bookmark_borderShowtime by Jeff Pearlman

Basketball fans with an interest in history will immediately know from the title what a book called “Showtime” is about. For the rest, the subtitle of the book leaves no questions unanswered. It reads “Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s”.

Showtime by Jeff Pearlman

Showtime was the template for the HBO series Winning Time

The book has also recently come back to prominence because the HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is based on Showtime. This series was controversially discussed and also criticized by some protagonists of the 1980s Lakers. The recently deceased Jerry West, who as general manager played a major role in the success of this dynasty, even sued HBO because he felt the characterization of his own person in the series was completely wrong. Wikipedia says:

On April 19, 2022, Jerry West demanded a retraction from HBO within two weeks for the “cruel” and “deliberately false” depiction of him as a temperamental, foul-mouthed executive prone to angry outbursts and mood swings.

I haven’t seen the series myself, so I can’t comment on it. But in the book, Jerry West is described as someone who liked to drop the usual f-bomb and swore (which shouldn’t be unusual in a sports team environment), but also as someone who radiated a lot of human warmth, never put himself above other people and treated the Lakers’ employees very well. And the author Jeff Pearlman doesn’t mince his words in this book, which is why I wouldn’t accuse him of flattery. Among other things, the excessive sex life (or the non-existent sex life in the case of A.C. Green) or the drug use of Spencer Haywood and other players are reported in detail. It’s also about the inhuman and arrogant way in which former owner Jack Kent Cooke treated his employees, or about the limited mental abilities of former Power Forward Mark Landsberger and other players.

Good overview of the rise and fall of a dynasty

The open nature and the countless quotes from the players of the time make the book even more interesting for me. The only thing that bothered me a little bit was that at various points in the book, Pearlman kept revisiting the dismissive and arrogant way Kareem Abdul-Jabbar treated fans and other people. This character trait is well known about Kareem and even former teammates like Magic Johnson often mentioned that Kareem acted like the ultimate ***hole when dealing with others. But it doesn’t add any value for me to revisit this story again and again in the book.

Otherwise, it’s a very good book. It begins with the draft of Magic Johnson and ends with the press conference in which he announced his positive HIV test. I thought it was very good that Pearlman devoted some time to the man who invented “Showtime”, but who has more or less been forgotten these days. The man in question is Jack McKinney, who became coach in Magic’s rookie season and played the fast style of play that became known as Showtime. McKinney unfortunately only sat on the benchcoached the Lakers for 14 games before he was seriously injured in a bicycle accident and Paul Westhead took over as coach.

Westhead continued to play this offensive and fast style in the first season and won a title with the Lakers. He then tried to change the style of play and gave the players less freedom on the court, which led to a rift between coaches and players. It is well known that Magic Johnson was the driving force behind the sacking and this book makes no secret of this. However, it also describes that the rest of the team was also unhappy with Westhead and wanted another coach.

He was followed by Pat Riley, who is nowadays regarded as the architect of Showtime. The book also vividly describes the changing relationship between Riley and the team. He returned to McKinney’s style of play and led the Lakers to four more titles. However, over the years he became more and more rigid and demanding in his style and made the players go through extremely tough training sessions even before games in the NBA Finals. The book describes well how the mood within the team increasingly changed and how Riley went from being a friend to someone the players ignored at some point.

Overall, this is a good book for fans of NBA history. And you don’t have to be a Lakers fan to like it (I’m not one myself).


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bookmark_borderTip Off by Filip Bondy

Today’s blog article is once again about the history of the NBA. More specifically, one of the most famous and most discussed events in NBA history, the 1984 draft. This is often referred to as the best draft of all time and Filip Bondy took a look behind the scenes with “Tip Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever”. The subtitle is very fitting, as some of the players in the 1984 draft class did indeed change the future of their franchises and the NBA forever.

Tip Off by Filip Bondy

Tip off focuses on six players from the Draft

The book focuses on six sub-narratives, or six different players: the four future (from a 1984 perspective) superstars Hakeem Olajuwon (#1 pick), Michael Jordan (#3), Charles Barkley (#5) and John Stockton (#16). Also the fourth pick, Sam Perkins, who never became an All-Star, but can look back on a very good NBA career with well over 1000 games. And last but not least, the somewhat tragic figure of the draft, Sam Bowie, who will forever be known as the player the Portland Trail Blazers selected at #2 instead of Michael Jordan.

