Book Review: ‘I Love Being the Enemy’ by Reggie Miller

March 30, 2015 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

Reggie

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read the one and only book written by my favourite baller of all time, Reggie Miller.

I Love Being the Enemy is an apt title. Reggie made a name and a career out of being the villain, especially in Madison Square Garden in New York, where his play is the stuff of legend. He was the guy who poured in 25 points in the fourth quarter against the Knicks in the 1994 NBA Playoffs while jawing against Spike Lee on the sidelines, then killed them with his mind-boggling 8 points in 9 seconds the year after. He pushed off Michael Jordan for that game-winning three in 1998, and remains one of the only people in the world who ever made his Airness lose his cool (and try to scratch his eyes out). He banked in a 38-foot turnaround three in the 2002 playoffs against the Nets  to force overtime, then dunked over three defenders to force another.

No matter what anyone says about him, Reggie Miller is an inspiration. He may be a bit of a dick sometimes, but he owns up to it like a man, gives his respect where its due, and never crosses the line. That’s the kind of dick every dick should aspire to be. And let’s not forget, despite his alien-stick-figure appearance, the massive balls he has to be able to take — and hit — some of the biggest shots in NBA history. No wonder I fell in love with this man right from the get-go.

I Love Being the Enemy, just like Reggie, is somewhat unusual. Rather than the typical sports memoir with clear themes or topics for each chapter, it’s written like a journal of sorts, penned by Reggie sporadically throughout the course of the 1994-1995 NBA season. It came at a perfect time too, as some of you might recall that was the season right after Reggie became a household name with his 25-point fourth quarter at the Garden, and covers his 8-points-9-seconds heroics later in the playoffs. The Pacers were considered up-and-coming contenders, with passing maestro Mark Jackson manning the point, the Dunkin’ Dutchman Rik Smits in the post, and the Davis boys, Dale and Antonio, doing all the bruising dirty work down low. It was also the season when Michael Jordan returned to the league mid-way through the season following his baseball stint, and the very first game he played upon his return was of course in Indiana against Reggie.

Each entry is written under a specific date like a diary, though every now and then he would go back in time to talk about things in his past, his family, his teammates, his opponents and what he thought about the game in general. As a result, the book is all over the place. There is no doubt an invisible structure holding it all together, though when reading it you feel as though it’s jumping from person to person and place to place. I didn’t have a problem with this approach per se, but it does make it harder to go back and search for passages you enjoyed.

Stylistically, the book is Reggie through and through. Though it’s technically co-written with sportswriter Gene Wojciechowski, the feel is all Reggie, and you can almost hear his voice in your head as you read the lines. It’s chatty, it’s funny and it’s sincere. On the downside, this also means it’s not the most well-written book, complete with all of Reggie’s rambling and superfluous verbal habits, like “To be honest”, “Let’s face it” and so forth.

For me, the book is a confirmation of many things I already knew about Reggie, though there are some things in there that surprised me. I knew he was an unlikely sports star, having required braces on his legs until he was four. He wasn’t supposed to walk or run, let alone become the best shooter in the best basketball league on the planet. I knew he lived in the shadow of his sister Cheryl — arguably the greatest women’s player of all time — for most of his life, and wouldn’t be able to beat her one-on-one until he could literally dunk on her. Just about everyone now knows about the infamous story when Reggie was gloating about his 39-point game in high school until Cheryl casually noted that she scored 105 on the same night. I knew he was superstitious and taped two quarters under his wrist band to remind himself to always play hard because his father once told him that his play wasn’t worth 50 cents.

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Cheryl and Reggie at the latter’s Hall of Fame ceremony

What I didn’t realize was how ridiculous Reggie’s work ethic was. He was always the first in to practice and the game arena and the last to leave, no matter who else played on the team. It was just the way he was. I didn’t know how much respect he had for all his coaches, even if he doesn’t always agree with them. In fact, he treated everyone on his team with respect, never talking behind anyone’s back or airing grievances to the media. As his ex-coach Larry Brown said, Reggie approached the game “the right way.”

With so many airheads, problem childs and douchebags in the league, Reggie was a surprisingly reasonable guy whose on court and off court personas were completely different. Like most professional athletes, he has an ego, but for him it was all about winning and not scoring a whole bunch of points. At various times throughout the book he notes that his teammates, coaches and the media all questioned why he didn’t take more shots, though for him it was about doing whatever he could to guide the team to victory. He also never took his success for granted. I knew he wanted to win a ring very badly, but I didn’t know he had such an appreciation for how hard it is to win games and survive in the NBA. That’s why he actually said he would have retired by 35 if he had won a ring.

