In today’s era of nonstop information and updates, being a sports fan is great. No matter what time of day or year it is, you can always find some sort of story or update about whatever sport it is you are interested in. In addition to the major networks and enterprises like ESPN and ABC, there are also infinite amounts of people like me who just want to spread even more information and/or opinions.
That’s great and all (and sometimes really fucking annoying), but with sports journalism, much like other areas of journalism, there’s nothing like a great book. Growing up I wasn’t an avid reader, so if I read anything it was most likely about sports, and over the years I’ve read some good ones, including favorites Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel, The Fab Five by Mitch Albom, The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, and most recently The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith. If you like basketball I highly recommend all of these books.
However, before Rules, I read what is considered to be possibly the greatest basketball book ever written, The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. Written in 1981, Breaks covers the late 1970s Portland Trail Blazers teams, particularly the seasons that came after their one and only championship in 1977, whose team is still considered to be one of the greatest of all time. Among learning about the players and coaches that were part of the Portland organization, the book also discusses issues and topics that pertain to that time period that still exist today, like race, the length of the NBA season, greed, and teamwork. It’s everything you would want to know about a team, and Halberstam does it with the kind of smart writing you don’t usually see in a sports book.
Here are a few excerpts from Breaks:
Referring to Bill Walton, who in 3 years of playing at UCLA won 2 NCAA championships and wound up finishing with a college career record of 86-4.
‘In his senior year Walton talked with Wooden about his need to smoke marijuana after a game. He asked for permission to go back to his motel room or his apartment after a big game and smoke. He needed this, he said, to relax. It took him hours to come down from the excitement of competition. Wooden said he was absolutely against it. Walton insisted; he was so tense after a game it was costing him sleep and affecting his readiness for succeeding games. Finally, reluctantly, Wooden had given his permission. All right, he had said, but don’t tell your teammates about it. ‘
While stuck at an airport due to poor weather, one of the assistant coaches was trying to get Dick Bavetta, one of the most recognizable NBA refs of all time, onto a flight.
‘He was talking with one of them, Dick Bavetta, about George Gervin, the San Antonion guard, slim, graceful, known as The Iceman. Ice had scored fifty points the night before. ‘A few weeks ago I refereed a game with San Antonio,’ Bavetta said. ‘We were ready to start the game but the ball didn’t feel quite right. A little soft, you know. So I threw it to Gervin. ‘How’s it feel, Ice?’ I asked. Ice bounces it once or twice, throws it back and shrugs. ‘A ball’s a ball,’ he said. Scored forty-five points that night. It doesn’t look like he’s doing it, and you think to yourself, Ice isn’t doing it tonight, and then you check at the end of the game, forty-five points.”
The Philadelphia 76ers were a rival for Portland, being the team they would beat to win their only championship in 1977. During those years Philly remained tough, and they are often referenced in the book.
‘There was Daryl Dawkins, the man-child, his fifth year in the league, only twenty-three years old, 6’11”, 265 pounds, all, it seemed, muscle. His game had not caught up to his body but the potential, was always there…They thought Dawkins limited by a fatal tendency towards kindness and happiness. He had invented an imaginary planet and called it, of all things, Lovetron. He still loved to dunk, and earlier that year had done so with such force that he shattered a glass backboard in a game against Kansas City. That had sent a rival player, Bill Robinzine, running, his hands over his face as the glass fell. Dawkins, who liked to give names to his dunks, had named that one his “Chocolate Thunder Flyin’ Robinzine Cryin’ Teeth Shakin’ Glass Breakin’ Rump Roastin’ Bun Toastin’ Wham Bam Glass Breaker Am Jam.”
‘But it was not just the leaping ability. It was The Doctor’s hands. They were huge and yet surprisingly delicate, with extremely long fingers. It was odd, Gross (Portland player) suspected, for a player to be so fascinated with another player’s hands, but Julius Erving had beautiful hands. They allowed him to hold the ball lightly and yet still control it, to do tricks with the ball, to drive past the basket and then at the last minute to score by putting all sorts of different spins and reverse spins on the ball in ways denied mere mortals with mortal hands…There was only one thing a generous God had denied Julius Erving, Gross thought, and that was a great jump shot. He had a good one but not a great one. Everyone who played against him was thankful for that.’
At the start of the 1980 season, Bill Walton was recovering from one of his many infamous injuries, which he would unfortunately endure for most of his career. However, when playing, he is referred as one of the best of all time, at that time.
‘In his first exhibition game against the Lakers, Walton played with great skill and almost embarrassed Kareem. That he could be away from the game for so many months and then come back and find his timing and rhythm so quickly was striking. But a few days later, in another game, his left foot began to hurt again and he took himself out….Irv Levin was no longer talking positively about having signed Walton. He admitted he might have been remiss in having him checked out more carefully before the signing. A local doctor named Richard Gilbert, podiatrist for the San Diego Chargers and a consultant for the Clippers, had not seen Walton’s feet until long after the signing. His feet were so bad, Gilbert told friends, that they did not have to be fractured for him to be out. What was amazing about Walton, Gilbert told colleagues, was that he had been able to play at all and have so remarkable a career. During all of this Walton was terribly subdued. ‘
The Fab Five was probably my favorite book growing up (I think I read it 6 times), and I really enjoyed and was surprised by reading The Jordan Rules, but I came away from Breaks like I did after I read The Godfather and Jaws – I just thought it was one of the best things I’ve ever read.