bookmark_borderDream Team

After 7 Seconds or Less, Dream Team is the second book by journalist Jack McCallum that I’m featuring on this blog.

Dream Team by Jack McCallum

It’s probably not particularly hard to guess what a basketball book called Dream Team is about. The term Dream Team is used in the world of sports at times – and sometimes outside of it – but it is inextricably linked to the team that the United States sent to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Many today still consider this collection of great individual players to be the best sports team ever.

But Jack McCallum describes the actual basketball tournament of the Barcelona Olympics in only a few chapters here. And why should he? The story is quickly told. The U.S. team dominated the tournament at will, the closest game being the final for gold against Croatia – which the United States won by 32 points. Much more exciting was the story of how the Dream Team came to be, which McCallum describes in detail in the first chapters. As recently as the 1988 Olympics, no professionals were allowed to compete. While some European teams got around this by giving players fake jobs so that they were considered amateurs (sometimes despite six- or seven-figure salaries from their clubs). For NBA professionals, however, this door was closed. Until 1992, the US had competed with college players. Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, for example, won the gold medal in 1984 before going to the NBA.

Even the selection of the athletes was controversial. To this day (for example in the Netflix documentary “The Last Dance”), there is debate about why Isiah Thomas was not part of the team. The book gives a clear answer to this: Michael Jordan made a non-invitation of Isiah early on a condition for his own participation. But Thomas had no advocates among the other players either. When John Stockton was injured in preparation for Barcelona and threatened to be sidelined, there was brief consideration of choosing another player in his place. According to McCallum however, Dream Team coach Chuck Daly (who won two titles with Isiah as coach of the Detroit Pistons) would have opted for Joe Dumars – also a Pistons player – in this case.

The author also goes into detail about Magic Johnson’s participation. Magic had announced only a year earlier at a press conference that he had tested positive for HIV and would have to end his active career. The expectation in the sports world at the time was that he didn’t have long to live. Still, there was never really any question whether Magic would participate in the Barcelona Olympics. While a possible return to the NBA before the 1992-93 season was discussed much more controversially (by Karl Malone, among others) and ultimately had to be cancelled, the Lakers star had the backing of his teammates here. Magic’s former archrival and later friend, Larry Bird, also went to Barcelona despite severe back problems and pain that subsequently ended his career.

A highlight of the book is a detailed description of a practice game that took place before the start of the Olympic tournament. This game is a true myth in NBA circles and was described by participants as the best game they had ever attended. Since no press was allowed, there is only one video of this game (The caption of the chapter is “The Greatest Game That Nobody Ever Saw”), which was provided to Jack McCallum by Chuck Daly’s video coordinator. In this game, Team Jordan (Jordan, Malone, Ewing, Pippen, Bird) won against Team Magic (Magic, Barkley, Robinson, Mullin, Laettner). The author describes the game and especially the trash talk between Jordan and Magic very accurately and even provides a box score at the end.

As I said, there was little to report from the games during the tournament itself, but there are some nice anecdotes. Jordan spent the night before the final game playing cards, shot a video for the NBA in the morning without sleep, played 18 rounds of golf before the gold medal game and then scored 22 points against Croatia. There are also some very funny anecdotes about Barkley, when he repeatedly drove the security service up the wall by escaping from them and wandering alone through Barcelona’s nightlife. McCallum knows these stories not just from hearsay. He was there himself in Barcelona and during the preparations in Monte Carlo, even staying in the same hotel as the players and playing golf with some of them in his spare time.

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bookmark_borderPlaying for Keeps

The Jordan biography “Playing for Keeps” is the second NBA book by author David Halberstam, which I present on this blog. The first one was The Breaks of the Game. And Playing for Keeps is as good as Breaks of the Game.

Playing for Keeps

Halberstam wrote Playing for Keeps after the 1997-98 season – Jordan’s last for the Chicago Bulls. That timing evokes some associations, as the 2020 ESPN/Netflix documentary “The Last Dance” also tells the story of that season. And if you start reading the book, you’ll feel directly reminded of The Last Dance. Playing for Keeps, like the documentary, starts in Paris as the Bulls participate in a tournament in Europe before the NBA season begins. And Halberstam also describes early on the differences between the team and Coach Phil Jackson on one side, and General Manager Jerry Krause and Owner Jerry Reinsdorf on the other. Scottie Pippen was chronically underpaid as one of the league’s best players, Jordan tied his future to Jackson’s future, and Krause felt that his accomplishments were not appreciated enough.