I have many favourite parts in this book. I loved the respect Reggie had for Michael Jordan, whom he felt sorry for because of the way he was hounded by the press. Reggie spoke with a passion and anger when it came to the way Jordan was forced to live his life in a bubble, and it was his belief that Jordan retired because he was fed up with the constant attention and drummed-up controversies. For Reggie, Jordan was the ultimate measuring stick — he would hold and push and grab and trip Jordan to beat him in a game, but the amount of respect he had for No. 23 as a player was unparalleled. I’m sure it didn’t hurt when Jordan told Reggie that he was the second-best shooting guard in the league. Oh, and I absolutely loved this story, which he recently retold on Jimmy Kimmel.

Larry Bird, who was not yet Reggie’s coach at the time, also featured in a few golden nuggets. There was of course the infamous “present” he delivered to teammate Chuck Person during a Christmas game, and I also laughed out loud when Reggie recounted how he once tried to psyche Bird out by trash-talking him at the free throw line. Michael Jordan might be the GOAT, but for me, Larry Legend will always be the man.

The young Reggie tales were also great. The battles in the backyard with Cheryl and his brothers, his “crazy” college years, and my personal fave, the street ball hustle he and Cheryl would pull on unsuspecting players. Reggie would play against bigger, stronger kids on the block, and when money got involved he’d call out his shy-looking sister from behind the bushes. They’d up the bet after looking amateurish, and then, BAM, turn on their games and smoke the poor bastards. I so wish they had footage of that.

Another aspect of the book I found interesting was all the stuff Reggie said about players and other issues at the time, which we can now reflect on 20 years into the future.   For instance, Reggie raved on about two rookies at the time, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, calling them future superstars in the making (they’d go on to win co-Rookie of the Year and fulfill that prophecy), but he also said Kidd was great because he doesn’t get involved in politics with his coach. As some of you might know, Kidd would go on to be ushered out of Brooklyn as coach precisely because he got too involved in team politics.

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Reggie also spoke of the need for a rookie salary cap, noting that it was crazy and detrimental for players for rookies to come into the league earning more than the vets. He was right about that and he was also right about the greatness of Penny Hardaway, who would later eliminate the Pacers that season. The best prediction, if you can call it that, is his thoughts on former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whom he didn’t think very highly of.

Not all his predictions were right, of course. Reggie did think JR. Rider was going to be something special, and he believed Kevin Garnett should have gone to college. He also thought OJ Simpson was innocent and that his marriage was going to last forever (oops!). Oh, and he thought he’d never make it into the Hall of Fame.

If I were being objective, I’d tell you that I Love Being the Enemy is just another sports memoir on the market that doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from its competitors. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, though it reads better today than it did 20 years ago because we now know what kind of career Reggie will be remembered for and the hindsight to reflect on the things he wrote at the time. I’d say it’s a solid read for the average basketball fan and a must for lovers and haters of Reggie alike.

4/5

My Greatest NBA Fantasy Team of All Time

August 13, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, NBA, Sport

MJ

I haven’t done any basketball-related posts on this blog for a while, and this is a topic I have wanted to tackle for some time. After recently reading Jack McCallum’s fabulous Dream Team (review here), a chronicle of the greatest group of talent ever assembled in team sport, I started thinking about which players I would pick for my personal fantasy dream team, comprising NBA players from any era at a certain point in their careers.

This is, of course, just a personal selection of players based on a subjective assessment of each player’s talent, ability and skill, as well as what I think they will bring to the table and how they might play off each other as a cohesive unit. So don’t get your knickers in a bunch if you don’t agree. I will, however, try to justify my selections with explanations, so feel free to comment and start up a healthy debate.

As this is MY dream team, I am going to only consider players I have actually watched play in full televised or archived games (ie late 80s), as opposed to basing selections purely on reputation or grainy highlights. I therefore offer my apologies upfront to the greatest winner of all-time, Bill Russell, the most dominant scorer (and womanizer) of all time, Wilt Chamberlain, and Mr Triple Double, Oscar Robertson.

Two of the greatest actors of their generation, Arnie and Wilt

Two of the greatest actors of their generation, Arnie and Wilt

Part of the decision to remove them from contention stems from my belief that players of the past, as good as they were, aren’t as good as the players of the modern era. I mean, Russell was only 6’9″ and 225 lbs, and Wilt was regarded as unmatched at 7’1″ and 275 lbs, and the level of competition they faced was not even close. It’s no question that players today are much bigger, stronger, more athletic and more skilled. Not to say Russell, Wilt and The Big O wouldn’t still be great players in today’s game (especially if they were given the same nutrition and training opportunities), but I just don’t know enough to make that assumption.

Starters

Selection philosophy

The majority of my starting five choices won’t be controversial. There’s at least one guy that will be on everyone’s list, and we all know who that is, and there’s two other guys that will be on most lists.

