Sunday, March 31, 2013

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt ten)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

The Boston Celtics are our special rivals. We replaced them in 1970 as world champions and since then the press writes of a Knick era as they once talked of the Celtic dynasty; even though we lost the championship two of the next three years. The rivalry between us is intense and the competition is fierce. The games are rough and emotionally draining. The battles over the years, though, develop respect among the players.

I guard John Havlicek—by far the most difficult job I have in a season. Havlicek’s every movement has a purpose and his teammates look for him constantly. If I am a split second behind him, or respond to his fakes away from the ball, he receives a pass and gets a basket. He never lets down and his stamina seems endless. I’ve played him for six years. If he get twenty-one points and I get fifteen, and we win, I think I have done a good job. Testing my ability against his superior skills gives me great satisfaction. Both of us know instinctively how far we can challenge each other without destroying our mutual respect. If he makes a cut to the basket without the ball, I might try to stop him with a stiff arm to the hip. He might respond by grabbing my arm for leverage and hurtling past me. In tonight’s game, a regular season contest, we will play hard against each other—each doing some holding and pushing, but never turning the natural aggressiveness of the game into hostility.

The interaction between the two teams is a competition that extends to the level of management. Red Holzman and Red Auerbach, the Celtic general manager, are bitter rivals. Both subscribe to the notion that no advantage is too small to take. They are polite enough to each other at public and league functions, but individual pride sometimes makes courtesy difficult. One time after a Saturday night game, both teams flew to Boston together for a Sunday afternoon game. As we waited in the passenger lounge, players from each team chatted amicably, but the two Reds remained apart. When the flight was called, they got into an argument about who would get on the plane first.

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt nine)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

Circus people fill the hallways of Madison Square Garden. Changing areas are established with curtains that look like thick bedsheets. Trunks crowd the corridors. Doors have circus names on them: Gunther Gebel-Williams, RBBB, The Flying Oleos, Petite Phillipe. Other doors belong to the Knicks, the Rangers. Women in tights with heavy muscular legs and rugged faces talk in Rumanian. A man carefully studies his face in a small mirror attached to a stilt pole. A beautiful young girl covered with circus make-up, wearing long eyelashes and a see-through robe, sits crying on the lap of an acrobat. A clown stands next to the Garden electrician’s room carefully removing his red and white greasepaint. Gunter Gebel-Williams, the lion tamer, strides from his private dressing room with his long golden lock combed as carefully as the hair of any Vogue model. Across the arena floor lions and tigers rest in makeshift cages while hump-backed camels and wrinkled elephants stand impassively, their feet in chains. The smell of urine and hay saturates the recycled Garden air. I feel a kinship with these people. Our skills are different, our lives alike.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt eight)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

My guest for the evening has seen her first professional basketball game. I like her detached perspective. She waits for me with the wives, girl friends, and acquaintances of the other players. Twenty people sit in empty seats at halfcourt while the Garden maintenance crew dismantles the hardwood floor. As we leave the building, she comments, “What’s so strange is how quickly everyone leaves. There are these frantic emotional moments with everyone sky high. Then it’s over, just like that.” She is right. Although it will take me four hours to come down from the game’s high, it is over “just like that.” Massive amounts of energy are expended, and then there is a silent void. There is a feeling of desolation about the Garden after a game. Paper cups, hot dog wrappers, programs, and popcorn boxes litter the arena floor—the residue of the same appetite that consumed the players’ performance. The cleaning women, shrieking at each other in three languages and sounding like jungle birds in the vacant arena, soon sweep it all away, and tomorrow the excitement of another game will recharge the air.

The abruptness of a game’s end, however, never strikes me as much as the change that comes with the season’s end. For eight months you play basketball and think about basketball; your happiness depends on basketball. Then it is over. Nothing fills the void. Fans and reporters seem to accept it, unaware that for some of us it can never be just the conclusion of a natural cycle. At the end of the season I find myself struggling awkwardly for a proper rhythm, like a novice drummer. For a few days I wander aimlessly, unaccustomed to the slowed pace, to the absence of flights and new cities, to the prospect of no work for four months. Gradually other interests impose routines on daily living and purpose replaces restlessness. Then, as September approaches, preparation for another season speeds up activity and basketball again dominates. But when there are no more Septembers with basketball, what happens then? Will it be over “just like that”?

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt seven)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

Milwaukee gets the tip. Oscar Robertson passes to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who hits a drifting hook shot from the middle of the lane. Oscar hits a jumper and passes for three more. Milwaukee takes a 10-to-2 lead. They are running well.

Oscar and Kareem, the old and the young, make Milwaukee a devastating team. Kareem’s calmness engulfs opponents. With a beard covering his face and his alert eyes darting back and forth across the court, he looks like a member of some royal family. He does things on a basketball court that are truly astounding. At 7’3”, he is as graceful as any player in basketball. In one game, I saw him grab a rebound two feet over the basket, dribble the full length of the floor ending with one dribble behind the back, leap from about the foul line, and dunk it. He does not have the massive bulk of Wilt Chamberlain or the coiled reflexes of Bill Russell; but he seems to be flying effortlessly, giving and taking at his whim.

Oscar’s play has been my model since I was in high school, when I saw him play against St. Louis University. He never wastes a movement; the form is always perfect. His arm fits under the ball as if its sole function is shooting baskets. The same motion releases the ball in the same manner every time. The Robertson body fake frees him time after time for the short jump shot. He dribbles at you slowly, then fakes right with his head, shoulders, and arms. His man jumps right, and he brings his body back left for a clear shot or drive to the basket. His passes are crisp and pinpointed. He is unselfish with the ball but demands that the game be played properly—his way.

Friday, March 29, 2013

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt six)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

Muscles loosen even more and confidence grows. Sometimes you can sink every shot in the warm-ups, but the shots in the game fail to drop. Other times just the reverse. Each player has his own superstitions: taking the last shot, swishing the last shot, walking to the bench last or first, shooting with one ball only, saying hello to a friend in the stands.

Frazier and DeBusschere rarely use the full ten minutes for shooting; they prefer to sit on the bench for two or three minutes, thinking about their opponent.