A big part of the book is the development of the six players before the draft, especially their time in college. For me personally, these stories were very interesting because as a non-American I don’t know much about college sports and mainly follow the NBA. In this book, however, I was able to learn a lot about the individual colleges in the 80s and coaches like Dean Smith or Bob Knight.

You then learn more about the players’ rookie seasons and how they settled in with their teams. In particular, Barkley’s problems with the 76ers’ renowned but ageing team are described. Stockton also came off the bench at first and the Rockets had the problem of getting Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson on the court together.

Bowie over Jordan

The author did a good job of describing the Blazers’ reasoning for selecting Bowie over Jordan. While this is a disastrous decision from today’s perspective, no one could have known at the time that Jordan would become the best player of all time. One exception is Charles Barkley, who claims to have been the only one who knew it back then. Bowie himself also has his say in the book. He makes a very satisfied impression and seems to be at peace with himself and the world. It should not be forgotten that Bowie also showed very good promise in the NBA, but was repeatedly set back by serious injuries. The author also rightly points out that the Blazers drafted Jerome Kersey with the 46th pick in the same draft, Clyde Drexler with pick 14 the year before and Terry Porter at 24 the year after. All of these are very good steals, but they are forgotten because of the Bowie/Jordan decision.

One criticism is that there are minor errors in the book in some places. For example, at the beginning of the book Charles Thomas is correctly referred to as the owner of the Houston Rockets, but just a few sentences later Ray Patterson (who was the general manager) is the owner. At another point, the book refers to the Virginia Cavaliers college team, who are shortly afterwards referred to as Cleveland (who are also called the Cavaliers). However, I am happy to forgive such minor errors if the content of the book is otherwise good, and that is the case here.

Overall, Filip Bondy’s Tip Off is a very good historical account of arguably the most famous draft of all time. You learn more about the six players and also some surprising things (Michael Jordan in tears after being criticized by coach Bob Knight at the 1984 Olympics). You also learn that several teams tried to trade for Michael Jordan. The Mavericks apparently offered their own pick plus Mark Aguirre, a very good offer at the time. Bulls fans will be glad that general manager Rod Thorn didn’t bite.

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bookmark_borderThe Sixth Man

Having already presented a few books in this blog about more historical events, here is book that deals with the more recent past. The Sixth Man is the autobiography of Andre Iguodala, who only ended his active career in 2023. However, the book was published in 2019, so before Iguodala’s last title with the Warriors in 2022.

The Sixth Man by Andre Iguodala

As mentioned, The Sixth Man is a typical biography that proceeds chronologically. Iguodala begins with his childhood in Springfield, Illinois. He was raised by his mother and grandmother and grew up with his brother and several cousins. Iguodala’s mother used to be a basketball player herself and was 6 feet tall. This is probably where his athletic talent comes from.

His experiences with basketball as a child were interesting. He never really brags about anything in this book and writes rather modestly. But it is clear that little Andre had some good basketball IQ early on and understood the game better than his peers. He also had a strong will and tried to be the best in all areas of life, whether at school or on the basketball court. Iguodala describes how his brother Andre was as talented as he was, but didn’t have the same will.

Time in college and the beginnings in the NBA

Iguodala’s time in college with the Arizona Wildcats is covered rather quickly. He also describes at one point that the time (he played there for two years) flew by. He personally described the relationship with his coach Lute Olson as somewhat difficult. However, he also wrote that he learned a lot about basketball under Olson and became a better player as a result. Of course, his time in the NBA takes up considerably more space. He was a lottery pick in 2004 and was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers.

His assessment of his time in Philadelphia is also rather mixed. He writes about some of his teammates, especially Allen Iverson, of course. Iguodala describes Iverson as an incredible talent and great athlete who (just like Iguodala’s later teammate Stephen Curry) found many sports easy. He also has rather positive things to say about his coaches in Philadelphia. A small exception here is the end with his last Philly coach Doug Collins (who also coached Michael Jordan). At the 2012 Olympic Games, Collins told him how much he was looking forward to the next season with Iguodala, even though a trade to Denver was already more or less certain at the time. Iguodala found out about this from his teammate Jrue Holiday.

Iguodala only played one season for the Nuggets. It was a pretty good season. But unfortunately Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL shortly before the end of the regular season. As a result, the Nuggets lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors, who were still a young and developing team at the time. But Iguodala saw a lot in this team and could already foresee the development in the future. When he became a free agent in the summer, he was eager to join the Warriors and turned down better-paid offers to do so.

