The 90's Knicks & Kobe's Origin Story - Issue 2
Two new 90's basketball books that aren't about Michael Jordan!
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This week, I take a look at two excellent recent basketball books covering different aspects of the sport in the 1990’s - one on the New York Knicks and their failed attempts to win an NBA title and the other on the late Kobe Bryant’s life before being drafted into the NBA in 1996.
New Book Review - 🏀‘Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks’ by Chris Herring (2022)
For younger basketball fans accustomed to the Knicks, for want of a better word, sucking, it can be hard to remember that during the 1990s, they were one of the great NBA teams. For 10 years they make the playoffs each season and made it to the NBA Finals twice. Had they not coincided with the Jordan era Bulls, it’s highly likely they would have achieved even more.
Blood in the Garden tells the story of the Knicks from the arrival of former Lakers coach Pat Riley in 1991 to the departure of coach Jeff Van Gundy in 2001. Herring brings the central cast of players, coaches, and executives to life in vivid detail but also builds the wider picture of a club, an organization and a wider league.
Condensing 10 years of playoff seasons into a book that is also packed with anecodtes and vivid profiles, Herring zooms in on particular events and games that reflect the the essence of the 90’s Knicks. It was a team built around Patrick Ewing and a philosophy of playing hard, letting the other teams know they were in a contest. The book strikes a perfect balance of insight, anecdote, game action, and narrative. It’s strength is its focus on relationships, on the dynamics between various characters and how those men and those dynamics shaped the team’s performance.
Blood in the Garden is an excellent book due to both the quality of writing and the immense depth of research undertaken. But what fascinates me most is that the book is ultimately about a team that didn’t win a Championship. There are great books about various NBA championship winning teams and dynasties, and books about great players (whether they ultimately won a title or not), but we rarely get great books about teams that ultimately don’t get that moment of glory. Herring has shown that a well told, well researched and well crafted story of sport at the highest level can be just as (or more!) compelling without that final moment of ever lasting glory.
If you like this book, also check out: Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman or When the Garden Was Eden: Clyde, the Captain, Dollar Bill, and the Glory Days of the New York Knicks by Harvey Araton.
2nd New Book Review - 🏀‘The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality’ by Mike Sielski (2022)
The cover quote from Jeff Pearlman on this book sums it up perfectly - every superhero needs an origin story. The Rise is very much the origin story of Kobe Bryant, a singular talent and force of personality who shot to prominence as a high schooler and eventually became one of basketball’s modern greats.
The Rise seeks to navigate a path through the myths and urban legends that have sprouted about Kobe as the last great high school phenom of the pre-internet / smart phone era. Kobe finished high school at a time when holding a press conference to announce your next step seemed like an absurd indulgence rather than the routine event it is now.
The book ultimately paints the picture of a kid with a rare talent but an even rarer level of determination and commitment to make it to the top. It also captures the more relatable human side of the teenager - his shyness, his friendships and his desire to win a high school basketball tournament. The book is all the more powerful knowing how Kobe’s story ultimately developed, both on and off the court - the journey from phenom to villain to champion to ‘girl dad’ to legend.
Sielski has carried out a huge amount of research and spoken to over 100 people who knew Kobe during his childhood. He also had access to previously unpublished interviews with Kobe from his high school days. It’s a hugely impressive work of biography and a unique addition to the growing number of Kobe books since his untimely death.
If you like this book, also check out: Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant by Roland Lazenby.
New Sports Books - What’s coming out soon?
Keep an eye out for these sports books coming out over the next week or two:
🏀 The Last Enforcer: Outrageous Stories from the Life and Times of one of the NBA's Fiercest Competitors by Charles Oakley (with Frank Isola). A memoir from one of the toughest players in NBA history. Out on 1 February.
⚽ The O'Leary Years: Football's Greatest Boom and Bust by Rocco Dean. Really looking forward to this one on the exciting young Leeds United team whose management let dreams override business sense and eventually flew too close to the sun. Out today.
🏀🏈⚾🏒 Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta-and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports by Clayton Trutor. An in-depth look at Atlanta’s frustrating first decade as a major league city (1966–75). Out on 1 February.
⚽ Radical Football: Jurgen Griesbeck and the Story of Football for Good by Steve Fleming. A look at social entrepreneur Griesbeck and his Football for Good initiative. Out on today.
