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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.

Published in Sports

The great internet arbiter Judge John Hodgman has a saying: “Nostalgia is a toxic impulse.” While I don’t necessarily fully agree with that sentiment – I think there can be real value in reengaging with aspects of our past that we remember fondly – I also acknowledge that the tendency to get lost in our own personal pop culture ephemera-strewn memory palaces can result in some dark turns.

All this is to say that while I understand why “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was made and the thoughts and desires that led to that outcome, enabling the nostalgic impulse without any critical regard to the reasons behind the memory can result in something hollow and ultimately unsatisfactory.

As a late Gen-Xer, I’m a hair too old to have the same fondness for 1996’s “Space Jam” that many millennials carry. However, I do still carry a soft spot for the film – I mean, Michael Jordan, the Looney Tunes and a pre-folk hero Bill Murray? What’s not to like?

That said, the sequel – this one starring LeBron James – fails to achieve even the modicum of loose charm that surrounded the original, exchanging the winking self-awareness and quirkiness of the original for a seemingly unending cavalcade of product placement and self-celebratory IP exploitation.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (who replaced original director Terrence Nance a few weeks into filming) from a screenplay with no less than six credited writers, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is the unfortunate result when you attempt to recreate something whose appeal you don’t fully understand; there’s a goofball kitschiness to the original film that is lost here, the lunacy (sorry – “Loon-acy”) replaced by an overstuffed commitment to the idea that instead of using references to make jokes, the jokes ARE the references.

Published in Sports

Sports biographies are tricky things.

The history of professional sports in this country is built on a foundation of legacy. The lionization of athletic giants is an underlying tenet of pro sports, with the games in a constant conversation with their own history. Protecting that history – that legacy – is paramount to many if not most pro athletes.

At the same time, leaving that history unexamined does a disservice to the reader. A simple and glowing account of an athlete’s feats, all buffed glossiness, is nothing more than hagiography – overly simplistic, unchallenging … and incredibly dull.

And it only gets trickier when the subject isn’t directly involved.

That’s the juggling act Scott Howard-Cooper has undertaken with his new book “Steve Kerr: A Life” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s the story of the rich and fascinating life lived by Steve Kerr. From his globetrotting boyhood to an underdog basketball journey to the pinnacle of his profession, Kerr’s is a tale almost too interesting to be real, marked by triumph and tragedy.

Published in Sports

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has announced its 2021 class of inductees.

Just one day after the delayed induction of the 2020 class finally took place – an historic group of entrants including Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and the late Kobe Bryant – the Hall put forward its 2021 group, set to be enshrined on Sept. 11 of this year.

A quartet of big names head up the list. Paul Pierce is probably the biggest star of the bunch, though Chris Bosh, Chris Webber and Ben Wallace are no slouches. There are also a trio of coaches – Rick Adelman, Jay Wright and Bill Russell (who is already in the Hall for his play, but is now a dual inductee) – and a pair of WNBA stars in Yolanda Griffith and Lauren Jackson, as well as a number of other committee and contributor selections.

But it is the four at the top that will be of interest to most.

Published in Sports

Sports documentaries are always a mixed bag, but that bag is particularly mixed if the doc is about a single individual. It’s a fine line; a person isn’t going to sign onto a film that’s going to be a hatchet job, but venturing too far into the realm of hagiography undermines the credibility of the filmmakers and the credulity of the viewer.

“Tony Parker: The Final Shot,” currently streaming on Netflix, manages to find its way into the middle ground, albeit considerably closer to the hagiographic side of the equation. Directed by French filmmaker Florent Bodin, it’s a journey through the career of Tony Parker, the retired NBA point guard who is generally considered to be the greatest player in the history of French basketball.

Published in Sports
Wednesday, 23 December 2020 12:13

‘From Hang Time to Prime Time’ a slam dunk

The NBA is big business these days.

Players are global icons, recognizable to billions of people. They are literally world famous, making eight figure salaries and signing even bigger endorsement deals. On the ownership side, TV contracts and ever-escalating franchise values mean big profit for anyone with a piece of an NBA team.

It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way.

Pete Croatto’s new book “From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA” (Atria, $27) takes us back to a time, not so long, when the NBA was a pro sports afterthought, a league that struggled to gain any sort of foothold in the cultural consciousness. The public perception was mixed and the product on the floor was uneven; outside of a few cities, the league was barely holding on. You couldn’t even watch games live; even the Finals were infamously aired on tape delay.