Several years ago, I took to surveying the crowd for lovely women, and now in Madison Square Garden three women are part of my pregame fantasy ritual. They sit in different places and they attend games often. At some point during the warm-ups, I will stare at each of the three. I don’t want to meet them and I’m sure they aren’t aware of their strange role in my preparation. After two years, one of them made it known through friends that she was available, but somehow it didn’t seem right. From what I saw, she was extremely attractive and alluring; meeting her might dispel that image. I knew she was bound to be different. Anyway, I did not want to find out, because the very act of meeting her would destroy the role she played in my warm-ups. So, I continued just to look. She caught my glances with recognition for several more months, but finally ignored me altogether. I still notice her dress, her hair, and the remarkably impassive manner with which she regards the scene. Three times I have seen her from a cab walking down a New York street. She looked the same, but her allure was less, insufficient without the Garden and the game.

The buzzer sounds, indicating that players should return to their benches for the start of the game. Players take last-second shots, not unlike students cramming, minutes before an exam.

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt five)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

The last letter I open is from Kentucky. It is marked “Important.” Inside is a letter from the doctor-father of a boy whom I had met four years earlier. The son was then a sophomore at the University of Kentucky. He came all the way from Kentucky to ask me to show him how to shoot a basketball. He just appeared at my apartment one day. We went up to Riverside Drive Park where there are some empty baskets. After three minutes, I knew what I had suspected. He couldn’t shoot well but he kept asking how to get off his jump shot under heavy guarding. He said that Adolph Rupp, the coach, had told him he might have a slim chance to make the team. He insisted that he intended to work day and night, for his lifelong goal was to play basketball for Kentucky. We talked and shot about an hour. He thanked me for the help and boarded a bus back home. I saw him later that year in Cincinnati. He had been cut from the Kentucky team. He was down, and convinced that his sprained ankle had something to do with it. I wrote him a letter two years later, after his sister had written that he had cancer. My letter arrived too late. The boy’s father thank me for the letter but says that his son had died six months earlier. He goes on to relate the grief and pain of losing his only son. I put the letter down. Holzman begins his pregame conversation. I can’t concentrate. I should have written sooner. I feel numbed with anger and sorrow.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt four)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

I believe that basketball, when a certain level of unselfish team play is realized, can serve as a kind of metaphor for ultimate cooperation. It is a sport where success, as symbolized by the championship, requires that the dictates of community prevail over selfish personal impulses. An exceptional player is simply one point on a five-pointed star. Statistics—such as points, rebounds, or assists per game—can never explain the remarkable range of human interaction that takes place on a successful pro team. Personal conflicts between team members will never surface if there is a strong enough agreement on the community’s values and goals. Members of the Budapest String Quartet disliked each other personally, but collectively still made exquisite music. They did so in part because they had a rigid score that limited the range of personal interpretation. The cooperation in basketball is remarkable because the flow of action always includes a role for creative spontaneity; the potential for variation is unlimited. Players improvise constantly. The unity they form is not achieved at the expense of individual imagination. That creative freedom highlights the game’s beauty and its complexity, making the moment when the ideal is realized inspiring for the players, thrilling for the fans.

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt three)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

Back at the hotel, the beauticians are partying. I notice that the door across from mine is open. There are people inside laughing. I drape my uniform across chairs to dry and wander across the hall. Three men and three women sit on the beds drinking and talking of sex, clothes, make-up and what they used to do in high school “up at Van Buren.” One of the men, a Georgia Congressman who spoke at the beautician’s dinner, makes a hasty exit after no one listens to his discussion of taxation and political integrity. With the departure of the Congressman, I am the third male. A man pours more bourbon. The talk decreases. I hesitate briefly, but what the hell I’m only young and single once.

After so many nights on the road in so many different hotels encountering so many different situations, everything takes on an ephemeral quality; everything ends with the payment at the cashier’s desk the next morning. What would normally be out of the question for me becomes acceptable in the self-contained world of Mt. Marriott or Holiday Valley. Normal shyness would prevent me from entering a stranger’s hotel room, but on the road there seems to be nothing to lose. Everyone in the hotel sleeps under the same roof for one night and moves on. Loneliness can be overcome only be reaching out for contact: a conversation in the bar, a sharing of dinner, a question in the elevator, a direct invitation, a telephone call to a room, or a helping hand with doors, windows, TVs, locks, or ice machines. The percentages are that if a man spends enough nights in hotels he will meet a woman with whom for that night he will share a bed, giving each a brief escape from boredom and loneliness. Make no mistake: Life in hotels is no continuous orgy. There are months of nights in one’s room, alone. And it is rare than an encounter develops beyond the verbal level. It is very unusual when everything feels right and the loneliness of the road oppresses two strangers equally at the same time.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt two)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

Walt Frazier is the oldest of ten children. His grandparents on his father’s side come from farm country near Augusta. Since slavery ended, people in his mother’s family have continuously done subsistence farming on a plot of land near Sandersville. During most summers of his first ten years, Walt, along with his sisters, mother, and grandmother, visited their country relatives. From those days, he remembers the taste of freshly picked corn and newly plucked chicken, fried Southern style. He recalls the near impossibility of catching a baby pig on the run, however quick your hands. Then, at night, conversations about snakes filtered into the kids’ bedroom from the living room where relatives spoke in cautious tones. Finally, the midnight train with its shrill whistle passed so close to the house that Clyde and his sisters feared it might come crashing through the bedroom door one night.

In Atlanta, Walt lived with his mother, father, brother, and sisters. His father’s parents lived next door. His grandfather worked from dawn to sundown. “You’re not a man until you have credit,” he said. He worked on an assembly line at the Atlanta Paper Company for thirty years, until he was forced to retire at age sixty-five. He got a good pension, but he still insisted on doing work such as lawn and building maintenance at homes where his wife was employed as a domestic.