My philosophy was simple. The first factor was to consider the best all-round player in that position. The second consideration was whether that player addresses a need on a team, be it scoring, passing, rebounding, defense, shooting, shot blocking, and so forth. And the third consideration was whether those players would mesh well as a team. With that in mind, my greatest starting five of all time is…

PG Magic Johnson (1988-1989)

It wasn’t hard to choose whom many regard as the greatest point guard of all time, a 6’9″ maestro with possibly the best court vision the game has ever seen. With his incredible size at PG and ability to find the open man, especially on the break, Magic would be the perfect coordinator of this team. His supernatural passing ability has somewhat shadowed his scoring and rebounding, which were both fantastic, but the best thing about Magic is that he doesn’t need to score to control and dominate a game. And let’s not forget the intangibles — his leadership and will to win.

It’s hard to pick one version of Magic for this team. There’s 1981-1982, the year where he came closest to averaging a triple double with 18.6, 9.6 and 9.5. There’s 1983-1984, when he averaged a career high 13.1 assists to go with 17.6 points, or 1986-87, when he averaged a career high 23.9 points to go with 12.2 assists. Any of these would have been wonderful, but in the end I chose his 1988-1989 MVP season, during which he averaged 22.5 points, 12.8 assists (both second highest in his career) and still grabbed 7.9 rebounds (the highest since 1982-1983). He shot 51% from the field and came close to leading the league in free throws at 91.1%. He also posted his second-highest PER at 26.9 (just 0.1 below his best PER).

SG Michael Jordan (1988-1989)

The no brainer. Of course you would have the GOAT on your team. A perfect blend of size, strength, athleticism and skills matched with an unparalleled drive, determination, and desire to win at all costs. Unstoppable offensively and capable of stopping just about everyone defensively. Even on this team, the greatest of all time, MJ would be the unquestionable star.

The harder decision was choosing the best version of Jordan to fill my team. Do I go with the offensive prodigy who put up a staggering 37.1 points in 1986-1987, the highest single season scoring average of any player not named Wilt Chamberlain? Or do I go with the Jordan of the first three-peat, where he was better athletically, or the Jordan of the second three-peat, where he was smarter and developed that money turnaround jumper? Ultimately, I could not pass on the 1988-1989 Jordan who averaged 32.5, 8 and 8 (the latter two of which were career highs) and shot nearly 54% from the field and 85% from the line. It wasn’t his most efficient year (he posted a PER of 31.7 in 1987-88), but a PER of 31.1 and a career-high true shooting percentage of 61.4% is not too shabby.

SF Larry Bird (1984-85)

Larry Legend is my favourite non-Pacers player of all time, so he was bound to be on the team somewhere. But even as an objective assessor, I would have put him on the starting lineup anyway, especially if you see my selections below. Bird is the kind of player you just have to watch to understand just how legendary he truly is. Apart from being possibly the greatest shooter of all time, Bird was a fantastic rebounder and effortless passer. He may not be the greatest one-on-one defender, but he uses his high basketball IQ and tenacity to his advantage and gets plenty of deflections and steals, plus his 6’9″ height is an advantage against smaller wing players.

But it’s the intangibles that make Bird a can’t miss player on my greatest team of all time. The ice cool confidence, that special ability to make his teammates better, and the clutchness — I’d have no problem with either him or Jordan taking the final shot every time. Bird might even be better because of his long range capabilities. With the creativity of Magic and Bird on the same team the possibilities are endless.

It’s not easy picking the best Bird (he did have three MVPs and two 50-40-90 shooting seasons), but I’ve decided on the 1984-85 season when he won his second MVP, posting averages of 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 52% from the field, 43% from three-point range and 88% from the line. He also posted the second highest PER of his career that year with 26.5.

PF LeBron James (2012-2013)

With LeBron playing the best basketball of his career after shifting predominantly to power forward in Miami, it made it easy for me to not have to decide between him and Larry Bird at SF. The best player in the game today — by far — LeBron is a unique player at 6’8″-6’9″ and 250 lbs (at least), freakishly athletic, strong as an ox and unstoppable on the break, with incredible court vision, an improving jumpshot and the ability to defend any position on the floor. So while there might be more conventional choices at PF, simply having LeBron anywhere on this starting lineup was a more important consideration for me.

The LeBron I chose for the team is the most recent version from the 2012-2013 season, when he led the Heat to their second straight title while winning his fourth MVP award. He posted his second highest PER at 31.6 and averaged a controlled 26.8 points, 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists while making it look easy. He also shot a ridiculous 56.5% from the field and 40.6% from three-point range. He may have had more eye-popping numbers in Cleveland, but there is no doubt that the LeBron of now is the much better player. To think he might not have reached his peak is a frightening thought.

