‘Got to Give the People What They Want’ by Jalen Rose

November 3, 2015 in Basketball, Book Reviews, Indiana Pacers, NBA, Reviews, Sport

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Jalen Rose never fails to give the people what they want!

My second-favourite basketball player from the Pacers’ glory years (no prizes for guessing who is No. 1), Rose has since retirement turned himself into arguably the best and most successful pro-turned-analyst covering the NBA. His Jalen and Jacoby ‘Pop the Trunk’ podcast is responsible for getting me into podcasts in the first place, and I still get a little giddy whenever I see that a new episode is out.

And so when I heard he was finally releasing a biography, Got to Give the People What They Want: True Stories and Flagrant Opinions from Center Court, I was naturally ecstatic. Anyone who has listened to Jalen on his podcasts or seen him on ESPN will know that he is a phenomenal storyteller who is never afraid to speak his mind and tell it like it is (notwithstanding the “don’t get fired” caveat he and Jacoby like to spew). Having been an affable dude throughout both his basketball and media careers, Jalen has maintained connections at every level throughout the entire league, and the insider sources and classic vignettes he has stored up are second to none.

Jalen & Jacoby

Jalen & Jacoby

Got to Give the People What They Want is a fantastic read. It’s filled with wonderful insights into basketball and life, great stories and laugh-out-loud moments. Those who are avid fans of Rose, like myself, might be a little disappointed because we may have heard a lot of the best parts before, probably on his podcast, but on the whole the vast majority of readers will be thoroughly satisfied by the fascinating experience this book offers. Importantly, you know he wrote this book himself and no through some ghostwriter, because his unique and familiar voice permeates every page.

GTGTPWTW is a surprisingly straightforward autobiography in a lot if ways. Following a delightful foreword from “The Podfather”, his good friend and now @HBO Bill Simmons, the book is split into four quarters, just like an NBA game. The first quarter details his tough childhood in Detroit, living with his single mother and never knowing his famous father, former No. 1 overall pick Jimmy Walker. This is the part of the book where we learn about his influences growing up and how he very well could have gone down the wrong path. It’s quite a cliched story by NBA standards, but it’s nonetheless captivating because Rose knows how to tell a story better than most.

The second quarter, the college years, was to me the most interesting because I didn’t follow Rose when he was tearing it up as a member of the legendary Fab Five at Michigan along with future NBA stars Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. The crazy thing is, even after all he did in his NBA and media career, most people probably still associate Rose most with the Fab Five, a group of brash, cocky freshmen who lit up the NCAA and set fashion trends while relishing the same bad boy image brandished on Rose’s heroes, the 80s Detroit Pistons.

The Fab Five

The Fab Five

Ever wanted to know what college recruiting visits are like? Ever wondered what it’s like being a college star athlete? Ever wondered what really happened with that fatal Chris Webber timeout against North Carolina in that championship game? Ever wondered why the legacy Fab Five was really erased from history? This is the part of the book with all the answers. Even if you think you know it all there are still interesting tidbits and surprises to be found.

I think it’s great that Jalen doesn’t hold back on his thoughts about the NCAA’s rules against student athletes seeing a dime of the billions of dollars being poured into colleges around the country, especially when it is the students generating all the revenue. And no, he doesn’t think it’s enough that they get free tuition through scholarships. A lot of compelling food for thought.

The third quarter of the book is Jalen’s NBA career, which amazingly never culminated in a single All-Star appearance despite being one of the two best players on a perennial Eastern Conference finalist and a once-off NBA Finals participant. As some of you might know, Jalen started off in Denver before heading to Indiana in a trade involving Mark Jackson (who returned later to the team) and spent a couple of years under Larry Brown. It’s well-known that the two did not see eye to eye, and Jalen has no problem spilling what he thinks of the Hall-of-Fame coach. It wasn’t until Larry Bird arrived that Jalen’s career began to blossom, and it’s no secret how much respect and gratitude he has toward the man they call The Legend.

Two legends

Two legends

The thing that sticks out most in this chapter, apart from his pearls of wisdom on trash talking and “champaigning and campaigning”, is the amount of politics that goes on in the NBA, from the locker room all the way to the front office and beyond. It’s on of the reasons why Jalen’s career turned out the way it did, and why he would go from star player to journeyman in the latter half of his career, bouncing from Indiana to Chicago to Toronto to Phoenix to New York.