From his grandfather, Walt heard the familiar Puritan litany about hard work and frugality. From his father, he saw the rewards of the fast life. Walter, Sr., was a hustler in the Summerhill section of Atlanta and provided his family with a comfortable lifestyle. “As a kid,” Clyde remembers, “whatever I wanted my father got me, from spending money to tickets for the Globetrotters. We went shopping every Saturday.” Whenever someone in his family wanted to go somewhere, Walter, Sr., sent one of his employees in a Cadillac to drive him. A maid came once a week to cook and to clean and there was always plenty of food and clothing. “I can remember trying on my father’s clothes alone in front of the mirror,” Clyde says, “wishing I was big enough to wear the bright two-button sport shirts that opened in front, or the brown and white Stacey Adams shoes. I liked the way they looked on him and I wanted to look the same.”

the last book I ever read (Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, excerpt one)

from Life on the Run by Bill Bradley:

The new Madison Square Garden opened in February 1968, three months after I joined the team. It occupies air space over the New York terminals of the Penn Central and Long Island railroads. It was privately financed and designed to be the ultimate indoor area. Seats were cushioned and escalators assured quick exit. The design provided a powerful ventilating system and plenty of light. The promotional message encouraged the men of Wall Street and Madison Avenue to join the die-hard basketball fans from the garment center in the new Garden. The accommodating new atmosphere and the success of the Knicks increased attendance—particularly of women. Then, in an effort to attract more families and at the same time allow businessmen to see a game before catching the commuter train home to New Jersey or Long Island, the starting time was moved up to 7:30.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The 49ers at McSweeney's, episode eleven: Jay Wright

the eleventh installment of The 49ers: Oral Histories of Americans Facing 50 for McSweeney's, this with Villanova head basketball coach Jay Wright.


Please visit The 49ers Facebook page for further updates.

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt sixteen)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

Since 1999, when Joe and Gavin Maloof became the majority owners of the Sacramento Kings, they’ve turned that moribund franchise around, transforming it from one of the NBA’s graveyards into a crown jewel. The Kings are a title contender for the first time, really, since Jerry Lucas and I had our chances ruined by that stupid trade that got rid of Bob Boozer.

The Maloofs invited me and some others from the franchise’s history out for the weekend. They didn’t have to have a ceremony, didn’t have to acknowledge the Kings’ roots in Cincinnati, didn’t have to do any of this, NBA program or not. But they not only hosted the weekend, they treated everyone very well. It was one of the most professional situations I’ve been involved in, in my life.

That was a wonderful gesture, let me tell you. While in Sacramento, my wife and I had some talks with their superstar forward, Chris Webber. My wife spoke to him about African art.

So other than my Olympic and all-star jerseys, every number I’ve ever worn has been retired. I guess I am a regular living legend.

Monday, March 25, 2013


my grandfather, Warren Trucks, with his younger brother Virgil Trucks

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt fifteen)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

It was rumored that either my wife or me would be asked to be on the University of Cincinnati board of trustees. When my name came up, I’ve been told, the idea was dismissed, with the excuse, “Oh, he’ll want to hire black professors.” Never mind that it’s a public university now, so by law it should be diverse. Never mind that the issue has nothing to do with me; if there aren’t enough black professors, then some should be hired. It’s just a matter of right and wrong. Never mind that seeing how many Jewish people have helped me in my life, I might want to hire Jewish professors, I might want to hire Martians, but neither Yvonne nor I are going to be given the chance to so much as express our respective views in preliminary interviews. Never mind that if I hadn’t integrated the basketball team, it might be getting around to admitting its first black student right about now.

So long as I am a statue or a symbol, everything is fine. It’s when I express views and ideas that doors close. Is this what it means to be an immortal?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Virgil Trucks

Virgil "Fire" Trucks, my grandfather's younger brother and one of only five men to throw two no-hitters in a single major league season, passed away yesterday.

He was 95, and will be greatly missed.

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt fourteen)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

On a typical trip, I’d lose all concept of what day it was. Say the team started off with a road game in Milwaukee. The plane left early in the morning on the day of the game, maybe 9:00 A.M. We’d check in to a hotel, then play the game, then head back to the hotel at around 11:00 P.M. The next morning, we’d take a bus and ride for hours, arriving directly at a Chicago hotel. The team checked in and rested before going to play the game and then headed back to a hotel. Afterwards, I’d hit a music club before the team’s midnight curfew. The next morning, we have to get up early again, because we’re flying to Portland, where we’ll have a day off. Not a full day off, because we’d still work out that afternoon, shoot some, and talk about Portland’s defense. That night I might grab a paper and go check out a band or one of the entertainers I’d met over the years, like Dizzy Gillespie, Sam Cooke, James Brown, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson. I’d go to see them perform, and maybe head backstage afterwards to say hello. And then back to the hotel before curfew.

Most nights in the hotel room, I’d flip the television on and watch until I fell asleep. Wayne used to wonder how I could watch so much crap on TV. I used to ask him how he could sleep as much as he did. Then Bob Boozer might come by for some soul talk.

The next night, we’d play in Portland. After just a few trips up and down the floor, I knew who’d been out past curfew or whatever. I know whenever I let myself get hooked by a late-night movie on television, I sure felt it the next day.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Roberston, excerpt thirteen)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

The league expanded to twelve teams in 1966. The next year, in 1967, another league, the American Basketball Association (ABA), announced itself with an expensive booze-filled press conference, and a red, white, and blue basketball. George Mikan, who ran the conference and became the new league’s president, brought a certain amount of credibility with him because of his Hall of Fame career (he was the game’s first towering center) and because of his business acumen. The ABA ran for a raucous, turbulent ten years and transformed the game of basketball in all sorts of ways.

When it started, the ABA was perceived as a rogue, outlaw league, with a wild, freelancing, playground style of game (they could only manage to sign guards and had few quality big men) and that colorful, twirling basketball (someone once said it should be on a seal’s nose). Because the ABA did not have a television contract, they were dependent on ticket sales to stay in business. Their franchises tried everything and anything to get people in the stands. They introduced the three-point basket to the game, the dunk contest, and all-star weekend extravaganzas. Where the NBA was seen as a walk-it-up, pound-the-ball-inside game, the ABA was loose, flying, and freewheeling—all playground moves and three-point bombs. Teams may have folded, moved, or changed ownership constantly, but their front offices also set new standards in promotional creativity: giving out posters at games and thousands (if not millions) of red, white and blue basketballs to children. They also delved into the realm of surreal and bizarre promotions. The Miami Floridians were the first to dress up pretty dancers in tight uniforms and have them perform dance routines, the Indiana Pacers had a cow-milking contest during one of their halftimes, and the New York Nets actually tried a Gerbil Night. The first five hundred fans received a free rodent.

