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.

Buy Playing for Keeps at Amazon


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.

Get The Breaks of the Game at Amazon