Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Halberstam NBA Must-Reads

Lots has been written about the great David Halberstam following his untimely passing.

I thought that this comment from George Esper, a Vietnam-era colleague, probably summed up Halberstam's "real-world" importance as well as any:
"The bottom line was that David was more honest with the American public than their own government."

But this is a basketball blog, so our tribute will focus on Halberstam's work in producing two of the greatest NBA-related books ever written, Breaks of the Game (1981) and Playing For Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made (1999).

These are not only absolute must-reads for the NBA fan, but they're probably the starting point for any new and/or young fan interesting in reading about the NBA.

To get a taste, head to the web site for the New Yorker, which is re-running a brilliant and delightful piece from 1998, "Jordan's Moment", which is essentially an excerpt from Playing for Keeps.

The excerpt focused on the glorious coda of Jordan's career at the end of Game 6 in the 1998 Finals (I like to pretend that the Wizards era never happened). My favorite things about Halberstam's work are the telling details which he unearths via his thorough research.

Remember back to the end of Game 6, when Chicago was down 86-85 and MJ came over to strip the ball from Karl Malone. Did that come out of the ether? Nope. Chapel Hill.
    Buzz Peterson, Jordan’s close friend and college roommate, was watching Game Six with his wife, Jan, at their home, in Boone, North Carolina. In the final minute of the game, Jan turned to him and said, “They’re going to lose.” But Peterson, who had played with Jordan in countless real games and in practice games when the winning team was the first to reach eleven and Jordan’s team was behind 10–8, knew all too well that moments like this were what he lived for: with his team behind, he would predict victory to his teammates and then take over the last part of the game. Peterson told his wife, “Don’t be too sure. Michael’s got one more good shot at it.” Just then Jordan made his driving layup to bring the Bulls within a point. The key play, Peterson felt, was going to come on the next defensive sequence, when Utah came down court with the ball. Peterson was certain that he could track Jordan’s thinking: he would know that Utah would go to Malone, hoping for a basket, or, at least, two foul shots. He had seen his friend so often in the past in this same role, encouraged by Dean Smith, the North Carolina coach, to play the defensive rover. Peterson thought that Michael, knowing the likely Utah offense every bit as well as Malone and Stockton, would try to make a move on Malone.
Those of us aged enough to recall MJ's Carolina days will remember how Dean Smith encouraged Michael to sometimes break the fundamentals of team defense and play a predatory centerfield when the opportunity arose - something that stayed with Jordan all the way to the end of his NBA career.

And how about that famous follow-through on the game-winning shot? Well, here's what was said in the time-out before the final sequence:
    During the Chicago time-out, [Phil] Jackson and Jordan talked about what kind of shot he might take, and Jackson reminded him that his legs were tired and it was affecting his jump shot. “I’ve got my second wind now,” Jordan answered. “If you have to go for the jumper, you’ve got to follow through better,” Jackson said. “You haven’t been following through.”
Of course, I'm burying the lead here a little bit, because Breaks of the Game is nothing short of the signature NBA book of all time. In following the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers, Halberstam offered an in-depth portrait of how race, money and ego affect the fabric of a professional sports franchise.

Halberstam picked a fascinating subject in this team. The 1977 Blazers were not just NBA champions, but seen by many observers as the epitome of unselfish basketball. But by 1979-80, they were unravelling, and the book revolves around fascinating characters such as Dr. Jack Ramsay (really the center of the book as the coach trying to navigate the tenuous waters to hold his team together), Bill Walton (the 1977 hero now in San Diego after an acrimonious split with the Blazers which essentially brought down the franchise), Maurice Lucas (a proud and bright man upset with his contract) and Billy Ray Bates (a late-season callup from the CBA who gets a taste of glory).