Friday, March 22, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt twelve)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

In early 1964, Jack Twyman came to me. Jack was part of the inner circle of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), a fledgling union advocating players’ rights. Playing conditions at that time just weren’t appropriate for a professional league. Players didn’t have health insurance. We always stayed in second-class hotels. Teams refused to send their trainers on road trips. Players didn’t get paid for preseason. And after the all-star game, you didn’t even have twenty-four hours before the season started back up. Jack came to me because drastic changes were necessary. He wanted to know if I’d take over the job of the Royals’ team rep to the players union.

The history of the problems between players and owners was long and complicated. Bob Cousy had helped start the union in 1954. That year, players openly threatened to strike on the afternoon of the all-star game. An immediate meeting with league president Maurice Podoloff led to various improvements concerning contract and playing conditions, and an agreement was made to start an unofficial pension plan, in which teams matched the players’ contributions. The owners agreed to the legitimacy of the players union, and the players agreed to further negotiate matters of conflict. The game went on as planned.

But the league’s promise wasn’t kept; there was virtually no headway in making the unofficial pension plan official. Whenever union leaders tried to meet Podoloff, he stalled. Whenever he made a public statement on a labor matter, it was a lie. This happened for six, seven years. More than a few owners thought they were doing players a favor by having us out there, playing in front of people. Some players were signed for five thousand dollars—the same salary a guy would get for delivering mail. If an owner did not like a player for personal reasons, they got rid of him. Meanwhile, we were busting our asses up and down the courts every night, running our bodies into the ground, then traveling and living in pathetic conditions. It reached a point when players could not help but view what Podoloff and the owners were doing as anything but cold, calculating delays and lies. Keeping us at bay, patting us on the head, and paying us with pennies, even as they kept cashing checks written in our sweat and blood.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt eleven)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

When I played, games were won from inside the foul line. You played to get fouled and to get people in foul trouble. Even now you can shoot all the three-pointers in the world and make a lot of them, but it’s fool’s gold; if you don’t get to the foul line and inside the paint, you’re simply not going to win. I square up on my defender and start toward my right. I’ve got my hip between the defender and the ball and have my head up. As I dribble, I read the court, maneuvering my way toward the paint. I dribble harder—giving one head and shoulder fake to my defender, then another. I feel his position with my body, and bump against his hip. His wrist and elbow are in my lower back. All this helps to determine my next move, the next bump. Two dribbles. A third. As I grind him down, I wait for him to commit himself in one way or another. If he’s taller than me, he probably isn’t as strong, fast, or as coordinated, so I take it for granted that when necessary I’ll be able to spin past him. Smaller guys I’ll simply wear down, using my strength and height on them, just backing them down, jumping over them, then crashing the offensive glass.

Dick Barnett made a statement that received national circulation and became the catchphrase description of my game: “If you give Oscar a twelve-foot shot, he’ll work on you until he’s got a ten-foot shot. Give him a ten and he wants eight. Give him eight and he wants six. Give him six, he wants four, he wants two. Give him two, you know what he wants? That’s right, baby. He wants a layup.”

It may not be flashy, but it’s true. One of my favorite tricks was to spin by my guy with my arm out so fast he didn’t know what happened. It used to piss off Alex Hannum, who was a Hall of Famer. “Someone is going to grab that arm someday and throw Robertson into the third row.” Bill Russell was more philosophical. He called the move my free foul, saying, “I knew that whenever I guarded him on a switch, Oscar would be dribbling with one hand and trying to club me to death with the other. Oscar’s free foul was in keeping with his attitude toward the game. He’d gobble his way up your arm if he could. He always wanted something extra.”

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt ten)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

A friend once told me a story about the great jazz bass player Charles Mingus. Mingus was known, among other things, for his improvisational skills and loosely structured bands. During the 1960s, he somehow got mixed up with the psychotropic guru Tim Leary. Leary was making a movie in Woodstock, New York, and Mingus agreed to act in it and score it. The first day of the shoot, they’re standing around with their scripts. Leary says, “To hell with the scripts. Let’s improv the whole thing.” Mingus shook his head. “Look, man,” he said, “The key to improv is having something concrete to go away from, and something to come back to.” I bring this up because basketball is not only about set plays. Part of the beauty is the improvisational moments, the brilliance that can explode from out of ashes and chaos.

The fact is, you do need one-on-one skills; you do need to be able to isolate your man and break him down. You need to be able to create enough space for yourself to take a tough jump shot, to hit shots with a high degree of difficulty, to drive and dish to the open man. Whatever I was called upon for, I did. When you watch Kobe Bryant play basketball, you see a great offensive player. But you also get the sense that he grew up and learned to play as if there was a television camera on him at all times. His style is something of an extension of Michael Jordan’s game, and Michael’s game not only had flair, it was the embodiment of flair. Both play a spectacular, highlight-oriented game, cherished by the cereal-box crowd and the marketing executives of corporate America. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But I had a different style—someone once suggested it might have been because I grew up in a time before television controlled everything. It wasn’t flashy. At the same time, if you watch Michael Jordan’s patented fadeaway jumper, or his back-to-the-basket fallaway, now that’s Oscar Robertson’s shot. If you pop in a videotape of Magic Johnson protecting the ball with his body as he runs a half-court offense, then isolating his man on one side of the basket, bulling and backing him down, and then spinning off his man, that’s Oscar Robertson. My play influenced them. And I did these things before they were around to watch them.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt nine)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

A reporter from Time visited Cincinnati and scheduled interviews with me. When we met, he told me that his magazine was planning to do a cover story on the NBA. They’d commissioned an artist to do a painting of me and were planning to use it for the cover. He was shocked when I didn’t react, or show any excitement, but dealt with him in the usual staid manner I used on the other dozen or so reporters who, every so often, flew in out of nowhere and bothered me.

The publication date was February 17, 1961, four years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first made the cover, two after Harry Belafonte, and a little less than two years before Dr. King was declared Time’s Man of the Year. It was the first time a basketball player made the cover of Time. The February 17 cover indeed featured a painting of me. Russell Hoban, a noted African-American artist, painted the portrait, and I assume he used a still photo of me as his model. It’s a beautiful painting, one of dancing colors. I am in action during a game, underneath the basket, shooting the ball. Around me abstract players are leaping. The air seems to swirl. I’ve been told that as he worked on the painting, the artist told a friend that it was curious; if you took the basketball out of my hand and replace it with a sword, you’d have the classic stance for a soldier. I’ve always appreciated that.

