Sure, the NBA Finals are about to start, but I’m already going through pro hoops withdrawal.
I’m moderately excited to see how LeBron James will perform in his first Finals and I’m certainly rooting for the Cavaliers, but I don’t have much interest in seeing the Spurs play another four to seven games, so I’m not sure how much of the series I’ll actually watch. Instead, chances are I’ll probably settle in with six or seven good books about basketball and wait for the draft, then the summer leagues, then training camp, then the start of the 202007-2008 season.
You may be looking for a good page-turner as well right about now (especially if you’re a Suns fan), so I thought I’d list here ten of my favorite basketball books. Some of them may be easier to find than others. These days, I scour the Internet for odd, out-of-print hoops books, and a couple of those show up on this list. I have a bias toward books about basketball in the 1970s and biographies of players from those days, I think because that’s when I started paying attention to the sport. I also like team histories, where I can learn about the personalities of teams over time. Not all of these are about the Suns, and I don’t claim that these are the best basketball books ever written, they’re just my favorites. If you’ve got your own, I’d love to hear about them, and if you read any of these as a result of this list, I’d love to know what you think about them.
1. THE LITTLE TEAM THAT COULD…AND DARN NEAR DID! THE FABULOUS RISE OF THE PHOENIX SUNS, by Joe Gilmartin
It all started here, for me. In the summer of 1977, I attended Phoenix Suns basketball camp at the Jewish Community Center (Side anecdote: At that camp, Suns forward Curtis Perry led us through a rebounding drill where we started on one side of the lane, tossed the ball off the backboard, then caught it as we leapt to the other side of the lane. I tossed the ball OVER the backboard, where it got stuck in the rigging behind the hoop. Curtis looked down at me, patted my eight-year old head, and said, “Play guard.”), and all campers were handed a copy of this book. I read it countless times that summer, and I’ve read it roughly once a year since. Written with great wit and love by Suns.com’s very own Mr. Gilmartin, who’s been there since the beginning, the book traces the team’s history from prior to its inception to its first glorious title run in 1976.
If you’re a Suns fan curious about the early days of the team, this is THE book. Not only will it give you insight into the history of the squad, you’ll get a sense of Phoenix as a sports town in the days before pro sports mania really hit the Valley (“In sports…Phoenix is an incorporated Rodney Dangerfield.”). You’ll learn about little-remembered coaches like Butch van Breda Kolff, who led the Suns for a grand total of seven games in 1972 (“The first signs of trouble appeared in an exhibition game…against the Lakers. The Lakers were having troubles of their own, so many that they scored only 142 points in a 48-minute layup drill, even though the Suns kept throwing them the ball.”) You’ll learn about Leapin’ Lamar Green, the Suns forward who once sprained his ankle during a jump ball…by getting it tangled in an opponent’s shirt. And you’ll find out about Cotton Fitzsimmons’ first tenure as a Suns coach, read tales of the legendary Connie Hawkins (“Connie Hawkins was somebody everybody got mad at; Connie Hawkins was somebody nobody could stay mad at more than five minutes.”), and of course chart the rise of the Suns team that bowed to Boston in one of the great NBA Finals ever played (“Phoenix fans really cared! Desperately, deeply, loudly, longingly, lovingly, and, in the end, tearfully.”).
It’s just a wonderful book, and it’s inspired me and my writing as much as anything I’ve ever read. I can quote it from memory in places…but you might expect that, given how many times I’ve read the darn thing. I even bought a second copy, since my first one is almost worn out.
2. LOOSE BALLS, by Terry Pluto
This was the book I wanted to write, and I was desperately upset when it came out. But then I read it, and it was everything I wanted to read, and more. Pluto traces the history of the upstart American Basketball Association during its 1960s and 1970s run, the league that brought us slam dunk contests, the three-point shot, spectacularly large Afros, the red-white-and-blue basketball, and Dr. J. It’s an oral history, meaning it’s told in the direct quotes of the people who were there, like Larry Brown, Bob Costas, and even Pat Boone, with Pluto chiming with valuable clarifications, statistics and information.
The number of anecdotes in this book that will make you laugh out loud is off the charts. My favorite is about the player who refused to board a plane that would change time zones, meaning an arrival technically EARLIER than the departure, saying, “I ain’t gettin’ on no time machine.” It’s a terrific snapshot of pro basketball in the 1970s, when the personalities were as fun as the game.
3. THE BREAKS OF THE GAME, by David Halberstam
The tragic recent death of Halberstam robbed the world of one of its great writers, period, but also of a particularly great basketball writer. Halberstam wrote this book about the 1979-80 Portland Trailblazers, having traveled with the team for the entire season. It’s as good an “inside the locker room” book as has ever been written, capturing the turbulent ups and downs (in this case, mostly downs) of an entire basketball franchise. Player personalities, coaching styles, game strategies, internal conflict and fragile camaraderie…It’s all here as Halberstam takes notes on the end of the Bill Walton era in Portland.