Role as „The Sixth Man“ with the Warriors

In his first season in Golden State, the coach was still called Mark Jackson. Although Jackson often doesn’t enjoy a very good reputation in fan circles, Andre Iguodala only has positive things to say about him and his year with the Warriors. He knew how to get the best out of each player and focused on his players’ strengths. Nevertheless, when they lost in the playoffs Steve Kerr took over. Iguodala has a special relationship with Kerr because he also played for the Arizona Wildcats and learned the game under Lute Olson.

The next part of the book is taken up by reports from the inner workings of one of the most successful teams of all time. Interestingly, Iguodala talked about the Finals series against Cleveland in 2015, but never mentioned that he was voted Finals MVP. The following season, the Warriors set a new NBA record with 73 wins in the regular season, but Iguodala describes that not all that glittered was gold. The team gave their all in the regular season to break the record, but failed to be at their best for the playoffs. According to Iguodala, the pursuit of the record cost the team the title. In the NBA Finals, one of the most famous scenes in Finals history occurred when LeBron James blocked Iguodala with only a few minutes to go. Although the game was tied at that point, Iguodala said that he knew at that point that they would lose the game.

One of my favorite chapters is the one called “Riding Home”. Here, Iguodala describes a game day from the 2017-18 season against the Milwaukee Bucks. So he was older and the end of his career was not far away. He recounts how the day went, which bones and muscles hurt (pretty much all of them), the shootaround and the game. What thoughts and feelings go through a player’s mind before and during the game and how the team prepares for one of the 82 games of the regular season. It’s an interesting insight into the inner workings of an NBA team.

In general, what comes across well in The Sixth Man is that Andre Iguodala is a very intelligent person who thinks a lot about basketball and life itself. It is not a book in which a few facts are simply strung together. You could just read the Wikipedia page about him for that. Instead, Iguodala always describes honestly how he sees things and how he perceived some situations.

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bookmark_borderThe Great Nowitzki

After Showboat by Roland Lazenby, The Great Nowitzki is the second book on this blog that I have read in my native language, German, rather than English. With the biography about Kobe, I had criticized this version somewhat, as the translation was poor in some places. There was no such problem here, as the author Thomas Pletzinger is German, just like Dirk Nowitzki, so I read the book in the original. I assume that the American translators know more about basketball and that the English translation is therefore just as good as the original.

The Great Nowitzki

It’s clear from the title and the paragraph above what this book is about. It’s about none other than Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki. However, The Great Nowitzki is not a typical biography, even if it does briefly cover Dirk’s childhood and youth. The focus here is on his NBA career. And on three points in particular: The playoffs and NBA finals in 2011, the game in which he completed the 30000 points and his last home game against Phoenix as well as his last NBA game ever in San Antonio.

Author Thomas Pletzinger used to be a basketball player himself and was not unsuccessful in his youth. He never made it as a professional, though. But his love of basketball remained. He then became a journalist and author. So he can write and understands basketball. Pletzinger also briefly inserts his own story and dreams as a basketball player at some points. I’ve read one or two reviews that criticized this. Personally, I had no problem with that at all. Quite the opposite. It conveys very well to the reader that the topic is very important to the author. In my opinion, this love of the sport came across very well in this book.

Pletzinger was originally supposed to write an article about Nowitzki for a magazine. This then developed into the idea for a book. Over the years, Pletzinger repeatedly spent time in Dallas and with Nowitzki (and also with Nowitzki’s coach, mentor and friend Holger Geschwindner). If you watch the clips of Dirk’s 30000 point game, you can recognize the author in the stands. He is bald and sits next to Geschwindner and Donnie Nelson.

The main purpose of this book was to answer the question of what Nowitzki means to the Mavericks and the city of Dallas. This has been achieved very well. His importance to the franchise and the city can hardly be overstated. There is an anecdote told here about when Dirk went to watch a Dallas Cowboys game. He drove into the parking lot and asked an employee where there were still free parking spaces. He replied “In this city, you can park everywhere, son”.

Otherwise, as I said, it’s mostly about the championship, the 30,000 points and the last two games in the NBA. It’s great for Mavericks and Dirk fans to relive those times in their mind’s eye. But I’m sure other NBA fans will also like this book because it’s really well written.

