I understand the argument for college basketball over the NBA. The points usually include: the college kids care more, they are playing for the love of the game. The NBA season is too long. NBA games are always tied with two minutes to go so why watch the whole game. LeBron gets all the calls. There is no such thing as a traveling violation. And how can you beat March Madness?
My response is always, "Just re-watch the 1997 or 1998 NBA Finals or the Spurs/Heat series from a few years back or even just Game 7 of this year's NBA Finals. I don't think basketball can get any better than that."
After reading David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, I have a new starting point for any skeptical NBA fan. If you are new to the game, haven't watched in years or gave up on the league shortly after Michael Jordan retired (and I mean the real retirement, those Wizards years didn't count) I invite you to start with this story. And if you are a NBA nerd like me, get ready to have a new favorite book.
The Breaks of the Game is the story of the late 70's Portland Trailblazers. For me, all of NBA history pre-1997 is a gray zone. I know the late 80's/early 90's were Michael, Hakeem and the Pistons. The 80's were Bird and Magic. The 60's were the Bill Russell Celtics, but the 70's? Maybe Dr. J and Kareem?
I went back and looked at the NBA Champions of the 70's and my immediate assumption was this book had to be focused on the 1977 Portland Trailblazers. That team, led by a dominant Bill Walton, won the NBA Finals. Not the case. Well then it's got to be the 1978 team, the defending champs who started out the season 50-8, they were on pace to be one of the best teams ever. The title, The Breaks of the Game, that would make sense because Walton's injury derailed their title hopes. Again, not the season picked.
Halberstam focuses on the 1979-80 season. He brilliantly weaves his way from player to player to coach, even trainers, giving a level of detailed background that is so rich it feels like you are reading a novel. In fact, most novels don't get into this level of detail about what's going on with each of its characters. These are not spoiled millionaires who don't care, a lot of these guys are borderline nervous wrecks who are worried about being cut, traded or one bad break being the end of a career.
In the world of sports where post-game interviews can be very cliche and surface level (We played hard tonight, it's not about me, it's the team) I have always wondered what is really going on behind the scenes. The Breaks of the Game gives you this backstage pass.
The prose feels like you are reading a Steinbeck or The Great Gatsby. When describing the difficult transition NBA players face from college to the pros, Halberstam uses Walton as an example:
"Perhaps part of the problem was UCLA; UCLA was Eden but the rest of the world was no Eden. In his three years at UCLA his teams went 86 and 4, the good guys always won. But life, let alone basketball, was not an 86-4 proposition. The good guys did not always win. UCLA always had the best players available; by the nature of the NBA draft, it was Walton's fate to go to the team with the worst players in the league."
The book is 400 pages long, but Halberstam wastes none of them. It would be hard to find what to cut. For example, the whole book he paints this detailed portrait of Portland's Head Coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay, but with 3 pages left to go it's almost this "oh by the way" moment when he talks about how Ramsay was an excessive sweater and used to tape pieces of Pampers to his armpits to try and cover up. How is that not the first story you tell??
His descriptions are short and effective like how he explained Walton's feet:
"To start with, the arch of his foot was incredibly high, more like that of a woman in high heel shoes than that of a normal person."
His trips into the time machine will start simple, like, "Lionel Hollins and Maurice Lucas were having breakfast." They start swapping college recruiting stories, Hollins talks about the time he visited BYU and they kept pushing him toward milk in the cafeteria when he asked for a Coke. Lucas talks about Minnesota University, "I had seen the Minnesota Vikings play, all those people in the stands with woolen masks over their faces. So I told The Mussel (Minnesota's coach) as far as I was concerned he coached at the University of Alaska." Hollins one ups it, talks about the time he turned The Mussel down, gets called to the front desk at the airport (Attention please, will Mr. Hollins please come up to the front desk), and there is Musselman still pleading, a letter of intent in his hands.
There is this passage in the book where Halberstam is describing the background of Kermit Washington, how Washington didn't have a lot of confidence growing up and it wasn't until a biology class when a teacher complemented him (he assumed she was making fun of him at first) that he began to turn things around. Halberstam maps out Washington's journey, I'm rooting for the guy and right as I'm looking for an old Kermit Washington Blazers jersey online he leads the story to this surprise twist ending when Washington punches Rudy Tomjanovich right in the face.
This is a famous NBA incident, the punch made Washington Public Enemy Number 1, comparable to how the world viewed Ron Artest right after the Pistons brawl. But after reading this book you can't help but still be a fan.
You end up rooting for everyone from this Trailblazers team. Most of the focus is on the Blazers, but Halberstam goes back in time and jumps around the league. You get detours on Red Auerbach, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem, Marvin Barnes, Dr. J. You get college recruiting stories, like the time Bob Knight landed Isaiah Thomas. This is an all out history lesson on the NBA and what's fascinating is this is written before Michael Jordan so this line: Portland traded Tom Owens to Indiana for a first-round draft choice in 1984 is nonchalant, you feel like they would have updated it by now: Traded Tom Owens to Indiana for the first-round pick THAT COULD HAVE BEEN MICHAEL JORDAN BUT THE TRAILBLAZERS PICKED SAM BOWIE!
In terms of tortured fans, I know the Cubs get the attention for the championship drought, or Cleveland before this year's NBA Finals, but man the Trailblazers fans have been through hell. Starts with Bill Walton's injury, made worse because they used to have Moses Malone as Walton's backup, but they had let him go. In 1984 they could have picked Michael Jordan. Twenty years later they had Brandon Roy, whose career was cut short from injuries. They could have picked Kevin Durant, went with Greg Oden instead, another franchise center whose career cut short from injuries.
How could you not root for Portland to win a title after going through all of that? #I'mWithPortland
For NBA nerds, there are so many moments in this book you will appreciate. Like how Bill Walton named his son Luke Walton after his teammate Maurice Lucas (nicknamed Luke). Can't wait to use that at an obscure sports trivia night. The names in this book are surprisingly familiar too. I don't remember Lionel Hollins the player, but I recognize the name as a coach. Ron Brewer is Ronnie Brewer's dad. The list goes on.
What may be most fascinating about this book is to be transported to an era when the NBA was still struggling compared to baseball and football, but was doing much better than it was in the 50's - 60's. The numbers are shocking, lines like: In 1979 the Boston Celtics, once the tightest of teams, began the season with a payroll of $2,651,071, the highest in the league. The world had indeed changed. That number was high back then! Now if a backup guard were paid $2.6 million that would be considered a steal.
Or how the 1980 NBA Finals were shown on tape-delay. I just assumed Magic Johnson's "start at center for injured Kareem" game must have blown up the internet, Twitter had to have exploded. The reality? People had to stay up until midnight just to see a replay.
Or another nonchalant moment: he sold the San Diego Clippers to Donald Sterling, a Los Angeles realtor-lawyer, for $13.5 million, a figure far far greater than the amount he had spent to buy in. Not "racist billionaire Donald Sterling" and no mention of Steve Ballmer buying the team 30 years later for $2 billion.
What is inspiring about this book is it doesn't take an historically great team to write an historically great book. Ramsay went into the '79-80 season hoping his guys would finish 45-37. The Trailblazers ended up 38-44, barely making the playoffs. The season ended with a first round exit. Through great reporting, hundreds of interviews and a keen eye for the game of basketball, Halberstam turns an otherwise mediocre season into maybe the greatest sports book of all time.
Speaking of basketball books, some exciting news, I'm releasing an e-book on basketball (much shorter than The Breaks of the Game) that will be available for $2.99 on October 20th. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm also on Twitter at @Chris0brien. The "0" as in "zero" not an "o" as in "Greg Ostertag."