Foul Lines: A Pro Basketball Novel
By Jack McCallum and L. Jon Wertheim
Touchstone, 319 pp., paperback, $14
Bob Knight: The Unauthorized Biography
By Steve Delsohn and Mark Heisler
Simon & Schuster, illustrated, 335 pp., $25
Glory Road: My Story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever
By Don Haskins with Dan Wetzel
Hyperion, illustrated, 254 pp., paperback, $14.95
The Baseball Uncyclopedia: A Highly Opinionated, Myth-Busting Guide to the Great American Game
By Michael Kun and Howard Bloom
Emmis, 285 pp., paperback, $14.95
It's risky business to set a novel in a sport, in part because the players, coaches, and fans involved in the real games so often seem fictional. But if you are determined to set your story in, say, pro basketball, it's better if you have some idea what you're talking about. Jack McCallum and Jon Wertheim, both Sports Illustrated writers, can make that claim, which is part of why ''Foul Lines" works as well as it does. The other part is that although they've included some horrors in the plot -- a hit-and-run fatality involving several players, for example -- McCallum and Wertheim are determined to have some fun at the expense of the current state of the NBA and pro sports in general. Hence the Levitra Dunk Contest, the Depends All-Star Game, the Taco.com Palladium, and -- a personal favorite -- the Mad Props for Literacy Jam.
One intriguing aspect of ''Foul Lines" is that it includes almost no actual basketball, apparently because McCallum and Wertheim both see writing about games as work, whereas ''Foul Lines" was supposed to be fun.
''Bob Knight: The Unauthorized Biography" is not fun. It is the story of an exceptionally self-indulgent, megalomaniacal bully of a coach whose college basketball teams have won more than almost anybody else's. The bulk of Knight's career transpired at Indiana University. There he presided over teams that frequently made the NCAA tournament and occasionally won national championships. While he was there, Knight insulted his players in the most vile terms, screamed four-letter words at teenagers on the opposing teams, threw chairs around the locker room and court, and, having earned (?) the opportunity to coach on the international stage, characterized his Puerto Rican hosts at a tournament by telling US reporters, ''The only [expletive] thing they know how to do is grow bananas."
Knight's excesses are well known among people who follow college basketball, although numbers of those people regard humiliating, throttling, and kicking players as well as demeaning women (''There's two things you people are good for, making kids and frying bacon") as character traits rather than excesses. Many of those people live in the vicinity of Texas Tech, where Knight currently coaches, or in Indiana, where some still regard his belated ouster as an outrageous extension of the university president's authority over the basketball program.
To their credit, Steve Delsohn and Mark Heisler, the authors of ''Bob Knight," solicit the opinions of the former players Knight has visited and helped as well as the ones whom he's frightened away. They acknowledge that many of the players who remain in Knight's program graduate, and that Knight raised the profile of Indiana University, becoming perhaps the institution's single most significant fund-raiser. The latter fact and the cult of personality Knight inspired at Indiana help to explain why it was so difficult for Indiana's administration to get rid of the coach after he'd gone off the rails.
But the more significant story at least vaguely apparent in this book concerns what might be termed the Knight syndrome. Though he is especially loud and paranoid, Knight is not unique. College basketball is full of programs where a brash, pugnacious, self-aggrandizing coach is the star of the show on a campus where no administrator has the will to discipline him while his teams are winning. If part of the achievement of ''Bob Knight: The Unauthorized Biography" is to remind us that the Prince of Tirades is still employed, it's more significant that Delsohn and Heisler have described in passing the corrupt and hypocritical landscape in which Knight and his imitators have thrived.
While Delsohn and Heisler maintain that Knight is a complicated character rather than simply an irredeemable bully, in ''Glory Road" Dan Wetzel presents a retired coach who is far more attractively complicated. Like Knight, Don Haskins could be a tough guy. He had no interest in providing his players with the amenities high school recruits take for granted these days, and he worked them hard. But Haskins as presented by Wetzel in this as-told-to autobiography is also a champion of players who desperately needed one. In 1966, Haskins started five black players in the NCAA championship game and beat all-white Kentucky for the title. Suddenly ''all-white" became a synonym for ''also ran," and a generation of student-athletes and athlete-students began finding opportunities at universities in the South that had been previously closed to them.
Beyond that, Haskins is a better storyteller than Knight, in part because he doesn't find it necessary to be the main character in all his stories.
''The Baseball Uncyclopedia" will appeal to the sort of reader who enjoys debates about matters such as whether Cal Ripken is overrated. One of the authors of this book thinks he is, and the other writes that his co-author doesn't know what he's talking about. Elsewhere the co-author who maintains that Ripken is not overrated contends that Ty Cobb ''was not the most evil man to walk the planet," because Son of Sam, Torquemada, and Genghis Khan, among others, were worse.
Bill Littlefield hosts NPR's ''Only a Game" each Saturday from WBUR in Boston.