Although it’s one of my favorite basketball books, I didn’t include it in my list of Top 10 NBA books. Even though such a list is of course never objective, I am not neutral about this book. Dirk Nowitzki is my favorite player of all time, so naturally there is some emotion involved. But even if it doesn’t appear on this list, I can only recommend it.

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bookmark_borderLoose Balls

If you are a bit nitpicky, you could tell me that Loose Ball by Terry Pluto is out of place on this blog. After all, the name is NBA Books. And Loose Balls is a book about the ABA. But the ABA ist part of NBA history and you’ll learn a lot about the league that existed between 1967 and 1976 and then merged with the NBA. Loose Balls is also probably the funniest book about basketball I’ve ever read.

Loose Balls by Terry Pluto

Terry Pluto has structured the book somewhat differently than is normally the case. He gives a short introduction to each chapter and a slightly longer summary on each season over a few pages. Otherwise, he lets the protagonists of the ABA tell their story. That was a very good idea in my opinion. There are always sequences of quotes from former players, coaches, officials or journalists from the ABA days. These include popular names such as Julius Erving, Larry Brown, George Mikan, George McGinnis, Billy Cunningham and Rick Barry.

Pluto wrote the book in 1990, which is very good. Because back then, most of the protagonists were still alive and were able to tell their story. For example, George Mikan, who died in 2005 and was the first commissioner of the ABA. In some stories, Pluto asks himself whether they really happened. There are several versions of some stories, some of which contradict each other a bit. But this book contains everything the ABA guys wanted to tell.

As described above, some of the stories are very funny. For example, there is the story of Charlie „The Helicopter“ Hentz, who broke two backboards in the same game. Some say that they finished the game at 3AM at night, but according to basketball-reference, the teams ended the game with 67 seconds remaining. Then there’s the story of Marvin „Bad News“ Barnes. He refused to board a plane that, due to different time zones, should land at a time before taking off from the departure airport in the other time zone. Barnes said “I ain’t getting in no damn time machine.” and took a cab instead.

Another story is when hundreds of children were invited to a game and a mass brawl broke out on the court in front of all the children in the audience. If the stories are halfway true, there were a lot of brawls in the ABA and one player said that you had to show the referee your x-rays in order to get a free throw.

It’s probably fair to say that everything was a little less organized than it was with the big brother, the NBA. Games could not be played because the arena was occupied or the roof was leaking and it rained in. But these stories are what make the ABA so likeable in retrospect. What’s more, the league was downright revolutionary. It introduced the three-point line, which didn’t exist in the NBA at the time, and introduced the slam dunk contest in the All-Star Game. Four teams from the ABA still play in the NBA today: the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets (formerly New Jersey Nets, back then New York Nets).

I found the chapters on Julius Erving, probably the best player in the history of the ABA, very interesting. Dr. J is described in this book almost as a kind of mystical figure. When he was still playing in college, hardly anyone seemed to know him. He didn’t exactly come into the league with a lot of advance praise as a result and surprised a lot of people there with the way he played. His former ABA teammates describe Erving in his pre-NBA years as an outstanding athlete, comparable only to Michael Jordan.

Overall, the reader learns a lot about the history of the ABA. And the book is good for a laugh or two. As I said, I really liked the concept of letting the protagonists tell the story themselves. That’s why the book easily made it into my personal top 10.

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bookmark_borderWest By West

Jerry West wrote West by West with author Jonathan Coleman and the book was published in 2011. The subtitle of the book is “My Charmed, Tormented Life”. And this one is well chosen. West is one of the most successful people of all time when it comes to basketball. He was successful in high school and college, winning an Olympic gold medal before moving to the NBA, and NBA titles as a player and general manager. He helped to build several title teams. And yet, there is another side, as indicated by the “Tormented” in the subtitle.

Jerry West - West by West

This biography is one of the most honest and personal I’ve read. West describes his difficult childhood in West Virginia. His father was violent towards him and West kept a loaded shotgun in his room even as a child so he could use it to protect himself against his own father in extreme cases. His role model and ally was his older brother David. David West was killed in the Korean War when Jerry was 13 years old. The loss of his brother and the difficult and violent relationship with his father were the beginning of a decades-long depression that continues to recur and is his constant companion to this day (or at least until the time of this book’s publication).