Monday, March 18, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Roberston, excerpt eight)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

On October 20, 1960, more than eight thousand people—the largest crowd in Royals’ history—came to the Cincinnati Gardens to watch my regular-season debut. Our game against the Lakers was also notable for the introduction of my Olympic co-captain and supposed rival, rookie Jerry West. The large photo on the front of The Cincinnati Enquirer’s sports page the next day featured me, driving for a layup, and scoring with my right hand.

I had a triple-double that night, scoring twenty-one points to lead the team and amassing twelve rebounds and ten assists. The Enquirer called it “perhaps the finest performance in four seasons, as (the Royals) rang up more points than any one Cincinnati team in history.” Of me, a columnist said: “His superb faking and generalship thrilled the fans, and there is no doubt he will be one of the greatest.”

So I began my initiation. There were eight league teams back then, and we played seven games in as many cities in ten days. We’d get up early in the morning, get onto a bus or go to the airport, and hit a city. At the arena, we had to tape our own ankles before games, because there weren’t trainers for anything other than serious injuries. Dolph Schayes and Bob Pettit were among the guys I know who broke their wrists and still kept playing. I’d estimate that eighty percent of the league played with charley horses, jammed thumbs, and pulled muscles back then, and the only thing the trainers offered for relief were freezing sprays of ethyl chloride.

After games, you went back to your hotel for a good night’s rest. The next day at the airport, you waited for your flight, then fell asleep on the plane, cramped in those little airplane seats. We flew on rickety little DC-3s; any gust of wind shook them back and forth, and if we were playing in California, we’d have to stop six or seven times along the way. Guys received eight dollars a day in meal money, and the Royals always booked us into cheap, fleabag hotels. We’d arrive in the dead of night, get to our rooms, and discover the beds were too short. I used to have to put a suitcase at the end of the bed for my feet.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Roberston, excerpt seven)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

During the late 1920s, the American Basketball League (ABL) emerged as the strongest of these early leagues. Along with the Midwestern Basketball League (founded later, in 1937), the ABL provided part of the foundation for what would eventually become the National Basketball League (NBL). The NBL had franchises in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Indiana. Initially, it was a regional, almost provincial league. Three of its eight teams—Buffalo, Rochester, and New York City—were within New York State. Other teams based in relatively small and obscure towns (Oshkosh, Dayton, Fort Wayne) came and went. In those days, the National Basketball League’s status was national in name only.

The NBL and a few smaller leagues eventually consolidated in 1949 to become the league we all know today as the National Basketball Association (NBA). At the end of World War II, however, the NBA was a fledgling and struggling organization. CBS’s broadcast of a double-overtime game between the Boston Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks for the 1956-57 NBA finals was the first nationally televised basketball game. For the following season, NBC paid five hundred thousand dollars to televise Saturday games into the twelve million homes with television sets. But their broadcasts generated so little interest that Nielsen reported the ratings as IFR (Insufficient for Reporting)—the numbers were too small to be measured.

Things began to change in 1960 when the Lakers moved their franchise from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. For the first time, the league had a truly coast-to-coast, national presence. Just as importantly, 1959 to 1960 marked Wilt Chamberlain’s debut with the Philadelphia Warriors. I’ve always thought that his gargantuan appeal had a lot to do with that season’s attendance figures jumping twenty-three percent.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Roberston, excerpt six)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

At the time, however, basketball was a series of blurred images and still photos; it was bulky men in crew cuts lumbering across the lane for hook shots, short athletic men darting around; it was underhand free throws and long-range set shots. Big men played close to the basket. Little men handled the ball. This was how the game was played.

I don’t know if I was the first six-foot-five, two-hundred-pound athlete to handle the ball as much as I did, let alone play the way I did. I do think it’s safe to say that my performance at Madison Square Garden was a touchstone moment for the sport of basketball. I think that watching someone with my athletic ability, size, skills, and basketball knowledge gave experts a sense of the future. Along with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and a host of other players who would dominate the upcoming decade. I represented a step forward in the game’s evolution. To a large degree, I think that’s what people were responding to.

Friday, March 15, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt five)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

Although I am not writing this book to relate every injustice I’ve suffered, it’s simply impossible to tell my story without talking about race. As much as I am an American, I am a black American. And to tell you about growing up in the Jim Crow South, and a segregated, Klan-infested Midwest, I must acknowledge the influence of race. Similarly, it’s impossible to discuss my experiences with basketball without mentioning race, black and white. Otherwise, you might as well think about America’s history during the second half of the twentieth century without acknowledging the civil rights movement. Or consider the Civil War without mentioning slavery. The subjects are all intertwined.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt four)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

It was the strangest thing: While the teams were warming up, I remember the crowd being silent. Could it have been because there were no white players on either team? Because Indiana’s legendary cultured and die-hard basketball fans were not all that excited about sitting there and watching black players, black coaches, and black student managers? Because maybe they were worried about us racial interlopers kidnapping their beloved game? They weren’t sitting on their hands because of a lack of cheerleaders. Squads from white schools in Indianapolis and Gary made a point of showing city and racial unity, coming out to join in with both teams’ cheer lines. That touched me back then. Even now it’s one of the little details in my life that helps me, when I look back.

We won the opening tip, and I immediately took a pass at the top of the key, gave my quick fake, and took that one hard dribble—a move I’d been making since I was a child, a move I’d practiced tens of thousands of times.

The game was nine seconds old. I pulled up for a sixteen-foot jump shot. The ball dropped through the bottom of the net.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt three)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

In the state finals, Milan defeated powerful Muncie Central when Plump hit a last-second jumper. You may have heard about the shot and the game; they became immortalized in the 1986 movie Hoosiers. Maybe you remember the film: the rusted car driving down country roads, the golden morning light and grain elevators, cornfields and barns with weathered paint and churches with large, white steeples. A coach heads toward the town of Hickory. At each bend in the road, there is a basketball hoop, and more hoops beside grain elevators, nailed to barns, at a crossroad. Coach Norman Dale instructs his players to always throw at least four passes before taking a shot, reinforces the timeless notions of discipline and patience and teamwork. Men gather on frosty nights to talk about what kind of defense the town should play. There are town meetings to decide on the future of the coach. Before the state championship game, the schoolboy hero looks at his teammates and says, “Let’s win one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”

I ask you this: when the fictional version of Milan—a team named the Hickory Huskers—reaches the championship game in Hoosiers, what does it mean that the filmmakers twisted the truth? Instead of having Milan defeat Muncie Central and an integrated team with two black guys on it, which is what happened in real life, Hickory defeated a fictional team of black players, coached exclusively by black men, whose rooting section consists of black men, women, boys, and girls. Is the proverbial race card being played?

