Summer Reads

By Pete Croatto #20

The NBA season is the inverse of school. For nine months, we savor the best basketball in the world and all the drama that goes with it—from the Warriors’ chase of (regular-season) glory to the hell-scape that is the Sacramento Kings. Suddenly we’re abandoned, forced to grind the days out as we await the NBA Draft’s arrival or an ill-advised free agent singing to set Twitter on fire.

This will not stand.

There is another way to fill the basketball-shaped holes in our hearts, and it’s a staple of many of our childhoods: the summer reading list. I can see you rolling your eyes. Relax. You don’t have to read some dog-eared Penguin Classic with ant-sized type. All the wonderful books listed here cover basketball. Most are easy to find. None feature a study guide requiring you to write an essay about what Kurt Rambis means to you.

Here are 10 books—as well as some recommendations—to start your quest to make summer fun again.

Five Relatively Recent Gems (2006 to present)

BoysAmongMen

Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution (2016)

By Jonathan Abrams

When he was at Grantland, Abrams crafted immersive, deeply researched oral histories on the NBA’s recent past (e.g., the Twin Towers-era Houston Rockets; the Penny-Shaq-led Orlando Magic). Here, the talented journalist delivers the same thorough reporting and research to the prep-to-pro movement, which began in the mid-’90s and ran for a decade before being aborted by the NBA in 2005. By profiling picks both high-impact and regrettable, Abrams reveals a few common denominators without climbing on a soapbox. Teens like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, who treated the NBA as a job with adult responsibilities, did just fine; those who viewed the pros as an early retirement or lacked the presence of responsible adults in their lives were washed-up before they could rent a car. The result is a candid look at a decade of the NBA and a topic that remains a hot-button issue.

After this, read about another group of trend-setting players…Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy, 2007.


 Showtime

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s (2013)

By Jeff Pearlman

Think the Lakers’ Kobe-led run of championships teemed with drama? Oh, you have no idea. The Los Angeles Lakers’ glory years of 1979-91 featured five NBA Championships in what was the ultimate fusion of style and substance during the gluttonous ’80s. Thanks to Pearlman’s tenacious reporting, we also learn the stormy truth behind the sun-soaked success. Pat Riley morphed into an expensively suited despot who isolated his players, their families and team employees. Magic Johnson’s youthful effervescence hid his voracious competitiveness and love of the ladies. And that’s not all. There are fascinating asides into the list of role players (Rambis!), bad fits (Maurice Lucas, anyone?), and forgotten heroes (Jack McKinney). With equal doses of hard truth and admiration, Pearlman examines how one team strutted the line between hubris and swagger—until it all came crashing down on November 7, 1991.

Additional reading: When the Game Was Ours by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson with Jackie MacMullan, 2009.


 

 DrJ

Dr. J.: The Autobiography (2013)

By Julius Erving and Karl Taro Greenfeld

Most athlete autobiographies are what would happen if the sentiments in your birthday cards assembled into a 300-page narrative. The recent trend toward a more honest superstar memoir began with Andre Agassi’s Open. That candor has thankfully seeped into other sports. That Julius Erving, a man whose polished eloquence screams measured discretion, is one of its practitioners, makes Dr. J all the more remarkable. Erving ventures into his basketball memories, but he peels away the layers of his cultivated persona, covering his rough childhood and later examining his failures as a father, husband and businessman. Dr. J is what fans know. Julius Erving is still under construction, and this book shows that flawed and fascinating men lie behind our heroes.

Additional reading: Back from the Dead: Searching for the Sound, Shining the Light, and Throwing It Down by Bill Walton, 2016.


 

 Pistol

 Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich (2007)

By Mark Kriegel

Every great player has a precedent. When Steph Curry crosses over some chump en route to nailing a 35-footer then Baryshnikovs through the lane, I think of Pete Maravich. It’s nice that Maravich, who set scoring records at LSU, has those YouTube mixtapes to memorialize him. It’s nicer that his life has been examined beyond the highlight reels. Kriegel, who now works at the NFL Network, recounts Pistol’s abbreviated life, which ended in 1988 during a lazy pick-up game at a church gym in Pasadena, California. During his 40 years, Pistol Pete faced inner torture and unfulfilled promise (Maravich never won an NCAA or NBA Championship) before gaining inner peace. Kriegel resurrects the moody basketball prodigy to full life.

Additional reading: Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era by Gary M. Pomerantz, 2005.