Like the documentary however, Playing for Keeps is more than the story of one season. Halberstam here chronicles the steep rise of a young Michael Jordan, his beginnings in high school, his three years in college at North Carolina, his individually outstanding but nonetheless disappointing start in Chicago, and his rise to GOAT status. And it also is more than the story of one player. Although it’s a biography and Michael Jordan is the main character, you also learn a lot about Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause.

It is interesting to see the contrast between North Carolina and the early days of the Bulls. Here it becomes clear what high status college sports have in the USA (this is probably obvious for Americans, but for Europeans like me it can be quite surprising) and what low status basketball had in Chicago at that time. Jordan made his mark on the NBA right from the start, but the Bulls were a mess at the time, pretty much the opposite of Dean Smith’s team in North Carolina.

What followed were the years in which the Bulls regularly failed to beat the Detroit Pistons. David Halberstam also describes the rise of the “Bad Boys” to two-time NBA champions in great detail and in an exciting way. After the archrival was defeated in the playoffs for the first time, however, the Bulls’ rise to dynasty knew only one direction. In three consecutive years, the Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns (with Charles Barkley) were defeated in the Finals. Jordan and the Bulls had reached the peak of their game.

With the rise, however, came not only athletic success, but Jordan’s rise to perhaps one of the most famous persons in the world. Jordan was in the public eye like few other people and at the same time tried to escape it. This, the death of his father in the summer of 1993, and mental exhaustion after three titles and a summer with the Dream Team in 1992 led Jordan to hang up his shoes for the time being at the peak and devote himself to his first great love: baseball.

The rest is history. Jordan returned after a little less than two years and won three more titles with the Bulls. Halberstam also describes the conclusion of this outstanding career – Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz – from the perspective of many longtime companions: Jordan’s high school friend Leroy Smith, his college teammate and roommate Buzz Peterson, or his “Dream Team” coach Chuck Daly. At the time, Halberstam could not have known that Jordan would once again lace up his sneakers for the Washington Wizards.

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bookmark_borderThinking Basketball

Thinking Basketball is a book for basketball and analytics nerds, but especially for people who like to think outside the box and question prevailing narratives. It’s unlikely that you’ll read this book without having at least a few aha moments.

Thinking Basketball by Ben Taylor

Ben Taylor has an interesting background and is not your typical basketball journalist. In addition to his passion for basketball and numbers, he has a degree in Cognitive Science, which can be described as a combination of several disciplines (including neuroscience and psychology). He combines these interests by questioning typical thought patterns in the field of basketball.

An indication that Taylor sees the sport from a different angle is also provided by a look at the Bibliography at the end of the book. Only two basketball books are listed there: The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons and “Wilt: Larger than Life,” a biography of Wilt Chamberlain by R.A. Cherry. The rest are works by authors such as Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, among others, who conducted research on behavioral economics topics.

Examples of narratives that Taylor questions include:

  • If a player takes a lot of shots and makes them efficiently, he should shoot even more often
  • The game is decided in crunch time
  • Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994, Tim Duncan in 2003 or Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 led average teams – without help from other stars – to the title virtually single-handedly.
  • Karl Malone disappeared in crucial moments, while Michael Jordan was virtually invincible in such moments.

Many of these points have been heard relatively often among NBA fans and journalists, without questioning them further. Ben Taylor questions them in this book and comes to one or the other surprising result. He collects facts and figures and evaluates them systematically to expose common errors in thinking or at least to show that it is not quite as simple as it seems at first glance.

Another question Taylor tries to answer is whether a best-of-7 series is enough to determine that one team is better than the other. Since, after all, there used to be best-of-5 series in the NBA – and this is being discussed again today to lighten the load somewhat – it stands to reason that (at most) 7 games should be enough to answer this question. Ben Taylor argues here that this is not so.

After reading Thinking Basketball, you’ll probably follow the sport a little differently than you did before. After the first look at last night’s box score, one will be less quick to draw conclusions. You’re more likely to question judgments about individual players or entire teams. For those who are interested in more about such topics after reading the book, I can also recommend Ben Taylor’s podcast of the same name.

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bookmark_borderLife on the Run

Bill Bradley played for the New York Knicks from 1967 to 1977 and won two titles there. In “Life on the Run,” he provides insights into the inner workings of one of the most successful teams of the 1970s.

Life on the Run by Bill Bradley

Although the book was written by an active player, it is not an autobiography. Bill Bradley does writ eabout his own history, but this takes up only a small part of the book. Rather, “Life on the Run” is an account of the daily life of an NBA team in the 1970s. The author describes a span of a few weeks during the 1973-74 season. The title alludes to the hectic life of a professional player, the many flights, arriving at hotels in the middle of the night or early in the morning, frantically eating meals and training sessions.