But thanks to some savvy league officials, some smart business moves, a handful of transcendent players and a few lucky bounces, the NBA transformed itself. The period from the early ‘70s through the ‘80s was transformative, a time when the league went from also-ran to clubhouse leader. It was a long journey, and not without obstacles, but ultimately, the NBA got where it wanted to go.

Published in Sports
Monday, 14 December 2020 15:17

'Gap Year' explores alternate path to NBA

When the NBA implemented its “One and Done” rule in 2006, it altered the draft landscape. Players could no longer enter the draft directly out of high school; they had to be both a) at least 19 years old, and b) at least one year removed from the graduation of their high school class.

In practice, this essentially meant that players would go play for a college team for one year before making their way to the draft. However, playing in college, while perhaps the most conventional choice, was not the only one.

Players had the option of playing professionally overseas for a year. And the NBA’s G-League developmental league also presented an opportunity to play for pay in that year, albeit considerably less lucratively than a foreign league.

But then there’s Darius Bazley, who followed an entirely different path – one that may lead to a different sort of opportunity for other players down the road.

The new documentary “Gap Year,” directed by T.J. Regan and Josh Kahn, follows Bazley as he embarks on that different opportunity. Instead of going to college for a year or heading overseas or to the G-League, Bazley embraced a heretofore unseen path – an internship.

A million-dollar internship.

Published in Sports

We’re living in the age of the superteam in the NBA. While the league has always been star-driven, the necessity of those stars has never been more apparent. If you want to win a ring, you NEED at least two top-tier superstars. These days, assembling those dynamic duos or titanic trios involves players actively recruiting one another, with stars seeking out paths to play with other stars that they like and/or admire.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Two decades ago, we watched the most talented pairing in the league rise to dizzying dynastic heights even as they were engaged in an ongoing and off-putting internal fight.

Jeff Pearlman’s “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30) dives deep into the eight-year stretch – from 1996-2004 – where two of the greatest basketball players of not just their generation but of all time team up to bring a string of titles to the Los Angeles Lakers even as their own interpersonal antipathy rages and boils beneath the surface. All while a renowned and legendary coach largely removes himself from the fray, content to let it work itself out.

It is a magnificently and meticulously detailed work, one featuring deep-dive interviews with all manner of people connected to that tumultuous time in the history of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. It’s an unflinching and often unflattering portrait of the men who led L.A. to the top of the mountain; frankly, learning the extent of the chaos renders the championship victories all the more impressive.

Published in Sports

The evolution of sport is a fascinating thing. In some ways, the games we love are trapped in amber. The size of the court or the field stays the same. Certain distances haven’t ever really changed – 60 feet from home to first, 10 yards for a first down, 10 feet from floor to rim.

But in other ways – the ways the games are actually played – have seen significant alterations over the years, even as most sporting stalwarts are staunch traditionalists with regards to how things are done. “We do them this way because that’s the way we’ve always done them” has long been the rallying cry of the athletic establishment.

But there will always be players who challenge the status quo. Players who, for whatever reason, deem it necessary to do things in a different way. Players who see the opportunity to find success by way of something new.

Players like Kenny Sailors.

You’d be forgiven for not recognizing that name, but as you’ll discover in the documentary “Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story” – written and directed by Jacob Hamilton and available for rental at altavod.com – you are almost certainly familiar with his work. You see, there is a sizeable contingent out there that believes that Sailors, a man born nearly 100 years ago, is the inventor of the modern jump shot.

The doc itself is a brisk run through a remarkable life, one that features some names and faces you absolutely will recognize – NBA legends such as Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry (who also serves as an executive producer on the film) – as well as a number of other NBA figures, former players and league historians. Through archival footage, photographs and interviews, “Jump Shot” presents a strong case that in many ways, Sailors is the progenitor of how modern basketball is played.

Published in Sports

There’s nothing quite like a sports movie, is there? Especially an inspirational sports movie. We love to see an underdog overcome tremendous odds to scrap his/her/their way to success, battling for every step and learning important lessons along the way.

“The Way Back,” directed by Gavin O’Conner from a script he co-wrote alongside Brad Ingelsby, checks a lot of those boxes; it’s the story of a once-great basketball player, long removed from the game, returning to his high school alma mater and taking the reins of their struggling basketball team. Perfect (albeit familiar) fodder for sports movie inspiration, right?

But there’s another level here, one that can’t help but color the story being told.

The film stars Ben Affleck, whose personal struggles have been part of the larger narrative surrounding him for some time now. One could argue that some of those struggles are reflected in the story being told on-screen; that inherent understanding results in some of the best work we’ve seen from him in years.

Published in Sports
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