Tag Archives: Bob Ryan

David Halberstam on Michael Jordan and the World He Made

 

It's only fitting that the late, great David Halberstam wrote my favorite book about Michael Jordan.

It's only fitting that the late, great David Halberstam wrote my favorite book about Michael Jordan.

 

The middle of David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made contains a revealing anecdote about Celtics superstar Larry Bird.

Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan asked Bird what he thought about Bruce Springsteen

“Who’s he?” Bird asked. 

“Larry, he’s the you of rock,” Ryan replied.  

Intrigued, Bird learned more about the legendary Jersey rocker and even attended a concert.  While he did not particularly enjoy the music, he respected how hard Springsteen worked-something that he could tell by the volume of sweat he generated. 

In a similar way, I imagine that the late, great Halberstam recognized something of himself during the process of writing about Jordan

Both men struggled in adolescence before finding the professional passions that drove them.

Both loved basketball deeply and had a special place inside themselves reserved for baseball. 

Both worked relentlessly at their craft.

And both did work early in the career that defined an era, but then built on that work in the following months and years to establish a nearly unmatched legacy.

There are differences, too, between the two men.

Jordan ranks higher in the pantheon of basketball gods than Halberstam does in journalism.

Halberstam never retired, while Jordan left the game twice, once at the height of his powers, and again after the Bulls’ second ‘three-peat’ in 1998.

Jordan’s global celebrity and conscious marketing of his ‘brand’-a main subject of both of the books by him about him-are also distinctive.

Still, there must have been a sense in which Halberstam felt that he was writing about someone whom he understood.

Playing for Keeps, which is a retrospective look at Jordan’s life, career and global economic impact-Halberstam estimates that it’s in the billions of dollars-all make for the most comprehensive book written about Jordan, and my favorite of the ones I’ve read. 

Impeccably thorough in his research, Halberstam also has the benefit of being able to trace the arc of Jordan’s career before his final forgettable comeback with the Washington Wizards that was the subject of Michael Leahy’s When Nothing Else Matters.   Halberstam takes a far more respectful, even admiring tone, toward his subject than Leahy, and the book has a more respectful, even admiring feel, toward its subject. 

Halberstam effectively moves the narrative back and forward in time, writing extensively of course about Jordan, but also about coach Phil Jackson, Bird and rival Magic Johnson.  Dream Team fans will get a kick out of the description of the legendary scrimmage between Jordan and Johnson’s teams in Monte Carlo.  While no one agrees about who talked the first trash-some say Johnson, while others say it was Charles Barkley-all agree that Jordan took over and dominated with a frenzy that left no doubt both about the result and about the team’s true leader from that point on.

Playing for Keeps ends with Jordan’s final championship winning shot-one that Pistons coach Chuck Daly had predicted-against the Utah Jazz.  While hoops junkies may not find this book as rich or appealing as Halberstam’s classic The Breaks of the Game, it is more than adequate to reach the top of my Jordan book list. 

As Bulls fan know, one of Michael Jordan’s top 20 games is better than just about anything else anyone has to offer.

Have fun, and enjoy tomorrow’s induction.

Bill Reynolds takes on 1978 Boston and the Red Sox/Yankees playoff.

Bill Reynolds brings back searing sports and race memories in this engrossing book.

Bill Reynolds brings back searing sports and race memories in this engrossing book.

It was a hurt that took a quarter century to undo.

I was 12 years old in Oxford, England when I heard the news that the New York Yankees had defeated my beloved Boston Red Sox, 5-4, in a one-game playoff on October 2, 1978 to win the American East divisional championship. 

Light hitting shortstop Bucky Dent had dealt the critical blow, hitting a three-run shot that had carried into the net above the Green Monster, controversial superstar Reggie Jackson had extended the lead and fireballing reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage had gotten Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski to pop up to third baseman Graig Nettles for the final out.

The collapse was complete.

Just three months earlier, my brothers and I had been exulting over the Sox’s 14-game lead over the Yankees and inevitable divisional victory.

Mom issued a cautionary note, telling us, in essence, that anything could happen.

Addicts of the volumes of statistics contained in Boston Globe  sports pages, we knew that Mom could talk with authority about poetry, but were notbout to hear her dire predictions.   Our mockery violated the rule that you should listen to your mother.

We also didn’t realize that Mom had some experience of her own. 

She had been just a little older than us when her childhood team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, had blown an almost identical lead in 1951 before losing the final frame of a three-game series when Bobby Thomson took Ralph Branca deep while Willie Mays waited on deck in a blow instantly known as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”

Unfortunately, Mom was right.

Award-winning sportswriter Bill Reynolds recreates the single-game playoff between the bitter American League rivals and delves into Boston’s tense racial scene at time in an engrossing book,  ’78: The Boston Red Sox,  A Historic Game, and a Divided City.

Reynolds opens the action with the games before the game, in which the much-loved Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant had pitched a complete game gem over the expansion Toronto Blue Jays while Rick Waits and the Cleveland Indians had triumphed over the Yankees.  The victory, Boston’s seventh in a row, completed its comeback from a 2 .5 game deficit in the final week and set up the playoff.

From there, Reynolds alternates between the playoff game’s progression, into which he intersperses descriptions of both team’s history, players, owners and managers, and Boston’s tense racial relations at the time.