What gave Jerry West strength as a child and teenager was basketball. He practiced and shot hoops for hours. In the process, he imagined game situations and opponents, playing against his own imagination so to speak. His talent was evident early on. He led his high school to a state championship and then stayed in his home state to attend college. Here he and his team reached the NCAA finals, where they narrowly lost to California by one point. Before moving to the NBA, he went to the Olympics in Rome with the U.S. team and won the gold medal there alongside his future NBA rival Oscar Robertson. That success probably means the most to him to this day, if I interpret his book correctly. The gold medal and his jersey from back then survived a fire and seem to be more or less the only memories of his basketball days that are really important to him.

In his private life, Jerry West’s relationship with his father and the early death of his brother have never left him. In basketball, it’s the losses to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. West, Elgin Baylor and the Lakers met Bill Russell and the Celtics six times in the Finals and lost all six games, sometimes in dramatic fashion. Legendary to this day are the 1969 Finals, Bill Russell’s final season. The Lakers lost in Game 7 by a two-point difference despite West’s triple double. West remains to this day the only player to be named Finals MVP as the player of the game who was defeated. An award that means nothing to him. He also describes in West by West how he won a car after the Finals series as the Finals MVP winner. The car was Celtics green. That probably did little to ease the trauma. He never got over the losses to the Cetlics and to this day wonders if he could have done more.

His time as general manager was marked by a great deal of success. He was in that position during the Showtime Lakers era with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley, and then later built the three-time championship team around Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. He also had success in Memphis, and the beginning of his time as a consultant to the Golden State Warriors marked the beginning of their triumphant run. West was considered successful at all levels of basketball, making him one of the sport’s greatest legends, and rightly so. He also talks a lot about his personal life in this book. How his marriage to his first wife failed and how his relationship with his family was not always easy (regardless of his father). When West’s statue was unveiled in front of the Lakers arena, his eldest son jokingly (but probably with some truth) thanked Bill Russell, who was present, for destroying his childhood.

For me personally (born in 1987), Jerry West is probably my favorite player of all time among the players I never saw play in person. I only know him from video clips and from reading, such as this book. And despite the losses in the NBA Finals as a player, I never thought of him as a loser, but quite the opposite, a big winner. I would wish for him to find inner peace and overcome his past traumas. But he addresses this point mainly at the end of the book. Inner peace is something he will probably never find, and perhaps this part of his personality is what has contributed to his success.

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bookmark_borderThe Jordan Rules

It shouldn’t be too hard for a basketball fan to guess what a book with the name “Jordan” in the title is about. After Playing for Keeps, The Jordan Rules is another book about Michael Jordan. In it, journalist Sam Smith describes the 1990-91 season from the perspective of the Chicago Bulls and their superstar.

The Jordan Rules

The book caused quite a stir at the time and was pretty controversial. Smith describes many internal details from the team’s inner workings and out of the locker room. For some of the information, it’s not entirely clear how the author got it. For example, conversations are described between people he couldn’t actually know anything about. Unlike 7 Seconds or Less by Jack McCallum, Smith did not follow the team and coaches around the clock. But he wasn’t just any random journalist either. Sam Smith worked for the Chicago Tribune, and from the late ’80s on, he focused exclusively on basketball and the Bulls. So he was at every game, talking to players and coaches, and was in the locker room for a while after games (like other journalists).

The title “The Jordan Rules” refers, first of all, to a series of defensive tactics used by the Detroit Pistons in games against the Bulls in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The Pistons, dubbed the Bad Boys for a reason, went especially hard against Jordan, doubling him frequently. Besides that, the title has another meaning. As Smith described, different rules applied to the superstar than to other players on the team, and Phil Jackson’s coaching staff let him get away with more. That alone, however, should not be unusual. The Bulls were and are not the only team where the star player enjoys a special treatment.

After the Bulls had always failed to beat the Pistons in the playoffs in previous years, Phil Jackson tried a different strategy this season. Instead of relying solely on Jordan’s outstanding individual performances, he tried to install the so-called Triangle Offense. The Triangle Offense was co-developed by Tex Winter. Winter had been an assistant coach with the Bulls since 1985 and would go on to win a number of titles with Jackson with the Bulls and later the Lakers. Smith describes Phil Jackson’s difficulties in convincing Jordan of the benefits of the new strategy in this book. The Triangle Offense (the name refers to triangles that players are supposed to form on the court) relies primarily on team-oriented and unselfish play, passing, and lots of movement. And Jordan didn’t necessarily trust his teammates.

