick is a great football coach, he's telling us how Belichick became a great football coach -- the lessons he learned, which people impacted him, what he learned from everyone who passed through his life -- and after awhile, everything begins to make sense.
I loved three things about this book. First, the access Halberstam gets from Belichick is extraordinary, but there's a reason for that -- not only are they neighbors in Nantucket, but Belichick is a huge history buff and apparently counts Halberstam among his favorite writers. So it's a perfect match in a way (I just don't think Belichick would have been this forthcoming with any other writer). Second, the insight into Belichick's thought process -- particularly with stuff like "planning for the Super Bowl against the Rams" and "Brady vs. Bledsoe" -- was truly spectacular. And third, the book was surprisingly candid about Belichick's complicated relationship with Bill Parcells (who comes off like a callous jerk in some parts), to the point that it now makes sense why Belichick chose to walk away from the Jets job a few years ago.
(In fact, reading that section, you can see the parallels between Belichick-Parcells and Theo Epstein-Larry Lucchino -- both Belichick and Theo reached a point in their careers where they needed to leave the shadow of their mentors, for a variety of reasons that couldn't be easily explained, and eventually we learned that Parcells and Lucchino were more domineering and difficult than we initially realized. In Lucchino's case, the stories are still trickling out and the Dick Cheney parallels are officially jarring. But that's a whole different column.)
Anyway, if you're a Patriots fan, you absolutely have to get this book. If you're a Halberstam fan, you absolutely have to get this book. If you love football and want to understand how a coach becomes a coach as well as all the difficult decisions that could sidetrack him along the way, you have to get this book. And while we're on the subject, I have always felt like there are two kinds of sports books:
Group A: The ones that simply tell you what happened.
Group B: The ones that attempt to put what happened in some sort of perspective.
After his brilliant "Season on the Brink," Feinstein settled into a safe (and lucrative) career of pumping out those Group A books -- the writing isn't challenging, you can skim around to the juicy parts, there's just enough to keep your interest, and then you finish the book and never think about it again. Which is fine. But I would much rather spend $20-$25 on Group B sports books that challenge me, enlighten me and make me think. So I'm recommending the Halberstam one.
**STATUS: STILL IN PRINT**
By Jack McCallum
(Nov. 29, 2005)
Remember when I panned John Feinstein's new book about the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago? After I wrote that review, I was thinking about sports books centered around that "spending a season with..." theme and why some of them work and some of them don't, ultimately deciding to re-read one of my favorites of that genre: "Unfinished Business" by Jack McCallum. You know McCallum from Sports Illustrated, but he spent the 1990-91 season following around the Celtics, which was an interesting team in itself -- Bird, McHale and Parish were still there, Reggie Lewis was just becoming an All-Star caliber 2-guard, and there were young legs like Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, Eddie Pinckney and Kevin Gamble on hand. Nobody remembers this, but before Bird's back went out in December, they were 26-5 and considered the best team in the league (they ended up losing to the Pistons in the semis).
But that's not why I love the book. Instead of recapping games and spending ten pages on mini-autobiographies for each player, McCallum goes in the other direction -- he's only concerned with the dynamic of the team, the histories of the players relating to one another, the ebb and flow of the season, the jokes everyone makes during practice and on the bus rides, the various character roles people fill on a team and so on. Within 200 pages, you feel like you know everyone, and McCallum isn't afraid to go after certain people (like Bird's curiously cold treatment of McHale, or how Johnny Most became such a self-parody in his later years). To this day, it remains the best character study of Bird, and McHale might be the funniest character in any sports book -- not only did I forget how consistently funny he was, it's astounding that he's not making like $10 million a year working for ABC or ESPN right now. He could have been bigger than Barkley.
Here's the difference between McCallum's book and the Feinstein book: it's only 257 pages long (half the size of Feinstein's book), but there isn't a word wasted, and you feel like you were a fly on the wall with that Celtics team for 8-9 months. Isn't that the ultimate goal of one of these books? It's also laugh-out-loud funny at times, and he tackles the basic questions that I'm looking for from these books -- what's so-and-so like, why did this happen, how do these guys get along, who's the funniest guy on the team, and so on. I think it's one of the five best NBA books ever.
(So what are the other four? We'll get to them. I promise.)
**STATUS: OUT OF PRINT**
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.