Think of the first time you picked up a basketball. The feel of the pebble-grain surface, the smell of the leather (or, if you were outside on pavement, the rubber), the awe and joy of seeing your first or fifth or 100th shot actually go through the hoop.
Now imagine some of the greatest players in basketball history feeling and sharing those same memories and emotions. That’s what the authors of Basketball: A Love Story tapped into.
The book from Crown Archetype is a companion project to the ESPN Films series, derived from interviews with more than 170 of the game’s most famous players, coaches and executives. In collaboration with director Dan Klores, writers Jackie MacMullan and Rafe Bartholomew combed through the transcripts of “a thousand hours” of conversations.
They organized and excerpted the interviews along thematic lines, winding up with a final result that is equal parts intimate reminiscence and oral history worthy of a spot on reference bookshelves.
For instance, here’s Magic Johnson talking about his early crush on the sport, all thanks to watching Philadelphia games on TV with his father when young Earvin was maybe four years old: “Wilt Chamberlain was his favorite player. I would go out and practice Wilt’s ugly finger roll and try to be ‘the Big Dipper,’ and ever since that moment I just had to have a ball in my hand.”
Then there’s LeBron James, whose infatuation hit at about the same age, by which time Johnson was a five-time NBA champ: “I started playing on a crate. We cut the bottom out, nailed it to the light pole, me and my friends. No backboard, so every shot had to go straight in or you didn’t make it. … Playing basketball, it did something to me.”
It would be a daunting task to try to encapsulate the sport’s history in 400-plus pages, so MacMullen, Bartholomew and Klores didn’t even try. It was tough enough divvying up the chapters and giving proper weight to the various eras, franchises, teams and individuals. Readers who are fans of the 1970s New York Knicks probably will be delighted, those who favor the Gregg Popovich-tenure San Antonio Spurs -- who didn’t participate as much as some others in the project -- might crave more.
“We began reading through the transcripts,” Bartholomew said, “and ended up making sure we hit as many of the major teams, the dynasties. The ‘60s Celtics, going right into Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. We were not going to make this book without a chapter on Michael Jordan.
“So there’s a little of ‘playing the hits’ thing. Then we wanted to include thematic, bigger picture stuff that we knew we had to get in there, like the chapters on race, the women’s game and the international game.”
Every interview for the ESPN Films series began with the subject stating his or her name and then explaining how he or she fell in love with basketball. Along the way, for all their experience writing about the NBA, the WNBA and college hoops, the authors learned a few things.
“I had heard of Connie Hawkins, but only in the context of a player and how he was involved in point-shaving,” said MacMullan, senior writer for ESPN.com. “That’s really all I knew. But I think one of the stars of this book is Roz Litman, his attorney, who has since passed away, and the incredible story of his [improper] blackballing.”
For example, famed NBA coach Don Nelson -- a contemporary who attended the school, Iowa, Hawkins would have -- related the pressure he felt when asked to testify about Hawkins’ ability, when the league was determined to keep him out. “Red Auerbach in essence threatens him,” MacMullan said. “‘I’ve been told to tell you, if you do that, you might be done,’” the Boston coach told Nelson.
“And then in a little cameo role,” MacMullan added, “there was a young lawyer representing the NBA who looks at the case [in 1969] and says, ‘This isn’t right. You need to let this guy in.’ And that young lawyer, of course, is David Stern.”
Some voices are missing -- Michael Jordan, Popovich and of course legends of the game who passed away before the project began. But some such as Moses Malone and Jack Ramsay make posthumous appearances, their conversations completed before their deaths in 2015 and 2014, respectively. Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell, a tough “get” for interviews, sat for more than two hours.
MacMullan was wowed by Russell, as well as by his longtime adversary and shorttime teammate, big man and sports’ first black general manager Wayne Embry.
“Wayne Embry to me was a really poignant voice,” she said, citing Embry’s tales of racial tensions and stereotyping in the 1950s and ‘60s. “I loved to cover him so much, but as much as I liked him when he was [GM] in Cleveland, he never told me a darn thing. In this book, I thought he was great.”
Bartholomew, a former features editor at Grantland.com, enjoyed another of the game’s pioneer/storytellers.
“I think of Spencer Haywood as the interview that jumps all the way off the page and shakes you,” Bartholomew said. “He is so funny and engaging. His personality really jumped out at me.”
In a chapter on Olympic basketball, for instance, Haywood is quoted: “Because of the  black boycott ... we were considered Uncle Toms because we played. Well, I knew what an Uncle Tom was, and I knew I wasn’t that. I knew what it is to be an American. I know what freedom is.”
A lengthy chapter is dedicated to Jordan and the authors don’t sweat any current social-media debates, titling it “The Greatest of All Time.” Most of the interviews were conducted before the recent Michael vs. LeBron wrangling caught fire.
“For people in the book, there’s not that much debate,” Bartholomew said. “If that becomes a talking point that brings the book into the news, that’s fine with me. But I don’t feel uncomfortable planting that flag for Michael Jordan.”
The tricky part is planting any flag at all in a crazy, ever-changing NBA, where narratives emerge, morph, rise, fall and curl back on themselves almost daily.
And yet, when you hear/read folks from Calvin Murphy to Adam Silver, from Cheryl Miller to Yao Ming, sharing the sense of calm, refuge and confidence they got from basketball, there’s a common thread that stretches across the better part of a century, and it’s timeless.
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