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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bookmark_borderShowboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant

Veteran sportswriter and book author Roland Lazenby wrote this Kobe Bryant biography in 2016. This was after Kobe’s NBA career ended and before he died. In my edition however, there is also a small obituary by the author in the back. It was added a few weeks after Kobe’s death.

Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant

“Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant” is the first book on this blog that I have read in German, which is my native language. And in doing so, I realized why I otherwise prefer to read books about the NBA in the original language. As a basketball fan, you notice at one point or another that the translator has little or no idea about basketball and uses terms that sometimes make you wonder. But that is not so important here. Even though they may have translated some words incorrectly, the content is the same. “Showboat” is a nickname Shaquille O’Neal gave Kobe during their time together with the Lakers. A nickname Kobe didn’t like at all.

Focus on Kobe’s childhood

Showboat is more or less a typical biography, but there are some quite interesting differences. In many other biographies, the life before the career (childhood, beginnings in sports, …) is treated rather briefly. The focus is clearly on the professional career. Here it is almost the other way around. The book even starts before Kobe’s birth – with the story of his father.

Joe Bryant – nicknamed Jellybean – also played in the NBA for a number of years in the 1970s and 1980s. Most notable was his time with the 76ers in his hometown of Philadelphia. I found this part of the book interesting to read. I was aware that Joe Bryant was also an NBA pro. However I didn’t know much more about him beforehand. The author describes him here almost as a mythical figure of sorts. As a player who was way ahead of his time. Although he had the size of a center, he played more like a guard, bringing the ball up  and shooting from outside. What is no longer a big surprise in today’s NBA was probably too much of a good thing for some people back then.

Later, Joe Bryant played professionally for several years in Italy, where Kobe and his sisters grew up. Here the focus of the book shifts more and more to Kobe. He is described as a very strong-willed, ambitious and self-confident (some would say arrogant) player even as a child. He would spend hours with his father studying videotapes of NBA players such as Magic Johnson. And would also practice against his father 1-on-1. After the Bryants returned to the U.S., Kobe was considered a bit of an outsider due to his childhood in Europe, and somewhat of a stranger in his own country. He was not to really shed his outsider status during his professional career.

A sometimes troubling but successful time with the Lakers

As far as Kobe’s professional career is concerned, the focus is on his first years with the Lakers. The problems with Shaq and Phil Jackson, who nevertheless managed to win three titles together, and the messy stories from his private life (rape allegations and the long trial, a problematic relationship  with his own family). Even for someone who followed the NBA back then, it was surprising to read how bad the relationship was between Kobe and the rest of the team and especially with coach Phil Jackson. In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how Kobe and Jackson were able to get back together and win more titles after the coach returned to the Lakers.

Lazenby describes the second part of Kobe’s career rather quickly. I had the feeling that the publisher set Lazenby a limit to the number of pages. So he had to make it rather short. The two titles together with Pau Gasol, the end of an era against the Mavs in 2011, the Achilles tendon rupture, the difficult last years and the 60 points in the last game of his career read well in one go.

However, I thought the focus on Kobe’s childhood and youth, his beginnings in basketball, and his early NBA years was right on for a Kobe Bryant biography. With a person like Kobe Bryant, there’s not much left to read about regarding his active playing career that you haven’t already read somewhere. And if the focus had been on that, it might have been more of a dry stringing together of facts. I find the question “How did Kobe become Kobe?” much more interesting.

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