C Hakeem Olajuwon (1992-1993)

Lots of great options at center, but in the end I went with the most complete player at both ends of the floor, the player with the unstoppable post moves (just ask David Robinson) and the NBA’s all-time top shot blocker. I chose Hakeem because he can do it all (he is only one of four players in NBA history to have recorded a quadruple double), but particularly because of his defensive prowess and longer shooting range compared to most centers. And he was a rare center who could actually hit his free throws, coming close to 80% in his prime. Hakeem didn’t overpower you, but he could score in an unlimited number of ways, whether it was faking you out down low, up and unders, hook shots or fadeaway jumpers. On the other end he was a menace with those long arms and exquisite footwork.

It was tempting to choose a Hakeem from the Rockets’ championship years in 1993-1994 and 1994-1995, but I think he was even better in 1992-1993, except he was overshadowed by Jordan, like everyone else. In that year, Hakeem recorded his best PER of 27.3 and averaged 26.1 points, 13 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 4.2 blocks. Just beastly.

Selection justification

I am confident my starting lineup of Magic, Jordan, Bird, LeBron and Hakeem can beat any starting five in history. You have tremendous size, with everyone except 6’6″ Jordan at 6’9″ or above. All are fantastic playmakers who make their teammates better, especially Magic, Bird and LeBron, and Jordan and Hakeem are both superior passers at their respective positions. All five are also excellent rebounders, and sound team rebounding is what makes a good team great. An interesting point to note is that all five are superb post players too, so they can take their man one-on-one to make the most of mismatch opportunities.

Defensively, Jordan and LeBron can shut down any wing player, and LeBron can take on most power forwards. Both of them, especially LeBron, are chase-down block specialists. Jordan, remember, was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-1988. Bird and Magic are not known for their D but are both clever players who can mask their deficiencies. And in the middle you have Hakeem challenging, blocking and changing shots.

If the game ever gets tight, as unlikely as that is, you have five of the greatest clutch players at their respective positions at your disposal. And if all else fails, just get the ball to Jordan and get the hell out of the way.

Whichever way you look at it, this is an unstoppable starting five! They have size and speed, they rebound and share the ball, can shoot and score and defend in a multitude of ways. With the way these guys play, you never have to worry about chemistry because they all just want to win.

See the rest of my selections and those who missed the cut after the jump!

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Book Review: ‘The Jordan Rules’ by Sam Smith

July 18, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews, Sport

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Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls sparked quite a firestorm of controversy when it was first released in late 1991, months after Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls captured their first NBA title.

At the time, no one could believe the things Smith was saying, such as Jordan’s gambling addiction, his relentless bullying of teammates and the blind eyes his coaches, team management and league officials were turning to the behaviour of the sport’s transcendent megastar.

I finally got a chance to read the 20th anniversary edition of this legendary book, which includes a new introduction looking back on the furore and how the book came into being. There is also, I presume added from later editions, an epilogue written after the Bulls’ first three-peat (the last title coming in 1993), as well as an afterword summarising the events leading up to the second championship.

Even after all these years, The Jordan Rules is still an amazing book because of its incredible insights, revelations, humour and exquisite journalism. The biggest difference, reading it now, is that none of the so-called negative things about Jordan discussed at length in the book can really be considered surprises anymore.

It is now widely accepted that: 1. Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, and possibly the greatest athlete ever; and 2. He is/was a massive a-hole. These two facts are not mutually exclusive and should not mitigate each other.

It is now actually more unexpected to see a sports superstar who isn’t seriously flawed. People these days expect a mean streak or some level of douchbaggery in their sports heroes. Kobe, for example, is a dickhead, while LeBron and Dwyane Wade are douches and Dwight Howard is a twat. The few “good guys” such as Tim Duncan are considered boring and bland. That’s why people who read The Jordan Rules now will probably wonder what the fuss was all about. Smith himself mentions this in the intro,

The book is titled The Jordan Rules (an allusion to the so-called tactics the Detroit Pistons employed to deny Jordan and the Bulls year after year, as well as the “special treatment” Jordan was afforded by his team and the league, such as skipping practice to play golf, avoiding punishment for dissent, and doing basically whatever he wanted without repercussions) but it’s actually about the entire Chicago Bulls team during the 1990-1991 NBA season.

The first few chapters take us through each of the months in the regular season, then into the playoffs and eventually, the NBA Finals. The narrative weaves in and out of events taking place throughout the year, including key games and incidents off the court, but also takes time out to give us brief biographies into each of the players on the team, coach Phil Jackson and front office guys Jerry Krause and Jerry Reisendorf. The rotund cheapskate GM Krause, in particular, is highlighted as a source of much of the discontent on the team for his unwillingness to reward players with fair contracts and his man-crush on Toni Kukoc, a European superstar at the time.

Smith was in a very fortunate position as a basketball beat writer in Chicago, giving him plenty of access to the players and staff, something which would not be possible in a post 9/11 world. He was also working in the pre-Twitter era where players were much more willing to speak to reporters without fear of it being broadcast to the world seconds later.