It’s interesting to read how different the life of an NBA pro was back then. While the league has existed since 1946, some fans don’t consider the “true” start of the modern NBA until the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (and later Michael Jordan). The 70s, on the other hand, are considered somewhat of a forgotten decade as far as the sport of basketball is concerned. These differences are evident, for example, in flights between different NBA cities. The Knicks’ players used normal scheduled flights and were sometimes not even recognized or mistaken for a circus troupe.

“Life on the Run” is nonetheless more than a matter-of-fact description of a season. Just like David Halberstam in The Breaks of the Game, Bradley uses various passages here to introduce his teammates and tell their stories. In addition to the star players Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, as well as Bradley’s friend and roommate Dave DeBusschere, Phil Jackson, who would later win 11 titles as coach of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers, played there, among others. But the most interesting personality is Jerry Lucas, who seemed to have almost a photographic memory and a fascination with numbers of all kinds.

In the article on Drive by Larry Bird, I wrote that Bird probably didn’t want to piss other people off while he was still active. Bradley was still active when Life on the Run came out, but it’s a bit more polarizing than Drive. For example, Bradley is relatively vocal in his criticism of Wilt Chamberlain. While he praises his individual abilities, which were beyond reproach, he also describes how Wilt’s focus on personal statistics often came at the expense of team success. Bradley is full of praise for Wilt’s big rival Bill Russell, whom he sees as the ultimate winner.

Bill Simmons ranks “Life on the Run” in the highest category for basketball books (Influential Must-Reads) in his book The Book of Basketball. The praise for Russell and criticism of Chamberlain likely played a role in this. Simmons quotes passages from this book in the chapter on Russell and Wilt. However, I can definitely understand this classification. Bill Bradley has written a really good book here that even more than 40 years later is still very interesting to read if you are interested in the history of the NBA.

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bookmark_border7 Seconds or Less

Jack McCallum, who writes for Sports Illustrated, covered the Phoenix Suns for the entire 2005-06 NBA season for this book. The veteran reporter first accompanied the team in the preseason to write an article for his employer. This led to the idea of covering the Suns for the entire season and writing about the experience in a book. The title “:07 Seconds or Less” refers to the offensive tactics Mike D’Antoni installed with his point guard Steve Nash. D’Antoni believed that the chances of scoring were highest within the first 7 seconds of the shot clock, before the opposing defense had a chance to properly take their positions.

NBA Books - 7 Seconds or Less

McCallum especially spent a lot of time with the coaches, which provides interesting insight into the inner workings of an NBA coaching staff. He was present at important meetings and therefore almost like a part of the coaching staff. Above all, the different responsibilities and characters are described. Marc Iavaroni, who won a title as a player with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983, was responsible for the defensive strategies of the offensive-minded team. Alvin Gentry brought long-term experience as a head coach in the NBA (and would also take over the Suns as head coach himself in 2009). Phil Weber was known not only for his boundless optimism and philosophical streak, but also for his girlfriends who made even Suns players green with envy. Dan D’Antoni, Mike’s older brother, previously coached in high school for decades and brought a view from outside the NBA.

The book focuses for the most part on the playoffs of that season. Each game in each series usually has its own chapter devoted to it. In the first round, they faced the Lakers with their lone star, Kobe Bryant. Although the Suns went into this series as favorites, they were already on the verge of an early playoff exit at 1-3. However, Raja Bell, who engaged in a feud with Kobe and defended him superbly, and his teammates turned the series around with three straight wins.

The regular season is covered in small intermediate chapters. For example, the focus here is on Amar’e Stoudemire, who had knee surgery just before the season began and only made three games before sitting out for good. His rehab and work ethic caused some frustration among teammates and coaches. It also details the past of some players, particularly leader and two-time MVP Steve Nash. Shawn Marion felt chronically underappreciated and let that come through repeatedly throughout the book. A secret star of the book is Eddie House, who is always good for laughs with his sometimes crude lines.

Afterwards they were able to defeat the other team from LA, the Clippers, in the second round, also in seven games. But exhaustion was a problem more and more. You can learn more about Nash’s physical problems in this book. The Conference Finals were against the Dallas Mavericks, Nash’s former team led by his buddy Dirk Nowitzki. After the first games of the series were close, the Suns’ physical and mental exhaustion became more and more noticeable. The Mavs advanced to the Finals, where they were to play a series that still leaves Mavs fans feeling uneasy 15 years later.