Bailey and Ray Crowe both had small parts in the film. You can see them sitting on the South Bend bench, coaching. Obviously, they disagree with me on this point. They’re entitled.

The night Bobby Plump’s shot gave Milan the real state title, a convoy of Cadillacs hauled the players around Indianapolis’s Monument Circle. The next day the caravan headed south, down back roads toward Milan. Thousands of people turned out along the way, waving flags. Children were perched in the boughs of sycamores. Women stood on porches, with freshly baked pies and peach cobbler for the conquering heroes.

At the Senate Avenue Y in Indianapolis, good-natured banter and laughter filled one end of the basketball court. The other end was empty except for a lone player, who was in his own world, dribbling, faking, shooting, lost in the sport’s subtle rhythms.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt two)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

When I was bringing the ball up court, a guy might leave his man and rush me, double-teaming me, trying to steal the ball. So I had to be aware of where the other players were in relation to me, had to learn to recognize when a double-team was coming and what to do about it. If someone crowded me, I had to know how to blow past him. In every game, it seemed I would pick up something worth practicing. Then, the second that I got even passable at a certain move, I would try it out in a game. Something didn’t work? More practice. A different move. Now could I use that to better advantage?

There’s a saying about the Lord helping those who help themselves, and it’s true in basketball as well. The guys noticed me improving, saw how serious I was about the game. Soon they started giving me pointers. Hey, Oscar, you know, if you use your foot to jab . . .

Maybe it was because of all the basketball beatings I’d taken at the hands of my elders, the gauntlets I’d been put through just to be able to shoot at the back of the house with my brothers, let alone stay in a game at the Dust Bowl, but after a while, whenever I played, I felt at east. I had skills nobody else had, understood things in a way that they did not, did things they could not. As I played, I was hearing whoops of approval and getting high-fives from other guys—both on and off the court. And rather than bask in a good play or win, I was the kind of kid who got greedy from success. It made me want to do better, work harder. Without knowing it, I started becoming a better player, someone who knew how to react and adjust to a situation without having to think about it, a player who understood that huge effort had to be his routine. Throughout my adult life, I’ve been described as one of the most fundamentally sound players in the history of basketball. But so much of what I know I learned on the playground. I didn’t learn much basketball in high school, or even in college, but rather from playing outside in the park.

Monday, March 11, 2013

the last book I ever read (The Big O by Oscar Robertson, excerpt one)

from The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game by Oscar Robertson:

Located in the heart of Naptown, Crispus Attucks was a source of pride for the black community of Indianapolis. Named after the African-American who had been shot by British troops in the 1770 Boston Massacre, the school was a lumbering, three-story red brick building. The foul-smelling canal was close to its front doors, and Fall Creek was just a few blocks away. The building didn’t have a regular-size fieldhouse or a regular-size track. It was overcrowded, with almost double the number of students it had been constructed to hold. And yet it was a miraculous place. The principal was black, and the majority of teachers were black Ph.D.’s who weren’t allowed to teach in white schools.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt sixteen)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Weeks later, Russell exiled John Brisker to the Eastern League. When Russell arrived, recalled Brisker, “we were elated. It could have been very good all the way around—from business, to basketball, to a personal level of consciousness.” He even threw Russell a welcome party. Brisker owned a tough-guy reputation, thanks to his hardscrabble upbringing in Detroit’s ghettoes, his menacing demeanor, and frequent fisticuffs in the ABA. He also possessed shooting range and athleticism. Just before the demotion, he dropped forty-seven points on the Kansas City Kings.

Yet Russell had alienated Brisker since training camp. Joby Wright, a 6’8” mountain from Indiana University, was hacking Brisker. They jawed at each other. “This is where we separate the men from the boys,” said Russell. “Let ‘em play.” He was provoking Brisker by pitting him against a hardworking banger scrapping for a roster spot. Brisker could not back down. The play got rougher, the pushes got harder, the tempers got hotter. Then Brisker threw a punch. Wright thudded onto the floor. His teeth scattered across the court. Everyone hushed. Brisker wanted to cry, but he resisted losing face. Goaded into attacking his teammate, his rage spilled out in a wild scream, delivered right in Russell’s face. From then on, Brisker sat in Russell’s doghouse.

Officially, Russell sent Brisker to a weekend minor league to work on defense. Really, it was a public humiliation. “The Eastern League is as much an atmosphere for defense as a brothel is for Bible reading,” cracked one writer. In three weeks, Brisker averaged fifty-four points. His rift with Russell continued. He thought that Russell considered him a threat, because players congregated at his house. When he returned to Seattle, Russell benched him. They had angry conversations, locker-room staredowns. The next season, Brisker played in only twenty-one games. After he had foot surgery without the Sonics’ consent, the team declared a breach of contract, and Brisker never again played professional basketball.

Fans assumed that Russell held a grudge against Brisker, whom they liked for his shooting. Russell denied any personal beef. He maintained only that other players contributed more. When crowds chanted “We Want Brisker,” he scowled into the stands. By disgracing a tough and headstrong player, Russell fortified his own authority.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt fifteen)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

When Russell left Boston, he sought freedom. He packed one suitcase into his Lamborghini. He rented a small, furnished apartment on Wilshire Boulevard. He wore sneakers or sandals, jeans or shorts, ratty shirts and dark glasses. He walked down the street, and no one asked for autographs. He dabbled with vegetarianism, though his self-discipline occasionally cracked and he gobbled down four steaks. Other athletes considered retirement a type of death, but not Russell. He defined himself beyond sports, and the NBA involved fetters of competition, contracts, and public expectations. After the 1969 title, he never again played a proper, five-on-five game of basketball.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The 49ers at McSweeney's, episode ten: Susan Olsen

the tenth installment of The 49ers: Oral Histories of Americans Facing 50 for McSweeney's, this with Susan Olsen, mother, animal rights actress and the youngest child on The Brady Bunch.


