An excellent biography of an extraordinary Coach- Issue 4
Reviewing Ian O'Connor's new biography of Coach Mike Krzyzewski
Welcome to another edition of All Sports Books. This week I take a look at an excellent new bio by Ian O’Connor, author of great books on Bill Belichick, Derek Jeter amongst others. Also sharing an older review of the heartbreaking Breath of Sadness by Ian Ridley on the loss of his wife and the comfort of sports at times of grief.
New Book Review -🏀‘Coach K: The Rise and Reign of Mike Krzyzewski’ by Ian O'Connor (2022)
As a non-American, I’ll never quite understand the passion and pride generated by collegiate sports in the US. I really enjoy watching college football and basketball, but the reverence and status given to the games and especially to the coaches suggests a strange miscalculation of priorities for academic institutions!
The constant turnover of players provides a fascinating dimension to the sports. No other leagues give you an absolute maximum of four years with any player while also preventing the signing of experienced players to help guide the young players (who are almost exclusively under 23). Longevity and culture is therefore primarily provided by the coach and supporting staff.
It’s in this context (and overlooking the ludicrous salaries relative to other employees of the college or State!) that I find the careers of successful college coaches utterly fascinating. The reverence for successful coaches across the US is remarkable and is evident across sports media and popular culture. As one the most successful coaches in college basketball, arguably no coach is quite as revered as Mike Krzyzewski (universally referred to as Coach K).
Coach K was a player and subsequently coach for the US Army’s college team (talk about an educational institute with odd priorities!) and a protégé of world class coach and bully Bobby Knight. Krzyzewski ultimately, and surprisingly to most observers given his limited success at the time, became head coach of Duke University, a perennial basketball powerhouse. Over the ensuing decades he would amass one of the most successful records in the sport’s history.
O’Connor is a masterful biographer grappling with the challenges of competing narratives and telling the story of a complete life in a limited amount of space. Capturing 50 plus seasons of action requires a delicate touch and wise judgment in where to focus and no-one does it better. The book is especially strong in telling the story of Krzyzewski’s youth and identifying how his early days and playing career helped to shape the man and coach he would become. It also rightly delves into greater detail on some of his most famous teams - none more so than the era of Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill.
Coach K’s more recent seasons however feel somewhat out of character as he embraced the one-and-done superstar era. O’Connor explains this approach as a combination of the coaches his own adaptability and his growing taste for coaching the very best players acquired during his stints coaching Team USA.
The best biographies are those that realize every life story can only be properly told through the person’s relationships. Most obviously Krzyzewski’s ever-changing relationship with his mentor Knight stands out. Coach K is often described as possessing many of Knight’s best qualities but much less of his ridiculous, fiery temper.
The other key relationship in Krzyzewski’s life is, unsurprisingly, his marriage. A major failing across lesser sports biographies (and all biographies really) is a failure to capture the role that spouses play in athlete’s and coaches professional lives. O’Connor avoids this mistake and highlights Mrs’ Krzyzewski and the wider family’s role in Coach K’s success and thought process.
O’Connor ultimately paints the picture of a man who combined a relentless desire for success with a genuine affection for other people. This is an excellent biography of a fascinating basketball coach and highly recommended for any college basketball fan.
If you like this book, also check out: The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley by Adrian Wojnarowski and The Fab Five: Basketball Trash Talk the American Dream by Mitch Albom.
New Sports Books - What’s coming out soon?
Keep an eye out for these sports books coming out over the next week or two:
⚽ Fields of Dreams and Broken Fences: Delving into the Mystery World of Non-League Football by Aaron Moore. A look at football in the lower leagues in England. Out on 14 February.
⚽ A History of European Football in 100 Objects: The Alternative Football Museum by Andy Bollen. An alternative take on football’s history looking at some of the weirder and less savory moments by the author of the excellent Fierce Genius. Out on 14 February.
⚽ Rooney: Teenage Kicks: The Street Footballer Who Ruled The World Wayne Barton. A look at Rooney’s early years and Manchester United career from the leading author of books on United. Out 17 February.
⚽ Not All Ticket: From Withernsea High to Boothferry Park Halt by Richard Lusmore. A look at Hull City AFC during the 1980s. Out on 21 February.
⚽ Ain't Got a Barrel of Money: Sheffield United by Jason Holyhead. The story of Sheffield United’s roller-coaster ride during the 1970s from 6th in the top division to a dramatic fall to the fourth division. Out on 22 February.
⚾Victory on Two Fronts: The Cleveland Indians and Baseball through the World War II Era by Scott H. Longert. Out on 22 February.
🏀 Coach K: The Rise and Reign of Mike Krzyzewski by Ian O'Connor. See review above! Out on 22 February.
⚾ Mantle: The Best There Ever Was by Tony Castro. Out on 23 February.
🏎️ Max: The Dutch Master: The unauthorised biography of Max Verstappen by Andre Hoogeboom. Out on 24 February.
🏀 Hoops: A Cultural History of Basketball in America by Thomas Aiello. Out on 24 February.
A not so new sports book review - 🏏'The Breath of Sadness: On Love, Grief and Cricket' by Ian Ridley (2020)
I genuinely do not know how to review this book.
The Breath of Sadness is a book about grief. While it's also about county cricket - the domestic multi-day format of cricket which has been gradually declining as shorter forms gain in popularity - it is mostly about Ian Ridley dealing with the loss of his wife Vikki Orvice, a talented and much loved sports writer.
Ostensibly the book is about the role cricket played in Ridley trying to deal with his grief. As the book says, attending the sport gave Ridley a destination, an activity, a peaceful place where he could grieve. As he put it, it allowed him to be "in solitude with but humanity still at hand. If I wanted, I could be distracted by the game going on in front of me, by its subtleties unfolding".
Mostly however the book is a love letter to Ridley's wife Vikki. I have to confess not being hugely familiar with her work (I don't read the Sun newspaper which she worked for). While reading the book I regularly searched for previous pieces of her work and it is clear that the tributes she was paid for her writing talent are thoroughly deserved. It's also clear from Ridley's words that she was even more remarkable as a person.
I really feel I'm not doing the book justice here. It brought tears to my eyes at least 3 times while reading it. More than once I had to put it down. It is raw in the truest sense of the word. It is raw in a way that is difficult to read at times but written with a style and a talent that makes you eager to continue. It is also honest in a way that is as rare as it is refreshing.
We read books for lots of reasons - entertainment, light relief, intellectual curiosity and so much more. It is a rare book that makes you look at your loved ones a little differently, makes you appreciate them that little bit more, makes you grateful for them that little bit more.
The Breath of Sadness is not the type of book I normally read or review. While it captures something special about the shared experience of sport it is much more than that. It's a heartbreaking book but a remarkable one.
Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts, opinions, any improvements I can make etc. Catch me on Twitter. More books next week!