Having spent seven years working on a “basketball book” of my own gave me plenty of time to work my way through notable entries in the genre. A handful of them have stayed with me. I thought it might be worthwhile to occasionally pull one off the shelf, revisit it, and try to figure out why it made an impact.
I’m going to start with David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game, for which he followed the 1979-1980 Portland Trailblazers over the course of a mediocre season. That might not sound promising, but it’s easily the finest book I’ve ever read on professional basketball.
Looking at it again, the first thing that jumps out is the thread that runs from the first page to last – the voice of its most prominent character, which is Halberstam himself. By the time he got to Portland, Halberstam, then in his mid-forties, had already won a Pulizter Prize for his Vietnam War reporting, had traveled with and reported on Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, and then wrote The Best and the Brightest, his history of JFK’s brain trust and how it bumbled us into the Vietnam War. He followed that with The Powers That Be, which details the rise of American mass media through the lens of men such as Time Magazine’s Henry Luce and William Paley of CBS. Most sportswriters seemed thrilled and often intimidated to be in the company of their heroes; Halberstam wasn’t going to take any crap – he was on the scene to report.
Halberstam writes in third person and becomes omniscient, everywhere and anywhere, contemplating the men and their struggles. Here he is in the first few pages, as they players and coaches arrive for training camp:
While the players ate singly, the coaches went out in a group to a fancier restaurant a few miles away. They were all middle-class men, all white, all devoted fathers, but suddenly they had left their civilian incarnations behind. Now they were professionals, among their own kind once again, in a world without women, talking their own special shoptalk. Though the season had not even started, already in the forefronts of their minds were the pressures of their game, the difficultly of the year ahead, the injuries and the salary problems.
A major pleasure of the book is Halberstam’s authority – he obviously interviewed extensively, but instead of couching his observations in qualifiers or quoting one of the coaches to back up his assertions, he simply throws it down: This is how it is for these men. There’s a lot to learn here for a reporter: Halberstam puts in his time collecting what he needs; when he starts to write, he owns the story.
The main themes of the book are quickly sketched: The season we’re going to follow comes three years after the Trailblazers’ amazing 1976-1977 championship run. There is a sense of melancholy around the team, which after occupying the pinnacle of its sport quickly lost it again. It’s the agony of a person or organization that knows its best days are behind it. This season, we understand, will be another futile attempt to regain something that is gone forever.
Beyond that, this collection of men is only a small part of a larger system – above them there are the TV networks and advertisers, which Halberstam shows to be the feudal masters of sports. The executives in New York or Los Angeles don’t care about the players and coaches and their struggles to claim dignity on the court, but the dictates of what they can sell. In 1979-1980, the rookie seasons of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, it’s still unclear if the spectacle of large black men running up and down a court is something that can be sold to a mainstream American audience. This black-white interplay is a constant in basketball, and Halberstam excels in picking up on how race permeates the consciousnesses of the men he chronicles.
Within this framework, Halberstam introduces us to his characters, several of whom become archetypal in his hands. There’s the coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay, who found as a youth that he “loved the game and the feeling of unity that it created, young men come together, caring about a single shared goal.” Halberstam and Ramsay were friends before the season – Ramsay was instrumental in Halberstam gaining access – and Halberstam obviously respects the coach. But he also uncovers a mixture of nobility and hopelessness endemic to the hard-nose idealist who perhaps is always a little behind his time, driving himself towards a standard of perfection that can never be reached. Ramsay’s need to instill a system and discipline butts up against his players desire to showcase their individual talents; in the larger scheme we see in Ramsay the universal desire to impose order on events that can’t be controlled.
One of these is the nagging foot injuries suffered by Bill Walton, the star center of the 1976-1977 championship team. If you’ve only known Walton for his career as a blowhard TV announcer, he’s much more complex and likeable here:
Basketball had given him his particular niche in life. He had been a tall spindly boy with a terrible stutter, almost pathologically shy with strangers. His nickname in high school, not sought but perhaps inevitable, was Spider Walton. From a very early age basketball was the activity he felt most comfortable with, where it was always easy for him to tell right from wrong.
The suburban San Diego kid gifted with height, speed and competitive drive goes on to become a Californian Golden Boy at UCLA, adopts leftist politics, and for one perfect season leads the Trailblazers to a championship. Three seasons after the winning the title in Portland, an embittered Walton has moved on to play for the San Diego Clippers, believing that the pain killers given to him by the Trailblazers’ team doctors have worsened his chronic foot problems. When Halberstam catches up with him he’s still fighting his tragic flaw – feet that won’t support his massive frame, a man who’s had it all but is in danger of losing it while still in his prime.