Flipping through my copy of Breaks, it's hard to find a concise excerpt because the brilliance of the book is in its depth and nuance. Most every Blazer is portrayed with a thorough bio of several pages. But here's my stab - an excerpt of Halberstam's portrait of Maurice Lucas, star power forward of the '77 Blazers, and team leader in '79-80:
    It was, Ramsay knew, always going to be a test of wills with Luke. Of the blacks on the team, he was by far the most political and also the most willing to test authority, any authority. Some of the other blacks, Ron Brewer and T.R. Dunn, for example, had grown up in the South and had gone to southern schools; there was, some coaches thought, a lack of assertiveness to their play, something the coaches suspected could be traced back to their childhoods, to that region where, despite significant social change, authority still belonged to whites and blacks remained tentative about expressing their feelings openly, whether in politics or sports. But there was no problem like that with Maurice Lucas, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, late of the Hill district of the ghetto. Sometimes the Portland front office, talking about a particular player in college or on another team, used the phrase, and to them it was a positive: obedient kid. Obedient kid. Maurice Lucas was most demonstrably not an obedient kid. He was very black, very articulate, very political, a strong and independent man sprung from circumstances that could also create great insecurity. There was about him a constant sense of challenge; everything was a struggle, and everything was a potential confrontation, a struggle for turf and position. It was in part what had made him at his best so exceptional an athlete. He liked the clash of will. He was at once an intensely proud black man, justifiably angry about the injustice around him, and a superb and subtle con artist, a man who had in effect invented himself and his persona -- Luke the Intimidator. When he was making demands, when he talked about race being an issue at point, it was sometimes hard to tell which Maurice Lucas was talking -- the Lucas who genuinely believed he was a victim of such obvious American racism, or the Lucas who knew that his cause was more dramatic if he deliberately cloaked it in himself. Indeed, it was not possible at certain times to tell if he himself knew. (He was capable of complaining that Portland would never pay a black superstar what it would pay a white superstar, which was possibly correct, and, in the next breath, of complaining about the fact that Mychal Thompson, a rookie, who was also, it happened, black, had made twice as much in his rookie year as Luke made, then in his third year in Portland.)
If you're an NBA fan and haven't read these books, go get both and read them now.

[Update - November 1, 2010: Welcome to those of you finding this piece anew. Unfortunately, we are here to mark another untimely passing, as Maurice Lucas died on Sunday at the age of 58. Re-reading this, I'm mainly struck by the thought that Lucas, as portrayed by Halberstam, sounds like a classic rich character from the works of August Wilson, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who set all of his plays in Pittsburgh's Hill District. - MH]

One last thing: Jay Aych only included my first-round picks in his playoff preview. For the record, here are the rest of the playoff picks I entered into my NBA bracket:

Conf Semis
Mavericks over Rockets in 7 (wouldn't be shocked if HOU pulled the upset)
Spurs over Suns in 5 (SAS knows exactly how to beat PHX)

Conf Finals
Spurs over Mavericks in 7 (hopefully another classic between these two juggernauts)

Conf Semis
Bulls over Pistons in 7 (I don't believe Flip can get it done)
Cavs over Raptors in 6 (CLE takes advantage of great draw)

Conf Finals
Bulls over Cavs in 5 (Bulls slightly better on both ends; Cavs need better guards)

Spurs over Bulls in 5 (Dynasty: 4 titles in 9 years; Timmy back on top)

Alright, enjoy the big Game 2's tonight.


At 11:50 AM, Blogger Norm Charlton's least favorite son said...

Right on. Halberstam seemed to be able to portray anyone in a fully human way. He was also an endless seeker of truth and dignity and someone who seemed to attempt to always elevate the people he was profiling.

One thing in particular I noticed reading "Breaks of the Game" was how many times he used the word "elegant" to desribe a black player, something I thought was very purposeful and premeditated on his part.

Hes the only writer and journalist I ever truly trusted. I guess thats the best thing I can say about him.

Terrific blog, guys, found you through True Hoop.

At 12:16 PM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Thanks for the kind words, Norm Jr.

Hopefully you "adjust yourself" in public less often than your dad used to on the mound!

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