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_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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