The summer -- after the majority of the prime free agent signings take place -- brings a few precious weeks of vacation to relax and recharge. It’s the time of year when you can finally attack the stacks of books (now, more and more, e-books on Kindle) that have lain, forlorn, around the house, waiting to be read.
Few things afford such pleasure as putting one’s nose squarely into an anticipated new book, turning off your brain and being transported somewhere else for a few hours. It’s a habit to which we all should return. And I wanted to share some of my summer reading with you.
"Golden Days" by Jack McCallum
Let’s start with Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum, already in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame as a winner of the Curt Gowdy Award, and a great chronicler of the NBA game (“The Dream Team,” “Seven Seconds or Less,” and many others). Jack’s latest book, “Golden Days” (Ballantine, available Oct. 24), is a mashup of two historic teams -- the 1971-72 Lakers, who won an NBA record 33 straight games en route to the title, and the 2016-17 Warriors, whose pursuit of Kevin Durant created a team both reviled and revered for its unprecedented collection of superstar power.
The link between the two, of course, was Jerry West, still a superstar player on the Lakers’ team and, later, a consultant and consigliere for the Warriors. He impacted two championship teams playing four decades apart with his unerring eye for talent and chemistry, which led to a second life putting together the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal Lakers together as the team’s general manager and top executive.
“All I’m saying,” West tells McCallum about team building, “is that I’ve had pretty good success at putting that puzzle together.”
A year’s access with West gives McCallum the fabric with which to weave two tales. It isn’t really a biography of West, who wrote his own, acclaimed account in 2011 of his tortured life, but his purview is the spine of the narrative. The ’72 championship, on that team that finished 69-13, the third-best regular season record in league history, was West’s only NBA title in nine Finals appearances. His Finals losses, as any student of the pro game knows, haunt him much more than the victory satisfied him.
The 1971-72 season was an odd one … and even more odd is how little has actually been written about that team, compared with some of the other historically great NBA single-season squads. Elgin Baylor, West’s running mate and fellow Hall of Famer through their entire run together in Los Angeles, retired just eight games into the season -- a rather abrupt departure that McCallum sheds light on. McCallum is great this way, unearthing gems, such as West’s intense dislike for the late Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke (in another life, I covered Washington’s football team when Cooke owned it, and found him, if obviously puffed up as all multi-millionaires seem to be, also charming and a great quote) and the behind-the-scenes management role played by the team’s legendary play-by-play radio man, Chick Hearn.
McCallum chronicles that season alternatively with the Warriors’ run to the title last season, detailing both how majority owner Joe Lacob came to buy the team from Chris Cohan, but how the franchise meticulously added piece after important piece, both on and off the court. The Warriors are a tribute not just to Stephen Curry’s superstar bona fides and Draymond Green’s grit, but for the people throughout the organization that have brought not only talent but humanity to their jobs, including GM Bob Myers and team president Rick Welts.
West had nothing to do with the Warriors getting Curry, but he did play a role (one he diminishes) in helping recruit Kevin Durant to join the team in 2016. That gift of West’s to impart old-man wisdom to today’s players while still getting the respect that they only give to their peers and contemporaries is incredibly rare. Most former players of his generation come off to today’s stars as cranks and jealous has-beens. West still, improbably, is one of the guys.
And McCallum still mines his side of the street as well as West does his. It was McCallum who broke the news that West would be leaving the Warriors at the end of The 2017 Finals to take a consulting gig with the Clippers.
Nearing 80, West still has something to give a team desperate to win on the biggest stage. McCallum shows why that is.
"Stories I Tell on Dates" by Paul Shirley
If West is tortured yet rarely sentimental, tears flow throughout our friend Paul Shirley’s latest book, “Stories I Tell on Dates” (Fourth Bar Books, available Oct. 17; signed copies can be pre-ordered here). It’s a lovely memoir of Shirley’s life growing up in rural Kansas, his sojourns through organized basketball -- and, literally, all the girls he’s loved before.
His tales, though, are much more about romance than sex, weaving in the memories of the boy who cried his way through his first sleepover camp with the young man who started with virtually no Division I college offers in high school but got good enough to play at Iowa State for Tim Floyd, and led his Cyclones to an upset win over Kansas at Allen Field House (which is doubly gratifying for Shirley, as he details along the way).
Shirley deftly describes what it’s like to be a good player whose teammate is a great one -- in his case, Marcus Fizer, a future Lottery pick by Chicago in 2000 -- and the discordant feelings that can produce, even on a team that eventually reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Then came cups of NBA coffee with six teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls, before injuries and the uncertain path of the journeyman did their work. Playing overseas in Greece, Russia and Spain, life, love and hoops continue to intertwine in Shirley, who gradually grows distant from the game as the rest of his very talented life as a writer beckons. (Like Shirley, I too was laid low as a tween by the vagaries of high expectations from schoolmates at spelling bees; if I still remember other students getting words like ‘table’ and ‘airplane’ in the first round, while I was handed ‘anesthesia,’ what of it?)
Like anyone who’s played overseas, Shirley has pungent tales of not getting paid on time, or not getting paid at all, and having coins and other objects thrown at him when he played. But there is a special poignancy when one is injured overseas, badly, as Shirley was in Spain. But it didn’t end all badly for him over there.
