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A roster of great basketball books

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 22, 2011 08:12 AM

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While wrapping up my previous post, I mentioned sort of casually how much fun it is to be re-reading "The Breaks of the Game'' again. The reaction to that note was a pleasant surprise, with several readers, tweeters and commenters either noting how much they too loved David Halberstam's classic on the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers, sharing their favorite basketball books, or in a couple of cases, asking for recommendations.

The discourse inspired me to pull together this post on my 12 favorite basketball books. While I checked this particular list twice, I should note that there are some highly-praised hoops volumes that might be noticeable in their absence. I started reading Adrian Wojnarowski's "The Miracle of St. Anthony's,'' lost it, and have yet to pick up a new one. Chris Ballard's "The Art of a Beautiful Game" is on this year's wish list. I've read most of Bill Simmons's "The Book of Basketball'' and enjoyed much of it, but I feel like there are few others more deserving of such a confidant title.

Here are my 12 favorites, in some order but with the coach's caveat that the lineup could change on any given day. Please, pass along your favorites in the comments or at @GlobeChadFinn on Twitter.

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1. The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam (1981). Two anecdotes out of a million gems:

  • On Sonics guard (and future Celtic) Dennis Johnson, who was unhappy about his contract and in full insubordinate mode at one point when his team crossed paths with the Blazers:

    johnsondjfinn1221.jpg"Johnson ... seemed to be playing in a funk. He hoisted up long jump shots, and often when they failed to go in, Portland started a fast break. Midway in the third quarter Portland had a 17-point lead. When [coach Lenny] Wilkens took Dennis Johnson out, he seemed not to see the player. They did not talk and Wilkens's eyes seemed to be searching a distant corner of the Coliseum, as if someone seated there might hold up a sign on which would be written the secret of how to deal with so talented and so troubled a young man. Portland eventually won by five points. Dennis Johnson went 5 of 16.

    Later in the locker room, a Seattle sportswriter approached him.

    'Dennis, about those jump shots ...' he began.

    'What jump shots?' DJ said. 'I didn't see any jump shots.' He turned to John Johnson near him. 'You see any jump shots? Were any out there? Not that I saw.' He seemed to be smiling.

  • On the news of forward Kermit Washington's unwanted trade from San Diego to Portland and the reaction of his wife, Pat:

    washingtonkermitfinn12.jpg"She had visions of a long rainy winter in Portland with Kermit on the road most of the time, while she lived among people she had never met before. Later that afternoon, some of the neighborhood kids, aged thirteen and fourteen, came by. They played basketball with Kermit on his own home court in the backyard almost every day and had come to regard him as less a distant professional star than a neighborhood playmate. When they knocked on the door, Pat Washington answered it. 'Can Kermit come out and play?' one of the kids asked. 'He can't,' she said. "He's been traded to Portland. He's already gone.' 'But he didn't say goodbye,' one of the kids protested. 'How could he do that?' I don't know how he could do that, she thought, that's the NBA. The boy, she noticed, was near tears. So was she."

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2. Heaven is a Playground, Rick Telander (1976). I haven't read this one in several years; with a refresher, it might rate No. 1 on the list. Telander (who later wrote for Sports Illustrated and is currently a well-known columnist in Chicago) spent the summer of '74 running the courts in the legendary pickup games in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where Fly Williams was a playground legend with a knack for self-destruction and future NBAer Albert King was a shy 14-year-old prodigy. Telander is unsparing and honest, but his affection for his asphalt companions that summer shines through. Every time I hear "Don't Rock The Boat,'' a summer song perpetually blaring from King's radio, I think of this book and smile.

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barnesmarvinfinn1220.jpg3. Loose Balls, Terry Pluto (1991). A raucous and absolutely hilarious oral history of the ABA, recounting the superstars (how I wish I'd seen Dr. J in his Nets days) and characters (menacing John Brisker, doomed Wendell Ladner) that made the maverick league as memorable as its red, white and blue basketball. Reading it is like hopping into the time machine Marvin Barnes refused to board.

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4. When the Game Was Ours, Jackie MacMullan (2010). Larry and Magic are justifiably a well-tread topic, so it's downright remarkable, though probably not surprising, that MacMullan mines so many fresh details of a basketball rivalry that became a genuine friendship. Who knew Larry and Magic were teammates once before they played on the one and only Dream Team ... and that their coach didn't particularly recognize their greatness?

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5. 48 Minutes, Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto (1987). Framing a book around the play-by-play of a seemingly random January 16, 1987 game between the Celtics and Cavaliers proves the perfect device for expounding not only on the state of the two divergent teams, but on the league and sport as a whole.

* * *

bradleybillfinn1.jpg... AND A VERY DEEP BENCH

6. Life on the Run, Bill Bradley (1977). Ostensibly a journal of the final few weeks of the admirable but aging Knicks' 1973-74 season, the forward and future senator writes thoughtfully and gracefully about the social structure and persistent monotony of a professional athlete's existence.

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7. Unfinished Business, Jack McCallum (1992). I'm a sucker for season-inside diaries -- it's kind of my longstanding dream to write one someday -- and McCallum, the longtime Sports Illustrated basketball ace, has two superb ones to his credit. "Unfinished Business,'' a look at the 1990-91 Celtics (Dee Brown's memorable rookie year, the beginning of the sunset for the Big Three), has more juicy insight than Seven Seconds or Less, his similarly styled account of the run-and-gun 2005-06 Phoenix Suns.

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8. Drive, Bob Ryan and Larry Bird (1990). Bob Ryan collaborating with Larry Bird? No further explanation is required, son.

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9. A Season Inside, John Feinstein (1989). "A Season on the Brink" is his masterpiece, but I enjoyed this follow-up more, probably because I liked Danny Manning, David Robinson and Steve Kerr much more than I do Bobby Knight.

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wickssidney12.jpg10. The Short Season, John Powers (1979). There are countless excellent books about the Celtics' many successes -- one that also deserves mention here is Ryan's Celtics Pride, published in 1975. But this is a diary of a season when everything didn't go right for the green -- do the names Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks ring a bell? The casual access afforded the author is a relic of the past, but it makes for a true insider's tale.

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11. FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, Bethlehem Shoals and the Free Darko crew (2010). The writing and artwork are as elegant as the game itself.

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12. The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith (1993). Or, when we realized the smiling Nike-produced image was just that and that His Airness was really a mean-spirited, hyper-competitive [pretty much any expletive applies]. Come to think of it, I should probably read Halberstam's accounting of Jordan, "Playing For Keeps.'' Bring it, Santa.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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