Walton’s perfect complement on the 1977 championship team was Maurice Lucas, a power forward from the Hill District of Pittsburg who played the role of rebounder and enforcer. By the 1979-1980 season, Lucas has become obsessed with his contract and the fact he’s making less money than comparable players. Halberstam writes:
Sometimes the Portland front office, talking about a particular player in college or on another team, used the phrase, and to them it was a positive: obedient kid. Obedient kid. Maurice Lucas was most demonstrably not an obedient kid. He was very black, very articulate, very political, a strong and independent man sprung from circumstances that could also create great insecurity. There was about him a constant sense of challenge; everything was a struggle, and everything was a potential confrontation, a struggle for turf and position. It was in part what had made him at his best so exceptional an athlete. He liked the clash of will. He was at once an intensely proud black man, justifiably angry about the injustice around him, and a superb and subtle con artist, a man who had in effect invented himself and his persona – Luke the Intimidator.
Midway into the season, Portland trades Lucas to the Nets; it turns out that Halberstam had laid out the pattern for his career – though Lucas got the contract he wanted by making his trade demands, he was soon shuffled to New York, Phoenix, LA and Seattle before finally ending his career back in Portland in 1988. Militancy and professional athletics rarely mix well.
Lucas is replaced by Kermit Washington, a former Los Angeles Laker notorious for the punch thrown in 1977 that had almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets. Washington had been portrayed afterwards as a merciless thug and mocked on Saturday Night Live (it didn’t help that Tomjanovich was white and Washington black). Halberstam reveals Washington to be an extremely sensitive man who had worked his way up from nothing, and almost lost it all in a moment during an on-court melee:
Even now, rehabilitated, accepted by teammates and fans in two different cities, he was aware that he had been part of something terrible and frightening, that he was on the edge of having committed, however involuntarily, a dark deed. He was also in a more pragmatic way aware that he was a target now, not just for fans, but for other physical players. Unlike anyone else in the league, he dared not get in a fight, so there were sharp limits to how much contact he initiated. That was something he could deal with; the shame of what he had almost done was more serious.
We get to know these characters as Halberstam follows them through the season, as well as all the other players and coaches who make up an NBA travelling squad. We watch them schlep from town to town, taking buses from airports to hotels and then to half-full arenas where they play, shower, and climb back on the bus. They have cold streaks where nothing seems to go right, and hot ones where it everything clicks. Through it all, the players strive to withstand the toll that playing the game takes on their bodies and thus prolong their careers and earning power.
All of this comprises the basis of a great book, but towards the end, Halberstam gets a gift – the arrival of Billy Ray Bates. A “player of awesome, almost completely undisciplined talent,” the son of sharecroppers from rural Mississippi, Bates is the one poor kid in a thousand who makes it from the playground to the league. Almost totally guileless, Bates dazzles Portland’s fans with his quicksilver moves. Most writers would be content to report that Bates came from poverty; Halberstam travels to Mississippi. He finds the farmer who owned land upon which the Bates family had sharecropped and takes us inside his head: “On the TV Billy Bates was playing for a city named Portland. Pat Smithson watched him play and was impressed. That boy could sure jump. They could all jump, he thought, but Billy could jump a little better than the others. He felt a certain stirring of pride watching him, a boy off his own place. It certainly was different these days, he thought.”
For the Trailblazers, Bates provides a temporary shot of hope, but his one-on-one style is mainly an indicator of how far they’ve fallen from the precision teamwork of a few years earlier. After a 38-44 season and a loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the playoffs, it’s over – though not without one last outstanding performance by Bates. (Bates would soon flame out of the NBA, become a star in the Philippines, and then move on to a sad future.)
With the season ended, the men head home. Some will be back for the next year, some will be traded or sign with other teams, some will be cut, and some will retire. Jack Ramsay will return to try to instill his will on another group of twelve men with their own drives and desires. The championship season will fade further and further into memory.
By the end, Halberstam has examined the intersections of race, sports, media and corporate business in America. But the story gets its lasting power from the men he follows, playing on one losing team among many in the league, fighting to scratch out small victories. They may be well-paid athletes, but they are also men who practice a game their whole lives, attain the peak of their powers for only a few years, and struggle to stay vital as long as they can, until it inevitably ends.
This book completely changed the way I watch professional basketball.