The accounts of Jordan’s interactions with his teammates were also controversial. Nowadays, this seems more credible after watching “The Last Dance“. Jordan is said to have hit his teammate Will Perdue and to have deliberately given his teammates passes that were far too hard in order to show his coach that they could not be trusted. It is also described that general manager Jerry Krause was a favorite victim of Jordan’s jokes. This was also shown in the above mentioned documentary.

For other players, too, it was a tough season in personal terms. If you believe the book, no player was really happy. Scottie Pippen was already unhappy with his contract at the time, John Paxson and Bill Cartwright didn’t have contracts for the following season and didn’t feel Krause really wanted to keep them. Horace Grant was tired of being criticized by Jackson, and some players like B.J. Armstrong, Dennis Hopson, Stacey King and rookie Scott Williams were unhappy with their lack of playing time. In addition, some players were annoyed that Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf went to great lengths to convince Toni Kukoč to move from Europe to the NBA. Jordan, Pippen and Co. felt that management should instead take care of the contracts of deserving Bulls players.

With all these obstacles and internal problems, it seems almost unbelievable that the Bulls ended up playing a pretty dominant season and finally won the long-awaited title. After not only finally beating the Detroit Pistons in the Conference Finals, but even sweeping them, they won pretty clearly in five games against the Magic Johnson-led Lakers in the Finals. Jordan trusted his teammates more and more as the season progressed, and especially in the playoffs, and took over the game at crucial moments.

Whether everything, including the dialogues, really happened exactly as described in this book is open to question. I assume that the general tendency is correct, since some things have been confirmed since then regarding Jordan’s dealings with teammates, Pippen’s dissatisfaction or Jackson’s philosophies. Also, Sam Smith was close enough to the team to get a good overview. Overall, I found The Jordan Rules to be a very exciting book about the problems that even a great team can have during the season.

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bookmark_borderWhen the Game was Ours

I already briefly mentioned “When the Game was Ours” in the post on Drive by Larry Bird. Former ESPN journalist Jackie McMullan wrote this book in 2009 along with NBA legends Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. And, of course, the book about those two. Bird and Magic remain intrinsically linked to each other to this day, first as rivals, later as friends.

When the Game was Ours

Many older NBA fans know that Magic and Bird once faced each other before their NBA careers. Their college teams Michigan State (Magic) and Indiana State (Bird) played each other in the NCAA Finals in 1979. What many don’t know, however, is that the two future superstars first crossed paths the summer before, but as teammates at the time. Both were part of a selection of the best college players in the country, who competed in several exhibition games against youth selections from other countries. Magic and Bird tended to sit on the bench (along with Sydney Moncrief, who was also part of the selection and later went on to have a very good NBA career). The coach of the college selection was the coach of Kentucky and relied on his own players in the starting five. However, the Magic/Bird duo dominated the Kentucky players in practice and, by all accounts, provided some highlight plays. In the book, many of his companions from that time also have their say.

A year later, as mentioned, the two met in the NCAA Finals. Magic won the first of many matchups against Bird and Michigan State walked away victorious. The road to the championship game is described in detail. Also, that both players were on each other’s radar that season, tracking each other’s stats. Then in the NBA, Bird and Magic were anything but friends at first. That was more Bird’s fault, according to the book. While they had the utmost respect for each other, they didn’t really like each other. The fact that they both played for the big rivals, the Celtics and Lakers, respectively, wasn’t exactly helpful.

The relationship between the two superstars changed in September 1985, when they filmed a commercial for Converse sneakers together. Both agreed only with reluctance. Bird only on the condition that the film shooting would take place at his home in Indiana. Magic agreed anyway and set off. In French Lick, Indiana he was immediately cared for by Bird’s mother, who was a big basketball fan, and was treated to a big meal by her. Bird then showed Magic his basement and they both chatted about old times. In the process, they discovered that they have a lot more in common than they thought. While they are quite different characters, their childhoods, their paths to the NBA, and even their attitudes toward basketball were very similar. Both came from poor backgrounds and had to fight hard for every step up the ladder.