But are the stories in the book accurate? I’d like to think so. Smith claims nearly all the anecdotes and stories in the book are from first hand accounts from players and staff (my guess is mostly from Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant, though he claims it was just about everyone). So obviously while there will be mistakes and exaggerations, I’d like to believe the book is credible, for the most part.

Smith has a deprecating sense of humour about his writing ability, but it’s actually very good and straightforward, guided bynprofessional integrity and laced with some timely dry humour. There are no Bill Simmon’s-style cultural references, though the book has no shortage of outrageous jokes and laugh-out-loud moments. It is the kind of book I wished Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings had been. That book made the Bulls’ 1990-1991 season seem like a stroll in the park with barely a bump in the road, but The Jordan Rules revealed just how much tumult there was in and out of the locker room all year.

There is, of course, Jordan in the middle, the once-in-a-lifetime athlete who took the NBA and the sport of basketball to unprecedented heights. Jordan was not close to any of his teammates, not even Scottie Pippen (who was actually best buds with Horace Grant for a long time), and spent much of his time complaining about them because he thought they weren’t good enough to help him win a championship. He belittled many of them, telling his screeners and point guards to get the f*&% out of his way, freezing out teammates he disliked, and even punching center Will Purdue during practice. And he actually hated Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. But Jordan’s relentless drive to succeed was as unparalleled as his god given talents, and I was stunned to discover that he didn’t even start lifting weights until around 1990 and was once a junk food addict.

I don’t believe, however, that Smith was trying to paint a negative portrait of Jordan. He is clearly in awe of Jordan’s unique talents on the court, and questioned why Jordan should not have received special treatment given what he was doing for his team and the sport. Despite his basketball prowess, Jordan was not perfect but felt like he had to project that image of himself, and often that pressure was too much to overcome. He was and is an extremely private person, but can’t go anywhere in public without being hounded, explaining why it was tough for him to hang out with the rest of the team. It doesn’t excuse his bad behaviour but it helps us understand why he might be this way.

Jordan is the focus, but the rest of the team received equal attention. Just about everyone else on the roster was worried about their contracts and concerned about playing time and getting their shots (because Jordan took most of them). They looked at Jordan with a mixture of awe, resentment, envy and jealousy, but at the same time had no choice but to acknowledge that he was by far the best player they had ever seen.

Pippen, for instance, having grown up dirt poor, was obsessed with financial security. He wasn’t regarded as the second-best player in the league at that stage and was frustrated that he wasn’t getting a contract extension as Krause focused all his attention on Kukoc. It was a contract year for him and he wanted to get paid, meaning he often hogged the ball to pad his own stats (and still complained about Jordan taking all the shots).

Horace Grant was Phil Jackson’s whipping boy on the team and hated Jordan. He believed he had the chance to be a star but could not get an opportunity to shine because of Jordan’s dominance. Bill Cartwright was the voice of reason on the team but also longed to be given a fair contract, as was John Paxson, who had been loyal to the team but was getting no love in return. BJ Armstrong was a backup who believed he deserved to start, and Dennis Hopson was a former top scorer relegated to bench warmer. Everyone had their own agendas and gripes, and it was virtually a miracle that they eventually learned to put their differences aside for a common goal — to win the NBA championship.

There is so much gold in this book. I won’t spoil too many but here are some of my favourites:

– Phil Jackson, upon hearing his players’ approval of the Gulf War: “Do you understand, he explained, that these are people who will never forget, the people who lose their father or a brother or a relative? They or their children or even their children’s children. Do you want to see, Jackson wondered, your son killed someday in an airplane explosion because we’ve made Iraq a terrorist nation from what we’ve done?” I know it’s Afghanistan, not Iraq, but the words are nonetheless prophetic and chilling.

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Stacey King!

– I loved any mention of Stacey King, the 6’11” Bulls forward/center who was fat and lazy and got virtually no playing time but still believed he was a superstar and loved to BS to teammates about his prowess in college. Anyway, he once grabbed a single rebound in three games (84 minutes of game time!), and this is what one of the front office guys said: “A two-year-old could get hit in the head with more rebounds than that.”

– the words of 7’7″ center Manute Bol, the tallest player ever in the NBA, to Bulls coach Phil Jackson after Jackson kept telling refs Bol was playing then-illegal zone defense: “’Mother fuck, mother fuck, mother fuck,’ Bol shouted at Jackson in a sort of soprano hyena form of broken English. ‘Why you pick on me, you mother fuck?'”

– Charles Barkley to an official before a playoff game against the Bulls: “‘Hey, Ed,’ he yelled at Rush. ‘I hope you’ve got some Vaseline. I know you’re planning to fuck us, so maybe you’ll at least make it feel better.'”

