Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book Review: Breaks of the Game - David Halberstam

God I loved basketball. I still do but nowhere near as passionately as I did as a kid. I love to play it. It can ba great game of grace and agility, teamwork, and simple goals: put the ball in the hole, stop the other guy from doing it. David Halberstam wrote Breaks of the Game in 1981, but much of what he wrote about the game applies to today. Much of what he wrote outside of the game looks a bit comical now with 30 years of age. At its heart, the book is a celebration of teamwork and playing the game as 5 men coming together as 1 unit. Basketball can be played at its best like an infusion of muscle, speed, skill and performance art.

Halberstam is a favorite of mine. He has an amazing ability to create a tapestry so that you know how each person came to this point, how each concept formed, and how all of the pieces fit into the whole. I love his dedication to research, conducting hours of interviews with the people who populate his books. While writing about the 1979-80 Portland Trailblazers, he actually spends more time on the champsionship season the Trailblazers had a few seasons earlier. You will learn about the game more reading this book than you could by watching a whole season, reading newspaper reports on games, or even playing. The history of the NBA's development, the rise of player salaries and labor issues, and the wave of black player participation is really interesting to read about. I don't like the Celtics, but I have a greater respect for how their organization was run after reading this book.

One thing that Halberstam really pounds into the ground is the issue of race into everything with basketball. The book was written in 1981, and it is obvious that he's writing with the contemporary liberal mindset of the time. It gets annoying after a while. There is always a huge white conspiracy behind a black player's lack of success of advancement. All black racist behavior is glossed or skipped over. Some things are even comical to note now with 30 years of hindsight. One player he cites as "poor, white but very poor", which made me laugh out loud. When the Portland trainer (white) does not get awarded a playoff money share of $2500, Halberstam cites how hurt he was and how the vote was all white players votign him a share but rhe black players didn't. Then they gave lame excuses why they voted no. Halberstam cites this as the trainer learning there is no loyalty in the new NBA, but if you reverse the races on this Halberstam would have accused the 'no' voting white players of a conspiracy. Come on Dave, write it the same way for all sides. He conveniently overlooked the bad cocaine problem in the NBA (small mention of it), which would become much worse in the '80s.

In this book, you also see the seeds of the NBA's destruction. The player contracts quickly escalated and became problems as the players could then get coaches fired. The fight between players geared towards a 1-on-1 game vs. a team game concept pushed by coaches. The short life span of the coaching profession caused short term thinking to overtake player development and team building. Players started to get guaranteed money more and more, creating albatross contracts for teams. TV showed the beauty of effort as well as the indifference displayed by some players. The long season and 2nd season feel to the playoffs made casual fans only focus on the playoffs. Buzz Bissinger recently wrote about the NBA's declining popularity problem and once again, laid it at the feet of racist white fans. This is bullshit. The NBA was 75% black in the 1980s and 1990s and had much higher popularity than today. Buzz even cites int he article his colleague who said it was racist to say the NBA fan problem is a race problem. Yeah, Buzz, fuck off.

This book explains the problem by explaining the beauty of basketbal as a teamwork based game. People loved Magic's Showtime lakers, the Bird Celtics, the Bad Boy Pistons, and the Dr. J centered Sixers of the 1980s. White people loved seeing a 'team' play together and win, regardless of color. When the NBA, because of overexpansion and the Jordan effect, moved towards building teams around one great guard and a bunch of bums, people stopped watching. Who wants to see a game that appears to be 1-on-1 on both ends of the court? Not the same people that loved to see Magic end a fast break with a no look pass or Bird find an open man that no one else saw.

Reading this book, I found my NBA analog: Trailblazer small forward Bobby Gross. He looked to pass first instead of shoot, he moved well without the ball, he rebounded and was a defensive stopper. He shut down great scorers. That is what I was known for: passing, rebounding and defense. He contributed beyond numbers by making others better and taking away the best scorer on the other team. He didn't feel right if he wasn't playing his best for his team, screw the salary. The Bobby Gross type of player is a dying if not extinct breed in the NBA. Oftentimes, these style players play well in that manner, then get a huge contract extension or go elsewhere for big money, and then start shooting more and becoming selfish scorers. I blame the AAU culture of rewarding scoring above all else starting at age 10, and the money thrown at players. The beautiful game best expressed through that championship Trailblazers team, Bill Walton and coach Jack Ramsey is celebrated in this book. It should be. It is the way the game was meant to be played. 5 guys, 1 team. Now instead of 5 men playing as 1 unit, basketball teams have become collections of men playing as individuals.

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