Shirley, who founded the writing sites Writers Blok LA and PenCoach, details a few one-nighters. But they never come across as such; he seems to be a great deal of thought into all of his encounters -- what should happen before, and why, and how both people might feel about it afterward:
Her hotel isn’t far, so I tell her I’ll walk her.
I’m wondering if she’ll invite me up, but when we get to the parking lot it becomes clear that this will be no wild, sex-fueled first night. Her band’s appearance in Kansas City isn’t exactly Zeppelin at Shea Stadium.
They’re two to a room at a hotel that straddles the line dividing boutique and Super 8, leaving us in the parking lot hemming and hawing like one of us is trying to buy a used car.
It’s such a stereotype, too: end of the night, standing outside her hotel, not drunk, but a few drinks in. It’s too obvious, too predictable. Plus, my brain says. You might see her again. It’d be cool to have her as a friend.
But then my brain says something else.
I bend down. I lean toward her. I kiss her.
She kisses me back.
It is lovely, our kiss. Not because it is a great kiss because what first kiss is?
No, it is lovely because it is unexpected; because when we got up today neither of us had an inkling that this is how our day would end. Or at least, not much inkling. I’d be a liar if the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.
When we are done, we have that little hug that post-kiss humans do.
Then she says, “How did you know to do that?”
There’s plenty of basketball reminiscing, too, including the night Scottie Pippen gave Shirley an assist he’ll remember forever. But you get the feeling Shirley’s life would be just as interesting via his retelling if he were a 6-foot-10 CPA.
"Golden" by Marcus Thompson
Stephen Curry is several inches shorter than Shirley, and in some ways, his rise from an almost unknown guard at Charlotte Christian High School to two-time Kia MVP in little more than a decade is more improbable than Shirley’s career. Curry’s journey is at the heart of Marcus Thompson’s “Golden” (available in paperback Oct. 3). Thompson, now a columnist for The Athletic, has followed almost all of Curry’s career in the Bay Area as a reporter and columnist, and that insider’s knowledge makes this a worthwhile read.
For example: Thompson knows that while most would think Steph Curry got all his competitiveness and drive from his father, Dell, the longtime sharpshooter who starred in the ‘90s with Charlotte, just as much if not more came from his mother, Sonya, a volleyball star at Virginia Tech while Dell Curry played on the basketball team.
Steph Curry was the first guard of his generation to become a superstar from a mid-major school, becoming a national name at Davidson after barely being recruited out of his small high school in North Carolina. UNC and Duke made no runs at him. (Damian Lillard, from Weber State, and C.J. McCollum, from Lehigh, have followed in Curry’s footsteps.)
Thompson’s book also chronicles the papered over (by some, anyway) role that former GM Larry Riley had in drafting Curry with the seventh pick in the 2009 Draft, even after Curry’s reps had explicitly told him he didn’t want to play for Golden State, preferring the Knicks, who picked next in that Draft. But even Riley, unsure that Curry would still be there when the Warriors’ turn to pick came, was wiling to trade the pick, to Phoenix, which was offering a still-in-his-prime Amar’e Stoudemire as the centerpiece of its package. Once the Timberwolves, with two cracks at Curry with the fifth and sixth picks, went for Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn instead, the Warriors quickly called off the deal with Phoenix and took Curry, changing the history of the league.
Thompson is not afraid to mark Curry’s occasional forays into hero ball, as evidenced by his uneven play throughout the 2016 playoffs following two injuries that limited the normal quickness and ballhandling wizardry that makes him unguardable. “…Curry didn’t become a smarter player,” Thompson writes. “He didn’t compensate for his physical limitations by upping his cerebral game. Instead, he seemed to lose focus more. He didn’t hunker down and become more efficient, leaning on his experience and high basketball IQ. Instead, Curry leaned on his ability to pull off the magical.”
Thompson also explores the dislike some other NBA players have for Curry, skating through the touchy subject of color -- skin color -- within the black community. Curry is a light-skinned African-American, and the history of black people in this country is fraught with conflicts that often occurred within the black race, with light skinned blacks sometimes viewed as being “favored” more by whites. While dark-skinned blacks are more reviled, a sentiment with roots in who lived and worked in the “big house” during slavery and who lived and worked in the fields. (Curry has joked about his tone; when the Warriors visited the White House in 2016, he had a visible cut on his forehead after an inadvertent rake across his face by Carmelo Anthony. “Light-skinned problems,” Curry said, to much laughter.)
There’s not much other off-court conflict in Thompson’s tale, but he doesn’t have much to work with in that area. Curry is as controversy-free as any superstar that has ever played.
By all accounts, he’s a pretty devout Christian who married his first serious girlfriend, is rarely seen at clubs and spends most of his time off the floor with his family and friends. It’s hard to make that very sexy, and to his credit, Thompson doesn’t try. The book is thus more tribute than historical, along the lines of Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” his “fictional novel” which featured the protagonist’s ardor for Frank Gifford, the late great running back of the New York Giants.
Thompson dutifully details the work ethic, the drive, the willingness for Curry to step out on his own to Under Armour instead of being just another Nike guy. It is indeed not hard to celebrate Curry; he’s affable, available, reasonably quotable. Hard not to like, the same as Thompson’s book.
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