PistonPowered Book Club: Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam

Who knows how long the NBA lockout will last, but my plan lockout or otherwise was to spend the summer catching up on some basketball reading. Since the news grind will probably slow way down, I figured I might as well give some book recommendations and hopefully start some discussions in the comments for those who have read the books we’re featuring or encourage others to pick it up for those who haven’t.

I’m starting the series today with a book that should be required reading for any NBA fan, David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game. The book is centered on the late 1970s Portland Trail Blazers, just after their NBA championship and trade of franchise center Bill Walton. But the book delves into way more issues than just the Blazers, and there are a couple reasons I hope people either read it if they haven’t or revisit it if they have. The first is to simply look at how some of the balance of power finger pointing between owners and players is almost identical today to what was going on in the era that Halberstam wrote Breaks. Even beyond that, the alleged perception issues the league was dealing with at the time sound so familiar to the tired talking points trotted out by NBA critics today. I wrote about this issue in a review of the book for HoopSpeak earlier this year, in comparison to a Buzz Bissinger column in the Daily Beast that was critical of the league and its perception:

The brilliance of David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game isn’t simply that he chronicles one of the most interesting teams in NBA history, the late 1970s Portland Trail Blazers, but that he also provides a firsthand account that shows the arguments for why the NBA would fail were exactly the same in 1979 as they are in 2011.

Halberstam: “Just as the camera had caught and transmitted the true intensity of old-fashioned rivalries in the earlier days of the league, so it now caught with equal fidelity the increasing lethargy and indifference of many players in regular season games, a lethargy and indifference now seen by a largely white audience as at least partially racial in origin.”

Bissinger: “When I wrote the book Friday Night Lights about high-school football in Texas, I saw the racial stereotypes of some whites up close—their firm belief that white athletes admirably succeeded because of hustle and hard work and brains, and black athletes succeeded solely on the basis of pure athletic skill. In other words, white athletes virtuously worked their tails off whereas black athletes simply coasted because they can.”

Halberstam: “It was not just that they had won, but the way they had won, unselfish in a selfish world and selfish profession. … There were hundreds of telegrams and letters thanking the coach and the players for helping their programs and making it easier to coach basketball the right way.”

Bissinger: “Although basketball is supposed to be a team game, it has become more one-on-one in the NBA than a boxing match. The style has changed and it is a definite turnoff.”

Halberstam also touches on a still common point that Bissinger doesn’t deal with in his column: that fans were being turned off by escalating salaries, guaranteed contracts that crippled teams if the player didn’t provide production commensurate with his salary and bitter player-team disputes that often led to star players changing teams.

The beauty of Breaks is just the timelessness of it. There are so many names you’ll recognize (Lionel Hollins, Geoff Petrie, Jack McCloskey, Lenny Wilkens, the list goes on) associated with that decade in Portland hoops who went on to become long-term coaches or executives in the league. The book is full of short anecdotes and random stories that will blow your mind. It’s one of the best researched books in any genre that I’ve ever read with the level of detail included.

And the second reason I wanted to start off with this book in the series here is because there is a great story about a young Isiah Thomas when he was a hotshot high school player in Chicago trying to decide on a college:

(Wayne) Embry had thought Thomas a truly remarkable young man of great human promise as well as athletic ability and he thought the worst thing that could happen to him as to go to a school where he would be catered to. Bobby Knight, whatever else, catered to no one. Embry not only helped in the recruiting himself, but he brought in Quinn Buckner, now a Milwaukee guard and former Indiana star who had fashioned a rare ongoing four-year love-hate relationship with Knight while at Bloomington.

With all that heavy weaponry brought in, Indiana seemed to be ahead in the bidding. Then in a dramatic last-minute confrontation, Gregory Thomas, one of Isiah’s older and more volatile brothers, had appeared, and there had been a series of charges and countercharges, threats and counterthreats about Isiah’s future with Bobby Knight. Gregory included Embry and Buckner among the potential exploiters of his brother. Knight, enraged, had finally blown up. “You’re an asshole and you’re a failure, and the worst thing about you is that you want Isiah to fail the way you did.” He turned to Isiah and got up. “If you stay near him you’re going to be ruined. I’m getting out of here. I’m sorry we lost you.” Then he walked out. The next day Isiah Thomas, in tears, had come to see Knight and had pleaded for a chance to go to Indiana. There he had gone and soon he too was fashioning a love-hate relationship with Knight worthy of that between Buckner and Knight.

There are other great books out there with more about the Thomas-Knight relationship that we’ll hopefully (or not hopefully, if it means the lockout ends quickly) get into this summer.

I’m going to try for two or three of these posts a month (depending on how fast I can read the books on my list). Next book I’m working on is The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith if anyone wants to read it before the next post.

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