At this point, both had reached the peak of their respective careers. However, the rivalry was not to last as long as one would have thought at that point. Bird had increasingly severe back problems and was therefore limited. And Magic’s story is well known. He tested positive for HIV in the summer of 1991 and ended his career. At the time, not much was known about HIV or even AIDS, and the two were often lumped together. Bird and also some other companions like Pat Riley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Jerry West stuck unconditionally to Magic, while others handled the diagnosis less well. For example, the friendship between Magic and Isiah Thomas, who questioned Magic in public, broke down as a result. Magic sounds very disappointed at times in the book about the behavior of his former best friend.

Their basketball careers together ended exactly as they began in the summer of 1978: as teammates. Bird and Magic were part of the Dream Team that won the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992 with overwhelming superiority. There are some more details about that in this book. Public opinion tended to be that Isiah Thomas was not nominated for the Dream Team because of Michael Jordan. However, Magic tells the story that nobody wanted him on the team. Even he himself did not stand up for his former best friend and was afraid for the team chemistry. The rest of the book then revolves around their time after their active careers. For Bird, it was primarily his three years as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. Magic attempted two brief comebacks as a player and also served for a short time as Lakers head coach. Above all, however, he is active as a businessman and with his foundation, which revolves around HIV/AIDS.

When The Game was Ours is one of the best NBA books I’ve read to date. That’s mostly because Bird and Magic had a hand in this book, so it’s not just a retelling from an outsider. It’s also very honest in its details. Both legends make no secret of the fact that they didn’t like each other at first and it was a difficult road to a good relationship. Also, a lot of former teammates, coaches and other companions have their say.

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bookmark_borderMy 5 (or rather 6) best NBA books so far

So far I have talked about ten NBA books in this blog. Therefore, I think it was a good idea to have a small interim conclusion and list my 5 best NBA books so far (it became 6 in the end, because I could not decide). It was not easy at all to make such a ranking. Among the books I’ve read so far, there was not one that I thought was bad. Nevertheless, I liked some of them better than others. So here we go.

1. The Breaks of the Game (David Halberstam)

The Breaks of the Game was the first book I wrote about on this blog, and it comes in at #1 here as well. Bill Simmons, who is at #2 here, agrees with me by the way. He calls David Halberstam’s book the best basketball book ever.

Since I am very interested in the history of the NBA, I particularly liked this book. On the surface, it is primarily about the 1979-80 season of the Portland Trail Blazers, but overall it is about much more. Halberstam also describes the history of the Blazers franchise and that of the NBA as a whole.

In particular, the strained relationship between the Blazers and their former superstar Bill Walton is talked about in detail, even if that happened before that season. But as I said, it’s about much more than a single season.

2. The Book of Basketball (Bill Simmons)

As mentioned above, Bill Simmons comes in at #2 with his The Book of Basketball. It’s something of a bible among NBA books and doesn’t cover a specific topic, but covers the NBA itself.

What I particularly liked was Simmons’ ranking of what he considers to be the best players of all time. It has to be noted that the book was published in 2010, so this ranking is not up to date. But it was still very interesting to learn more about the best of the best.

Bill Simmons’ humor also comes across very well here. Those who know his podcasts will find the same humor here. I would not recommend the book to those who have problems with footnotes, though. There are a lot of them here.

3 Playing for Keeps (David Halberstam)

David Halberstam doesn’t just rank at number 1 here, but also at number 3, which already shows that the author has convinced me a lot.

Playing for Keeps is a biography about the arguably best player of all time: Michael Jordan. The book is especially interesting because it does not only list the known steps of Michael Jordan’s career. It also deals with the time before the NBA, i.e. how a young kid from North Carolina became the best basketball player in the world. The early days in the NBA, before all the titles and accomplishments, are also covered in detail.

The book is also a good addition to the documentary The Last Dance. Many of the same topics are covered, but from a different angle. Halberstam writes just as well here as he did in The Breaks of the Game.

4. The Soul of Basketball (Ian Thomsen)

While it’s a personal ranking and therefore not objective, #4 is perhaps the least objective. As a big fan of Dirk Nowitzki, what I found most appealing about The Soul of Basketball was that it centers around the 2010-2011 season. In that season, Dirk and his Mavericks finally won the long-awaited title.

But also otherwise the book is very exciting and it is by far not only about the Dallas Mavericks. The Miami Heat and LeBron James, the San Antonio Spurs and the Boston Celtics also play a prominent role. In addition, the role of the NBA’s referees is examined in more detail. The book was also good because many NBA legends had their say, including Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Pat Riley. Ian Thomsen has a very good writing style and also is good for a laugh every now and then.