Please visit The 49ers Facebook page for further updates.

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt fourteen)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

After a prolonged holdout, Chamberlain had signed a one-year, $250,000 contract. Yet the highest-paid athlete in history lacked gusto for another campaign. “I’d broken my own records year after year,” he recalled. “I’d even been on a championship team. What else could I do?” Defending the NBA title did not qualify as a goal. He still defined excellence in individual terms.

So Chamberlain motivated himself with another individual, statistical goal: leading the NBA in assists. He stopped attacking the basket, favored passes to quick shooters like Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham, and passed up easy shots. In one game, he failed to take a single shot. He remained capable of fifty-two and sixty-eight point outbursts, but he got obsessed with assists. Once he even searched out the scorekeeper in an emptying arena to dispute his tally. He led the NBA with 8.6 assists a game—a remarkable feat for a center. He also won his third straight MVP, surpassed twenty-five thousand career points, and put his team eight games ahead of Boston. Yet, somehow, Chamberlain had made unselfishness selfish.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt thirteen)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Russell still embodied that interracial team spirit. He hosted teammates in Reading, and they visited Slade’s for barbecue and sweet potato pie. While a callow rookie, Counts was surprised when Russell offered a ride home in his Lamborghini—a small gesture that built an easy camaraderie. Russell also made grander offerings. After practice on Christmas Eve of 1965, he learned that Nelson was spending Christmas alone. Russell invited him to Reading. Nelson demurred, not wishing to intrude. But Russell insisted. The next day, the Russells had wrapped him presents, and Nelson had a great time. “I’ll never forget that,” he said. “No one can ever say anything bad about Bill Russell to me.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt twelve)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Russell’s team, too, crumbled the old racial codes. In December 1964, Tom Heinsohn injured his foot. John Havlicek had led Boston in scoring the previous year, but with Frank Ramsey retired, Auerbach wanted Havlicek to remain the Sixth Man. So Willie Naulls started alongside Russell, Sanders, K.C. Jones, and Sam Jones. No NBA team had started five blacks before. After smashing the taboo, the Celtics rattled off sixteen consecutive wins.

The streak fell one short of the NBA record. They had earlier won eleven straight, and by late January they stood 41-8, seven and a half games ahead of Cincinnati. Sports Illustrated had titled its preseason preview “The Pack Closes on Boston,” but Boston again sprinted away from the pack. “The Jones Boys” had matured into the league’s best backcourt. Russell called K.C. Jones “our most valuable player” because his defense tormented such stars as Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Sam Jones emerged as a bona fide superstar. Lightning-fast with a catalog of lethal bank and jump shots, he asserted himself as a go-to scorer, becoming the first Celtic to surpass two thousand points in one season. He finished fourth in MVP balloting.

After a one-year hiatus, Russell reclaimed first place in that MVP vote. The Celtics finished a record-breaking 62-18, and Russell’s significance again transcended statistics. “When Bill feels like it, there’s little that can stop us,” said Sam Jones. “The players know before the game when Russ is really ready. They can feel it and it perks all of us up.” No team in basketball history defended like these Celtics, who drew their cue from their center and captain.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt eleven)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

After the 1962 title, Russell drove his two young sons to Louisiana in his brand-news, steel-gray Lincoln convertible. He carried $2,000 in his wallet. He owned five NBA championships, three MVP awards, and one of the richest contracts in professional sports. Yet upon crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, few restaurants or hotels accommodated blacks. “Daddy, can’t we stop?” the kids asked. “Daddy, I’m hungry.” They slept one night in the Lincoln. Russell foamed with frustration. Whatever his wealth, whatever his fame, he lived with Jim Crow.

In West Monroe, Russell avoided his mother’s grave, as always. He still felt abandoned by her. He remained wary of opening himself to others. But if his history scarred him, it also buttressed him. He soaked in the care of his aunts and cousins. He watched his boys follow around his still-vigorous grandfather. And he talked with the Old Man, though not about basketball. “He was interested in my career only as it affected my dignity and values,” recalled Russell. “Was I away from home too much to be a good father to the kids? Did I understand money? Was I at peace with myself?”

He was not. Russell soon conveyed an inner discontent. “Until today my life has been a waste,” he said that December. “What does all this mean?” he cried while surrounded by autograph-seekers at Madison Square Garden. “This is without depth. This is a very shallow thing.” He could have chosen a “constructive” profession, such as a doctor, architect, or politician. “I feel that playing basketball is just marking time. I don’t feel that this can be it for a man. I haven’t accomplished anything really. What contribution have I made of which I can be really proud?”

Monday, March 4, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt ten)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Russell once called sports a mixture of art and war. They adopt political and spiritual dimensions. They stir the passions of participants and observers. They provide heroes and villains, rules and rituals, insurmountable obstacles and improbable triumphs. Sometimes, Russell recalled, a few men played with such beauty and passion that “the feeling would spread to the other guys, and we’d all levitate. Then the game would just take off, and there’d be a natural ebb and flow that reminded you how rhythmic and musical basketball is supposed to be.” These moments of transcendence suggest basketball’s larger appeal. More than baseball or football, basketball is the American game. Invented on American soil, it fuses individual freedom with communal enterprise. Its solo feints, flair, and bursts—managed through collective patterns—compare to another American art form: jazz.

The Boston Celtics offered basketball in its highest form, merging individual and team, white and black. They also lent the sport its archetype. “The Celtics are the aristocrats of basketball—arrogant perfectionists who play with almost insulting contempt,” wrote Jim Murray. “They come on court with the Emperor of Basketball, Bill Russell, and the score is psychologically 20-0 before the tip-off.” The players often referred to their “pride,” a quality built on mutual trust and quiet confidence. Their aura of invincibility became known as the “Celtic Mystique.”

This character stemmed from a cooperative dedication to winning, but it was rooted in one man. “Forget about the stories of magic leprechauns in the rafters of Boston Garden and how the cramped visitors’ dressing room and psychological games created some sort of Celtics’ mystique,” insisted Oscar Robertson. “No matter how good the players surrounding him were, no matter how competitive his coach was, Bill Russell was the Celtics’ mystique.”