The final quarter of the book details life after basketball and Jalen’s new career as an analyst for ESPN. He actually started it when he was still a player in the league and it’s inspirational to see how hard to works at this job as well. He definitely isn’t one of those athletes who fell into the job because of his fame — he went out there and earned the respect and proved the doubters wrong.

Like I said earlier, plenty of wild stories and serious opinions grace the pages of this book. A good chunk of them, however, you would have heard before on “Story Time with Jalen Rose” and/or on the podcast, such as the time he was shot at in LA, or the time he stole Patrick Ewing’s TV. The time he tried to “Jalen Rose” Kobe Bryant in the Finals by sticking his foot under the Mamba after a jumpshot and the ultimate payback in the 81-point game years later are of course also covered.

One of the most prominent aspects of the book — it’s referred to repeatedly throughout — is the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a successful charter school he founded in Detroit. He’s actually actively running it and not just sticking his name in for publicity, and it’s impressive to see how much he believes in giving back to the community.

It’s also clear that the rift with Chris Webber continues to bug him. I’ve followed this feud for years and honestly it doesn’t reflect too well on Webber, to put it nicely. Still, despite Webber being the one who called the time out and lied to the grand jury and stuffed everything up for the Fab Five, Jalen is the one who wants to let bygones be bygones, and it’s CWebb who can’t man up about his mistakes to move on.

Truth be told, I wish this book, at 288 pages, could have been at least twice as long. I know how hard it is to write a book and how much harder it is to remember stuff from your past that happened 10, 20, 30 years ago, but I wanted even more juicy details. Some parts of the book just felt too brief and glossed over — the basic structure was there but I wanted more meat on the bones. And I’m sure there was probably more he wanted to say but he may have gotten a few “don’t get fired” warnings from his publisher or his agent. What a shame.

Nevertheless, for most non-hardcore fans, GTGTPWTW is an instant classic of the basketball bio genre. An inspirational story, a remarkable life, and loads of awesome stories and anecdotes about basketball from the youth leagues to the pros. This is a book that will entertain, educate, make you laugh, and make you think and challenge our understanding of not just basketball but the wider world around us.

4/5

PS: And yes! He does reveal why he carries that bat around. But you have to read the book for yourself to find out!

PPS: After seeing Jalen Rose in person a  few years ago when he accompanied the Pacers to Taiwan for an exhibition against the Rockets, I decided to join the wave and name my yet-to-be-born second son after him. My hope is that, apart from being a kick-ass basketball player, he can grow up to be like his namesake, an observant and articulate leader, someone who gives back to his community, doesn’t hold grudges and has a grateful attitude towards life. So thanks for the shout out in the book, Jalen.

Book Review: ‘Undisputed Truth’ by Mike Tyson

September 19, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Boxing, Reviews, Sport

undisputed-truth-my-autobiography

Love him or loathe him, Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth is not just one of the best sports-themed books I’ve ever read. It’s not even just one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, period.

That’s a big call for a book written by a convicted rapist, notorious ear-biter and school drop-out with arguably the most renowned lisp in the world, but I’m sticking with it. Undisputed Truth is fascinating, it’s explosive, it’s horrifying and it’s downright hilarious. In fact, I’m fairly certain I have laughed out loud from reading this book more times than any other book I’ve ever read.

I don’t know if this is a comparison anyone has made, but Undisputed Truth reminds me of another one of my favourite books, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. Both are about the real-life wild and wacky adventures of athletes who love girls and drugs, told with an unflinching honesty and often veering into extremely dark territory.

However, while The Basketball Diaries is a short book traverses only a portion of Carroll’s adolescence, Undisputed Truth is a monster (but swift) 592 pages covering Tyson’s entire life up to last year. And while Carroll was a pretty good basketball player and womanizer, he was never the “baddest man alive” or a world class sex machine like Tyson (who would have given Wilt Chamberlain a run for his money as he was notoriously undiscriminating when it came to his partners).

So what makes Undisputed Truth an all-time read? Well for starters, Tyson does not hold back at all. He absolutely pours his heart out, infusing every page with his damaged soul. The unique voice is pure raw emotion and distinctively Tyson, and you can almost picture Tyson spewing the words out as they are recorded by his co-writer Larry Sloman (best known for Howard Stern’s Private Parts). The narrative is fluid, albeit occasionally rambling and often contradictory (for instance, Tyson goes on about turning into a devout Muslim, only to say on the next page that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife), but at the same time it is always coherent and sharp. Besides, Tyson is so messed up, even right now, that a little craziness is expected.