 Dream Team

Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever (2012)

By Jack McCallum

McCallum, the sublime Hall of Fame hoops writer and former Sports Illustrated mainstay, somehow corrals the 11 legends (and Christian Laettner) on the original Dream Team for interviews. That he talks to every player in-person—and gets them to offer more than simple platitudes about the historic team—is miraculous. Dream Team so ripe with anecdotes and telling details that you wonder if the players knew McCallum was a reporter. (Michael Jordan admitting that he would not play if Isiah Thomas were on the team; Clyde Drexler’s endearing and delusional self-confidence.) McCallum adroitly covers the worldwide impact of this spectacle in sneakers, which started long before the 1992 Summer Olympics. The Dream Team was a culmination of the NBA’s long-established savvy in marketing its supremely talented players.

Additional reading: Unfinished Business: On and Off the Court with the 1990-91 Boston Celtics (1992, re-released in 2013); Seven Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns (2006), Jack McCallum.

 

Five Gems from Way Back (Before 2006)

 LooseBalls

Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of The American Basketball Association (1990)

By Terry Pluto

I waver on whether this is the best basketball book of all time. It is definitely the most entertaining. Nearly every page of Pluto’s oral history of the short-lived (the league ran nine seasons from 1967 through 1976), influential ABA has a “what the hell?!” moment. In the ABA, every idea was indulged and no promotion was deemed too gimmicky. The alt league payed exorbitantly for top talent and let those players—David Thompson, George Gervin, and some skinny kid from UMass named Julius Erving—unleash their one-on-one artistry. The ABA was never real competition to the NBA, but it heavily influenced the League when it absorbed a lot of its talents and ideas when the leagues merged in 1976. Pluto assembles the best stories into a history book that is as informative as it is fun. Try to read Loose Balls just once. It’s like eating one potato chip—impossible.

Additional reading: Life on the Rim: A Year in the Continental Basketball Association by David Levine, 1989.


 

 PlayingForKeeps

Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made (1998)

By David Halberstam

Writing about Michael Jordan strikes me as being a thankless task, like writing about the history of the world. Like any famous figure, Jordan is equal parts myth, lore and corporate storytelling. But the late Halberstam, a brilliant journalist, uses Jordan as a jumping off point to explore his impact on the NBA’s growing popularity and delve into what made the 1990s Bulls so dynamic and contentious. (Jordan declined to participate, but just about everyone else did.) Halberstam’s effort is a rich cultural and personal history as well as a brilliant spiritual sequel to The Breaks of the Game, his look at professional basketball through Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers. Read together, Halberstam reveals how far the NBA has come since the dark and wobbly 1970s.

Additional reading: The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of a Turbulent Season with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls by Sam Smith, 1991.


 

LifeOnTheRun

Life on the Run (1976)

By Bill Bradley

The below passage isn’t even the best thing that Bradley, the former Rhodes Scholar-Knicks star-U.S. Senator, writes in his autobiographical book of observations, character sketches and musings centered around the 1974 NBA season.

“…Slowly I realized that New York provides anonymity as well as the spotlight, humor as well as danger, inspiration as well as sordidness. I have come to appreciate the crowds—people watching is my number one pastime; I like the layers of humanity with diverse backgrounds all living, functioning, and prospering in such a small area. I like the New York police and the New York cabdrivers—both offering their opinions with their skills. I like the rough impersonality of New York, where human relations are oiled by jokes, complaints, and confessions—all made with the assumption of never seeing the other person again. I like New York because there are enough competing units to make it still seem a very mobile society. I like New York because it engenders high expectations simply by its pace.”

Additional reading: When the Garden was Eden: Clyde, the Captain, Dollar Bill, and the Glory Days of the Old Knicks by Harvey Araton, 2011.


WheredYouGetThose

Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987 (2003)

By Bobbito Garcia

Read this because Garcia and his network of sneaker fiends know more about basketball shoes—who wore them, why they were dope or dopey—than anybody knows about anything. You get a full understanding that the fashionable aspects of basketball started way before Nike and Michael Jordan crossed paths. With the sneaker obsession at an all-time high and the industry worth billions of dollars, the book dives into the bare roots of the culture. Just as good, this coffee table book has tons of photos so you can see who wore what and just how well these kicks have aged. (There’s a reason why youngsters now rock Clydes and sneaker companies keep reissuing classics with movie studio-like zeal.) Be warned: the book may lead you to start a sneaker habit.

Additional Reading: Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and The Family Feud that Forever Changed the Business of Sport by Barbara Smit, 2008.


Heavenisaplayground

 Heaven is a Playground (1976)

By Rick Telander

Yes, there have been many movies and books about young men in terrible neighborhoods who see the basketball court as church and the game as salvation or view it as a ticket to a better life. It’s been done so much that it’s almost cliché. But Telander’s classic is the tabula rasa of the genre, and it’s esteemed for good reason. He writes about his subjects as people, not as fodder for hot takes or easy emotions. The slim book—my version with an afterword from Telander clocks in at just 220 pages—gets its immense power from the author’s humane approach, which cements the book’s timeless status.

Additional Reading: The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams by Darcy Frey, 1994.