Powered by Blogger.

Capsule Reviews (I): On Robertson, McPhee, and Bird and Magic

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Because reading has been almost as huge a part of my life as basketball, I've wanted to include in the blog a regular feature on the books I've been reading. Nothing profound, just some quick impressions.  These will appear regularly in the box on the left hand side of the blog.  But I'll also collect these from time to time as "Capsule Reviews" blogposts.  Here then is the first of these, my brief thoughts on the last three books I've read: Oscar Robertson's 2003 autobiography, The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game; Larry Bird and Magic Johnson's 2009 recollection (written with Jackie McCullan) of their intertwined NBA careers, When the Game Was Ours, and John McPhee's classic 1965 profile of Bill Bradley.  At the end of each review, I'll rate each book on a scale of one (forced my way through it) to five (would read it again and again) basketballs.

Oscar Robertson, The Big "O": My Life, My Times, My Game (2003) very worthwhile read. Robertson structures his book chronologically, recalling his early childhood in rural Tennessee, his youth and adolescence in Indianapolis, college years at the University of Cincinnati, and pro career in Cincinnati and then in Milwaukee.  Robertson is skilled and interesting in communicating how his game looked and felt from the inside and how it played out on the floor in a number of exciting descriptions of particular games and seasons  But what most moves me in his writing is the honesty and precision with which he weaves emotional, cultural, and social observation into his account of a basketball life.   He emerges as a full human being who also happens to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time.  He is particularly intelligent and refreshingly incisive on the forms of racism he encountered, both on and off the court, and on the economics of pro ball (in which he played a major role as head of the NBA player's union). Finally he is splendidly curmudgeonly on today's NBA, and delightfully ungenerous in comparing contemporary and recent stars with those of his own times.

John McPhee, A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton (1965), is a very elegantly written profile of Bill Bradley, former US Senator and New York Knick star, during his college years at Princeton. McPhee, successfully aiming at a general audience who might never have seen or read about a basketball game before, does a wonderful job of breaking down the nuts and bolts of Bradley's individual game and of integrating that into a narrative of his Princeton teams' fortunes in the NCAAs. Bradley was one of the greatest, for sure, but McPhee's intelligent and poetic hagiography unfortunately departs from the author's uncharitable description of his growing aversion to the game (over the course of the 50s):

the game seemed to me to have lost its balance, as players became taller and more powerful, and scores increased...it impressed me as a glut of scoring, with few patterns of attack and almost no defense any more....Moreover, it attracted exhibitionists who seemed to be more intent on amazing a crowd with aimless prestidigitation than with advancing their team by giving a sound performance. 
This seems like an odd characterization of the game in an era whose greatest stars included Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West. It's also striking in how it prefigures the sort of recurring nostalgic complaint that subsequent generations of writers (including Bird and Johnson, in their book below) would lodge against the current version of the game right up to the present day.

Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, When the Game Was Ours (2009) a light and entertaining read, well plotted, if not very profound or stylistically elegant. Since I was in 8th grade when they first met in the 1979 NCAA championship game, this was enjoyable opportunity to revisit some of the memorable games they played during my high school and college years. Excellent stuff on Bird's legendary trash talking. For younger readers, this would be a good introduction to NBA history in the pre-Jordan era. Of course NBA history goes back much farther, but these guys are an entertaining hinge point between Jordan and Old School. You see a real love for and commitment to the game in both these players. Also, the accounts of Magic's battle with HIV, and of Magic's and Bird's respective retirements I found quite moving.


Post a Comment

  © Blogger template The Beach by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP