bookmark_borderTip Off by Filip Bondy

Today’s blog article is once again about the history of the NBA. More specifically, one of the most famous and most discussed events in NBA history, the 1984 draft. This is often referred to as the best draft of all time and Filip Bondy took a look behind the scenes with “Tip Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever”. The subtitle is very fitting, as some of the players in the 1984 draft class did indeed change the future of their franchises and the NBA forever.

Tip Off by Filip Bondy

Tip off focuses on six players from the Draft

The book focuses on six sub-narratives, or six different players: the four future (from a 1984 perspective) superstars Hakeem Olajuwon (#1 pick), Michael Jordan (#3), Charles Barkley (#5) and John Stockton (#16). Also the fourth pick, Sam Perkins, who never became an All-Star, but can look back on a very good NBA career with well over 1000 games. And last but not least, the somewhat tragic figure of the draft, Sam Bowie, who will forever be known as the player the Portland Trail Blazers selected at #2 instead of Michael Jordan.

A big part of the book is the development of the six players before the draft, especially their time in college. For me personally, these stories were very interesting because as a non-American I don’t know much about college sports and mainly follow the NBA. In this book, however, I was able to learn a lot about the individual colleges in the 80s and coaches like Dean Smith or Bob Knight.

You then learn more about the players’ rookie seasons and how they settled in with their teams. In particular, Barkley’s problems with the 76ers’ renowned but ageing team are described. Stockton also came off the bench at first and the Rockets had the problem of getting Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson on the court together.

Bowie over Jordan

The author did a good job of describing the Blazers’ reasoning for selecting Bowie over Jordan. While this is a disastrous decision from today’s perspective, no one could have known at the time that Jordan would become the best player of all time. One exception is Charles Barkley, who claims to have been the only one who knew it back then. Bowie himself also has his say in the book. He makes a very satisfied impression and seems to be at peace with himself and the world. It should not be forgotten that Bowie also showed very good promise in the NBA, but was repeatedly set back by serious injuries. The author also rightly points out that the Blazers drafted Jerome Kersey with the 46th pick in the same draft, Clyde Drexler with pick 14 the year before and Terry Porter at 24 the year after. All of these are very good steals, but they are forgotten because of the Bowie/Jordan decision.

One criticism is that there are minor errors in the book in some places. For example, at the beginning of the book Charles Thomas is correctly referred to as the owner of the Houston Rockets, but just a few sentences later Ray Patterson (who was the general manager) is the owner. At another point, the book refers to the Virginia Cavaliers college team, who are shortly afterwards referred to as Cleveland (who are also called the Cavaliers). However, I am happy to forgive such minor errors if the content of the book is otherwise good, and that is the case here.

Overall, Filip Bondy’s Tip Off is a very good historical account of arguably the most famous draft of all time. You learn more about the six players and also some surprising things (Michael Jordan in tears after being criticized by coach Bob Knight at the 1984 Olympics). You also learn that several teams tried to trade for Michael Jordan. The Mavericks apparently offered their own pick plus Mark Aguirre, a very good offer at the time. Bulls fans will be glad that general manager Rod Thorn didn’t bite.

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bookmark_borderThe Jordan Rules

It shouldn’t be too hard for a basketball fan to guess what a book with the name “Jordan” in the title is about. After Playing for Keeps, The Jordan Rules is another book about Michael Jordan. In it, journalist Sam Smith describes the 1990-91 season from the perspective of the Chicago Bulls and their superstar.

The Jordan Rules

The book caused quite a stir at the time and was pretty controversial. Smith describes many internal details from the team’s inner workings and out of the locker room. For some of the information, it’s not entirely clear how the author got it. For example, conversations are described between people he couldn’t actually know anything about. Unlike 7 Seconds or Less by Jack McCallum, Smith did not follow the team and coaches around the clock. But he wasn’t just any random journalist either. Sam Smith worked for the Chicago Tribune, and from the late ’80s on, he focused exclusively on basketball and the Bulls. So he was at every game, talking to players and coaches, and was in the locker room for a while after games (like other journalists).

The title “The Jordan Rules” refers, first of all, to a series of defensive tactics used by the Detroit Pistons in games against the Bulls in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The Pistons, dubbed the Bad Boys for a reason, went especially hard against Jordan, doubling him frequently. Besides that, the title has another meaning. As Smith described, different rules applied to the superstar than to other players on the team, and Phil Jackson’s coaching staff let him get away with more. That alone, however, should not be unusual. The Bulls were and are not the only team where the star player enjoys a special treatment.

After the Bulls had always failed to beat the Pistons in the playoffs in previous years, Phil Jackson tried a different strategy this season. Instead of relying solely on Jordan’s outstanding individual performances, he tried to install the so-called Triangle Offense. The Triangle Offense was co-developed by Tex Winter. Winter had been an assistant coach with the Bulls since 1985 and would go on to win a number of titles with Jackson with the Bulls and later the Lakers. Smith describes Phil Jackson’s difficulties in convincing Jordan of the benefits of the new strategy in this book. The Triangle Offense (the name refers to triangles that players are supposed to form on the court) relies primarily on team-oriented and unselfish play, passing, and lots of movement. And Jordan didn’t necessarily trust his teammates.

The accounts of Jordan’s interactions with his teammates were also controversial. Nowadays, this seems more credible after watching “The Last Dance“. Jordan is said to have hit his teammate Will Perdue and to have deliberately given his teammates passes that were far too hard in order to show his coach that they could not be trusted. It is also described that general manager Jerry Krause was a favorite victim of Jordan’s jokes. This was also shown in the above mentioned documentary.

For other players, too, it was a tough season in personal terms. If you believe the book, no player was really happy. Scottie Pippen was already unhappy with his contract at the time, John Paxson and Bill Cartwright didn’t have contracts for the following season and didn’t feel Krause really wanted to keep them. Horace Grant was tired of being criticized by Jackson, and some players like B.J. Armstrong, Dennis Hopson, Stacey King and rookie Scott Williams were unhappy with their lack of playing time. In addition, some players were annoyed that Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf went to great lengths to convince Toni Kukoč to move from Europe to the NBA. Jordan, Pippen and Co. felt that management should instead take care of the contracts of deserving Bulls players.

With all these obstacles and internal problems, it seems almost unbelievable that the Bulls ended up playing a pretty dominant season and finally won the long-awaited title. After not only finally beating the Detroit Pistons in the Conference Finals, but even sweeping them, they won pretty clearly in five games against the Magic Johnson-led Lakers in the Finals. Jordan trusted his teammates more and more as the season progressed, and especially in the playoffs, and took over the game at crucial moments.

Whether everything, including the dialogues, really happened exactly as described in this book is open to question. I assume that the general tendency is correct, since some things have been confirmed since then regarding Jordan’s dealings with teammates, Pippen’s dissatisfaction or Jackson’s philosophies. Also, Sam Smith was close enough to the team to get a good overview. Overall, I found The Jordan Rules to be a very exciting book about the problems that even a great team can have during the season.

Get The Jordan Rules at Amazon

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.

Get Dream Team at Amazon

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.

Get Playing for Keeps at Amazon