Wednesday, April 10, 2013

the last book I ever read (David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, excerpt nine)

from The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam:

If Portland was shaky on opening day, then Utah, the Utah Jazz, was even shakier, a reminder of the lack of professionalism at the managerial level in the league. Utah was new this year; the previous year the same team had been the New Orleans Jazz, and having failed gloriously there, it had been moved, lock, stock and nickname, to Salt Lake City (the name a rare contradiction in terms, given the Mormon beliefs on race, though it suggested other misnomers in the league: the Los Angeles Nordiques, the Atlanta Yankees). Basketball failed in New Orleans for a number of reasons. It had been poorly thought out there from the start, and the management, fearful of developing a black-dominated sport in so southern a city, had decided to build the franchise around Pete Maravich, a white player of exceptional skills, though skills rarely disciplined. Because Maravich was white, a local hero, and so flashy a player, the ownership had traded away the future of the franchise—two first-round draft choices, two seconds, and two roster players—to pry Maravich away from Atlanta, where he had already worn out his welcome, and where a comparable management, anxious not to offend its white fans (or, more accurately, hoping to locate them), had broken out a very successful, virtually all-black team, and drafted Maravich out of college. In New Orleans Maravich had signed a long-term contract for some $700,000 a year, more money, it was said, than the other players put together. There had been, not surprisingly, tensions between Maravich and many of his teammates throughout his career (there were similar salary discrepancies everywhere he went), since in order to justify that much money he had to handle and shoot the ball all the time. But fans, particularly fans new to the game, loved him, he was exciting and wonderful at the theater of basketball. Weak management, worried about finding fans, loved him in the early years because it could hype him. More than any other athlete in basketball he dramatized the conflict between pure sports as they should have been and sports in the modern televised era. He always landed in situations where a nervous management was anxious to hype, not the quality of the game but a show, Pistol Pete, the flashy scorer with the fancy moves. He had been handsomely rewarded for his service, not merely in terms of salary but in publicity; there had been magazine covers to pose for and television commercials to shoot. But at the same time something happened that was terrible for a fine athlete. His essential covenant had always been with the hype instead of his teammates and the game. Every move—and there were many—to sell him and make him the show had pulled him that much further away from his teammates and the idea of basketball. Now, in his tenth year of the professional game, one of the two or three highest-paid players in the league, he had a reputation in some quarters of being a loser. Even those sympathetic to him did not really know if he could play team basketball. His career was almost over and no one really knew how good he was.

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