NBA All-Star Weekend comes to my city of Toronto this week, and to celebrate I thought I'd share some quick reviews of my favourite basketball books. They are autobiographies of players, stories of special teams and exciting seasons and fiction, but they are all about my first love, basketball, and like the game itself, they're all full of lessons that can make us better people off the court.
Got To Give The People What They Want. By Jalen Rose.
I'm going to start this with a disclaimer: Jalen Rose is my hero. As a ten-year-old I attached myself to Michigan's "Fab Five" freshman, including Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. Their brash style, long shorts with the huge "M" on the side and their black Charles Barkley Nikes appealed to my youthful exuberance. Somewhere, I own a Jalen Rose Denver Nuggets rookie card. Years later, as a 23-year-old, unpaid writer covering the Toronto Raptors for the now-defunct website Hooplife.ca, I got to attend one game a month, and whether Rose had played a significant role in that night's loss (the Raptors were pretty bad that year), I found myself at his locker with a couple questions, and he was always so cool.
His career at ESPN and it's sorely-missed website Grantland have only increased his popularity. He demonstrates real basketball knowledge as an analyst and on the Jalen & Jacoby podcast he shares exclusive insights about the life of star college and professional athletes and offers up the absolute best stories about the sports and entertainment personalities we worship. So anyone who watches him on TV and online has been waiting for him to write a book. Got To Give The People gives us exactly what we want, Jalen's ghetto-to-gated-community story and new tid-bits about the Fab Five and the great and not-so-great NBA teams he played on. But he also writes as candidly as he speaks on TV about the business of basketball, from the meat market that is youth basketball to the hypocrisy of the NCAA to the lavish lifestyle of professional sports that leaves so many unprepared athletes broke the moment their careers end. It's a must-read for anyone interested in the business of sport as athletes, coaches or journalists.
The Last Shot. By Darcy Frey.
Journalist Darcy Frey follows four promising high school basketball players around for most 1991 in this now-classic, if then-controversial book. They are not average players, nor do they attend an average high school or live in an average neighbourhood. They are some of the best teenage players in the United States, playing for the defending New York City public school champion Lincoln Railsplitters and residents of the gray, violent, drug-infested housing projects in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York. For all their talent, there are so many things holding them back: poverty, segregation, miseducation and even themselves. We know the youngest of them, Stephon Marbury, becomes a fourth overall NBA draft pick, All-Star and millionaire despite the public failings of his three older brothers before him, but that is not apparent yet. His older teammates Russell, Tchaka and Corey appear close to their dreams, but in 1991 Lincoln is not known for producing players who go on to any success after high school, like Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, current NBA-er Lance Stephenson and even the fictional Jesus Shuttlesworth, played by NBA star Ray Allen in Spike Lee's 1998 cult film He Got Game. It means reading about these four twenty-five years later has a very eerie dramatic irony. Read the 2004 edition for an update on all four young men, for better or worse.
:07 Seconds Or Less. By Jack McCallum
This is another account of a season in the life of a basketball team, this time the 2005-2006 Phoenix Suns, which a cliche-spewing hack might call "a hilarious romp through an NBA season with its most electrifying team." No I didn't jack that from the book cover, but I could have. The Suns were electrifying that year, running full-speed on offense led by MVP point guard Steve Nash, high-scoring athletic wonders Amar'e Stoudamire and Shawn Marion. Thanks to Sports Illustrated veteran Jack McCallum's unabashed reporting we now they were led off-court by bench three-point specialist Eddie House's full-speed mouth, Marion's insecurity and Stoudamire's impressive ego. Coach Mike D'Antoni and this Suns team probably foresaw today's NBA of passing, running and shooting, but :07 Seconds immortalizes them as possibly the funniest group in league history.
Power Forward. By Reggie Love
Those of us that subscribe to the pseudo-religious belief that Ball Is Life love to talk about Barack Obama's high school state championships at Hawaii's Punahou School, his team-leading scoring average at Division III Occidental College and his weekly White House pick-up games, during which he is known to unleash milky left-handed jumpers and catch elbows from Secretaries of Education requiring stitches. Power Forward is for us, but the story of a smart, talented, but not highly-recruited young basketball player finding his way to the (it hurts to say) powerhouse basketball program at Duke University and eventually the historic 2008 campaign of the future president... that story is for everyone. It is a behind the scenes look at two hard-working young Black men whose work finally pays off.
And a few more...
Hoop Dreams: A True Story. By Ben Joravsky. Just as amazing as the classic documentary, with stories that couldn't fit in the film.
The Jordan Rules. By Sam Smith. An early, controversial expose about Michael Jordan's super-competitive mean streak and its effect on the pre-Championship Chicago Bulls.
Home Team, Boot Camp, Triple Threat and other titles. Series by Eric Walters and Jerome Williams. A series of children's fiction books that I bought for my Godson. He liked them!
Still to read...
Fab Five. By Mitch Albom.
Loose Balls. By Terry Pluto.
The City Game. By Pete Axthelm.