The book is especially interesting because it is very frank about the inner workings of an NBA team. McCallum also does not hide criticism and Shawn Marion is said to have been not too responsive to the author after this book. As an NBA fan, you usually only see the games and, if necessary, interviews in which players and coaches are mainly concerned with not saying anything controversial. You rarely get that kind of insight, and I kept noticing how I sympathized with this Suns team and coaching staff after the fact. Unfortunately, with D’Antoni, Gentry, Nash, Stoudemire and Marion, it was never going to be enough to win a title, but these teams shaped the NBA with their style of play like no other team at that time.

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Larry Bird – with the help noted Boston journalist and author Bob Ryan – wrote this book while he was still active. Since Bird missed most of the 1988-89 season due to injury, he had time to try out his literary skills.

Although a few chapters were added to Larry Bird’s career after the book was published (for example, his experiences with the 1992 Dream Team were still in the future at the time), this is a typical biography. It starts in Bird’s childhood and tells his first experiences with basketball and the steep rise in his youth. The early chapters are interesting and tell a lot about the problems and difficulties Bird and his family had to leave behind. Bird and his siblings grew up in poor circumstances and had to change homes frequently, sometimes living with their grandmother. The father committed suicide before Larry Bird played in his first game in the NBA.

The process of how Larry Bird came to the Boston Celtics in the first place is also interesting to read. He was drafted by them back in 1978 and decided to play one more year in college. The Celtics’ legendary general manager (and former title coach) Red Auerbach certainly took a risk here, as Bird could have re-entered the 1979 NBA draft, leaving the Celtics empty-handed. The contract negotiations before the 1979-80 season also turned out to be difficult and dragged on for a long time. Eventually however, Red Auerbach and Bird’s agent Bob Woolf were able to agree on a contract that satisfied both sides.

Despite some problems in the beginning, the relationship between Larry Bird and the Celtics was a success story from the start. In his rookie season, the Celtics won 32 more games than they had the previous season. Bird was named Rookie of the Year, well ahead of his rival and later friend Magic Johnson, and led his team to the Conference Finals, where they were defeated by the Philadelphia 76ers in five games. The Celtics won the title in just his second season. Prior to this title season, Boston drafted forward Kevin McHale and traded for center Robert Parish. The congenial trio shaped the franchise over the years and is still considered one of the best trios ever to stand on a basketball court.

What I would have liked to read more about was his relationship with Magic Johnson. The two rivals, who met on a big stage in the NCAA Finals before the NBA, later became friends after some bitter battles. Bird has few words about this, however. For those interested, check out Jackie MacMullan’s very good book When the Game Was Ours.

Bill Simmons, in his book The Book of Basketball, has a list of books he has read in the back appendix. He divides these into categories from “Influential Must-Reads” to “Not particularly helpful”. Drive he lists there in the “Helpful, not a total waste of time” category. One isn’t quite sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing at this point. Simmons, a longtime Celtics fan, is likely to have learned relatively little in this book that he didn’t already know about Bird.

Overall, the book is very interesting for basketball fans who would like to learn more about the history of Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics, and the NBA of the 1980s. However, it is not a must-read. It is written relatively soberly and does not polarize. You can tell that at this point – still during his active career – Bird didn’t want to piss people off. Maybe that would have looked a little different after his career, after all Bird was considered one of the biggest “trash talkers” in the league.

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bookmark_borderThe Book of Basketball

I had already briefly mentioned The Book of Basketball in the last (and first) blog post about The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. Bill Simmons should be a household to most basketball fans around the world, be it because of this book or because of his podcast.

The book – at least the edition I own – is more than 700 pages long and probably contains at least as many footnotes. If you’ve listened to Bill Simmons’ podcast before, you’ll find his typical storytelling and humor here as well.

In the beginning Simmons tries to answer the question of whether Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain was the better player. Simmons is a self-confessed Celtics fan and has never made a secret of it. So it’s fair to ask whether he can even answer that question objectively. His Celtics fandom comes through here and there, and it’s not surprising that his verdict is clearly in favor of Russell. For all his commitment to Russell and the Celtics, however, he is able to justify this argumentatively. Wilt doesn’t come off too well in many places here. However, this does not only apply to him in The Book of Basketball.

After Russell and Wilt, there is a little NBA history lesson. Bill Simmons spans from the beginnings of the NBA to the league as it is today – although this is no longer current, as this edition of the book was published in 2010. This fact is interesting at some points throughout the book, for example when Simmons describes Dirk Nowitzki, who was still considered a loser at the time. A year after the book was published, he led his Dallas Mavericks to the first title in franchise history.