5a. Life on the Run (Bill Bradley)

Life on the Run was interesting mainly because it was written by an active player (at the time). Bill Bradley describes the course of a season with the New York Knicks.

The contrast between the 1970s and today is particularly interesting. The team flew to away games on normal scheduled flights and everything else was less luxurious. What Bradley describes here is not simply basketball itself, but team life and the life of a NBA athlete outside of basketball.

Bradley also tells the stories of his teammates. This is very interesting to learn more about the Knicks of the 70s. The 70’s is a somewhat forgotten and in my opinion underrated decade as far as basketball goes. This book helps to learn more about the era after Russell and Wilt, but before Magic and Bird.

5b. Seven Seconds or Less (Jack McCallum)

Since I couldn’t really make up my mind, there are two 5th place finishes in this ranking of the (so far) best NBA books. The other one is Jack McCallum’s book Seven Seconds or Less. If you were watching NBA at the time, you’ll probably know what this title is about. It’s about the Phoenix Suns of the Nash, Stoudemire, D’Antoni and Marion era.

McCallum covered the Suns for the entire 2005-06 season for this book, and while Life on the Run takes a look at the inner workings of an NBA team in the ’70s, Seven Seconds or Less primarily highlights the inner workings of a coaching staff in the more modern NBA. McCallum spent a lot of time with the coaching staff of Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry.

The book is very nicely and interestingly written and is not just about obvious things that everyone knows about. You also get to know the characters of the individual players and coaches better.

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bookmark_borderThe Soul Of Basketball

“The Soul of Basketball” by NBA journalist Ian Thomsen was published in 2018 and tells the story of the 2010-11 season. For a German basketball fan like me, this season is of course a very special one, as Dirk Nowitzki finally lead his Dallas Mavericks to the long-awaited title. But the book is more than just the story of a single NBA year, and doesn’t just focus on the beaming winner from Dallas and the Miami Heat, who lost in the Finals.

The Soul of Basketball

The cover of the book shows LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Doc Rivers and Dirk Nowitzki. And these four people are also four of the main characters in the book, though far from the only ones. Thomsen divides the book into different narrative threads: LeBron James’ move to the Miami Heat and the first season of the “Big Three” (LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh) in Miami, the Dallas Mavericks’ path to a title, Kobe Bryant’s attempt to win his sixth title and Phil Jackson’s final season as coach of the Lakers, the dreams of another title and the problems of the aging Boston Celtics, the San Antonio Spurs’ philosophy around Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, the NBA’s road to the lockout before the 2011-12 season, the lives of NBA referees, and some other smaller stories.

The book begins with the hot topic of the summer of 2010, the free agency of LeBron James and “The Decision”, when he announced his move to the Miami Heat live on TV. The author, like many others, criticizes the way this happened. Especially the TV show, not informing the Cleveland Cavaliers in advance and the introduction of the “Big Three” to Miami, where some phrases were uttered that did not make the Heat rise in the popularity scale among NBA fans outside Miami. It’s a bit of a shame that LeBron wasn’t available for an interview for this book to give his perspective. But the following people have their say: Pat Riley, Larry Bird, Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Isiah Thomas, Joey Crawford, Holger Geschwindner (Nowitzki’s coach and mentor) and many others. Especially Bird, Doc and Crawford provide some laughs. A little tip on the side: If you have a problem with swearing, you might not want to read this book.

Ian Thomsen starts with “The Decision” but goes back in time again and again to explain how this and that happened. For example, there is a detailed description of how the Spurs became five-time champions under Gregg Popovich, how Dirk Nowitzki rose from a completely unknown German to an NBA superstar, but (until the season described in this book) kept failing with the Mavericks. How he and Geschwindner train together and what Geschwindner’s philosophy is. How the other “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came together to help the Celtics win their first title since the Larry Bird era. How Kobe and Shaq won three titles together, then fell out, how Kobe had to deal with mediocre Lakers teams until he was finally joined by another star in Pau Gasol and won two more titles.

At the end, of course, Thomsen describes the NBA Finals between Dallas and Miami. As a Dirk fan, I can only say that he has succeeded very well. The atmosphere at that time is described very well and many fond memories come up again. The subtitle of the book is “The epic showdown between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, and Dirk that saved the NBA”. I dare not judge whether this season saved the NBA. But it was definitely an extremely eventful and very important season for many characters. The book is very well written and is not afraid to express controversial opinions.

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