4. TALL TALES, by Terry Pluto
Yes, Pluto again. He followed up LOOSE BALLS with a similarly structured oral history of the NBA’s earliest years that’s almost as diverting as BALLS. The personalities may not have been quite as big, and the style of play not as flashy, but it’s nonetheless fascinating to read about the league’s early movers and shakers, like Auerbach, Gottlieb and Kerner. And the legendary players, from Cousy and Russell to Baylor, West and Chamberlain, are here too. Yes, there was basketball before Michael Jordan, and it was every bit as interesting as basketball today. Maybe more.
5. BREAKING THE RULES, by Mike Tulumello
Longtime Valley sportswriter Tulumello wrote this excellent book about the Charles Barkley era in Phoenix during the mid-1990s. Barkley transformed the franchise, helping bring it tremendous success, but Tulumello intelligently discusses the positive and negative sides of that transformation. Barkley’s presence affected everybody involved with the team, and the author uses that to explore Suns legends like Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Tom Chambers, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal. Though Barkley’s at the center of the book (no surprise – he was at the center of everything else in his career), it’s a total picture of the organization at a very specific time in its history.
6. THE LAST BANNER, by Peter May
It wasn’t quite the end of an era, but there was definitely the sense that the end was nearby when Boston won its most recent title, in the 1985-86 season. The core of the club, Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson, had been together for several years, and while they couldn’t be considered ancient (Okay, maybe Parish was ancient), they were definitely aging. This book presents us with their remarkable chemistry and is a smart, inside portrait of a team of veterans and how they pace themselves through a season.
7. FOUL! By David Wolf
Suns fans looking for the full story of Connie Hawkins and his tumultuous journey to the NBA and Phoenix need look no further than this fantastic biography. From childhood to obscure semi-pro leagues to the Harlem Globetrotters, Wolf follows Hawk’s dogged desire to make it in basketball after being falsely implicated in a point-shaving scandal, and when he finally gets his chance, the reader breaks down in tears just like the player himself. The book closes with a Hawk’s-eye view of the Hall-of-Famer’s first season in Phoenix, followed by the team’s first-ever playoff run, and near-upset of the mighty Lakers.
8. THE LAST SEASON, by Phil Jackson
I can hear the gasps. “A book about the Lakers makes your Top Ten list?! Beechen, we don’t even know who you are, anymore!” I know, I know. But reading an account of the downfall of the Lakers’ early-decade dynasty, especially a well-written account, is just too much fun to keep the book off the list. Jackson wrote this as a kiss-off, thinking he’d never be back with the Lakers organization, so he doesn’t spare anyone criticism, even himself. Ever wonder what a coach REALLY thinks of his players? The answers can be pretty surprising. This is my favorite book by a coach, a great view from the front of the bench.
9. WHAT’S HAPPENIN’? by Blaine Johnson
This one’s hard to find, but highly entertaining. Johnson, a reporter for a Seattle newspaper, spent the 1976-77 season with the Supersonics, much the way Halberstam would spend a season with the Blazers a few years later. This book lacks Halberstam’s gift for the larger context, but it gets closer to the players, and the Sonics had some great personalities in this period: Slick Watts, Downtown Freddy Brown, and Tall (7’ 4”) Tommy Burleson. Best of all, their coach was none other than Bill Russell, and he emerges as a real enigma – very detached from the team, almost a non-presence, except when he criticizes. Much of the book is given over to the players – and the author – trying to figure Russell out…and everyone comes away scratching their heads.
10. THE PUNCH, by John Feinstein
In a regular-season game on December 9, 1977, Lakers forward Kermit Washington, during a brawl between his team and the Houston Rockets, wheeled and leveled Rockets forward Rudy Tomjanvich with a devastating punch to the face – and nearly ended his life. The event had huge and long-lasting implications for both men, as well as for the entire league. Feinstein, one of the best sportswriters around, examines the effect of that single punch in minute detail, and how it reverberates today. It’s a sad, scary, fascinating book, whether you’re old enough to remember seeing the videotape of the event, or not.
Whew! Hard list to come up with – I’m already second-guessing myself about more books I treasure that I wish could be on the list, like THE RIVALRY, by John Taylor; THE PIVOTAL SEASON, by Charley Rosen; FIND THE KEY MAN, by Hal Higdon; FORTY-EIGHT MINUTES, by Terry Pluto (him again!) and Bob Ryan; THE PRIDE OF PORTLAND, by Frank Coffey and Tom Biracree; THE SHORT SEASON, by John Powers and THE BULLS AND CHICAGO, by Bob Logan. And that’s just a small sample.
Hopefully, if any of these interest you, hunting for them and then reading them will keep you occupied during these dry, hot months of baseball and then football, otherwise known as the “dead zones” between Suns’ seasons. They’ll certainly make the “wait ‘til next year” a lot more enjoyable.