Required Reading

By Pete Croatto #20

It could be argued that we live in the golden age of basketball writers. The downside is that with every Woj bomb and Lee Jenkins profile, many great basketball books get pushed further into the background. Summer is the time to resurrect them. The long NBA season is done and, besides, there are only so many movies featuring robots and capes a human being can tolerate.

Here is another list of gems—some recent, some from further back—to get you started until the fall rolls around. And if you forgot what was discussed last year, you can catch up here.

When the Game Was Ours (2009) by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson with Jackie MacMullan 

Did the recent 30 for 30 on the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the 1980s stoke your interest in that glorious time of short-shorts and hate-filled grown men pounding each other like veal cutlets? Were you a fan of the NBA revival that took place during the decade that centered around the megawatt-smiling, flashy and full-of-panache Magic Johnson and the blue-collar, everyman brilliance of Larry Bird? Well, enjoy the account of that era from the two rivals themselves—with an assist from MacMullan, a wonderful writer who interviews scores of other sources to create a full-bodied look at a bygone era.

Also recommended: John Taylor’s The Rivalry, about Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, two other titans who defined the Celtics-Lakers face-offs in the late 1960s.

The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport (2017) by Rafi Kohan

When this goes on sale in early August, read it for Kohan’s vividly reported and fun account of the inner workings of these fields of taxpayer-subsidized dreams—from the guys on the grounds crews to how the concessions stands operate. Why am I recommending this for basketball fans? Because Kohan memorably profiles the Amazing Sladek, and assists in his chair-stacking routine. The endeavor comes all too close to disaster.

Also recommended: For a look at another behemoth we take for granted: Those Guys Have all the Fun, Tom Shales and Andrew James Miller’s sprawling oral history of ESPN.

In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle (1995) by Madeliene Blais

Blais follows a powerhouse girls’ high school basketball team in Amherst, Mass., for a season and delivers a nuanced, engaging piece on how teenage girls live. The author’s empathy and curiosity for her subjects turns this into a nonfiction masterpiece. Blais peels back the layers, revealing the young souls who are part-time hardwood gods. A book this slim should not possess this much impact.

Also recommended: The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives, by Neil Swidey, about a boys’ high school basketball team in Boston.

The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, edited by Zander Hollander—various years

I grew up with these books in the 1990s, even reading one or two until the spine split. While the production might be dated, the writing is sassy and succinct; even in the age of Twitter it holds up. I’ve written about these books and the man, Zander Hollander, who created them. The cracked spines of these short, thick paperbacks call to me. It is a rush to see write-ups of legends as if they’re playing now: Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Clyde Frazier. It’s a hoot to see Pat Riley and George Karl, who most of us know as firmly middle-aged adults, smiley and spry. These books are a far less expensive, endlessly entertaining version of time traveling and a tactile reminder that the NBA has a past.

Also recommended: These are truly one of a kind, but for a taste of what the NBA was in the halcyon days when newspapers held sway and games were just starting to become entertainment, check out Cameron Stauth’s The Franchise, about the Detroit Pistons’ ascension in the 1980s. It is outstanding.

Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson (2015) by Kent Babb

Babb, the terrific sports feature writer for The Washington Post, paints Iverson as more than just a series of pretty moves or the forever gritty competitor. Babb thrusts us into the man’s soul—flaws and all. It’s not always pretty, but it makes for a fascinating read. And the book’s reporting caused Stephen A. Smith to lose his mind on national television, which is as lofty an honor as the Pulitzer Prize, I think.

Also recommended: Brook Larner’s Operation Yao Ming, about the creation—literally—of another superstar from that era.

The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians (2014) by Kate Fagan

Before she got absorbed into ESPN’s multi-hyphen universe, Fagan played basketball for the University of Colorado, where she finally realized that she was a lesbian—but not before trying to run away from it. The memoir is a heartfelt, inspiring coming-of-age story about a young woman finding herself outside the constraints of a team.

Also recommended: Can I Keep My Jersey?: 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond, by Paul Shirley, which shows the distinct lack of glamour in being a tenuously employed professional basketball player.

Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA, in the Words of the Men Who Played, Coached, and Built Pro Basketball (1992) by Terry Pluto

I fear Pluto’s obituary will begin and end with Loose Balls, which is easily a top-five basketball book. But Pluto wrote another terrific oral history that barely anyone mentions. Tall Tales covers the NBA’s early days—from the beginning to Bill Russell retiring—and it’s a revelation to hear contemporaries talk extensively about Dolph Schayes, George Yardley and Elgin Baylor. They come to life, as does the realization that the NBA has come a long way from its meager beginnings. Another overlooked fact: It’s a testament to Pluto’s skill as a reporter that he can elicit these meaty gems from athletes—who are not always the most forthcoming folks. (Beat reporters nod their head furiously in agreement.)

Also recommended:  Adam J. Criblez’s Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, & the Birth of the Modern NBA, a colorful year-by-year recap of the NBA from 1970 to 1979.

Return of the King: LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Greatest Comeback in NBA History 

(2017) by Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst 

With the firing of general manager David Griffin, the Cavaliers’ 2016 triumph in the Finals threatens to become as distant as the first Thanksgiving. Thankfully, McMenamin and Windhorst chronicle how the Cavs reached the summit, giving a city a sliver of rare sports happiness. What emerges in this informative and breezy account is the value of Tyronn Lue, a coach who was unafraid to demand more of LeBron James. Who said the NBA was a players’ league?

Also recommended:  The Whore of Akron, where Cleveland native and former Esquire writer Scott Raab rage watches James’s first season with the Miami Heat.

Our final recommendation comes from one of the authors on this list: Kent Babb.

Basketball’s Game Changers: Icons, Record Breakers, Rivalries, Scandals, and More (2017) by Brendan Prunty

It’s kind of exactly what a summer read should be: It’s quick, it’s informative, it’s breezy. Brendan has a really nice mix of thoughtful, exhaustive reporting and an easygoing writing style—from topics as heavy as Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis and as light as “Air Jordans”–that have produced a super-satisfying book you can plow through in a day or two at the lake, or come back to morning after morning with a coffee (or bloody Mary) in your hand.