I don’t want to give away too many golden nuggets from the book, so I’ll just give a very brief overview to provide an idea of what’s in store. The autobiography begins with an introduction that describes one of the most pivotal moments in Tyson’s life — the sentencing for his rape charge — before taking readers right back to the beginning of his troubled and dysfunctional childhood in Brownsville, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the Bronx. And it’s an unimaginable childhood for most of us, one completely devoid of love and hope. Those early portions of the book are difficult to swallow, but they are also essential to understanding the man Tyson would become.

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Tyson and the man who changed his life, Cus D’Amato

Tyson’s life makes a dramatic turn when he meets Cus D’Amato, the hard-nosed trainer who would transform Tyson from a scared little punk kid into the heavyweight champion of the world. Cus was far from perfect, but Tyson loved him unlike anyone else he has loved in his entire life, and you can truly feel that love flow through the pages as Tyson describes their relationship and what the old man means to him. One can only imagine how Mike Tyson’s legacy would have turned out — both in and out of the ring — had D’Amato not died as Tyson zoned in on the heavyweight title.

Tyson’s rise through the ranks, from amateur to professional, is one of the most exciting aspects of the book. People tend to take his success for granted and attribute it to his natural gifts, but Tyson was one of the hardest, most obsessive workers I have ever seen in any sport, shadowboxing literally for hours, devouring classic fight tapes and reading everything he could get his hands on about the all-time greats.

I had not expected this, but Tyson literally describes every single one of his professional bouts (and many of his key amateur bouts too), including the lead-up, the fight itself and how it ended — and what was going through his mind the whole time. I loved this about the book and the insights it provided into the psyche of a Hall-of-Fame boxer, and it also shed light on a lot of Tyson’s performances because he admittedly wasn’t in shape or motivated for many of them, especially later in his career when all he wanted was another paycheck. For me, the best part about his detailed analysis of the bouts is being able to go straight to YouTube to watch the spectacular fights right after reading his take on them.

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Mike Tyson with Evander Holyfield, back in the day when both ears were in tact

Tyson’s later decline and bad losses may tarnish his legacy, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was unbeatable in his prime if he was motivated and had his head on straight (two very big IFs). He was just so ferocious, so quick and so powerful that he often beat opponents psychologically even before stepping into the ring. But the loss of Cus to keep him in line and the introduction of Don King to his life, not to mention all the money and the women and the drugs, eventually took their toll on his mind and body, and he was simply never the same again.

It would be wrong, however, to be under the impression that Undisputed Truth is only about boxing. Many of my favourite parts of the book are about Tyson’s life outside of the ring. He was just an insane spender who had no idea what to do with the millions and millions of dollars he was raking in (and this excludes the millions and millions others ripped off  him without his knowledge). The fleets of luxury cars, sports cars, the custom-made bling and outfits, the entire house adorned with Versace, and even keeping real tigers as pets. He was literally giving away money to poor people left and right, and that’s not even taking into account all the real and bogus legal claims he has had to settle (often just random strangers coming up to his house with fake injuries or people off the street trying to bait him into a fight) and the millions he has spent on lawyer fees. It’s no surprise that despite all the money he has made in his career, Tyson still ended up being dead broke.

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson’s brushes with celebrities are also a highlight of the book. There are so many priceless celebrity anecdotes littered throughout the book, including classic stories about Naomi Campbell, Prince and Eddie Murphy as well as crazy brushes with guys like Rick James, Wesley Snipes, and of course, the infamous encounter with Brad Pitt. They tend to be short, but they are always pure gold, and reminds us just how famous Tyson was back in his heyday, and that shockingly, it wasn’t until his cameo in The Hangover that completely turned his life around. Funnily enough, despite working with a convicted rapist like Tyson, the cast and crew of the sequel collectively vetoed the decision to do the same with anti-Semite Mel Gibson.

Another inescapable part of Tyson’s life was the women. My god, the women. After not knowing how to even approach a girl as a teen, Tyson was propositioned by thousands and thousands of women after becoming rich and famous, and he never quite figured out how to say no. A lot of this stuff is extremely crude, but it’s also extremely funny because of how low Tyson would stoop. Oldies, fatties, uglies — it didn’t matter to him. He speaks of those days of debauchery with shame — including all the STDs he picked up along the way — but the way he describes his way of thinking and his actions at the time is gut-bustingly funny stuff. At one stage he even apologizes to his readers for having to put up with his antics.