– Jordan on why the Bulls could conquer the NBA despite the turmoil on the team: “’The thing is, this is a business, and in business you don’t have to like everyone, but you’ve got to work with them,’ Jordan said. ‘What we’ve been able to do this season is separate. Basketballwise, our focus has been the same from game to game. It’s been proven the best teams don’t always have to get along together, and if everyone likes one another, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win. The difference is in the play.'”

– Pippen on his future teammate, Dennis Rodman, who was playing for the opposing Pistons at the time: “‘They really need to get him some help,’ Pippen was saying to Grant. ‘Really. This guy is crazy. It’s the one thing I’d never realized before and I was always too stupid to not let his stuff bother me. But now I can see it. I think he does have mental problems and needs help. Really. I don’t like him, but I think he is sick and it’s just not right that people like that are allowed to walk around free on the streets. They ought to get him some help. The boy is flat-out crazy.'”

– Jordan did some dickish things such as flaunt his ability to secure tickets for Bulls games in front of less privileged teammates, but could also be extremely generous, such as meeting Make A Wish Foundation kids just about every week, call all his teammates on the stage to receive his MVP award, and agreeing to the famous “We’re going to Disney World!” declaration after winning the finals only if the $100,000 fee is split among his entire starting five.

– Phil Jackson after seeing Jordan take a serious fall during the 1991-1992 season: “The trainer and Jackson rushed over. ‘I was expecting to find blood,’ Jackson related later. ‘Instead, we saw this beautiful blonde in the front row. That’s why we stayed out there so long.'”

So as you might have gathered, I had a great time with this book. My only complaints are that it may have exaggerated a couple of things: the disharmony on the team, making it a surprise to suddenly discover that the team was on its way to a record-setting season; and also the extent of Jordan’s selfishness, as he averaged 6.3 assists that season, hardly a representation of a guy who seemingly never passed the ball.

4.5/5

Book Review: ‘Eleven Rings’ by Phil Jackson & Hugh Delehanty

July 12, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

eleven-rings

I’ve really been getting into sports books lately, so I decided to tackle Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, the latest from the Zen master, Phil Jackson, the winningest coach in NBA history.

As the title suggests, Jackson has 11 NBA championship rings as a coach (does that make him…Sauron?), comprising the 6 he won with the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in two separate three-peats in the 90s, the three-peat he accomplished with the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers at the turn of the century, and the two more he added with Kobe and Gasol in 2009 and 2010. That doesn’t even include the two he won as a bench player with the Knicks in the 70s (though “13 Rings” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it).

There were a couple of reasons I became attracted to the book. First, Jackson is the only man to have guided both Jordan and Kobe to multiple titles and hence the only man who could give detailed and personal accounts of how these two ultra-competitive alpha dogs behaved on and off the court. I wanted those juicy, sordid details, dammit!

Secondly, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with how the minds of successful people operate and how they differ to us mere mortals. What is it that drives them to succeed? Why are they awesome and I’m not? How can I also be awesome?

The narrative structure of the book is straightforward and follows Jackson through each of his 11 title runs, plus a short history of his playing days. You would expect the seasons to get a little repetitive after a few years, but each one is surprisingly different and has its own set of unique challenges. As Jackson says, the second one (in each set of championships) is usually harder than the first because the egos start rising to the surface, and the third becomes even more difficult because players start thinking they know it all.

While Eleven Rings does provide some of the things I had expected, it was ultimately a bit of a disappointment because it lacked the depth and special insights I had hoped for. The book was “co-written” by Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (who previously worked with Jackson on Sacred Hoops), though I had a feeling while reading the book that Delehanty might have done most of the heavy lifting in the writing process. As a result, the narrative felt somewhat artificial in some respects.

Most readers would have an idea of the basic details such as who the Bulls beat for their first title (the Lakers), who they had to overcome to get there (the Pistons), and so forth, so what I was looking for was the added depth Jackson’s unique perspective could provide. Instead, the book ended up glossing over much of the stuff I wanted to learn about the most — the hardest-hitting stories, the unknown intimate details, the “real” behind-the-scenes anecdotes no one but Jackson and maybe his inner circle could divulge.

To be fair, the book did address some of the things I was curious about — such as Jordan’s gambling, how Jackson handled the antics of wild child Dennis Rodman, the Shaq-Kobe feud, the Kobe rape allegations. It was interesting to find out that the first thing Kobe said to Jordan when the two came face to face for the first time was: “You know I can kick your ass one on one.” Just as it was interesting to learn that Jackson could not stand Kobe for a long time after the Colorado rape allegations because his own daughter had been the victim of an assault at college.

A surprise for me was how Jackson made it a point to really emphasize Scottie Pippen’s greatness in this book. We knew he would rave on about Jordan, but Jackson repeatedly praised Pippen’s all-round game and touted him as the engine that drove the team, a true team player that at times even outshone his more famous teammate. On the other hand, Pippen didn’t exhibit any outward jealously because of Jordan’s success, but he did resent the general lack of appreciation he received and felt shafted by his low salary (he was basically the second best player in the league but about 100 guys were earning a lot more than him).