Drawing heavily on the seminal work about busing in Boston,  J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground, as well as Michael Patrick’s MacDonald’s haunting memoir All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, Reynolds shows how Boston in the late 70s was very much a divided city in which the antibusing movement was losing steam after years of protest, but still had plenty of emotional supporters behind it like School Committe member Elvira “Pixie” Palladino

Reynolds takes the reader through the violence in South Boston in 1974, its continuation in Charlestown in 1975 and the uneasy truce that existed during the time the game was played.

To his credit, Reynolds links sports and race by writing about the Red Sox’s troubled racial history-late owner Thomas Yawkey was considered by many to be a racist and the Red Sox were the last team in all of baseball to integrate their squad-and the incomplete way the presence of black players like George ‘Boomer’ Scott, Tiant and 1978 MVP Jim Rice united the city. 

Reynolds also includes a shorter, less developed exploration of the waning years of what author Tom Wolfe called the ‘Me Decade’ and a paean to the 1970s Boston Globe sports writing team, which included local legends like Ray Fitzgerald, my childhood favorite, and also people who went onto national prominence like Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan and Leigh Montville

Of course, the game ended with Nettles squeezing the ball Yaz popped up and a 45-second silence that Reynolds describes beautifully.  Reynolds gives a brief postscript about the team’s deterioration the following year and redemption not arriving until 2004, when the Red Sox made history by overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees and sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first championship in 86 years. 

Reynolds’ book is a useful snapshot of a troubled time in an historic American city.  There are a few factual errors-Brown v. Board  of Education was a court case, not a piece of legislation, for example-he does not introduce much new material about race relations, and his description of the decadent 70s is a bit thin.  Still, for those members of Red Sox Nation who want a dose of tetrospective Memorial Day machocism, ’78 might just be the one for you.

What do you remember about the ’78 Red Sox?

Has Boston changed in any meaningful way?

Does Jim Rice deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?

The Madness Resumes, Larry and Magic

Seth Davis tells the tale of the original Larry vs. Magic match up in When March Went Mad.

Seth Davis tells the tale of the original Larry vs. Magic match up in When March Went Mad.

March Madness resumes tomorrow night, and should bring plenty of excitement.

From Ty Lawson’s toe to Oklahoma big man’s Blake Griffin’s possible final college games to Memphis coach John Calipari’s quest for his first title, the tournament is chock full of plot lines.

The tournament has grown exponentially since 1979, when Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State Sycamores faced off against Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans.

Sports Illustrated writer and CBS television analyst Seth Davis argues that this game was the birth of what we call March Madness in his new book, When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball.

I should be clear that the book is much more of a behind-the-scenes tale of that pivotal match up rather than a scholarly argument.

Davis revisits the two protagonists in the drama, their markedly different personalities and their teams’ circumstances. 

The introverted Bird refused to talk to the media for nearly the entire season.  The gregarious Johnson could not get enough media attention and autograph signing.  Davis recounts the impact of the stars’ personalities on their teams, too.  At the end of a blowout, Johnson and his teammates were cutting up at the end of the bench.  In a similar situation, Bird sat stonefaced,  his teammates basically saying nothing.

Bird had just one teammate, Carl Nicks, who spent any time in the NBA, while Magic had a stronger supporting cast anchored by Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent.  Sycamores coach Bill Hodges replaced head coach Bob King before the season began, while Spartans coach Jud Heathcote was a Big Ten fixture.  Magic’s team had done well the previous season and was predicted to be a championship contender before the season began.  Bird’s squad was picked to finish third or fourth in their conference.

Despite these differences, the men shared fundamental similarities of a passion for excellence, a relentless commitment to victory, and an ability to improve their teammates’ play. 

Davis skillfully shows the build up to the final match up. 

Playing in the rough and tumble Big Ten, the Spartans had a rough patch midway through the season in which they appeared in danger of not making the tournament, while the Sycamores’ undefeated streak, and their confidence, grew throughout the season, aided by an occasional miracle shot by Bob Heaton.

Davis also does an excellent job of providing previously undiscussed tidbits throughout the story. 

I had not known about Bird’s ignoring of Magic’s greeting before the final game, for example. 

Nor had I heard about Magic’s retort, five years later, when the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game Seven to win their fourteenth championship. 

Bird told Magic, “I got you back.” 

His rival responded, in essence, “I’m gonna win other championships, but I’ll aways have something you don’t-a  college championship.”

The exchange is revealing. 

It shows both how much the loss stayed with Bird and Magic’s equal desire for victory and understanding of the moment.  It also demonstrates how, for all his cheerful demeanor, Magic had a ruthless side that refused to be bested.

In the end, Magic was right. 

Davis shows that, despite Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan’s claim that Bird’s leading his team to the finals was the greatest feat in NCAA basketball history, there could only be one victor at the moment and forever afterward.

Magic got the last word on a televised meeting between the two stars in 1999, 20 years after the game, and Davis ends the book with Bird’s voice wavering as he spoke about his play in the final game to an Indiana State crowd last year. 

The ending is a fitting demonstration of Davis’ storytelling skills.  One of the best parts of When March Went Mad is how Davis uses the benefit of hindsight of the game’s and the superstars’ importance while also keeping us rooted in 1979, when their later greatness was not yet known.

In short, When March Went Mad is an entertaining and accessible read that is nearly guaranteed to please hoops junkies.  It can be consumed in parts, too, so readers should feel free to get a few pages in between the hundreds, if not thousands, of commercials  that will take place between tomorrow night and Sunday, when the identity of this year’s Final Four participants will be known.