🥊 Fighting to Find Peace: A Belfast Boxer's Journey by Eamon McAuley. Biography of the former boxer, coach and commentator. McAuley is also extremely knowledgeable on Belfast boxing and its history. You can check out a great profile of McAuley here. Out 3 February.
⚽ The Year We (Nearly) Won the League: Stoke City and the 1974/75 Season by Jonathan Baker. The story of the unglamorous midlands club’s best ever team told by a lifelong fan. Out on 7 February.
🏒 Gold: How Gretzky’s Men Ended Canada’s 50 year Olympic Hockey Drought by Tim Wharnsby. The story of Canada’s ice hockey gold medal winning team at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics. Out 1 February.
⚽ Not German, I'm Scouse: A Lifelong Red's Journey Abroad by Carsten Nippert. I’m always fascinated by people who are diehard fans of teams that play in other countries or regions so this German fan’s account of his obsession with Liverpool FC should be an interesting read. Out on 7 February.
A not so new sports book review -‘In Sunshine or in Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles’ by Donald McRae (2019)
A new book from Donald McRae is always something to celebrate. If that new book is about boxing, then all the better. Locate that book in Ireland and it jumps straight to the top of my want-to-read list.
McRae is one of the truly great interviewers working in sports media. He has published over 1,000 interviews with the great and not-so-great of the sporting world for the Guardian and I’m yet to find one I didn’t enjoy. His books have spanned a wide range of topics from sex work, to the trials of Clarence Darrow, to the South Africa he grew up in. But he is never better than when writing about boxing with his book Dark Trade among the seminal works on the sport.
In Sunshine or in Shadow examines boxing during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, that deeply sad period when violence was a regular occurrence on the streets and over 2,000 lives were lost. The book chronicles the lives of four boxers from different communities and, in particular., boxing coach Gerry Storey.
Storey is a remarkable man. An incredibly successful boxing coach, his real greatness lies in his ability to operate across community lines during the Troubles. He coached and developed young men regardless of their background and steered many away from getting involved in political violence. He gained such respect from all sides that he had virtual immunity to cross community lines and put on boxing shows. No story better illustrates this than the period he spent coaching both nationalist and loyalist prisoners in the same prison.
Storey rivals any coach of young men you can think of, both in terms of his sporting success and the uniqueness of his accomplishments given the environment in which he operated. When asked why he turned down the chances of fame and fortune abroad, Storey asks what would have happened if all of the good men left the North. Storey however is not merely a good man, but rather a great one who made a significant and lasting difference in the lives of many people.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters on former world champion Barry McGuigan. While McGuigan’s story will be better known than most of the others covered in the book, it remains remarkable. Born in the Republic, McGuigan fought predominantly in Northern Ireland and represented the North in the Commonwealth games and the all-Ireland team at other international events. This led to an unprecedented cross-border and cross-community appeal that stood as a beacon of hope for a brighter, less violent, future for the island.
The book also serves as a broad history of the key incidents during the troubles. Every person in the book had their lives significantly impacted by violence in some way, usually through the death of a friend or family member. It serves as a stark reminder of the horrific role played by the British state and security services during this bleak time. As the post Brexit landscape continues to remain in flux and the possibility of a hard border on the island of Ireland hasn’t gone away, the story feels even more poignant.
I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough.
If you like this book, also check out: Dark Trade also by McRae on boxing more generally or to read more widely on the Troubles in Northern Ireland check out the excellent Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe.
What caught my eye this week?
I was fascinated by the coverage of the baseball Hall of Fame vote, and particularly Barry Bonds failure to get in via the journalist vote at his 10th and final time of asking. For a non-American, the Hall of Fame concept seems a little bizarre in how much reverence it is given but it matters simply because so many people believe it matters.
The best coverage of the build up to Tuesday vote for me was ESPN’s E60 documentary just called BONDS, this pro-including Bonds piece in ESPN, this anti-including him article in Forbes, and this piece in S.I.
And I can’t mention drugs in baseball without recommending two seminal yet highly different books Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports by Mark Fainaru-Wada & Lance Williams (2006) and ‘Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big’ by Jose Canseco (2005) - a book that should have been titled Steroids are Awesome and I Apologize for Nothing!
Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts, opinions, any improvements I can make etc. Catch me on Twitter. More books next week!