When it comes to women and Tyson, however, it’s impossible not to mention two names — his first wife Robin Givens, who accused him of domestic violence, and beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, whose allegations of rape sent Tyson to prison for three years. Tyson is a little coy when it comes to Givens, the actress he says he fell head over heels for but believed she was a manipulative gold digger along with her mother Ruth, whom he affectionately calls “Ruthless”. He never directly denies the domestic violence allegations but says multiple times that her claims are all BS. 

As for Washington, Tyson says he is prohibited from discussing his case in detail due to British laws, though he strongly insinuates that he is innocent and insists that he will maintain his innocence to his grave. Everyone will have their own views on this case, but based on my readings of Undisputed Truth and other sources I followed up on, I think there is no doubt Tyson got screwed in court.

Now, I’m not saying for one second that I believe Tyson is innocent — only he and Washington know what happened — but I do find it shocking that he was convicted based on the lacklustre evidence that was available and adduced at court. The truth is, if the accused was not someone as universally loathed as Mike Tyson, he probably would have walked away. But all the stars aligned at the wrong time for him: (1) Don King used his prudish tax lawyer to represent Tyson in a rape case, and the dimwit probably did the worst job imaginable, including not using the lack of physical evidence to their advantage; (2)  an admitted Tyson-hater somehow slipped through the cracks to not only get on the jury, but become the jury foreman; (3) rape shield laws prevented evidence of Washington’s earlier false rape allegation made against a former boyfriend and witnesses who could have shattered the innocent and naive image she created by detailing her sordid sexual past; and (4) the fact that she signed secret book and movie deals around the same time she made her accusations public was not enough to earn Tyson an appeal.

mike tyson prison

Having said all that, my personal guess is that Tyson probably was guilty under the legal definition of rape, because no matter how much Washington pursued Tyson and bragged about spending his money as “Mrs Tyson”, all she had to do was say “No” at any time during the ordeal for consent to be taken away. It didn’t matter that she obviously lied about having no idea that Tyson wanted sex when he invited her up to his room in the middle of the night, or that she curiously went into the bathroom to remove a liner from her underwear before the incident took place. She may have initially wanted to go through with it and changed her mind at the last moment, but Tyson was too much of a reckless animal to hear or sense her terrified opposition.

If she did falsely accuse him, I believe the intent came not before but after, when she furiously realized that she was just another piece of meat that Tyson was tossing away after he was done with it. That’s why I also don’t doubt at all that Tyson honestly believes he is innocent, which is why he turned down an opportunity at an early release because he simply refused to apologize to her — just an apology, not even an admission of guilt. In any case, the rape case is a fascinating part of the book, and I would recommend everyone to read up about it as much as they can before making their own judgment.

That was heavy.

The book slows down towards the end and becomes more contemplative, as Tyson’s drug and alcohol abuse, sex addiction, accumulated boxing injuries and uncontrollable fury prevent him from having any semblance of a real life. In the end, it’s his love for his current wife and the loss of one of his children in a tragic accident that keep him from completely falling off the wagon, though as he concedes in the book’s postscript it’s still an ongoing battle he’s taking one day at a time. Just as I was finishing the book I read elsewhere about Tyson’s latest implosion on Canadian television during an interview, confirming that no matter how much therapy he receives his demons will likely follow him until the day he dies.

It’s strange, because despite wasting all his talent and hard work and throwing away all the fruits of his success, I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. On the other hand, even Tyson’s staunchest defenders would concede that he is a destructive individual with loathsome qualities — and that’s even if you believe he is innocent of rape. You can defend his actions to some extent because of his horrific upbringing, the toxic environment and people he grew up with, and the constant bullying and abuse he suffered as a child, but apologizing for Mike Tyson can only go so far because there are some things he has done — things he readily admits to in the book — that are simply inexcusable at any level of human decency.

Tyson understands this himself and appears genuinely remorseful at times (though at other times he remains defensive), attributing his insanity to the combustible combination of a massive ego and extremely low self-esteem. He was born in the gutter, and no matter how much success and money he achieved throughout his career, he still believed that he belonged in the gutter, which is why he could never put an end to his self-destructive tendencies.

That’s why I say you cannot treat Tyson like a real person if you want to truly enjoy this book. It’s a strange comparison, but I like to think of him as Homer Simpson — a character you find endearing in spite of, and maybe even because of, his anti-social qualities, but would hate if you knew such a person in real life. Everyone probably has an opinion on Tyson, both as a boxer and as a man, and neither might be flattering. But don’t let your prejudices get in the way of one of the best books you might ever read.

