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Montville's ‘Tall Men, Short Shorts’ shoots and scores

July 20, 2021
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I’m a sucker for sports history. It doesn’t even really matter the sport – I generally lean toward the Big Four, but honestly, any discussion of the athletic past will work. I have my sporting foci – baseball and football foremost among them – but as a general fan, I can derive joy from coverage of just about any athletic endeavor.

The moral to the story is simple: With the right pairing of subject matter and author, a work of sports nonfiction can really sing.

Longtime Boston sports journalist Leigh Montville is one of the best to ever do the gig, with a decades-long body of work covering some of the most iconic moments in American sports. His latest book is “Tall Men, Short Shorts – The 1969 NBA Finals: Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics, and a Very Young Sports Reporter” (Doubleday, $29), a look back at the series that would ultimately mark the ending of the lengthy Celtics NBA dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s. A series that saw a certain bright young man – just 24 years of age and setting out on what would become an iconic career as an ink-stained wretch – crisscrossing the country as part of the now-legendary NBA Finals matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969.

It’s also a wonderful bit of autobiographical writing, a reflection on the beginnings of a storied career. Those moments of memory and memoir are what elevate this book from what would be a perfectly adequate work of sports history into something more, a wry look back from someone who understands that the person he once was had a lot to learn.

Basically, it was like this. The year was 1969. The Boston Celtics were an NBA juggernaut, the proverbial 900-pound gorilla – they went where they wanted when they wanted. And where they wanted to go was the NBA Finals. In the previous 12 seasons, Boston had won 10 titles. From Cousy to Heinsohn to Havlicek to keeping up with the Joneses (K.C. and Sam), the Celtics were stacked with legends – none more legendary than Bill Russell.

By 1969, many argued that Boston’s time had passed. Russell had taken on the role of coach alongside his duties playing center; Red Auerbach had moved from the bench a while prior. The team finished a mere fourth in their division, squeaking into the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers of that time were poised for a breakout. Not only did they have the elite talents of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on their roster, but they had added the human cheat code that was Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps the most purely physically talented player in NBA history. With his addition, L.A. had assembled the first dream team.

To many, this seemed like it had to be the year of the Lakers. Sure, they’d faced the Celtics in five NBA Finals series in the 1960s and lost all five, but with Wilt the Stilt on their side, they finally had a way to counteract Bill Russell. The sky was the limit.

In the midst of all of this was a newly-minted reporter for the Boston Globe, one with maybe a bit (or more than a bit) of unearned confidence in his abilities, making his way from coast to coast in an effort to cover what might be the end of the Celtics dynasty.

“Tall Men, Short Shorts” is full of basketball, of course – dynamic and engaging accounts of a see-saw battle between great teams featuring some of the best players to ever hit the hardwood. Montville’s memories of those games are as enthralling a snapshot as anything you’ll find in the most meticulously researched work of sports history.

Perhaps my favorite conceit is the use of the actual newspaper stories filed on each day as the introduction to each chapter. Some of these stories are game recaps, sure, but others – perhaps the more interesting – are the ones filed on the off days, in the in-between moments when nothing’s happening on the court, but the printing press still hungers.

Those two things – basketball and the act of writing about basketball – come together beautifully throughout the book. It’s a clever and compelling marriage, with the basketball action blending with the journalistic realities and becoming a story that is somehow both and neither.

Because there’s more here. Mostly about Russell, who was, while playing and coaching an NBA Finals team, also dealing with the racial and cultural impact of his status as a prominent and vocal Black man in a time and place that wasn’t always ready for such things. This is the first-ever Black coach in the NBA we’re talking about here – there’s a LOT on the man’s plate.

There’s a delightful tone of bemusement throughout as Montville the elder statesman and journalistic legend looks back on the BYM he once was; he shares freely his memories of the arrogance and envy that that young man carried with him. It’s an acknowledgement of just how far he has come, a charming and self-deprecating recognition of his own decades-long evolution as a writer.

“Tall Men, Short Shorts” is a killer basketball book, to be sure. It’s the story of a series that remains in the conversation for best NBA Finals ever, despite being over a half-century in the rearview. But it’s also a look back by a remarkable writer, one whose inflated ego gradually settled into the humility and self-awareness that would let him become one of the best to ever do it. I won’t say that this is the best union of subject and author ever, but I’d be hard pressed to name a better one.

Last modified on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 07:27

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