In another chapter, Simmons has a list of records that he considered more or less eternal. Two of them have since been broken. The Golden State Warriors won 73 games in the 2015-16 season, though Simmons didn’t imagine in 2010 that the then valid Chicago Bulls record (72 games in the 1995-96 season) would ever be broken. He also thought George McGinnis’ record of 422 turnovers in a season – then still in the ABA – was reasonably safe at the time, but James Harden, who had 464 turnovers in the 2016/17 season, had other plans. Russell Westbrook also had more than McGinnis in the same season with 438 turnovers.

Simmons then plays his popular “What-If Game.” Here he asks the question of whether and how the history of the NBA would have been different if a certain event had not occurred (or if it had occurred). He lists these what-ifs in order of importance. There are some classics here – for example, the now-famous 1984 NBA draft is addressed, in which the Portland Trail Blazers could have selected a certain Michael Jordan with the second pick, but chose center Sam Bowie instead.

After a shorter chapter on MVP trophies, which Simmons says were dubious to ridiculous, comes the main part of the book, which begins with the chapter “The Hall of Fame Pyramid.” Here Bill Simmons first addresses what changes he would like to make to the Hall of Fame. He then ranks – in descending order – what he considers to be the best NBA players of all time. He goes into such detail about each player that as a reader you can learn quite a bit about the history of the NBA and its greatest stars. This ranking list alone takes up pages 287 to 626, which shows how much effort and research Simmons put into this. Again, it should be noted that the book came out in 2010 and a lot has changed since then. LeBron James, who had not won a title at that time, finds himself ranked 20th here. Today, he is considered by most experts to be one of the top two or three NBA players of all time.

Simmons then wraps up this long book by ranking the best teams of all time and putting together a team he would pick to take on a team of aliens and save the world in the process.

The Book of Basketball is also sometimes referred to as the Bible of NBA books. Not without reason, in my opinion. So much information and so much background knowledge about the history of the NBA would otherwise have to be gathered in days of work in the depths of the Internet. I also found the humor (especially in the countless footnotes) very appealing.

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bookmark_borderThe Breaks of the Game

Anyone who has read The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons has already become aware of The Breaks of the Game there. Simmons, who wrote the foreword in this edition of Halberstam’s book, called it the best basketball book of all time.

The Breaks of the Game

The book is about the 1979/80 season of the Portland Trail Blazers. That Halberstam chose that season may seem a bit odd at first glance. After all, the Blazers had already won the NBA title in 1977 and Bill Walton had already left for the San Diego Clippers in 1979. The Breaks of the Game however, is much more than the story of one season. Halberstam tells the story of the Portland Trail Blazers here and the story of the NBA as a whole. He always managed to find connections to the 1979/80 season and used them to derive little stories about the history of an entire sport.

Halberstam also uses his book for short biographies of individual players. Not only Bill Walton or Jack Ramsay are given a closer look, but also role players like Kermit Washington. Washington was associated at the time (and still is) primarily with a situation that permanently destroyed his reputation. On December 9, 1977, while still playing for the Lakers, he struck down his opponent Rudy Tomjanovich (who won two titles as head coach of the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995) with a fist punch. Tomjanovich suffered such serious injuries that his life was in danger at times. Kermit Washington was considered a persona non grata in the NBA after that and slowly tried to straighten out his reputation. Halberstam shows a different side of Kermit Washington in “Breaks of the Game.” He describes him as a shy and sensitive young man, a stark contrast to his public image.

An important part of the book describes the end of the relationship between the Trail Blazers and their former superstar Bill Walton. Walton could have gone down in NBA history as one of the all-time greats if his body had not failed him. In his third NBA season, he won the title with the Blazers and was voted Finals MVP. A season later, despite already sitting out more than 20 games due to injury, he was voted regular-season MVP. His two All-Star nominations would unfortunately remain his last. In the period from the end of the 1977-78 season to the 1982-83 season, he made, in more than four years, only 14 games in the NBA. “The Breaks of the Game” is also the tragic story of one of the most talented players of all time, whose body was not made for the sport at that level. The breakup between Walton and the Trail Blazers was very painful; today it might be called a “mud fight.”

Halberstam also describes the sometimes strained relationship between former teammates and good friends Walton and Maurice Lucas after the split. Walton named his son Luke (who was an NBA player himself and later became head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings) after Maurice Lucas, who was only called Luke by his teammates.

Whether Breaks of the Game is the best basketball book of all time, as Bill Simmons wrote, is hard for me to judge. Simmons has probably read way more basketball books than me. But I can appreciate that assessment. For me it’s also the best NBA book I have read so far. This is not just a book about one season and one team, but much more. The individual character sketches are beautifully written and the historical background is very interesting.

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