Rus Bradburd tells the story of Nolan Richardson.

Rus Bradburd has written an impressive biography of former Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson.

On the surface, Father Michael Pfleger and and Nolan Richardson appear to have little in common.

Pfleger is white and grew up in an ethnic neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, while Richardson hails from a black and Latino community in El Paso, on the U.S./Mexico border.

Pfleger is a priest who has spent his entire career in Chicago, while Richardson is a basketball coach who has coached primarily in schools in Southern states.

Pfleger never married, while Richardson has had two wives and a daughter who died tragically in her teens of cancer.

Dig deeper, though, and profound similarities emerge.

Both are fierce men of principle who have dedicated their lives to working in black communities and achieved remarkable results. Both have at times adopted an “us against the world” attitude.  And both have had long battles with their superiors and have made public statements about race that have had professional consequences.

I wrote yesterday about Radical Disciple, Bob Hercules’ hour-long documentary film about Pfleger.

This past weekend I read Forty Minutes of Hell, Rus Bradburd’s impressive biography about the coach who earned his most widespread public recognition while coaching the Arkansas Razorbacks.

A former dribbling whiz and former assistant college basketball coach whose singular recruiting coup was convincing Chicago native Tim Hardaway to play for Don Haskins at the University of Texas-El Paso, Bradburd had previously written Paddy on the Hardwood, his whimsical account of coaching professional basketball in Ireland.

In that work, you could feel Bradburd groping for his writing voice.

In Forty Minutes of Hell, he has found it.

The book traces Richardson’s life from its humble beginnings and being raised by Ol’ Mama, his grandmother who told him to knock doors to opportunity down, once given the chance, through his lofty heights at Arkansas, where his teams won the national championship over Duke in 1994, through his long-term conflicts with athletic director Frank Broyles and 2002 firing after he made derogatory remarks about Arkansas’ white fans.

The book is more than a recounting of an extroardinary man’s life.

Bradburd paints a portrait of a complex and charismatic man full of epic strengths and very related weaknesses that contribute to his undoing.   The sections in which he describes the physical decline and death of Richardson’s daughter Yvonne are hard to read.

At the same time, Bradburd also puts Richardson’s career within the context of the history of race in America generally, and the history of black coaches in particular.  He almost seamlessly weaves in the names and considerable accomplishments of other coaches at least as talented as Richardson who never got the chance to rise in the ranks because of racist practices.

This is by no means to suggest that Richardson had an easy road.

He worked his way up rung by rung, racking up championships at every level through a team of superbly well-conditioned athletes playing the uniquely aggressive brand of basketball referred to in the book’s title.

Bradburd also has a graceful denouement as he describes Richardson’s years after his firing, including a stint coaching the Mexican national team-a job that allowed him to use the Spanish skills he had forged during his childhood.  He and Broyles have a reconciliation of sorts, too.

In short, Bradburd has written a book that succeeds in the major tasks one expects of a biography: bringing a compelling central figure to life by showing him in all his complexity, and placing his individual journey within the larger human story through an explanation of the times in which he has lived.

I hope others take the time to read this worthwhile book.


2 responses to “Rus Bradburd tells the story of Nolan Richardson.

  1. I’m going to see if I can get a hold of this!

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