That said, I could still sense that the information I was reading was somehow restricted and carefully managed in a way that it felt like there was a wall separating Phil and his readers. Everything he was saying came across as too “sanitised” and made me wish he would just give it to us straight, no holds barred.

The most honest parts of the book, the parts I felt came closest to being completely honest, were the sections on Kobe Bryant, which even overshadowed the sections on Jordan. Jackson’s assessment of a young Kobe was brutal — he labeled him “selfish” and “uncoachable” — and basically painted the Black Mamba as an absolute a-hole. At least Jordan was an a-hole who listened to him. However, Jackson’s stance against Kobe would soften over time as both men grew together to form a tight bond, so much so that Jackson declared his final championship — the Lakers’ 7-game victory over the Celtics in 2010 — as the most rewarding of his career.

Michael-Jordan-Kobe-Bryant-Chicago-Bulls-1998_2360518

Jackson sure is a different breed of animal to any sports coach I have ever seen or read about. For a long time I thought all that Zen stuff he’s known for was just a gimmick, but Jackson really is a dude in tune with his spiritual side. Both his parents were Christian ministers, though his restrictive upbringing led him on a path which embraced all facets of spirituality. Jackson would give his players books to read based on what he thought they needed to take the mental aspect of their game to the next level, and the teams would often engage in meditation and other bonding sessions such as road trips. When things got out of control he would consult psychiatrists. All of it was to ensure that the players could become the best they could be — not for themselves but for the sake of the team.

As someone still trying to embrace his spiritual side, I must admit that the Zen stuff didn’t exactly rock my boat. Eleven Rings is threaded with spiritual teachings (some of which even I recognised) Jackson utilised to manage his teams. There were some profound passages I could relate to, but at the same time it usually stopped the narrative dead in its tracks and turned the story into a spiritualism text book.

Nevertheless, it does make you realise that winning championships in the NBA is really really hard, and that talent alone is insufficient. It genuinely takes a full team effort where each player knows his role, where egos are put aside, and things just click at the right time. Jackson’s critics have downplayed his 11 rings by pointing to the fact that he had Jordan and Pippen, then Shaq and Kobe, then Kobe and Gasol, but I strongly believe now that without Jackson’s guidance those teams might have never gotten over the hump.

Anyway, I would recommend Eleven Rings for those interested in any of Phil’s 11 coaching titles, but in my opinion there are much better written basketball books out there. It was engaging because it was Phil Jackson and he has accomplished so much, but I had expected a little more.

3.25/5

Book Review: “Dream Team” by Jack McCallum

June 26, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

dream-team-by-jack-mccallum

I was one of those millions of kids around the world who was awestruck and inspired from watching the Dream Team — the first US Olympic basketball team featuring NBA players — obliterate their opponents at the 1992 Barcelona games. Oh sure, I didn’t quite make the NBA like Dirk Nowitzki or even Pau Gasol, superstars who credited their careers to the Dream Team, but my love for the game grew exponentially after seeing these 11 Hall of Famers (in particular legends Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) plus one college legend (Christian Laettner) take the floor together.

I didn’t totally grasp the significance of the Dream Team back then, but the recent 20 year anniversary (which coincided with the  team’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a collective unit) reignited my interest in the historic team (especially as there was a plethora of articles and documentaries dedicated to them).

If you love basketball, or even just sports in general, then I would highly recommend Jack McCallum’s 2012 non-fiction book Dream Team (which has a super long subtitle: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever). McCallum is a Sports Illustrated veteran who was one of the privileged reporters who managed to get up close and personal with all members of the Dream Team when they were in Barcelona. The book is unique not only because of McCallum’s front-row access at the time, but also because he re-interviewed all of them again, nearly 20 years later, on how they look back upon that experience from where they are today.

It’s a book that, apart from the obvious reasons, could not have been written shortly after the Olympics, or even 10 years ago. Writing the book 20 years later — as their careers ended and the Kobes and LeBrons entered the league — provides the just the right amount of perspective on how the team has gone down in history. The original Dream Team (there really only should be one) is compared and contrasted with the US basketball teams that would follow, and it makes you realize that there has never been anything like this immense collection of special talent (on and off the court) and there never will be again. It was particularly amazing to read about how the play of these 12 basketball players in Barcelona inspired a whole new generation of ballers from around the world.

dream team photo

The tone of such a book is undoubtedly difficult to get right — but McCallum does it. His writing style is effortless and easy to read, and the story is told straight — without hyperbole or excessive sentimentality — but infused with a healthy dose of nostalgia, making the book at times poignant and even goosebump-inducing. Bill Simmons’ legendary and encyclopedic Book of Basketball, one of my all-time faves, is a massive book filled with tiny nuggets of gold. Dream Team, on the other hand, is one giant nugget with many more tiny nuggets growing out of it.  Having seen several documentaries and read many articles about the Dream Team I thought I knew it all, but there were so many fascinating tidbits and anecdotes in this book, described as vividly as though they happened yesterday. Every quote is a gem that unveils something about that person’s character — it could confirm some preconceptions you may have had, or it could contradict your biases against them.

