One of the many tragic elements of prolific author David Halberstam’s death last year is that right now would have been the perfect time for him to write another basketball book. Halberstam’s first take on hoops, the vaunted The Breaks of the Game, profiled the nascent League in the throes of its 1970s growing pains. In 1998’s Playing For Keeps, Halberstam analyzed in deft detail the Jordan-era League that was cresting in popularity yet already wary of the void soon to come with 23’s retirement. This year—an even decade later, with the NBA enjoying its first real post-Jordan renaissance, fueled by a new generation of stars and punctuated by a classic Celtics-Lakers Finals match-up—is screaming for a Halberstamian encapsulation to complete the trilogy. Too bad the legend can no longer provide one for us.
If by chance you haven’t read either of his two NBA books, I cannot recommend them highly enough. The Breaks of the Game is particularly edifying, because the reader has the chance to examine all of the ways the game has and hasn’t changed in 30-odd years. I found it fascinating how obsessed all of the players were with three things back then: their contracts, their race, and their knees. I'm barely exaggerating; regardless of the player, he felt he was signed to a contract that was too long, too cheap, or—on the flip-side—too burdensome. If the player was black, he almost always felt underpaid, unappreciated, and alienated, while if he was white, he was anxious to live down the rumors that he was overpaid or part of a “quota”-conspiracy, plus he was sensitive to stereotypes of being un-athletic. But above all—above the anguish surrounding contractual and racial issues—was the persistent fear of health problems, especially regarding knees. Every player was either suffering from knee injuries, getting over them, or worried about them, and therefore his career was constantly teetering on the brink. As a result of all this anguish, and for the turmoil in the front office over television rights and mounting expenses, 70s basketball was a grim landscape indeed. And we learn this through Halberstam, whose expert reporting of the NBA in its dramatic, Darwinian early stages, makes The Breaks of the Game an enduring classic.
(Side note: this third obsession with knees also revealed a profound shortsightedness of the era. For all of the paranoia, nobody (including Halberstam) seemed able to pinpoint the root cause of the pervasive knee injuries, a cause that is painfully obvious decades later: the feeble sneakers back then, which were woefully inadequate for the high-impact jumping that the game entails. Instead, players attempted to build leg strength through faddish exercises (there seemed to be a lot of “hitting the Nautilus,” which I must admit to not fully understanding—did the “Nautilus” start out as just one type of machine, rather than an entire brand of fitness equipment? If so, what was it—a stationary bike?), tried to ration out the amount of jumping they did, altered their diets, sought out specific surgeons, etc. It was kind of macabre, really—sort of like reading one of those first-person accounts of life in a frontier village in the days before it was understood that mosquitoes spread malaria, wherein the author concludes that all of the premature "fever and ague" deaths were a fact of life and probably attributable to “evil spirits.”)
If he were still here and composing a third book, I wonder whom Halberstam would have chosen as his muse? Each of his books has had a team or player serve as the vehicle for Halberstam to drive his narrative of the League as a whole. The Breaks of the Game used the 1980 Portland Trail Blazers as the conduit, while MJ himself was the apotheosis of 1990s NBA athleticism and commercial success in Playing For Keeps. This year, Halberstam would have had a few options. LeBron James probably best represents the new wave of NBA superstars, not just for his dominance on the court, but also for the influence he has on owners and coaches, and of course his image proliferation globally and in cyberspace (both of which are characteristic of the League as a whole). Kobe Bryant also would have been an excellent choice, for Halberstam could have used him as the symbolic bridge between “old” and “new,” plus The Mamba has the added advantages of being a) in the Finals, and b) one of the most compelling figures in all of sports. A third candidate could have been Commissioner Stern, who—for better or worse—has been the architect of the League’s past and present status, the erudite pilot at the helm of its fits and starts and triumphs and shortcomings for the past 25 or so years. Either way, Halberstam would have had a wealth of options.
Of course, these choices wouldn’t be exclusionary, for Halberstam’s books always thoroughly encompassed the entire landscape of the League. The players, the owners, the agents, the media, the style of play—Halberstam illuminated all of the NBA’s branches and tentacles. Halberstam wasn’t so much a genius as he was a consummate investigator and thoughtful sociologist. I grasped his true greatness about 2/3 of the way through The Breaks of the Game. There was a passage in which Halberstam was reflecting on the delicate balance between individual greatness and team success in the NBA, and how they often subtract from each other, and how this is unique compared to other sports, when it suddenly occurred to me: every single significant thought I’ve ever had about the NBA—its cultural significance, its comparative advantages and disadvantages with other sports—has already been taken by Halberstam. Not only that, he’d done it all some 30 years ago! I found this to be simultaneously humbling, daunting, and amazing. Halberstam’s ability to draw conclusions through research, inquiry, and critical exploration were his unsurpassed gifts.
Random epilogue: Officiating, officiating, officiating! The refs are ruining everything! After Game 2 in Boston, everywhere you turn, people are pissed that the refs are making bad calls, or too many calls, or not enough calls. Then Tim D. poured more gas on the fire. Some people even go so far as to say officials are holding back the sport as a whole.
Just remember all of this hoopla when the NFL season roles around again, and after each week there’s a firestorm about a bad pass interference call, or a QB who should have been ruled “in the grasp,” or an impossible-to-verify ruling about a receiver being pushed out (or not). Wait a second, you don’t even need to wait that long: how about the lack of instant replay in MLB screwing up outs, foul balls, even home runs—home runs! At least our officials can accurately determine when someone scores. And don’t get me started on the strike zone, which has shrunk to the size of Manu Ginobli’s bald spot. The NBA does not “suffer” from “subjective” calls any more than any other sport.