5/5

Book Review: ‘Open’ by Andre Agassi

April 19, 2011 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

I’m supposed to be reading all the books I borrowed from the university library in preparation for my novel, but I couldn’t help myself.  My physical bookshelves are just about out of space, crammed with books I bought over the last couple of years but haven’t yet started reading, so naturally I went and bought some e-books as well.

As some of you may know, Borders in Australia is in administration and are offering discounts of up to 30% on their books, including e-books (which doesn’t make much sense considering it is the piling inventory that’s killing them).  So I went ahead and got myself a bunch of e-books, one of them being Andre Agassi’s controversial autobiography Open.

I know I like to make fun of Andre (as I did in satirical posts A and B, two of the most popular ever on this blog), but he’s always been one of my favourite tennis players and one of the most entertaining players to watch on and off the court.  And ditto for Steffi Graf, who also has this graceful beauty about her.

I never thought I would enjoy Open as much as I did, and I certainly never expected to devour this relatively long book (400 pages in paperback form) in just a couple of days.  To put it simply, Open is arguably one of the greatest sports autobiographies ever written.

Much of it has to do with the fact that Agassi simply lived a fascinating life.  He was a tennis prodigy that grew up in Las Vegas with an overbearing, terrifying father that forced him to hit 2500 balls every single day against a suped-up ball machine.  From the moment he was born, Agassi’s life was nothing but tennis, which he claims he hated, but it was all he knew.  He knew everything about tennis but nothing about himself or who he was.  When he became pro, he was essentially regarded as an underachieving, disrespectful punk, but by the time he retired, he was one of the most revered players on tour, an outstanding philanthropist, and widely considered one of the greatest to ever swing a racquet.

I won’t spoil the joys of this fantastic book by revealing anything more than that, because Open is a journey that sweeps up the reader and transports them into Agassi’s world.  It’s a world full of raw emotion, confusion and contradiction, but also filled with an unusual sense of fate and destiny (especially when it came to Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf).

There was a lot of hoopla when the book was released about how Agassi revealed he took crystal meth and lied his way out of a suspension and the unflattering things he said about some of his contemporaries (in particular his arch rival Pete Sampras), but all of that represents a miniscule part of the book.  They are explosive revelations, no doubt, but Open is so much richer than just those things.  I loved Agassi’s honesty, the way he described his relationships with some of the closest people in his life (particularly his right hand man Reyes) and his growth on and off the tennis court.

A big reason why Open is such a fantastic read is because of the way it was written.  The whole time I was reading it I kept thinking to myself: Wow, Agassi is a wonderful writer.  Is this seriously a guy that put zero effort in during school and left it altogether in the ninth grade?

As it turned out, Agassi didn’t really write the book, at least not the first draft.  He was honest enough to admit in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book that he acquired the assistance of Pulitzer Prize winner JR Moehringer, who moulded hours and hours of recorded conversations with Agassi into a ‘story’, which Agassi then worked on closely to punch into publishing shape.

Open is indeed a story, one that is expertly told and structured.  Each chapter has carefully defined parameters and themes, usually dealing with a mixture of Agassi’s tennis life and personal life.  It’s the kind of book that, even if you have a bit of an idea about what happened at various parts of Agassi’s life, you’ll still want to read on and find out the events from his perspective, through his eyes.

I guess the only ‘criticism’ I have of the book is that I wanted to know more about certain aspects of Agassi’s life because they were not discussed at length or not at all.  In particular, I didn’t think he dealt with his newfound wealth sufficiently.  We saw that he bought lots of new, expensive stuff, but we didn’t really get a sense of what he thought of all the money flooding into his life.  That said, maybe I’m being too greedy.  It’s not exactly easy to capture a person’s entire life in 400 pages.

My hat off to Mr Agassi (and Mr Moehringer) for such a great read.

5 out of 5

God umpires Andre Agassi vs Michael Chang

February 7, 2010 in Best Of, Tennis

As a follow up to the popular “Inside Agassi and Becker’s Secret Rivalry” post, I have pitched Andre Agassi against Chinese American superstar Michael Chang, another guy that Agassi trashed like a used needle in his controversial autobiography Open.

Of course, a contest between two tennis greats can only be a five set match, and naturally, only God can be the umpire (Linesmen, Cyclops and Hawk-Eye are not needed as God is never wrong).

Here we go.

(To read about this exciting match click on ‘more…’)

Read the rest of this entry →