March Madness: Tip-Off to More Great Hoop Reads
The battle of the basketball books continues. While there have been no stunning upsets in what is becoming a large playoff field, many great performances are being recalled:
"Sorry folks, I liked the Connie Hawkins book a lot, but the best basketball book ever written was done by Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, who wrote Forty-Eight Minutes years ago for Macmillan publishing (I was their rep back then). It was a fascinating breakdown, minute by minute, of what turned out to be an epic game between the Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was co-written, if I remember correctly, by Terry Pluto. Also, let's not forget one of the best-selling sports books of all time, A Season on the Brink by then debut author John Feinstein, who covered the 1985-1986 basketball season of Bobby Knight at Indiana University. I am still the proud owner of my signed copy, from when I accompanied Mr. Feinstein at a book signing in Springfield, Mass. (home to the Basketball Hall of Fame), when all of 12 people showed up at his signing at a downtown bookstore. He has since gone on to a bit more fame."--John Muse, sales director, UFSO Eastern Region, S&S.
"If the shot clock hasn't expired yet, I'd like to throw in Forty-Eight Minutes by Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto, who were newspaper beat writers in 1987 covering the Celtics and Cavs respectively. As the title suggests, they spend the whole book on one game between Boston and Cleveland in 1987, and thus get into the X's and O's like nobody else. Both can consistently hit the 15-footer as far as writing chops go, but more importantly they're not that interested (the way Halberstam was) in what it all might mean in addition to basketball. Strictly focused on the game. So while I'd still give the edge to Breaks of the Game as best ever about basketball culture, I'd go with Ryan and Pluto as the best on basketball qua basketball. The McPhee, while it might be one of the greatest long essays ever--regardless of subject--comes up short as a basketball book for being a) only about Bill Bradley and b) too short. No disrespect to Dollar Bill or McPhee. Have never read Foul!, but it's on my list now. Thanks for the feature, very entertaining."--Pete LeBar, Allegheny College Bookstore, Meadville, Pa.
"I am enjoying your basketball book showdown. As we Huskies are in it to win it this year, I thought I'd add my contribution to the debate. What about all three of John Feinstein's books on college ball . . . Last Dance, Last Amateurs and A March to Madness? And his titles for kids aren't bad either. Go Dawgs!"--Kathy Wright, sports books buyer (and other books buyer, too), University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.
"I, too, am a great fan of Foul! since its publication. It was quite a touchstone book especially for us New York City kids; Connie Hawkins was and remains a legend. The high school I attended happened to have been undefeated going into the final four of the PSAL championships in 1960, and we played in the semifinals against an also-undefeated team from Christopher Columbus. They beat us. Later, while a blizzard was whirling outside the (Old) Garden, a second game was played, possibly the best high school basketball game ever, between Hawkins' Boys High team and a Wingate High team led by the later ABA star and successful politician, the late Roger Brown. Either could have played in the NBA right away, as some high schoolers have done since. Boys won the game, and Columbus slowed down the final game against them, but Boys prevailed 21-15. I would like to refer your readers' attention to a largely unpublicized and unremembered book by Gerald Duff, called Indian Giver, about a Native American hoopster recruited by an Indiana University-like basketball power. The young man applies precepts of Native American culture to basketball, visualizing his arrow (as in bow and) arcing over the front rim. Duff is sure-footed about his basketball, and equally so about his grasp of native culture. I enjoyed the book with great pleasure, and recommend it highly.--Mark Levine
"All the recently mentioned contenders for the crown of best basketball book ever are worthy, but since March Madness was the inspiration for this round-up, I'd like to add to the mix a book that captures, in part, the broken-glass-and-cracked-concrete-strewn road to the college game: Rick Telander's Heaven Is a Playground. First published in the 1970s and updated and re-released several times since, it tells the story of inner-city kids in New York for whom basketball holds out the promise of a way out of an urban nightmare. Telander's account is even-handed, open-eyed and deeply affecting, giving an asphalt-level view of talented ballers, street hustlers and life on the streets of 1970s Brooklyn (where Telander lived while he wrote the book). Sports Illustrated named it one the best 100 sports books ever published; it prefigures the Oscar-winning documentary Hoop Dreams, and anyone who's read it will remember cheering its ragamuffin
cast of basketball hopefuls as they turn to the game of basketball as a way to shrug off the shackles of poverty, a failing public education system and an urban landscape of litter, crime and hopelessness."--Nathaniel Marunas, associate publisher, Black Dog & Leventhal.
In my view, nothing beats Heaven is a Playground by Rick Telander, a former sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times and, later, for Sports Illustrated. Chronicling a summer of basketball on a court in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood in 1974, Rick Telander--probably the only white person walking around the area that wasn't a cop or a basketball scout--takes what should've been a magazine article and expands it into a book filled with the day-to-day details of the lives of these young men who spend their whole day playing basketball. I wouldn't be surprised if this book was an influence to the people who did that great documentary, Hoop Dreams, because what Telander does is let the people--their voices, ideas, dreams and disappointments--fill his reporter's notebook rather than inserting his own commentary. Naturally, there are wonderful scenes of basketball--he is introduced to the great young talent of Albert King, eventual NBA player and younger brother of Bernard and to James 'Fly' Williams, perhaps one of the greatest talent to ever played the game--but the everyday chatter of the Subway Stars, the name of the team whose members become Rick's friends, is what kept me turning the pages."--Edward Ash-Milby, buyer, Barnes & Noble.