Sunday, March 3, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt nine)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Until Bill Russell, professional basketball lacked a galvanizing emblem of African American excellence. Basketball lacked the status or history of baseball, so blacks had entered the NBA without the publicity, controversy, or metaphoric significance of Jackie Robinson. Most of the urban, college-educated whites populating “the city game” accepted blacks. Pop Gates and Dolly King joined the NBL in 1946, and six others enlisted with the Chicago Stags of the BAA in 1948.

But the NBA began without blacks. Abe Saperstein possessed a stranglehold on black talent, and the league owners hosted profitable doubleheaders with the Globetrotters. When Ned Irish of the Knicks tried signing Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton from the Globetrotters, most owners balked. Philadelphia’s Eddie Gottlieb also feared a racial floodgate. He predicted that “in five years, it’ll be seventy-five percent black and nobody will be coming to the games.”

So when Walter Brown drafted Chuck Cooper in 1950, it provoked consternation. “Walter, don’t you know he’s a colored boy?” someone asked. Brown replied, “I don’t give a damn if he’s striped or plaid or polka dot. Boston takes Charles Cooper of Duquesne!” The hardworking 6’6” forward played four years with the Celtics. Cooper endured segregation in Washington and Baltimore, as well as some on-court tussles after racial slurs. Don Barksdale had similar experiences during his Boston tenure from 1953 to 1955. Yet both men formed friendships with teammates, their bonds forged by travel and teamwork.

Blacks trickled into the NBA. After Boston drafted Cooper, Irish bought Clifton from the Globetrotters. Clifton became the first African American to sign an NBA contract. Earl Lloyd, drafted by the Syracuse Nationals, was the first to step on an NBA court. These players founded the fraternity of black professionals that Russell joined in 1956. Hosts looked out for visiting players. For instance, Lloyd and Russell advised each other on restaurants, clubs, and other amenities that welcomed blacks. Black players also shared stories about their particular hardships: eating room service in St. Louis, getting targeted for debris and spit from Fort Wayne fans, competing against other blacks for limited roster spots. As late as 1958, no team had more than two blacks, and St. Louis remained all white.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt eight)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Ben Kerner owned the Hawks. Since his break with Auerbach, he had moved his franchise from Tri-Cities to Milwaukee to St. Louis, where it earned its first profit. He craved economic stability. Macauley was a hometown hero, and Russell was a risk. If he drafted Russell, Kerner would bid against the Globetrotters and wait through the Olympics. Also, St. Louis had no black players. The most southern city in the NBA had ordinances that enforced racial segregation. “In 1956, St. Louis was an antiblack city,” recalled referee Norm Drucker. When black visitors played there, “all you hear was ‘nigger . . . monkey . . . coon.’” Kerner feared that Russell might destroy his last chance for an NBA franchise.

Kerner approved the trade—if Auerbach threw in Cliff Hagan, the star Kentucky forward then serving in the army. That ultimatum raised the stakes. “For an untested defensive specialist,” Auerbach summarized, “I was offering Ben a high-scoring seven-time All-Star who would also be a natural for him at the gate. And Ben wanted the package sweetened with nothing less than the six-foot-five solid-rock Kentucky All-American, a sure-bet corner man for any NBA club.” Auerbach nevertheless agreed. One final hurdle remained: the NBA barred the trading of first-round draft picks. The board of governors overrode the ban, since the swap fortified both teams.

On April 30, 1956, the NBA held its draft. With its territorial pick, Boston selected Tommy Heinsohn, the Holy Cross star once humbled by Russell. The territorial draft allowed teams to draft players from colleges in a fifty-mile radius, providing local gate attractions. By drafting Heinsohn, the Celtics relinquished their seventh pick. No other team exercised its territorial option. After Rochester took Sihugo Green, Boston chose Russell. In the second round, the Celtics took K.C. Jones. From the hindsight of history, the Celtics dynasty started on that day.

Friday, March 1, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt seven)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

The next morning, before their final showdown against Iowa, Russell slept until 11:00. He walked downstairs to pick up a good-luck telegram from Rose Swisher. Then he and his teammates lounged around the hotel, joking and laughing. Excited USF fans chatted with them as they boarded the bus, and on the ride to McGaw Memorial Hall they belted out songs to a rock-and-roll beat, changing the lyrics to tease their trainer. Even in the locker room, they jabbered and giggled until game time. A relaxed attitude had served them well throughout the steak, but Woolpert’s stomach tied into ever-tighter knots. He feared overconfidence.

Those fears seemed realized in the opening minutes, when Iowa grabbed a 15-4 lead. The Hawkeyes scored on fast breaks and back-door cuts as their lone black player, the versatile forward Carl “Sugar” Cain, amassed ten quick points on fake-right, go-left dribble drives. Thousands of fans from neighboring Iowa whipped into a frenzy. USF clearly missed K.C. Jones, and the new unpaid assistant coach fumed. “You guys have the fat head,” he lectured during a time-out. “You’re choking, really swallowing the olive. You lose this one and the winning string you’re gloating about won’t mean a thing.” The Dons broke the huddle with a clap. They had overcome deficits before, but the streak and the championship lent extra pressure. “Nervous? No, I wasn’t nervous,” Russell later said. “I was just flat scared.”

Yet one final time, Russell and the Dons submitted a bravura performance. They clamped down defensively. Eugene Brown shifted to forward and shut down Carl Cain. Warren Baxter took his guard spot, putting four blacks on the floor in the NCAA Final. Six minutes before halftime, USF regained the lead. The Dons forced turnovers throughout the second half. During one possession, Russell blocked a shot, blocked another, and scared a Hawkeye into a wild miss. Iowa shot only 33 percent, and Russell finished with twenty-six point and twenty-seven rebounds. Time and again, he received the ball on the right wing and swept across the court for a left-handed hook. He also scored three baskets with his patented “steer” shot, guiding in errant shots above the rim. When the final buzzer sounded on the 83-71 victory, USF owned a fifty-five-game winning streak and two consecutive NCAA titles. “This,” marveled the San Francisco Chronicle, “must be the finest undergraduate team since Naismith first hung the peach basket.”