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.

Get When the Game was Ours at Amazon

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.