It’s not a gut-bustingly funny book like say the Book of Basketball, but McCallum does have a razor-sharp wit and there will probably be a lot of chuckles and smiling shakes of the head as you read some of the vignettes he recreates on paper.

The book is broken down into 36 chapters of varying lengths plus a number of interludes that provide mini-profiles of the Dream Teamers. The narrative thread, at first glance, feels like it jumps around aimlessly, though once you get into it it becomes clear that a lot of thought went into planning the structure and the pieces eventually fall together to build a complete portrait of the team and its parts.

Naturally, the three biggest stars of the team, Jordan, Magic and Bird, get the most attention, but every member of the team has their moments, including the late great coach Chuck Daly. Parts of the book are dedicated to the history of how the team is out together, including the man behind the idea of having NBA pros playing in the “amateur” Olympics, the man warmly referred to as the “Inspector of Meat.”

Various other sections focus on Isiah Thomas, the HOF Detroit Pistons guard whose remarkable skills should have landed him on the Dream Team, but whose penchant for burning bridges and his icy relationship with the top dog, Jordan, denied him a place in history. But if you want to know exactly how all this stuff went down, you just have to read the book.

And of course, there’s the ancillary stuff, like the money, bureaucracy and squabbles, as well as security concerns surrounding the team’s presence in Barcelona. All of this is dealt with in the book, or at least craftily touched upon.

My favourite chapter of the book is the blow-by-blow (in the competitive sense, not the Wilt Chamberlain sense) account of the scrimmage between the Dream Teamers in Monte Carlo before the Olympics, a game McCallum described as the “greatest game nobody ever saw.” Guys like Jordan and Magic have called it the greatest game they have ever been a part of. Just imagine it — 10 (2 guys were injured) future HOFers and alpha dogs duking it out for ultimate bragging rights. I would give my right ball to have watched that game in person, but reading McCallum’s brilliant account of it isn’t half bad either.

I learned a thing or two about each of the Dream Teamers from reading this book. I didn’t realize how badly Magic Johnson was refusing to give up his throne to Jordan, even though he had just been handed what was believed back then to be a death sentence by becoming infected with HIV (annoyingly referred to as the AIDS virus by McCallum a few times). I forgot that John Stockton broke his leg in the team’s first outing (before the Olympics) and barely played in the games. I found out that Karl Malone was pretty much a black redneck who had no qualms with speaking his mind, for better or worse. I was fascinated to read about the team’s most controversial and possibly “best” player, Charles Barkley, being Charles Barkley.  I was astonished to discover that Chris Mullin was an alcoholic for most of his life and it wasn’t until he got sober that he took his game to a new level. I never knew David Robinson was such a saint (he really is) but also an outcast because he’s too intelligent. I had no idea that Clyde Drexler was the last NBA player added onto the roster, a fact he resents, and that he also believes he is as good as Jordan. I gained a few insights into Scottie Pippen as a player and his relationship with Jordan, and his hatred towards Tony Kukoc because the Bulls held off giving him a multimillion dollar extension so they could sign the talented Croat. I was amused by Patrick Ewing’s unlikely friendship with Larry Bird, as they became the odd couple known as “Harry and Larry.” Of course, there’s also the college kid who never could fit in, Christian Laettner, who actually beat out Shaquille O’Neal (then in college) for the final roster spot, and turns out was quite the pratty dickhead back in those days.

The book’s descriptions of Larry Bird confirmed what I have come to appreciate (especially in the last few years): that while Jordan may be the greatest player of all time, Bird is the greatest f%*&ing legend to have ever lived. It’s not just his play, but the bravado, the trash talking, the wisecracks, the one-liners, the team-first mentality, and the genuine humility he radiates, even if he did love to ask McCallum regularly whether he has “blown Magic yet.”

Last but not least — well, Jordan is just Jordan, the man whose endless energy baffled even his fellow Dream Teamers. This was someone who could play cards all night until 6am in the morning, go play 36 holes of golf and come back just in time to catch the team bus to the game venue, and put up 20 points and shut down the opponent’s best player without batting an eyelid.

Most of all, I learned about the amount of respect they all had for one another, for their opponents, and most of all, for the game of basketball. That’s what made them so great. The greatest.

I devoured this 384-page book in four days (60% of it on a day where I caught two short flights and a handful of public transport), which is miraculous for me considering how little time I have to read on most days. It’s a testament to what a page-turner this book is.

5/5